The 2-Question Performance-based Interview, Part 1

Recruiters need to be able to quickly and accurately assess candidate competency. The obvious reason for this, though, is not the most important reason.

Of course, it’s important to ensure that the candidate is competent and motivated to do the work, and can fit within the culture and style of the organization, but this is a less important reason for being good at assessing talent than you might think. The more important reasons recruiters need to do this well are to defend their candidates from managers who make superficial or emotional decisions, and to demonstrate to their candidates that the job at hand represents a clear career move.

Hiring managers should not need their recruiters to prevent them from making easily preventative blunders, but unfortunately they do. Most overvalue their intuition, the rest overvalue the candidate’s technical competency, and just about everyone overvalues presentation over performance. Recruiters are not exempt from these problems. The result is hiring people who are only partially competent, or people who are competent but not as motivated as necessary to achieve exceptional performance. Worse, stronger candidates got passed over for superficial reasons, and others opted-out because they didn’t consider what you had to offer worth pursuing.

There is a simple solution.

Over the years I’ve developed two straightforward questions that, when combined with good recruiting skills, cover all of these issues. I call these questions the “Anchor and Visualize” pattern. They’re a breeze to use as long as you define exceptional performance and your culture ahead of time.

The First Question: Tell me about your Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA)

The first question involves asking candidates to describe their most significant business accomplishments in great detail. While it’s only one question, it is repeated multiple times to ensure you’re covering all aspects of exceptional performance. Typically exceptional performance is described as a series of performance objectives, like “build a marketing team to launch the new series of software apps by Q3,” or “make 10 formal presentations per month to C-level officers as the most critical aspect of our sales process.” Most jobs have five to six performance objectives like these that collectively represent exceptional performance. I refer to these as performance profiles.

Once you know what great performance looks like in terms of performance objectives, just ask the candidate to give you an example of something significant he/she has done that’s most comparable. Do this for each performance objective in the performance profile. For example, for the first objective listed above, the form of the question might be, “We need to launch a complete series of new business software applications over the next six months. This is under a very tight schedule with limited advertising resources. Can you tell me about some major accomplishment you’ve led that’s most comparable?”

The fact-finding that follows is the key to obtaining a complete answer. One way to do this is to ask “SMARTe” questions for clarifying each accomplishment. After the person gives you a 1-2 minute overview of the comparable accomplishment, ask the following:

  • Specific task: Can you please describe the task, challenge, project, or problem?
  • Measurable: What actually changed, or can you measure your performance somehow?
  • Action: What did you actually do and what was your specific role?
  • Result: What was the actual result achieved and/or what was the deliverable?
  • Timeframe: When did this take place and how long did it take?
  • environment: What was the environment like in terms of pace, resources, level of sophistication, the people involved, and your manager?

While this only covers a small portion of the fact-finding possibilities, using just this short list will give you a deeper sense of the accomplishment and how it compares to the performance profile defining exceptional performance. To increase your understanding of the accomplishment, get specific examples for each of these SMARTe questions by asking, “Can you give me a specific example of what you mean?” It typically takes 10-15 minutes of “peeling the onion” this way to totally understand the accomplishment.

The Second Question: How would you solve this problem?

This question uncovers another dimension of performance, including job-related problem-solving skills, creativity, planning, strategic and multi-functional thinking, and potential. Using the above example, the form of this question would be, “If you were to get this job, what would you need to know or do to ensure the product launch was handled successfully?” Then get into a back-and-forth dialogue asking about how he/she would put a plan together, determine resources needed, uncover potential problems, and prioritize activities.

In practice, you would only ask this second question for the most critical performance objectives. Using it you’ll find that the best people quickly obtain a clear understanding of the project or problem and come up with a number of ways to solve it. Based on this, you’ll be able to ascertain if the person can put together a reasonable go-forward plan of action. Make sure that the problem is realistic and relevant; otherwise, you won’t learn much about the person’s job-related thinking skills.

The Anchor and Visualize Pattern

The problem-solving question is a great means to understand critical thinking skills in comparison to real job needs, but don’t over rely on this type of question. While being able to visualize a solution to a job-related problem is a critical aspect of exceptional performance, it’s only part of the solution. Accomplishing the task successfully is the other part. If the person hasn’t accomplished anything similar, it’s problematic if they’ll be successful. Missing this is how partially competent people get hired. To solve the problem, ask them an MSA question for the issue under discussion, like “Can you now tell me about something you’ve actually accomplished or implemented that’s most comparable to how you’ve suggested we handle this problem?”

Following up the problem-solving with an MSA question is called anchoring. Collectively, these two questions are called the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. The order doesn’t matter. What does matter is that for the most critical performance objectives you ask the candidates what they’ve accomplished that’s most similar and how they would figure out and solve the problem if they were to get the job.

The ability to visualize a problem and offer alternative solutions in combination with a track record of successful comparable past performance in a similar environment is a strong predictor of on-the-job success. One without the other is a sure path for making a bad hiring decision.

In the second part of this series, we’ll describe how to use these two questions to accurately measure cultural fit and predict a candidate’s ability to achieve exceptional performance. In the final part of the series, I’ll show how these two questions can be used to recruit the candidate and to defend them from your hiring managers who are prone to superficial assessments. Contact me right away if you can’t wait.

  • matt chapman

    Lou, you include a key phrase in your ‘Tell me about a time when…’ question that’s important to note. It’s the phrase, ‘most comparable’. In my experience, most companies limit their view to candidates who have already successfully performed the same job requirements elsewhere vs. successfully demonstrated the ‘comparable’ or underlying competencies required for success. The trap that these companies fall into is hiring people who are making a lateral career change. Same job; different company. Star performers typically do not make lateral moves. If companies focus too much on filtering their candidate pool based on specific previous experience (e.g. you must have launched a new software product under a tight timeline with a limited ad budget), they risk hiring a number of mediocre job-hoppers.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Lou: Thanks. This is very sound reasoning and a good practice. It seems more applicable in a 3PR setting than in a corporate/contract recruiting setting, though it would also apply in some cases there as well. It also presumes that the hiring manager’s resistance is basically rational, and based on rushed, incomplete, or erroneous information which is susceptible to correction based on newer and better information (which you would provide). Finally, it presumes that the correction can be made in a face-saving manner for the hiring manager. In summary: IMHO the managers most likely to make such hasty,impulsive,and dogmatic decisions are the ones least likely to be swayed by rational arguments.
    (It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though…)

    @Matt. Well-said. You’ve described what I call the Behavioral Interviewing Fallacy: Past performance is an excellent indicator of future performance, IFF the person is doing precisely the same job, and large segments of interviewees are NOT interviewing for precisely the same jobs…. At the same time, if I were paying a substantial fee for someone, I’d want to make sure that they’ve done what I want them to do (and done it well), not that they COULD do it (and do it well).

    Happy Friday,


  • Pingback: Become a Rockstar Interviewer: The 2-Question Performance-based Interview, Part 1 « abrownhrpro()

  • Ken Schmitt

    Lou, Excellent article! As the owner of a boutique recruiting and career management firm I find your suggestions extremely helpful. Many people forget that the landscape of hiring has changed. It is no longer an hour long dissection of your resume. In many ways, the resume serves as a jumping off point; it largely gets you in the door which is why it is imperative to have a strong resume with highlighted industry-related key words. However, it is the interview that makes or breaks a candidate.

    Your 2 questions are the key to a successful interview and arming both interviewERS and interviewEES with these questions is a great way to make change. Your first question, asking a candidate to discuss his/her MSA, is imperative. This gives the candidate a chance to cover so many issues the hiring manager is looking for- identifying strengths, weaknesses, mistakes, places for improvement, places where he/she excels, attitude, work ethic, etc. In my company, we call this a candidate’s Professional DNA- Drive, Niche and Accomplishments. In an article I wrote entitled “What’s in Your DNA?” ( I discuss the importance of having a clear outline of who you are professionally, including your accomplishments. This is what hiring managers should be asking about and looking for.

    Thank you for this great article that emphasizes the importance of asking the right questions to get the most information in order to find the best fit for a position.
    Ken C. Schmitt