Thoughts

Two questions that reveal more than a full interview

I claim they may work better than any AI. Especially for non-technical interviews.

ver the years I have have the good opportunity to interview hundreds of people. Some of them were directly for my team and had a prior brief about what is needed to be assessed. Some of them were for startup teams where the team’s psychological fit was match with that of the person being interviewed. Some were with people much more senior to me, and at times I really was nervous about what the best use of time was.

Speaking of time, when you have the opportunity of assessing someone’s abilities and personality within too a short period, it is bound to have some error in judgement. When it is for a technical role, there are quantitative ways to measure the fit. However, I have been very lucky to have interviewed people for a number of roles were the ‘right kind of personality’ was more important than anything.

In life, we are always interviewing someone or the other. Many of our conversations are not formally tagged as an interview, but there is a big element of judging people that goes on in every conversation.

There is another bias in a discussion, that is tagged as a formal interview. That is the bias that comes with preparedness, of sticking to a script. When we are interviewing someone who knows they are being tested for every expression, they put on their best forms — a form, that is not present in the daily realities that they will face.

Technical interviews have a measure of success/failure. However, non-technical interviews need something better than can capture a person’s whole personality within minutes.

A number of methods, such as role playing, stress interviews, gaming methods, and so on have come forward — none of them guarantee a great fit to the role, especially as a person.

Does this mean, the two questions I have found come with a guarantee of fit? Not at all. However, they have proven to work not just in my work but also for some of the best leaders in the world, the best teams, and the most resilient of teams.


The first question I ask, weaving into a conversation in some version of these words: “If you were Superman/Superwoman/Supergirl/some similar expression as appropriate — use your own politically correct term— what would be your super power? And would your friends agree?” Hey wait, that’s two questions in one — no, the second one is still coming but if you count these as two, such counting doesn’t help much! Keep it in your pocket.

“If you were Superman/Superwoman/Supergirl/some similar expression as appropriate — use your own politically correct term — what would be your super power? And would your friends agree?”

There are instances when the person replies instantly to me — two options — either they are really self-aware, or they are lying. In other instances, the person gets flabbergasted — shows to me how much they know about themselves, or are ready/proud/hesitant to share. There are various ways to detect if someone is lying (future me to put a link to that article here!).

After asking this question, I let the person speak on. This one had worked very well even with a board level hires. Please note, if you didn’t already know, I am not a recruiter of any sort.

How a person describes her super power, shows a level of introspection, reflection, and a judgement of what part is to be shown to the world. When you match this answer with any other answer they have provided, you will it in a better perspective.

Sometimes, people themselves do not know their superpower until they are asked this question.

An interview

Image Pexels Nappy

I met a friend at GE, many years ago. When I met her for the first time, she was a programmer. We met for a training related to Six Sigma. During the break, we got to chatting and I asked the question about her super power. It gave her a lot to think, she shared later. She left her job in a gradual manner to do event management for large corporates, and is far more happier than she was as a programmer.

As I mention below after sharing the second question, I share the same question to candidates (I interview them as an alumnus) — the results are far better than any structured questionnaire that I have used.


The second question that has worked like magic for me is — what is your longest-term goal? People reply to me in various way when I used to ask for a ‘long-term’ goal. The most common answer was — I haven’t thought of it that far away. Buzzzz! Wrong answer especially when you are planning to work with me or my team. I do not want you to stick with me forever (this is not a dating questionnaire and even then) — but I want to know how your thinking works, how it matches what is known from a resume or otherwise. The way the answer is provided, the way they arrive at the answer, they way they ‘build to the final goal’, it gives me a truck load of information on how they will behave in the team, during setbacks, during conflicts — how they will engage in turf wars in the team and so on.

What is your longest-term goal?

Let me share some examples. There was a discussion with a colleague about a project in a nearby country. I was not sure if the person was applying because of interest or some other issue was responsible for him moving away. I did not have enough time to go into details (and I did not have enough interest too, to be frank). When I met him and posed the question about his longest term goal, he started quite formal and within context and then moved on to his entrepreneurial goals in an completely different industry. He actually got excited speaking of his dreams, and in a way, came to the conclusion entirely on his own, that this is not the role he would like to take at that point in time. Job done — was a nice coffee break too.

I have asked this question during MBA interviews too (as an alumnus). In such interviews, we do have an allocated amount of time and I keep some time for this particular answer. Another example here — met a lady applying for the MBA (HEC Paris) and her CV was amazing, he references checked out, and she was very well prepared. This is where, being too prepared, is not giving the real picture — how the person behaves on a normal day in her life. When she started answering about her goals, she was coherent for up to a minute. And then the answer dwindled to incoherent set of goals and later she broke down on how she was doing an MBA because her family wanted her to and that added with some personal issues is why she applied in the first place — you can guess what the result of this interview was. But, you can also realise how a single question laid bare a lot of information.


What if the other person is prepared for answering these two questions? My answer here is about reading other ways of understanding how true their answers are — vocal variance, body gestures showing hesitation or excessive clarity. Excessive clarity = prepared script answers and any off-script question will lay bare the situation.


In life, the time to evaluate someone will be lesser and lesser. When you are evaluating someone, you yourself are being checked out. There are quick decisions to be made, but bigger consequences when things go wrong.

What you are looking for is not the right person, but the one who will fit your team in the most productive way aligning in direction.

As noted above, this method is for non-technical situations where measuring something might even skew the measurement — when you are measuring the softer/intangible parts of a personality.

As you practice more, this works better and better. What do you think?

Learn more about soft skills at here and here.

Jeev Sahoo

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