10 Questions that Uncover High Performers

10 Questions that Uncover High Performers

One of the challenges involved in building a high performing team is selecting and recruiting the right people. You can’t build a high performing team with low performing people so who you let into your organisation matters. It is arguably one of the most important decisions you make especially if your team is small.

Recruiting someone is supposed to give your team (and you) a great level of capability. You should be able to deliver more. But if you get it wrong and hire the wrong person you will create management challenges that take up your time rather than ‘free up’ your time. 

There are plenty of people who can advise you on how to create a good recruitment process. My view is that you must try to resist the temptation to hire someone who has done the job before. If the opportunity doesn’t stretch the individual and give them an opportunity to learn and develop, it’s not a good fit for them or you.

At some stage in the process there is likely to be an interview.

Typically, these are designed to get people to share a story of when they’ve dealt with a challenging issue that relates to the role. The initial questions should focus on ensuring that the person can actually do the job. Do they have the required experience, are they competent?

Try and consider your own bias beforehand. I once worked with someone that placed a huge value on where candidates went to University. I have never been convinced that the decisions someone made at the age of 18 correlated with their long-term potential.  Think about your own internal bias – what do you value? Is there a strong correlation between what you value and how someone performs?

Soft Skills vs Hard Skills

I believe that the ‘soft skills’ are actually more important than the ‘hard skills’.

Attitude and mindset trumps skills and experience. Think about the best people you’ve worked with, chances are that their performance was more down to the fact that they had a great attitude rather than what they’d done in their past. Of course they have to be competent in order to be effective but great people tend to be the ones with the following characteristics. They can build relationships, prioritise, delegate, they’re accountable, easy to work with etc.

So the question becomes, how do we find those people? How do we dig beneath the surface to uncover these soft skills? 

Below is a list of questions that is designed to uncover how someone thinks. How someone thinks informs how they behave. How they behave is how they achieve great results. If you want to understand potential, you have to understand how someone thinks. These questions and their respective explanations should give you a deeper insight into the way someone thinks and their potential. 

They’re focussed on understanding the following qualities: honesty, humility, perseverance, initiative, adaptability to change. I have found that these are essential if you want to create a high performing team.

Tell me about a time when you have had to admit to making a mistake, what did you do?

Interviews traditionally focus on the positive stories. But work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. How does someone react when things go wrong? What you’re looking for is someone that is comfortable admitting when they have made a mistake. They take accountability for the mistake, including any consequences, and work hard to resolve the issue. If someone has never made a mistake or fails to answer the question, they’re either lying, have never been pushed/taken a risk or are blissfully unaware. You don’t want to hire a candidate that falls into any of these categories.

Can you describe a past situation at work which led you to grow as a person? or Can you tell me a time when you were faced with a major obstacle (work/personal). How did you overcome it?

These questions also focus on a difficult situation. Examples might include handling a challenging stakeholder or managing a project that is going wrong. What you’re looking for is a story that shows the candidate has been challenged and has learnt from the experience. Failing to answer this question means that the candidate has either not been challenged sufficiently or that they’ve not reflected on and learnt from their experience.

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Drawing on your work experience. Can you give me an example of a time when you wanted to give up and chose not to? 

Determination is an essential quality. You want people that won’t give up easily and will see things through. It doesn’t matter where you work, you will want people that are resilient in the face of challenges. Will they ask you to solve their problems or will they explain a situation and give you a few courses of action so you can make a decision? The second type of person creates mental capacity for their leadership, the first type diminishes it.

How do you react when you are asked to do something beyond your capability? 

All roles evolve. The world of is not a fixed place, roles evolve and change because the world changes. People will be asked to do things that they have not done before; high performers will expect that. You need candidates that are able to adapt and learn new skills. Understanding how someone approaches these challenges is important in understanding an individual’s ability to adapt to change.

Who is your most inspiring role model and why?

I love this question because this goes right to the heart of how someone thinks. The people we hold up as role models are the people we seek to emulate. It doesn’t matter who the person chooses. What matters is how they answer the question and why they’ve chosen that person. You’re looking for a candidate that can clearly articulate a person that they want to emulate.

Could you please give me an example of when you’ve had to have a difficult conversation at work? How did you handle it?

Difficult conversations are a part of working life. Sometimes you have to give feedback up, down and across the hierarchical structure. You want to hire someone that has the guts to confront challenging issues and have difficult conversations. The majority of managers avoid these conversations. It is much easier to ignore poor performance and overload the people who consistently deliver. The problem with this is that it’s unfair, breeds resentment amongst co-workers and ultimately causes your top performers to leave. 

Could you describe a situation in which you felt you were right but you were still obliged to follow established workplace policies?

This is the hardest question to answer because there isn’t really a right answer. You’re looking to understand how someone handles a contentious issue. What do they do when they feel they are right but have to follow the rules? Do they go with their gut and are they a risk of being a rogue or are they a conformist? This is a sliding scale but obviously you don’t want anyone who will break the law!

Why did you leave your last role? and/or Why do you want this job? 

The best answers to these questions relate to the fact that the person is ‘looking for their next challenge’. They’re actively moving towards something and are working on building a set of skills and experiences that will be valuable in the future. You do not want someone who is ‘sick of their current role’ and looking to run away from something. Whenever people ask why I left the Royal Marines, the story I tell is consistent, positive and above all honest. It usually goes something like this. 

I had a fantastic career in the Corps and genuinely loved it but there are three reasons that I left. Firstly, I got married in my final year of service and wanted to start a family. I didn’t want to spend as much time overseas as I had done in my seven years of service. Secondly, I had a sense that the UK Government and to some extent the British public were weary of overseas campaigning. When I made the decision in 2012, I believed that the British Military would re-enter a fallow period post Afghanistan. I believed that the jobs behind me were better than the jobs in front of me and I wasn’t interested in leading a company of 120 marines on exercise when I’d led 30 on Operations.

The underlying messages are as follows. Firstly, it is a positive story. Would you want to hire someone who starts with, ‘I was sick of being sent overseas to fight in wars I didn’t believe in…’ What does that tell you about their attitude?

Secondly, it demonstrates my commitment to my family and illustrates what is important to me. Many people don’t value family, placing their career and working lives first. If you value your family, you don’t want to work for these sorts of people!

Lastly, I am demonstrating that I am future focussed and politically aware. Choosing a moment to leave ‘the party’ is a difficult thing to do. I wanted to look back on my time in the Corps fondly, and I sincerely do, which is why I chose to leave in 2012. 

Are you lucky? 

Again, there is no perfect answer here. But this gives an insight into how someone views what they’ve got in the world. Do they express a sense of gratitude for the fact that they were born in the West and therefore are extremely lucky to be well-educated, have a safe comfortable place to sleep and access to clean water. 

Do they believe that they are in complete control of everything that happens to them? In which case they are likely to be more accountable than those who feel that they’re victim of their own circumstance. 

Attitude and Mindset are the strongest drivers of an individual’s performance. Whatever your selection process, you have to make sure that people have a baseline competence for the role. Most selection processes will achieve that.

However, if you’re looking to assess potential and understand character, you have to drive deeper. Understand how someone thinks. These questions are deigned to help you do that. Resist the temptation to hire quickly because you need someone now.

Get this right and you will add value to your culture and organisation, freeing you up to be able to deliver more. Get it wrong and you will create more problems for yourself. 

Recruiting is an investment decision. It is a balance of good process and judgement.

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