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Employee Experience

The One Interview Question That Will Reveal Your Candidate’s True Potential

A woman singing into a microphone

The interview process at many companies can be mundane and ineffective, but there is one type of interview question that can help identify the true standout candidates.

Boring interview questions result in boring answers and undifferentiated candidates. Assuming your Human Resources team can adequately filter out candidates without the proper background and experience, then the true differentiators shine through in the interviews; we just have to give them the chance.

My first boss had a philosophy that I carried throughout my 20-year career as a manager. He said, “I only hire smart people because I can teach them anything.” Indeed, I was hired into that marketing role with zero marketing background and did just fine.

A good interviewer takes the time to really get to know the interviewee. This doesn’t happen with a routine walk-through of the résumé, it happens by engaging in genuine conversation to see what the person is like “in real life.”

One of my favorite interview questions was: “Tell me something about yourself that isn’t on your résumé.” The person who answered, “I’m a really hard worker” wasn’t someone who I wanted on the team. But the person who answered, “I once entered a juggling-while-riding-a-unicycle contest” was exactly who I wanted.

Related: How To Stand Out From The Crowd

In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Never Lose An Employee Again, my good friend and Experience This! co-host Joey Coleman shares an interview question that was asked of potential shipmates in the early 20th century that, let’s face it, would still be a pretty good interview question today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!   –Dan


Exclusive excerpt from Never Lose An Employee Again by Joey Coleman:

Just One More Question: Do You Sing?

A fun experiment for anyone conducting interviews is to try to come up with a single question that will give you all the insight you need about whether a candidate will be a good fit for your organization. It’s a challenging task—but not an impossible one.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s remarkable techniques for screening candidates for the Antarctic voyage of the Endurance are well-documented. In what may be one of the first examples of the famous human resources maxim “Hire for attitude, train for skill,” Shackleton evaluated his three main categories of expeditioners—officers, seaman, and scientists—as much for their character as their credentials.

Bridges Adams, an acquaintance of Shackleton’s who led an acting company, recalled a conversation with Shackleton about the types of people best suited for an Antarctic expedition.

“[He] was fascinated when I described the formation of a repertory company, and how character and temperament mattered quite as much as acting ability; just his problem, he said—he had to balance his types too, and their science or seamanship weighed little against the kinds of chaps they were.”

When meeting with candidates for face- to- face interviews, Shackleton searched for “cheerfulness, a sense of humor, and other qualities he associated with optimism, a personal trait he deemed essential for men on a daring, dangerous mission.” His desire to find personality in the people he invited onto the expedition stemmed from a perspective honed over two decades of travels to the frozen, remote continent of Antarctica.

But how is a leader expected to identify personality in a job interview?

Shackleton was famous for asking a specific question that effectively and efficiently narrowed the candidate pool. Expedition physicist Reginald James recalled his interview with Shackleton as lasting less than ten minutes.

“He asked me if my teeth were good, if I suffered from varicose veins, if I had a good temper, and if I could sing. At this question I probably looked a bit taken aback, for I remember he said, ‘O, I don’t mean any [opera singer Enrico] Caruso stuff; but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?’”

Shackleton’s emphasis on personality over skill set would come to be seen as the best decision he made in a catalog of brilliant choices. His ship, the Endurance, got frozen in heavy pack ice for nine months before eventually breaking up and sinking. After weathering the winter and ice for an additional ten months, his entire crew made it safely back to Chile. Not a single person was lost, a stunning result given the harsh and treacherous conditions. Shackleton’s ability to maintain morale was proven time and time again, notably when he insisted they keep a banjo throughout their tribulations—because he knew the camaraderie created by music and singing was crucial for team morale.

Whether assembling a crew for an Antarctic expedition, a team of developers for a software start-up, a gathering of laborers for a lawn-care business, or a troupe of waiters for a new restaurant venture, the goal should be the same—to conduct interviews and select team members based on their personality, adaptability, and spirit. Not only will this give you the talent to succeed, but by conducting interviews this way you will preview the actual experience of working in your organization—a valuable perspective for an incoming employee to possess.

Quick Takeaway: Interview Questions

Interviews, by their nature, are artificial environments that over-index on prepared remarks and stressful conversations. Subtle shifts in interview formats, locations, and questions can produce valuable results. While it’s important to evaluate ability and skill for a position, spend time on questions and conversations that offer insight about a candidate’s personality. Understanding someone’s nature, temperament, habits, and beliefs is much more valuable than a series of canned answers to familiar interview questions.


Excerpt from Never Lose An Employee Again by Joey Coleman, published by Portfolio/Penguin. © 2023 by C. Joseph Coleman III, used with permission from the author. Links to the book are Amazon affiliate links, which means this site receives a (very small) commission for all purchases; however, your price is unaffected. Image by Werner Gmünder from Pixabay.

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