The Best Interview Question: What are you an expert at?

An “old” colleague of mine (he was about 90 years old at the time) once told me that the secret to staying young was this: “As long as you’re learning, you’re green and growing; the minute you stop learning, you’re brown and rotting.” The message there was, of course, never stop improving yourself. It was at that time that I made a commitment to my life’s continual educational journey, and it has and continues to make a huge difference in all areas of my life – personally and professionally! To that end, I used to always be seeking answers. Now I realize that it’s more about the questions.

And in the world on hiring top talent, one of the best interview questions I have learned to ask is this:

What are you an expert at, if anything?

The responses I’ve received would amaze you. They range from the modest reply, “I don’t think I’m an expert at anything because I’m still learning” to the know-it-all answer, “I’m an expert at everything” to the “what do you mean” answer of the person who believes this is a trick question.

The Answer I’m seeking is a confident but not arrogant response that coincides with whatever job the candidate is applying for. And let me be clear that this is a question I only ask for senior level roles (I’m not expecting the college grad to tell me she’s an expert at anything). So if I’m interviewing a VP of Sales, then she should tell me she is an expert at building and managing sales teams and sales training. If I’m interviewing a VP of Finance, then he should be an expert at managing profitability or obtaining credit lines. If I’m interviewing a VP of Engineering, she should tell me that she’s an expert at implementing various engineering systems and processes, as well as building and managing engineering teams.

But this is where it gets interesting: that question is not even the question I am seeking an answer to – it’s simply the set up-question. The follow up question is the one that determines the real value of the candidate:

What have you done recently to enhance that expertise you just told me about?

The answer to this question will determine the difference between good and great. For example, I was interviewing a VP of Technical Engineering for one of our clients, and when I asked this question, the candidate gave me a pretty good response to part one (what are you an expert at?)—it was part two where he completely dropped the ball. This is how our conversation went down:

Me: What have you done recently to enhance that expertise you just told me about?

Job Candidate: What do you mean?

Me: Do you read.

JC: I love Louis Lamoure books!

Me: How about business books or anything around all that stuff you told me you’re an expert at?

JC: I haven’t read a business book in over 10 years, but I read industry-related articles.

Me: Great! Tell me the name of the last article you read?

JC: I can’t remember the name or what it was about.

Me: Well what training - have you taken any type of training in recent years?

JC:  The company I worked for three years ago made me take a course in some type of software.

(Aside: three years ago, really?! And “made me,” really?!)

Me: One of your first tasks will be to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the existing team of 10 people. How are you going to do this and how long will it take you?

His response to “how” was a “good” answer, but then he responded to the “how long” with “about six months,” to which I said, “then you have already failed because your Peak Performance Profile (our version of a job description) says (and I pointed to it), you must complete this task within the first 45 days of your employment.

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As you can see, this was a very telling conversation. Had he been reading more and taking training workshops, webinars, etc. he would have learned that there are many great assessment tools and techniques that can help you assess your team more effectively and efficiently (typically, only a few days to a week, depending on the team size, type, and available performance data).

The major takeaway here is NEVER STOP LEARNING because in this day and age, things move very quickly, and sometimes what you learned only six months ago could be obsolete today!