In our most recent blog, we began a conversation about how to build an environment where your team members felt safe to succeed. It’s important, at this point, to step back and address an aspect of this process that often is missed: how to onboard the best team members.

Most people accept that it’s more expensive to continue to hire and train new people than to find the best people in the first place, then coach them up. However, it is extremely expensive – for your bottom line and your team’s emotional health – to keep the wrong people in key positions on your team.

Many leaders would say these dynamics seem self-evident. If that’s the case, what is it that motivates so many companies to shortchange the onboarding process? Where does the tendency to ask the same core questions, regardless of the position and expected responsibilities, come from? So many of these questions have similar shortcomings:

  • They offer a limited view of the applicant’s real motives and mindset
  • They focus too much on specific tasks, rather than innate problem solving
  • They are more about checking boxes than a real exchange of ideas
  • They discuss successes in scenarios or contexts that may not transfer well into the new position
  • They keep the focus, for the interviewer, on “what” they are getting, rather than “who”
  • They keep the focus, for the applicant, on “what” they are receiving, rather than what they offer

Many leaders I speak with agree the typical interview questions do not always provide us with the answers we really need to build the best possible team. If that’s the case, where are we missing it? Why aren’t we asking the right questions, and why does employee turnover still sap so much of our time and cash flow?

I believe, in many cases, the answer lies in the kinds of questions we’re asking and the perspectives both the hiring manager and the applicant bring into the interview.

Asking More Effective Questions

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Bill Bliss, a John Maxwell Team leadership development colleague, who asks some of the best onboarding interview questions I’ve ever heard. Without stealing Bill’s thunder, I want to touch on the principles behind some of the questions he asks and why I believe they will help other leaders recruit the best people for every position on their team.

For example, when hiring sales or account managers, Bill suggests asking the following question (he has a total of 10 in this category):

“Tell me about a time when you had to drop everything to address an issue at a client company? What happened, and how did you resolve it?”

Notice this question requires the applicant to share a story. An astute hiring manager may listen to the story and learn a great deal about what the applicant finds important and how he or she prioritizes people and time.

Now let’s look at how Bill inspires his applicants to share how they deal with office conflict:

“Tell me about a recent event where you or your staff received unjust criticism from another department… How did you handle it?”

This interview question offers a glimpse into how that applicant will deal with office politics as well as insight into how they will deal with situations they perceive as unfair.

For businesses in the tech industry or trades, one of the most difficult aspects of the job is often trying to explain complex or highly-technical information to a layman. One of Bill’s Communication Skills queries really hits this concern out of the park:

“Have you ever had to explain complex technical information to non-technical people? How did you approach it and what was the result?”

While the initial question is a “yes” or “no,” that won’t be good enough for the applicant to earn the job. They need to share their story in a way that will reveal to the hiring manager how this person thinks and solves problems on the fly.

One more example, and this one is vital for any person who is interested in hiring and developing leaders at every position on their team:

“Tell me about a time when you made a decision even though you didn’t have enough information to necessarily support that decision? What was the outcome, and did you learn anything from that experience?”

The first part of this question is fairly common, though it might be phrased differently. It’s the follow up that really pops. Here, the applicant has the opportunity to share a time when things didn’t quite go as planned. They share what they learned, rather than talking about how “great” they navigated a tough situation.

This is a vital concern for any onboarding process. We want people who are experienced at making good decisions. And it’s every bit as important to have someone who understands how to learn from their mistakes.

Bill calls asking these kinds of questions “focusing on core competencies” and, as you see, his questions achieve an effective balance between getting inside the head and heart of the applicant and helping them understand what will be expected of them on the job. As anyone who has ever hired anyone may attest, this is a dynamic calculus that feels a lot like trying to hit a moving target.

One of the key takeaways here is that our onboarding processes need to be as dynamic and focused as the people they are meant to connect with our organization. However we choose to aim at this moving target and whatever questions we choose to ask, onboarding works better, especially long-term, when our questions:

  • Focus on the applicant’s attitude as well as their skillset
  • Reveal the applicant’s priorities and motives
  • Explore how applicants relate with others on a team
  • Communicate vision in a way that inspires buy-in
  • Discover how well the applicant will align with company culture
  • Reveal the applicant’s approach to equipping those who work with them
  • Focus on experiences, not only “experience”
  • Explore their capacity for effective leadership at any position

One bonus of this process, for the hiring manager, is the opportunity to reflect on how well we understand how to find the best people for every position on our team. This leads us to also consider how we will develop the people we already have on the team. And that’s what we’re going to discuss in our next blog.

How have you used interview questions to find the right person for a position on your team? What was the best interview question you were ever asked. Share your story in the comments below.  


1 Comment

  1. Shawne Patterson

    Yes! Absolutely agree with this post. Thank you for sharing. I makes such a difference in the culture when the right people are in the right places. Leadership creates the culture…culture creates the business.


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