Interview Questions

The One Question That Makes or Breaks a Job Interview

The One Question That Makes or Breaks a Job Interview
Image credit: Outlander | Starz

If you come into my office for a job interview, I don’t really care "where you see yourself in five years," or what your top skills and weaknesses are. What I care about is how you feel about time travel. That’s right, time travel. The question I prefer? “If I could take you 300 years to the past, or take you from 300 years ago and into the present, where do you think you would survive longer?”

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You see, over the past decade I’ve interviewed close to 1,000 job-seekers in the field of B2B sales. And while many of them have glowing references or Ivy League degrees, only a select few have the skills you really need to make it in this field: relatability, charisma, imagination and quick thinking.

So, what do I do to hone in on the candidates who have what it takes? I throw them a total curveball of a question, one so out-of-the-box that only an out-of-the-box reply will suffice. That's why I ask them about time travel.

The thing about interviewing is that it’s hard for everyone involved. Hard for the candidates, who face the immense stress of trying to convince employers to hire them, but hard too for us on the other side of the desk, who have the pressure of properly identifying the right individuals to bring on to our teams. 

I interview only experienced sales development representatives (SDRs), meaning individuals who talk to prospects every working day, all day. They’re "people persons" and naturally know how to present themselves, especially when it’s in an interview situation and they’ve had plenty of preparation time. 

When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff -- i.e., finding the truly talented, superstar-employee amongst the heap of well-written CVs and bombastic letters of recommendation --  I find that often the best measure of success involves encouraging a candidate to envision himself as a clan warrior straight out of Outlander, or a time-traveler from the future sent back to Paris during the French Revolution.

That’s because what we’re really looking for, at the end of the day, is people who can think on their feet. People who can face a fastball and come out swinging. And that’s exactly what this question tests.

In real-life business situations, preparation is crucial, but the ability to handle situations that you didn’t and couldn’t have prepared for is equally vital.

Related: Ask These 24 Interview Questions to Find a Marketing Rock Star

One great candidate told me he would prefer to go back to the past. His explanation was that back then, people had more free time to pursue their interests, compared to the hectic modern lifestyle, and that the foresight and knowledge he brought with him from the future would help him find his place and survive.

While the historical accuracy of his assumptions is debatable, it was an answer that sparked the imagination and made me want to hear more. It made me want to continue the conversation, and that is exactly what is required of a sales development representative who spends most of his day talking to prospects.

His answer, just like the many others I receive when posing this question, revealed to me several things:

  • Creative thinking. Is the candidate a sharp thinker who can come up with an answer that will be both logical and interesting? Can he or she vividly envision being sent into a completely foreign situation?
  • Conversationalism. Building relationships with prospects means being able to converse with them on a personal level that goes beyond touting your products or talking about “pains” and “value.” Is the candidate able to do so, without being able to choose the topic of conversation?
  • Fears and strengths. What is the candidate afraid of? What is his/own idea of his personal abilities? How a candidate envisions himself in a totally foreign environment tells me a lot about what he thinks of himself.
  • What the candidate cares about. The choice the candidate makes can tell me where her values lie: If she chooses her answer according to where she thinks she would quickly amass a fortune, for example, it’s an immediate red flag that she is motivated primarily by money.  

Perhaps the strongest element of my curveball question is that there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s not a multiple choice test. It’s all in the way the person chooses to reply.

Of course, I don’t ask my candidates only about time travel. I follow regular job interview protocol, discussing his or her background, education and experience levels, too. But from my experience, this question is a much stronger predictive tool than most of the standard questions thrown around during job interviews.

What do you think about using hypothetical scenarios in job interviews? Do you have any surprising questions of your own to share? I’d love to hear them. Or, if you’ve Googled my name in anticipation of an interview and reached this article, you’re already on the right track.

Related: 10 Toxic Words You Must Not Say in a Job Interview