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Thursday, October 21, 2010

my new favorite interview question

This has become my new favorite question to ask job candidates:

Tell me about something you achieved that you think someone else in your same job would not have gotten done.

It's basically the flip side of what I tell job-seekers to do on their resumes.

It's an awesome question, because you can immediately see if the person operates in a way where they're naturally pushing to do better and better, or if they're content with just doing the basics. It tells you about resourcefulness, drive, initiative, the bar they hold themselves to, and their general approach to work.

I love it so much that there's a danger I may start using it on dates, etc.


ImpassionedPlatypi said...

I see one problem with this question. It assumes that the person being asked is aware enough that they operate differently than other people that they can come up with an example. To be honest, I think I am a great employee and I feel like I've been very good at every job I've had, but I can't really come up with an answer to this question. I don't know, maybe that means I'm just average. Or maybe it depends on what jobs you've had. I think project based jobs are probably more likely to supply people with examples which would answer your question.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Awesome question. And awesome advice for resume writing.

I use that in my reviews, but don't phrase it quite like that. "Here's what I've contributed over the past year..." And then I don't list the day-to-day job requirements, but I point out specific details where I brought value to the table beyond just being a seat warmer.

The only job security that is reliable is that which I create for myself.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I am meant to take this question. If you are looking for a literal answer I can't provide an example. Although I am good at my job I am not the best person in the entire world at my job. I think there are very few people who could honestly make this claim.

But if by 'someone else' you just mean someone that would be a likely alternative (i.e they have similar qualifications and experience; I'm not competing against people with 30 years experience) then sure, I could give you a few examples.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous 5:56, yeah, the question isn't "what did you accomplish that NO ONE ELSE could have," but rather "what did you accomplish that someone else probably wouldn't have"? (Meaning someone else likely to fill that job, not, say, Bono.)

Derwin said...

Great question which asks candidates to think on their feet. Also provides great insight to see who is able to differentiate b/t arrogance & personal success...a fine line that only the best can walk.

JC said...

ImpassionedPlatypi: What type of work do you do? I agree that project based jobs would be much easier to answer. But perhaps if it's customer service you could say something about your interpersonal skills - "While most others may lose their cool with stressful customer relations, I am able to keep a leveled head and find a solution that benefits the customer quickly. For example, this one time..." and then go into a time when you provided excellent service despite it being very difficult to manage at first. Or you could say a special skill you had at the office that contributed to the daily operations. For example, at my old job I was the best at troubleshooting computer, office equipment, and software problems. After a while, everyone came to me when there was an issue and I would happily fix it for them...even though that's not my main area of expertise. But it was something that contributed to the work environment and 90% of the time kept my office from having to call somewhere else for help.

You said you think you are a great employee and that you have been very good at every job you have had. What made you good at those jobs? What made you stand out from your other employees? Have your bosses ever commented on any specific accomplishments or skills that you have? All of those could be definitely used for this question =)

TheLabRat said...

Finally an interview question I'd have an answer for. I'm the queen of redesigning training and/or organizational documentation based on figuring out how little I actually knew about the task once I was "trained". Every job I've ever had (from food service and retail to the military to office work) I've done this with. I tend to always think in terms of of "if someone had to fill in for me tomorrow, would they be able to do the job effectively with the tools provided and the notes I've made available." Mainly this is because in nearly every job I've ever had (see aforementioned list) there is a knowledge gap after I'm done being trained where I figure out that what training told me and what the task actually entails are two entirely different things.

Anonymous said...

AAM said:

"what did you accomplish that someone else probably wouldn't have"? (Meaning someone else likely to fill that job, not, say, Bono.)"

Let's see... I didn't horribly leverage Elevation Partners with $750 mill of horribly ill-conceived investments. Snaps! I'm a better manager than Bono! Hire me to run your private equity firm! :)

Henning Makholm said...

It's a good question to prepare for, and if you have a good answer ready, it can be worked into the conversation even if the exact question is not asked.

But I think it is a bit unfair to spring the question on a candidate who hasn't had time to work out how it would apply to them in particular. Answering it well requires some delicate tuning of exactly who you're supposed to compare yourself to. Not your exact previous coworkers for sure; that would just amount to badmouthing them. Not just anyone who could possibly be hired, for there is always someone out there who can do what you did, and twice as wll. On the other hand, not everyone either, because that would just be iterating the assertion that you're basically qualified. That's some delicate tuning to do in the 20 or 30 seconds you can think about a live question before it becomes awkward.

For example, I'm a software developer. I think, as a matter of definition, that anyone competent to hold my job can do what I do (not that everybody who gets hired is actually that competent, mind you). I do think highly enough of myself to suspect that many "merely competent" applicants would take longer time to do it than me, or make more mistakes, or take more time to find bugs, or produce a rickety result that is ten times as cumbersome to maintain as the one I create, or not think as far ahead about possible future development directions as I do -- but those are quantitative things that are hard to show by striking anecdotes.

There are lots of results I'm proud of, but there's quite some distance from there to asserting that some vaguely defined "someone" wouldn't have been able to do them at all.

Given time to prepare I can certainly think of ways around that problem -- even while typing this I've thought of a few promising approaches -- but if I had had to answer cold, I'd probably be reduced to hemming and hawing.

Ask a Manager said...

Hmmm, I think of it as "help me understand why you'd be the best hire, versus other people who have roughly the same qualifications on paper." I've actually found that candidates, for the most part, seem to like answering it -- possibly because it gives them an opening to address that.

Andy Lester said...

Is it more of a "would not have done" or "could not have done"?

Ask a Manager said...

I think of it as "would not have done." There are a lot of things that would be awesome to do but would be a pain in the ass, so lots of people don't do them.

Seattle Interview Coach said...

It sounds like a variation of a "What is your biggest accomplishment?" or "What makes you the best candidate?" type question.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time seeing how you could provide an answer the question well, without also committing some interview faux pas:

--Talking about other people. I'm there to talk about me, and while of course it's impossible to not mention other people entirely, this question requires that the interviewer spend more time than usual talking about other people, and what they would have done.

--Negativity. In order to say you do something better, you have to say other people do something worse. That's criticism. And since many of us work in teams or departments, the people we are talking about are not hypothetical people, but our coworkers, or our potential coworkers. And I definitely don't see how criticizing your future coworkers is a good way to get a job!

Charles said...

Sorry, AAM, I see this question as asking the job seeker to judge others too much.

While I, and certainly other job seekers, can tell the hiring manager about what we can do and do well, don't ask me to judge others, especially those that I know nothing about.

This question comes across to me as too much of a gotcha question.

If you mean to ask me about what I have accomplished - then ask that - don't play games, don't try to make a stressful situation more stressful when the job does not require it.

A good way to eliminate otherwise excellent candidates.

Ask a Manager said...

I don't think it requires bringing specific others into it at all. In my experience, good candidates know when they're gone above and beyond and are able to provide plenty of accounts of times when they did.

Anonymous said...

I love this question, and think it can be answered without bad mouthing anyone else.

JC provided some great examples.

It's like asking what are your very best strengths, but in a way that also gives the candidate a chance to demonstrate that they use them on the job. Or perhaps a bit like asking 'what will you be remembered for (for all the right reasons)?

Here's an example that I believe is specific without being negative:

"I work for a large organisation and sometimes it can be tough knowing who to go to, to find information or sometimes to get things done. As I worked in recruitment, I got to know many people across the business. I built great relationships so often people would come to me if they needed help. I was always willing to help or introduce them to the right person. This meant that people were usually willing to help me too. When we first wanted to introduce assessment centres, we didn't have the necessary resource in our team to get them up and running in the timeframes our internal customers were hoping for. I was able to call on subject matter experts from around the business to get involved. This reduced our lead time to implementation by 3 weeks."

Not a very succinct interview answer - now THAT is a strength I wish I had...

Anonymous 5:56 said...

I don't understand how that example properly answers the question. So you got to know a lot of people... that doesn't really stand out to me as something someone else couldn't have done.

I know a lot more people in my organisation than some of my peers who joined at the same time because my job happens to cross a whole bunch of parts of the business (similar to your example).

That is not me being awesome, that is luck.

Ask a Manager said...

I think the key sentence there would be, "Because I put a premium on relationship-building and really going out of my way to help others, I was able to call on subject matter experts from around the business to get involved."

Anonymous said...

What I really like about this question is how it is qualitative rather than quantitative.

I hate it when I'm asked for quantifiable accomplishments, because in my case, I can't do that: I've only worked retail and customer service, and my managers wouldn't ever share any numbers or data with me. But I knew all too well what I did that my coworkers didn't, so it's much easier to show my strengths in relative terms. I only wish there was a resume-level version of this question.

Joey said...

Sounds like a variation of:
Why are you the best candidate?
What do you bring to the table that no one else can?
Tell me a time you went above and beyond the call of duty?

fposte said...

Joey, I think it is a variant, but it's a variant that requires concrete linkage between what you do and your superlative adjectives, so I think the answers may be slightly different. I probably wouldn't ask the "above and beyond" question myself--it focuses too much on the relationship between expectation and achievement and not enough on skills employment. I suspect with my young novice candidates I might have to offer them the more familiar versions as clarifying followups, but it would still change their answers slightly in a way that I think might be useful.

Julie O'Malley said...

Wow, I'm amazed at the level of negativity and literal interpretation for this question. I think it's a GREAT question, and as Joey said, it's just a variation on some old standards, not some new-fangled trickery.

One commenter said it's "...a bit unfair to spring the question on a candidate who hasn't had time to work out how it would apply to them...."

Really? How do you prepare for interviews, if not by working out your unique value and planning how you'll communicate it to the employer? Seems to me a well prepared candidate should welcome this opportunity to toot their horn.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be hard to give an acceptable answer without sounding a bit arrogant.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be hard to give an acceptable answer without sounding a bit arrogant.

Cosmic Noodles said...

I love this question, because as I tell everyone who wants interview/job search advice, you need to get across to the potential employer what can YOU do for THEM?

Anonymous said...

"...there's a danger I may start using it on dates..." this really made me laugh :)

I like this question alot. It's a softball for a well prepared candidate, but it also provides important and useful information for the interviewer. So, win/win

Dan Ruiz

Henning Makholm said...

Julie asks me: "How do you prepare for interviews, if not by working out your unique value and planning how you'll communicate it to the employer? Seems to me a well prepared candidate should welcome this opportunity to toot their horn."

I'd have no problem with tooting horns and telling an employer great stories about what I've done, and what I'd be able to do for him. What I balk at is being asked to accuse a hypothetical "someone else" of not being able or willing to do the same. I'm not comfortable with making such accusation without some time to convince myself that it's actually one I can defend making, and time to word my accusation carefully so it doesn't overstep what I have evidence for.

This gets more difficult because the "someone else" in the question is so ill-defined. Then I need to hedge my answer the more carefully to prevent it from being understood as something I cannot defend. That cannot be prepared in advance, without knowing the exact wording of the question.

Anonymous said...

Depending on the type of position I like it. However for most of the IT positions I've filled...not sure if I would use this question.

I also think this is more of a Sr. level or mgmt position. An entry level person or even someone with a few years of experience, might not be able to conceptualize this enough for me to gain real value.