McCain failed my job interview question technique

If you asked me, what’s the one thing you do well, I would say: Hire people.

Not every hire I’ve ever made has worked out (I can think of two that haven’t out of about 15 I’ve made), but I’ve learned from my mistakes.  Today, I’m quite confident that I have the best people in the business working for me.  If I can be allowed to brag: I’ve hired very well over the past two years.

What’s my secret? It’s a book: First, Break All the Rules.

It taught me an important lesson: Ask interview questions designed to elicit specific answers, and design your questions to uncover the talents needed for the job you need to fill.

The key word there is talents.  Hire for talents, not for skills.  Skills can be taught, but talent is something either a person has on day one of a new job, or they don’t. You can’t hope that a new hire will at some later date develop the talent you want.  People can improve in any number of ways, but there’s no guarantee, so don’t bet the future of your company on the hope that somebody will develop some hidden talent.

This post is not an endorsement of Barack Obama, but in watching CBS evening news tonight, I noticed that Barack Obama and John McCain answered a question from Katie Couric very differently. The answers illustrate perfectly the difference between answering a question with specificity versus answering with wiggle words designed to hide the fact the person being interviewed really doesn’t have a good answer to the question.

People with the talent related to the question can readily offer up specifics, while people who are trying to bull shit you retreat to broad, general language.

The question Katie asked was simple and maybe not a great political interview question, but it’s also the kind of question that can elicit very revealing answers.  Katie asked, “When is the last time you cried?”

From a job interview perspective, it’s a great question (merely, I mean in construction; I’m not suggesting you use this specific question in a job interview … not in the least!), because an honest answer can lead to only a single, specific answer, and anybody who can’t give a specific answer really doesn’t have an answer.

Here’s the start of Obama’s answer:

Barack Obama: This one is actually easy. It was Malia, my 10-year-old daughter’s, birthday party.

We were in Montana. And you know, she’s a Fourth of July baby. So often times, during this campaign, we’d be traveling during birthdays. And so we were in this small hotel, I think a Holiday Inn, and we had this big public thing.

The staff organized for a smaller family party. And we were in this little, non-descript conference room, with Malia and Sasha, Michelle, me, my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece.

Read the rest, but take note of the clear memory, the specificity.  Obama is talking about a clear event that answers the question exactly as asked.  It tells a lot about his values.

Here’s McCain’s answer:

John McCain: I cry regularly.

Couric: You do?

McCain: Aw, yeah. You know, I’m very sentimental. When I see these young people who are serving. I met a woman at a town hall meeting the other day who had lost her son in Iraq. And, I was so touched, because she talked about how proud she was of his service.

And what a fine young person he was. And whenever you have that experience, obviously you think, how could I ever – how could I cope with such a tragedy, you know? And so you know, when I say cry, I get – my eyes well up, as they are right now thinking about these brave Americans and their families who have sacrificed so much for their country, especially recently.

Notice how McCain buys time with a very non-specific proclamation he believes is what the interviewer wants to hear, and then offers up an example that is neither all that specific and certainly not specific to him, but could be any body’s experience. He is telling you what he wants you to believe he values, not necessarily what he really values.

If you put this in “talent” terms, the talent Couric’s question would likely uncover would be related to emotional capacity. If that was a talent you needed for a job — maybe you’re hiring a sob-sister reporter — then this would be a good question to ask.  It’s well constructed for that purpose because it asks a questioned with only one correct answer: An answer that offers a specific and very real example.

I’m not so sure “emotional capacity” is a required talent for president of the United States — it could be a good thing or bad thing, depending on your view point.  At least, the question was designed to elicit an explicit, revealing answer.

Again, I’m not endorsing Obama (I’m most likely to vote third party, if you must know), but if this were a job interview, with more questions to come, Obama would still be in the running and I’d be looking for a polite way to wrap up my meeting with McCain because there is no way I would hire him after that answer.

2 thoughts on “McCain failed my job interview question technique

  1. We use the same process from the same book. We’ve failed when we took short-cuts or overlooked the best responses and let our “first impressions” make the decision for us.

  2. Yes, my biggest fail as a hiring manager was when I made excuses in my own head for two wiggly answers, but the staffers point of failure was hidden in those answers. But I was incredibly desperate to fill this key position.

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