9 CEOs Share Their Favorite Interview Question
Getty Images/Ethan Miller
If you could ask job candidates only one question, what would be most telling?
As it turns out, many CEOs have one go-to interview question that they believe reveals everything they need to know about a candidate. Some swear by serious questions about a candidate’s best accomplishment. Others believe that silly queries about holiday costumes and the zombie apocalypse best reveal a candidate’s creativity.
From Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to Warby Parker CEO David Gilboa, we’ve collected top interview questions from the following nine company leaders.
On a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos
One of Zappos’ core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness,” Tony Hsieh, CEO of the company, tells Business Insider.
To make sure he hires candidates with the right fit, Hsieh typically asks the question: “On a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?” He says the number isn’t too important, but it’s more about how people answer the question. Nonetheless, if “you’re a one, you probably are a little bit too straight-laced for the Zappos culture,” he says. “If you’re a 10, you might be too psychotic for us.”
Another question Zappos usually asks candidates is: “On a scale of one to 10, how lucky are you in life?” Again, the number doesn’t matter too much, but if you’re a one, you don’t know why bad things happen to you (and probably blame others a lot). And if you’re a 10, you don’t understand why good things always seem to happen to you (and probably lack confidence).
Tell me about the time you realized you had the power to do something meaningful.
Simon Anderson, CEO of DreamHost
Simon Anderson, CEO of DreamHost, a web hosting provider and domain name registrar, says he asks one question to determine what motivates candidates: “Tell me about the first experience in your life when you realized that you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful.”
“It’s open-ended. Some people might tell the story of when they were five and there was some incident and they had to take more responsibility for their baby brother or sister,” he tells The New York Times. “Maybe it was from their teenage years: ‘Something bad was going to happen at school and I stood up for this friend of mine and all of a sudden I felt self-empowered to do things.’ I think that’s really important. If someone sits there and they’re stumped, I think that tells you something.”
How would you describe yourself in one word?
Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA
The best candidates are the ones who know exactly who they are. That’s why Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of women’s organization YWCA, always asks her candidates this question.
Richardson-Heron says she doesn’t judge people on the word they choose, but it does give her insight into how people package themselves. She tells Adam Bryant at The New York Times that she likes when people take time to ponder the question and answer thoughtfully.
What would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?
Ashely Morris, CEO of Capriotti’s
This seems like a ridiculous question to ask, but it’s posed to every prospective employee at Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, a national restaurant franchise. Ashley Morris, the company’s CEO, says it’s the best way to learn how candidates react under pressure.
“There really is no right answer, so it’s interesting to get someone’s opinion and understand how they think on their feet,” Morris explains. “The hope is that for us, we’re going to find out who this person is on the inside and what’s really important to him, what his morals really are, and if he’ll fit on the cultural level.”
Tell me about the last person you fired.
Courtesy of Marc Barros
Marc Barros, CEO of Contour
Marc Barros, cofounder and former CEO of camera company Contour, swears by this question. “Of all the ways I interviewed executive candidates, this question and the discussion that followed proved to be the strongest indicator of the candidate’s leadership ability,” he tells Inc.
Barros believes a candidate who claims to have never fired anyone is clearly a bad choice. “You can’t build a great team without occasionally deconstructing and rebuilding it,” he argues.
If the candidate has fired someone, then he focuses on how the process went, which reveals a great deal about their communication skills. Did they offer feedback to the person and explain their reasoning for the decision? Barros says great leaders are like coaches, constantly giving feedback.
Tell me about your failures.
Jenny Ming, CEO of Charlotte Russe
A good answer to this question is important because it means that the candidate isn’t afraid of taking risks and will admit when things don’t work out, says Jenny Ming, president and CEO of clothing store Charlotte Russe.
“It doesn’t even have to be business; it could be life lessons. I think it’s pretty telling. What did they do afterward?” she says. “How did they overcome that? I always look for somebody who’s very comfortable admitting when something didn’t work out.”
People always like to tell you about their successes, she explains, but they don’t always want to tell you what didn’t work out so well for them.
What was the last costume you wore?
Colin Hughes/Courtesy Warby Parker
Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, CEOs of Warby Parker
It doesn’t matter so much what they wore, but why they wore it. If the candidate’s reasoning matches Warby Parker’s core value of injecting “fun and quirkiness into work, life, and everything [they] do,” they might have a real shot at getting a job there.
“We find that people who are able to make the job environment fun build followership more easily,” the company’s cofounder and co-CEO David Gilboa tells Iris Mansour at Quartz. “If we hire the most technically skilled person in the world whose work style doesn’t fit here, they won’t be successful.”
Tell me about your crowning achievement.
Courtesy of The Adler Group
Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group
Lou Adler, CEO of hiring services company The Adler Group, says he always asks candidates to talk about their crowning achievement or most significant accomplishment. That question not only tells you what energizes the applicant, but also helps you figure out if their interests and passions align with yours.
“The idea is that if you understand someone’s most significant accomplishment or crowning achievement, and really are willing to spend 20 minutes understanding it, then you know what motivates the person,” Adler tells Business Insider.
Tell me about your last project. Who was involved and what was the biggest challenge?
To get a sense of how people work, Jana Eggers, former CEO of personalized clothing company Spreadshirt, likes to ask candidates about projects they’ve worked on.
“I’m interested in seeing how they organized themselves, how they think about projects, how they think about other people around them,” Eggers tells The New York Times. “There are very few jobs in any company these days where one person goes in and does it alone. They always have to interact with other people.”
BONUS: Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.
Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google
Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, says the company ditched its famous brainteaser interview questions in recent years for behavioral ones.
“The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information,” Bock tells The New York Times. “One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable ‘meta’ information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.”
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