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4 interview questions that will separate top performers from the pack

Draw out quality hires by listening out for nuanced and ego-free responses.

4 interview questions that will separate top performers from the pack
[Photo: Bharathi Kannan/Unsplash]

Basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins once said, “You are only as good as your team.” This quote is the same on the basketball court and off it. Fast-growing companies need fast-growing teams; they need the best possible teams to win.

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This leads to two critical questions: How do we find top talent? And how do we find top talent, quickly? Top talent is certainly out there, especially as many workers look to use an unprecedented time to pursue new opportunities. Yet these people do not turn up in your conference room with a “top pick” label on their shirt. So, how are we to spot these people in a job interview?

The answer is in the questions you ask, along with your evaluation of the responses you receive. Below are four must-ask interview questions and responses to look out for.

Tell me about a time when you received feedback that stung or hurt your feelings.

  • Listen for an answer first and foremost. If the candidate does not have an experience like this to share, they likely are not experienced enough for the job.
  • Second, listen for an honest awareness and ability to express emotion, as well as the ability to effectively tell a story. Does the candidate set up the story in a compelling way? You should be able to figuratively ride the emotional roller coaster with them through their answer.
  • Third, steer clear of candidates who end their story by describing a trigger and their consequent defensiveness, indignation, and disengagement. Lean towards those that end by describing a point at which they moved past the sting, acknowledged the feedback as 100-percent true, and afterward took steps to grow from it.

Can you recall a particular time when you had a strong win at work?

  • Again, listen for a distinct answer. If the candidate does not have a winning story, it may be an indication that they have a lack of drive or a lack of enthusiasm about work more basically. When top talent wins at work—they are palpably excited by it. And that emotion is contagious.
  • Also, seek a discussion of others. Steer clear of candidates who do not mention contributions to the win from people outside themselves. This red flag signifies a competitive spirit—not a collaborative spirit. Top talent has a healthy balance of both ethos, and they have that early in their careers.

Why did you apply for this job specifically?

  • Top candidates are not lobbing their résumés left and right. They carefully aim before putting their name in for consideration. So here you are looking for evidence that they know (a lot) about your organization as well as the unique position they are interviewing for.
  • Further, listen for how the candidate connects the job they’re interviewing for to their life and career goals. Top players know to optimize their goals in combination with each other. They should tell you where they want to be in five years, as well as how this exact job alley-oops them to their ideal of success.

Tell me about a time when you felt demoralized at work. What was that like?

  • Look for resilience. Why? Because it is common for demoralized people to quit. Avoid hiring people who admit to doing this. Ten times out of 10 they will bring their victim mentality with them to the next job they take.
  • Also, look for apt soft skills. Top talent will answer this question by describing how they used their emotional intelligence to pinpoint the source of initial agitation, and how they leveraged communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills to successfully do something about it.

Furthermore, here are a few caveats worthy of mention while scouting top talent.

First, toxic people often present as high performers, yet minimize the narcissism and manipulation that can (and will) follow them into your office. Fast Company contributor Aytekin Tank gives great advice on how to spot a potentially toxic hire over a video interview. Involving multiple team members in the interview, speaking at length with past colleagues, and emphasizing questions about how great things were accomplished over what great things were accomplished in their past, he argues, should allow you to read between the lines enough to avoid a bad decision.

Second, top talent is difficult to win and retain, even if you are able to find them in the first round. It is therefore important to make sure your fast-growing company is ready for fast-growing learners. To do this, Margaret Rogers suggests in an HBR article that we intentionally create varied learning experiences for such players, more on-the-job opportunities for them, and provide more regular feedback to suit their larger appetite for fast growth.

Top talent interviewees won’t have a “Top Draft Pick” sticker on their shirt when they walk through your door or enter your Zoom meeting. Yet it is also true that “you are only as good as your team.” Adhere to these questions to give your company a leg up when scouting champions.

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Natasha Ganem, PhD, is the founder and director of Lion Leadership, a company that prepares creative and growing businesses for what’s next through a mixture of courses, coaching, and consulting services. She is a thinker, learner, appreciator of all things good.

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