These Two Questions Are All You Need to Assess Leadership Qualities in a Candidate

October 17, 2018

As I think back on the thousands of people I’ve interviewed and the hundreds I’ve tracked for years after they were hired, leadership stands out as the universal trait of success. At its simplest, I define leadership as the ability to figure out the best way to solve a problem and then executing on that solution.

For an accountant, this could mean describing how to set up a new budgeting system and then setting it up. For an engineer, it might be figuring out how to redesign a system and then successfully implementing the redesign. For a CEO, this could mean describing how the company will be reorganized to increase profitability and then making sure it gets done.

Use the two-question, performance-based interview to assess leadership

While leadership is a universal trait for the most successful people, assessing it needs to be related directly to the needs of the job being filled. After all, a great leader for the wrong job is still a bad hire.

To get the job fit right, you can do the following: put the traditional list of skills, experiences, and competencies aside and define the job as 5-6 KPOs (key performance objectives). Then describe the objectives in detail, along with the action required (e.g., build, improve, maintain, design, review, etc.), and include some measurable deliverable. For example, for a marketing analyst, it could be, “Prepare a comprehensive competitive analysis in 60 days that can serve as the framework for a two-year product roadmap.”

When interviewing a candidate for this role, you should start by describing the most important KPO. Then ask the person to describe his or her most comparable and related accomplishment. You’ll need to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes on this to fully understand the accomplishment and the person’s role. This is called the Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA) question.

For a complete assessment, you’ll need to ask all finalists this same question for each of the KPOs. This reveals the growth trend in scope, scale, and complexity of the accomplishments and the breadth of the person’s responsibility.

This is how you use past performance to predict the person’s technical and management ability and fit with the job, company culture, and team.

Conduct real-time problem solving to assess thinking and planning skills

While having a track record of accomplishments doing comparable work is essential for predicting on-the-job performance, it’s not enough to assess the thinking and planning skills required for successful leadership. This can be done by asking the candidate a realistic job-related problem-solving question (PSQ).

For the marketing analyst above, it could be something like, “If you were to get this job, what would you need to know and how would you put together a two-year product roadmap?” In this case, what’s being assessed is the process the person uses to develop a solution including the questions asked, not the correctness of a specific solution.

Getting into a natural back-and-forth dialogue is a key aspect of this approach. By asking several more complex “what ifs?” you can determine where the person’s thinking and insight go from specific to general. This is the point of the person’s current understanding.

For the marketing analyst, a “what if?” might relate to what the person would do if a new, lower cost and feature-rich competitor entered the market. You should be concerned if the person doesn’t even know how to start developing a solution or if the approach is illogical.

I call this two-part assessment approach the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. While visualizing a future state and a plan to get there (the PSQ question) is important, it’s not enough. A track record of doing something similar is more important or you’ll be left with a lot of great ideas that never get implemented. In this example, the MSA question is the anchor.

While you’ll need to mix, match, and compare the evidence gathered from this interviewing approach, this should be enough to determine if the person should be a finalist for your job. This Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard can help sort this out.

Leadership is the universal trait of successful people. You should look for it in every candidate being interviewed. Regardless of the level of the job, the best people know what they need to do to get the job done before they start doing it and then accomplish their goals without making excuses.

*Photo by Christina Morillo

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