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The two most important words in a job interview
How candidates use two pronouns can reveal (almost) everything you need to know.
So many qualified job applicants, so little time. How can you be sure you’re picking the right people to join your team if you’re too busy with the rest of your job to spend more than, say, 20 minutes interviewing each one?
You might consider what Steve Pogorzelski has found. He’s spent the past 25 years vetting hundreds of candidates for leadership jobs, notably as group president of Monster.com Worldwide, where he helped the career site more than triple its revenues to $1.4 billion. Last August, Pogorzelski stepped in as CEO at sales and marketing data analytics firm Avention (formerly OneSource), where he has since replaced six out of eight of the company’s C-suite executives.
Here’s what he asks candidates, and why:
“What has been your biggest professional success so far, and why?”
It may sound like the same question every other interviewer asks, but Pogorzelski is listening for something different. After all, most people’s biggest successes are already obvious from their resumes, cover letters, and social media profiles. “What I want to hear is the word ‘we,’” he says. “The way someone describes how they achieved their biggest goals speaks volumes about them as potential leaders.”
By his lights, candidates who say “I” more than “we” are used to grabbing all the credit and won’t be strong team players. “I interviewed a CFO just the other day who came from a tech startup,” Pogorzelski says. “He said ‘I” so many times and ‘we’ so few that I cut the conversation short about halfway through.”
“What has been your biggest failure, and why?”
Again, this query is such a staple of job interviews that candidates are likely to have a canned answer ready to go. What they may not realize is that Pogorzelski is listening for where they put the blame. “The word I want to hear when people answer this is ‘I,’” he says. “If someone tells me they failed at something because someone else messed up, or the economy was bad, or for any other reason that was not their fault, that’s a big red flag.”
Of course, he adds, sometimes factors beyond one’s control really can derail the best-laid plans, but “you want people on your team who will be accountable for their own mistakes, without trying to shift the blame to others” — and who can describe what they’ve learned along the way.
“What could the company be doing better than we do now, or how could I do my job better?”
Very few people expect this question, so an interviewer can get a glimpse of how a candidate thinks on his or her feet. And it’s a good way to find out how much research and thought someone has put in before the interview. Any response that shows a thorough knowledge of the company, the industry, and the competition is okay, and may even reveal some useful insights.
“The only wrong answer is, ‘Nothing! You’re doing just great,’ which should make you doubt that this person can add value,” says Pogorzelski. Why? “It’s a clear sign that the candidate either hasn’t done enough homework, or isn’t brave enough to work here.”