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The Interview Question You Should Always Ask

9:36 AM Tuesday January 27, 2009
by Peter Bregman

Captain Greg Davis is an outstanding fishing guide. I went out with him early one morning off the coast of Savannah, GA and came back a few hours later with several fish like the one in the picture. Most other guides came back that morning with nothing.
What makes Greg such a remarkable guide? If you were hiring guides, could you predict he would be a star?
Those of us who run businesses, departments, or teams are faced with this question all the time. How can we distinguish the stars from the merely competent? Of all the candidates whose resumés we receive, how do we place our bet on the one who will stand out from the rest?
On January 15th, 2009, Captain C.B. Sullenberger made an emergency landing of his 50-ton passenger aircraft, softly gliding it onto the Hudson River in New York City, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. Miraculous? Or predictable?
What do we know about Captain Sullenberger? If you were looking for a new pilot, could you have predicted he would have the skill, the presence, the leadership to become the star he is today?
Earlier in my career I spent four years working in a management consulting company creating models to use in hiring people. Our clients, mostly large public companies, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on research we performed in their companies to predict who would be a star performer.
Here was our process: we interviewed both star and average performers in a client company and identified the characteristics that distinguished the stars from the rest. Then we helped the company interview people and hire the ones who fit the model.
Sounds reasonable. But it’s not. It’s tremendously expensive and time-consuming. It requires intensive interviews that demand a great deal of skill; it’s only as effective as the person doing the interviewing and hiring. And even if you have the money, time, and skill, you end up hiring past stars, not future ones.
Some would argue, as Malcolm Gladwell does in his excellent New Yorker article, Most Likely to Succeed, that the only thing that predicts success in a job is actual success in that job,. That’s why financial services firms hire close to ten times the number of analysts they need and then, a year or two later, keep the ones who succeed and let the others go. Of course, that’s even more expensive and time-consuming than our modeling process.
There is a much cheaper, easier way to raise the odds of finding your Captain Sullenberger, and it’s rarely factored into the selection process. After you have narrowed the pool of applicants down to those with the skills, experience, and knowledge to do the job, ask each candidate one question:

What do you do in your spare time?

In Captain Sullenberger’s case, the first clue that he would become Captain Sullenberger the hero is that, in his teens, when most of his friends were getting their driver’s licenses, he got his pilot’s license. What did he do for fun? He flew glider planes. Which is basically what he did when he landed in the Hudson River with no engines. Extracurricular activities? He was an Accident Investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association and worked with federal aviation officials to improve training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies.
As a boy, he built model aircraft carriers with tiny planes on them, careful to paint every last piece. Perhaps that attention to detail explains why he walked through the cabin twice, making sure no one was left behind before he escaped the sinking plane himself.
But here’s the thing: given his personality, it is unlikely you would have discovered any of this without asking directly about it. When Michael Balboni, New York State’s deputy secretary for public safety, thanked him for a job done brilliantly, he responded in the most unaffected, humble way, “That’s what we’re trained to do.”
Even if you had learned about all of Captain Sullenberger’s activities, you might have considered his obsession dysfunctional. Wouldn’t you rather hire someone well rounded? Someone who has interests beyond the particular? Someone who might be a better communicator?
But people are often successful not despite their dysfunctions but because of them. Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand a person’s obsessions and you will understand her natural motivation. The thing for which she would walk to the end of the earth.
Not all jobs are as clear-cut as being a pilot. What if you were hiring a receptionist? What spare-time activities would suggest to you that a candidate might be a star?
Well, what do star receptionists do? Don’t think of all the million things they might do. Just think of the one or two most important things. Perhaps the best ones are super friendly and well organized. Well, if a candidate likes to spend his spare time alone reading a book, he probably won’t be your star. But if he throws a dinner party once a week, you’ll know you’ve got a winner.
Greg Davis, my friend the fishing guide, is on the water fishing with clients six days a week. Can you guess what he does on his one day off?

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