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The Best Interview Question Ever

Posted on October 5th, 2011 by Anne Marie Smith

My husband and I went out to dinner last weekend to celebrate my birthday. We took a cab there and back so we both could enjoy wine with our meal. On the way home, we chatted with our cab driver. He told us he was writing a book about casino corruption. As it turns out, he had been “86’d” (his word) out of every casino in Reno and Lake Tahoe and he wanted to expose how dirty the casinos are. I asked him if he’d ever read a book by author James Swain, who is an expert on gambling cons and swindles. The guy was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I don’t read books.” That told me a lot about him.

That conversation got me thinking about people and books. I read somewhere once that one of the best questions you can ask candidates during the interview is:

              What were the last three books you read?

You can also ask this question with a little more specificity: What was the last book on <insert topic> you read? (The topic being related to the position the candidate is interviewing for.) When I began asking this, I typically received one of three reactions:

  • “I don’t remember.”
  • “I don’t have time to read.”
  • A listing of popular fiction novels.

If the candidate had been out of school for at least ten years, another related question I asked was, “What was the last training course you took since college?”

What I was always on the lookout for was the individual who loves to learn. I found that knowledge-seekers are, in general, more creative, thoughtful, and interesting—the type of people I enjoy spending time with and want on my team. Learners also tend to be far more strategic in how they think and work.

Of course I’d ask other questions as well, but I always found a candidate’s answer to the book question very telling and predictive about the type of performer he or she would be.

What questions have you found work well for you?

2 Responses to “The Best Interview Question Ever”

  1. John Knotts says:

    When I’m working with a client, the three key questions I like to ask, regardless of the level I’m working with, are:

    - Who are your customers: Invariably, they don’t really know and multiple interviews do not have the same information

    - What would happen if your organization would go away: I think, in many ways, organizations think they are irreplaceable until they consider what would happen if they went away

    - What is important to your customer: Once they have thought about their customer, how important they currently are (or are not to that customer), then I get them to think about what is important to their customer – this shows them (usually) where the real problem with their company is

    The bottom line is that responding to your customer’s needs makes you valuable. If you don’t know who they are or what they need from you, how can you ever be irreplaceable?

    • Anne Marie Smith says:

      Those are great questions, John. My “last three books” question was aimed more at potential candidates I was interviewing to hire as an employee. I was always looking for folks who could think strategically–they are hard to find.

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