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The Best Interview Question In The World?
Dushka Zapata
Holmes Report

The Best Interview Question In The World?

"Give me an example of a mistake you made and how you fixed it."

The Best Interview Question In The World?

I’m going to skip the part where I tell you good interviewing skills are critical because hiring is - you know.  The right person changes the game and the wrong person is like a train wreck that destroys everything in its wake – regardless of level – and what you’d really like is for your interview to predict which the person sitting across from you is going to turn out to be.
 
Plus, you’ve hired the wrong person before.
 
And you will again.
 
While predicting the future is a noble undertaking, and while the company you work for should have in place a methodology proven to come close, what can you do as an individual to make sure that your insight contributes to a more fortunate hiring process?
 
(A lot, actually. But I’m going to stick to the subject, so will focus on this one little sliver.) 
 
My vote for best interview question in the world is:
 
Give me an example of a mistake you made and how you fixed it.
 
Most common answers: 
·      I can’t really think of one right now.
·      I haven’t made mistakes in a while.
·      (Gasp) I did make a mistake, but it wasn’t my fault.
·      (Double gasp) I did make a mistake, but it was her fault.
·      (Triple gasp) I made a mistake but it was because I was following orders.
 
I can talk a lot about the second part of the best interview question in the world (“how you fixed it”.) This alone reveals quite a bit about the candidate’s troubleshooting skills, her creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, thought processes and her ability to work within a team.
 
But my favorite is the first part: “give me an example of a mistake you made”, which is without exception followed by an audible intake of breath and a pregnant pause.
 
Within the answer to this first part of the question, I’d like to see a sense of humanity. An acknowledgement of fallibility; a sign that the person has already met with and recognizes her limitations as a mere mortal. If you never made mistakes you would not be flexible, nor adroit at mending broken things, nor well versed at assessing risk. Even worse, an individual who cannot own a mistake can’t learn from it, which is a good indicator of the person’s ability to grow within an organization.
 
I’d like to see accountability, with maybe even a tiny, healthy tinge of possessiveness. That mistake was mine, all mine and I have no one to blame but me. First, because it’s safe to say that a team member who points fingers before they even get the job does not bode well for a collaborative team environment, but more importantly because if you assign blame to someone other than you, you relinquish your power, and I much prefer working with powerful people.
 
I’d like to see courage. I am so scared you will think less of me if I tell you the stupid, stupid thing I did and maybe decide not to hire me but I’m going to tell you anyway because you asked and my mistakes are part of who I am so if you decide because of them not to consider me for this job maybe you’re not the right company for me so here it goes.
 
I’d like to see a sense of humor. A woman I interviewed once replied “just one example? Today alone I made about four mistakes before I’d even had coffee!” and proceeded to show me that her socks didn’t match. (Although now that I think about it, the look was sort of bohemian chic so maybe she was showing off.)
 
I learned this very handy interview question because one sunny morning, a long long time ago, someone asked me to provide an example of a mistake I had made and how I had fixed it.
 
My answer was, naturally, that I tended to not make any.
 
That was what I said, in part because I was really young, but mostly because I wanted very much for everyone to believe that I was perfect. (I have since aborted the mission because I was perpetually exhausted and because I found out later that no one was buying it anyway.) 
 
Which brings me to something else you need to remember about people when you interview them.
 
I hear over and over again the adage “people don’t change”. But you know what? Everything changes. The weather even after you check your really accurate new app, your intentions even if early this very morning you were brimming with resolve, your feelings despite being so vocal about the certainty deep in your heart, your preferences because when was it that Brussel Sprouts became so delicious? Your plans because as you have already noticed nothing ever turns out how you anticipated; even the precise interpretation of the promises you made, because that was then and this is now.
 
So it’s only logical to conclude that people do indeed change.
 
Go ahead and ask me to give you an example of a mistake I made. Just make sure you set aside some time.


Dushka Zapata is managing director, West Coast at Ruder Finn

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