Hiring and Growth

CEOs Share the 1 Interview Question They Always Ask Candidates

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
Best Interview Questions to Ask at Your Startup

For a time, the best interview questions were weird interview questions. Some CEOs even asked candidates to name their spirit animal. (I still don’t know what that is.)

Simple time tracking that syncs with payroll.

Other companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple asked brainteaser questions, like:

“If a hammer and a nail cost $1.10, and the hammer costs one dollar more than the nail, how much does the nail cost?”

(The answer is 5 cents.)

Weird interview questions exist because they try to find out what a candidate is really like. But in my experience, they don’t actually work.

Research agrees with me. The authors of one study say brainteaser interview questions lack evidence for validity, are unsettling to job applicants… and that “narcissism and sadism” are at play.

Ouch. That’s enough reason to stop asking unusual interview questions. But if you want more, here’s why Lazlo Bock, the former VP of People Operations at Google, said they stopped using brainteasers in interviews:

“On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

To find the candidate with the skills, experience, and attitude your business really needs, try asking a few questions my CEO friends rely on.

CEOs share their best interview questions

1. Randy Garutti, CEO of Shake Shack

“If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great twelve months it’s been for you in this role, what did we achieve together?”

His goal is to find out if the candidate did their homework and truly understands the company and role they’re interviewing for.

Garutti thinks the right candidate has enough vision to not only talk about how successful the year was, but to give an answer that shows they have a deeper understanding of the business.

Great candidates talk about what truly drives value for the company—and how they will play a major role in hitting that goal.

2. Shama Hyder, founder of The Marketing Zen Group

“Why have you had (X) number of jobs in (Y) years?”

It may sound snarky at first, but the question helps Hyder get a feel for a candidate’s career path. The answers give her a better picture of each candidate’s work history, like what keeps them motivated, why they moved from job to job, why they decided to leave, and what they looked for in the next company.

According to Hyder, there’s nothing wrong with moving from job to job. The reasons why are what matters.

Talented candidates can show a logical progression in their career path. For instance, changing jobs for greater responsibility, to gain new skills, or to work with great people. Work through a candidate’s job history and you’ll find yourself unconsciously nodding your head in agreement.

3. Edward Wimmer, founder and CEO of RoadID

“Tell me about a recent project or problem that you made better, faster, smarter, more efficient, or less expensive.”

According to Wimmer, good candidates can share plenty of answers. But great candidates get excited as they share plenty of answers.

They not only share what, they love to talk about why. And how. Because they clearly love the outcome and the process.

That’s critical, because doing more with less is a mantra for most small businesses. Raising prices is often tough even when your costs steadily increase. To stay competitive, you must constantly improve operational efficiencies.

And that means the right candidate loves finding ways to do more with less.

4. And now, two of my favorite interview questions

“Tell me about your first three months at your present/last job. What did you do? What did you accomplish?”

The best employees don’t like to spend the first few weeks with a new company learning about the organization, getting their feet wet, and feeling their way. They’re excited. They’re eager to make a difference. They want to get things done—now.

They’ll be able to tell you:

  • How they immediately applied the skills they brought to the job;
  • How they determined their external and internal customers, and how best to serve them
  • How they identified practical changes to improve efficiency, or quality, or customer satisfaction, or other tasks that impacted the bottom line, and then found ways to make those changes happen.

Driven employees don’t want to wait to be given tasks, duties, and responsibilities. They want to dive in.

Just like you want them to dive in, since every investment in a new employee should provide a return on that investment as soon as possible.

Here’s the other question I swear by:

“What skill do you have that will impact our bottom line the most?”

Ask that question and you’ll immediately learn whether your candidate knows anything about your business. (It’s hard to say how you will help the bottom line when you don’t understand what drives value for a business.)

Take Domino’s Pizza. Pizzas are Domino’s primary product, but Domino’s is in the delivery business. Taste clearly matters, but operational efficiency creates the true foundation for the business.

Say creating loyal, long-term customers is critical to your business. Great candidates will be able show you how they can build customer relationships, solve customer problems, and support value propositions.

When you ask that question, you get to the heart of what value the employee might provide, and whether their strengths truly meet your needs.

But that question is only the beginning of a longer conversation. Use it as the base for smart follow-up questions.

  • Ask how they’ll flex that skill.
  • Ask for behavioral examples. Not just their opinions, but what they’ve actually done. Ask what they did, what others did, what was easy, and what was challenging. That way, you get beyond platitudes and find out what a candidate has actually done.

While the past can’t always predict the future, it is a reasonable indication of future behavior.

And of how a candidate will perform after they’re hired.


Quirky interview questions reveal who candidates are on the “inside,” who they think they were in a past life, and of course, whether they know how many gas stations there are in the country. Who they are is interesting, but it’s ultimately less relevant to you than what they can do.

And, more importantly, what they will do once they’re hired.

Updated: August 12, 2019

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

Comments

  • Stephen Aldridge

    Hi Jeff
    I often read and enjoy your articles and I bought your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In this case however I think that interview questions need to be tailored to the job you are hiring for and the skills that are required. “What did you accomplish in the first 3 months in your last job” works if you are hiring experienced candidates for a role that is a progression on their career but I hire people and train them.

    I look for raw material with the right problem solving fire-power. The first three months with us is all about learning how to apply their talents. I can assure you there are plenty of people who want to hire them after they have been through our process.

    To identify this raw talent I have to understand how they approach problems, so some of the quirky questions work, although the one you mention about a hammer and a nail is an adaptation of Daniel Kahneman’s question which invites type 1 thinking over type 2 (you have probably read his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” but if not you’ll find it in there – definitely worth the read). It trips up many people who go for the ‘instinctive ‘ answer.

    Asking about how many [xyz] there are in the UK / US (somewhere the candidate is familiar with) shows me how they approach a problem, and what assumptions they make. The best candidates take a bottom up and top down approach and compare their answers. This self doubt and cross checking is the sort of thinking advocated by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in their book “Superforecasters”.
    I am hiring financial modellers to build forecasts for leading funds FTSE 350 organisations and similar and thats what I’ve found works after 20 years doing it.

    Happy to discuss if you are interested.

    Reply
  • Jeff Haden

    Hi Stephen, thanks for the extremely thoughtful comment. You’re right: I focused on interviewing candidates who have at least some job history. Although a recent graduate might be able to share an accomplishment from school that somewhat applies, still: Your point is well taken. And I really like the way you approach assessing problem solving skills, assumptions, etc. You clearly don’t ask trick question, but questions that really do allow you to evaluate a candidate’s thought process.
    And on a related note: Just ordered “Superforecasters.” Thanks for the recommendation!

    Reply

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