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Hire a Top Performer Every Time with These First Round Interview Questions

Stashed in: Hiring, Awesome, Grit, Extraordinary People, @firstround

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EVERY time? Methinks they being hyperbolic. 


Startups are as fast-paced as they are nebulous. In the modern workplace, it’s not unusual for hires to be the first to hold newly created positions without clear mandates. They need to be able to figure it out while going a hundred miles a minute. At the same time, the inevitable monotony of day-to-day grunt work hasn’t gone anywhere. Through the frenzy and the lulls, you want team members who are tenacious and resilient.

What to ask: “We look for a time the candidate wanted something so badly, they were unstoppable in pursuing it. Or a time they overcame an obstacle,” Hamilton says. As you listen to the answers to those questions, pay close attention to both the tasks and the duration described. “Try to get a sense of how long that person can stick it out. How long are they going to beat their head against a stats problem?”

Because it’s important to remember that true grit might be revealed by something as mundane as a stats problem — you’re not necessarily looking for a heroic story here. A history of persevering through mind-numbing boredom can be one of the most valuable predictors of strong performance.


“There are no dark corners in organizations anymore,” Hamilton says. Cross-functional teams are the norm, and as companies and industries become increasingly global and transparent, the desire to create a more diverse workforce will only grow stronger. Professionals who are able to understand different social styles are the key ingredient of a healthy, collaborative team. Look for candidates who know their own strengths and weaknesses, and can empathize with others — the hallmark of empathy and high EQ.

What to ask: “There's interesting research that ties teamwork to the ability to recognize emotions in other people, and EQ can be measured with 10 or so questions. That's how we approach our teamwork assessment,” says Hamilton. Your questions here can be straightforward: When working on a team, what's hardest for you? What about a time you worked on a difficult team? What was your role and experience? What makes you happiest and most effective when working with others?

One trick Hamilton has picked up in hundreds of interviews is to filter these questions through the lens of a candidate’s friends or family — that is, ask what a candidate’s best friends would cite as their key strengths and weaknesses. “People are more honest that way. It’s much better than asking their weaknesses directly.”


“Bad things happen all the time: your boss quits three days after you start, or your job isn't the one you applied for,” Hamilton says. Successful professionals are the ones who make lemonade out of lemons — not the ones who dwell on those frustrations. And a positive attitude, while crucial, isn’t enough. You’re looking for people who take the initiative to fix their problems and move forward fast.

“The right candidate makes no time for blame or fault. Ownership fosters a ‘We’ culture, not an ‘I’ culture. Listen to how often they use those words respectively.”

What to ask: In Hamilton’s experience, this trait has perhaps the most dramatic impact on an organization’s culture — so don’t neglect it in your interviews. “So much is connected to the ownership piece, from the top to the bottom of an organization. Once energy vampires are in, they’re really toxic. Even if they perform well in other ways, they drag people down and create politics.”

To “test” for this in an interview, you actually need to tempt candidates into feeling sorry for themselves (as strange as that sounds). “You want to ask about a time they experienced an injustice, and then empathize with the unfairness. You say, ‘Are you kidding? That's crazy. What a jerk.’ Owners will immediately respond with something like, ‘Yeah, but I recognized it wasn't worth my time to complain about it.’ They won’t buy in and double down on venting or complaining,” Hamilton says.

She recalls one particularly poignant response to this question, from a candidate whose mother was diagnosed with cancer just as the candidate’s stepfather was leaving her mom and her house was being repossessed. In the midst of it all, her grades fell and she had to drop out of college to care for her mother. “It’s not hard to say, ‘Wow, that’s awful,’” Hamilton says of the situation. “But that candidate immediately responded, ‘Here’s the thing: it’s not important. There’s no reason for me to be complaining about it, and I realized it was making me stronger.’ Imagine the difference in the workplace between someone like that and someone who allows themselves to be a victim.”


Throughout your interview process, look for authentic, confident expression in all forms, from the candidate’s body language or posture to their written and spoken communication. “We work with a lot of entry-level people who can write a long term paper but can't put together an email with three concise bullets that are clear and relevant,” Hamilton says. Pay attention to whether a candidate can hang back when that’s most appropriate, too. “Knowing when not to open your mouth and when to give someone else the floor speaks tremendously to character.”

What to ask: Polish is equal parts what candidates say and how they say it, so be sure you’re considering both. How do they conduct themselves when they interject? Do they send a thoughtful thank you note following your conversation? Do they communicate gracefully and efficiently, saying whip-smart things in the fewest words possible?

Koru’s job marketplace application requires that applicants submit a short video, which is particularly instructive. “It’s hard to come across as calm and confident with a camera pointed at you,” Hamilton says. For this exercise, she keeps the questions simple: What makes you gritty? Tell us about a time you had an impact.

Whether in person or on film, though, Hamilton is looking for the same thing: Whether the candidate is poised and energetic. “The thing that trumps everything is likability. People want to be around and hire people they like,” Hamilton says. “Hire people who are engaging and who will bring energy into a room or a meeting.”

There's also RIGOR, IMPACT, and CURIOSITY. 

Pretty sure that the best engineers I've ever worked with would totally bomb on the "likability video" test, or more likely just refuse to apply anywhere that required it. So you know, maybe a good idea for soft skills people but hey if you need actual shit built this step is a gigantic "can't measure the losses you never see" mistake. Great managers need to always be thinking about who they are not even seeing in their pipelines who might turn out to be game-changers. This blog post explains:

Also there is more and more research that suggests "likability" is a proxy for bias and ultimately for the culture death of the org.

I should work on being more unlikable. That's a great blog post. 

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