The Single Most Important Interview Question

There is one defining question that comes up in every interview I do. How you answer can impact your candidacy more than any other answer you give. Can you guess what it is?

  1. What is your greatest weakness?
  2. Why do you want to work for this company?
  3. What do you want to do?
  4. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

The correct answer is #3, though if I were the type to ask about the tree thing I’m sure that would be the most important question for me (because I’d be that kind of guy.)

So, did you get it right?

What do you want to do? It seems like a simple enough question, but there are so many possible answers that finding the right one can be overwhelming at times. This question stumps all but the most prepared candidates, and for many different reasons. Entry-level candidates are tempted to say “I’m looking to do anything to get my foot in the door (which is another post for another day)” because they don’t want to disqualify themselves from any opportunities. More experienced Candidates give in to the temptation to say something smart and b-school sounding, like “I want to be able to influence the strategic direction of the department by introducing creative solutions and structured processes.” Yeah, you and everybody else.

The way to answer the question of what you want to do, in case you were wondering, is one of two things. If you’re in an informational/exploratory interview, you want to be as specific as possible about what kind of position (or at least what kind of career) you want. Here, an entry-level candidate can get away with “I want a position where I can put in the work and learn the skills to become a successful sales/marketing/pr/basket-weaving/marine biology professional (please, choose one that’s true for you.) More experienced candidates need to be even more specific – talk about how you want your next job to be different from your current/last one, what specific skills you want to utilize and/or develop, what you want to DO every day.

If you’re interviewing for a specific position, you’ve done your homework and are applying for appropriate jobs, there’s only one possible anwer to this question (hint: it will sound an awful lot like the job description.)

As an HR guy/recruiter, my job is to make sure that the best possible candidates for a position are presented to the hiring manager. If you can articulate what you WANT to do, it really helps me determine whether that’s you. The jobs I recruit for are hard jobs. If you don’t really want to be doing the job, you won’t last in it. And then in 6 months when you quit or get fired, it’s my fault for recommending you.

I don’t care for things being my fault. So for both of our sakes, know what you want to do before you walk into my office for an interview.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.


15 thoughts on “The Single Most Important Interview Question

  1. A bit off target, but how do you handle an interview when the HR Director starts talking about another candidate that you used to work with that would be perfect for the role in question (and that they’ve already interviewed)? I was gracious about the situation but felt it awkward and inappropriate. I felt as if they were trying to get a better read on this person by my having worked directly with/for them.

    1. Karen – yikes! That’s a tough one. I think the only play in that situation would be to point out your own strengths without saying anyting bad about the other person. If there was a time when you led a group that person was in or if you were the star on a project where that person played a supporting role, this is the time to bring that up. “Oh, yeah. Sally’s great. When I was spearheading the project team that did xyz, Sally was a great help.”

      1. Yes – I did something similar to what you mentioned. I would never talk negatively about a former co-worker or manager, no matter the situation. I’ve been interviewing for about a year now and think some HR personnel and hiring managers need a refresher course on what’s appropriate to discuss. Luckily, I’ve had a few interviews recently with those that ask great questions, actually know about the job in question, and have taken some time to look at my background and goals. Thanks for your response.

  2. What’s great about going on a multitude of interviews and constantly being confronted with the question “what do you want to do” is it makes the job search more enjoyable for you because then you are able to interview the employer as much as they are interviewing you. Although the “what am I doing in life” question inevitably feels overwhelming and daunting at times, it really pays off in the end.

    1. It should TOTALLY be a two-way conversation. You and your prospective employer are interviewing each other. And remember, your answer to the question doesn’t have to be the same in every interview. Like your resume and cover letter, it should be customized for the job at hand.

  3. Re: HR Director’s job is to “make sure that the best possible candidates for a position are presented to the hiring manager.”

    Excuse me, HR is in business to present only the obvious for further consideration.

    Despite lip service, recruiting intermediaries (especially HR generalists and ATS) aren’t paying attention to evaluating comparable experience and transferable skills. If that’s our pitch then we have to make it to a direct contact hiring manager, and not get procedurally routed to HR, which is a crowd control mechanism where you’re practically dead on arrival. HR is a great place to go if you don’t want to get anywhere and enjoy being left in the dark.

    1. Bob – I’m truly sorry that you’ve had the experiences which lead you to this conclusion. I can only speak for myself and my own experiences, and can tell you that from that perspective I see a very different picture from the one you paint. In HR, as in any profession, there is a range of competence and professionalism, and there are people who give the field a bad name. I only hope that your experiences in the future are an improvement over those you’ve already had.

      In my line of work, purposely circumventing HR isn’t usually a productive move – we are not only the gate-keepers, but also trusted advisors. And most who bypass me are send right back to me by the hiring manager.

      1. Dave,

        No need to be sorry. Mine is not a conclusion but rather a POV, as is your reply.

        Once I had a friendly exchange with the HR EVP from another major media company. In a moment of candor she admitted that most jobs are found through networking (of the polite and professional type). Best to communicate with operation heads, she said. HR isn’t the place to begin prospects for quality networking.

        Granted, those in your profession, and especially at well-known firms, are flooded with resumes. You have a tough job. Reality check is that going through the HR channel is a win-lose system, and most of the applicants come out on the losing end. Like they say in Las Vegas, that’s making your point the hard way.

        Business experience has taught me that there’s more than one way of doing everything. One can cover the HR base but for goodness sake, don’t stop there! Funny how employers expect us to be dynamic when performing in their interests, but docile when acting in our own interests. I haven’t been able to reconcile that paradox.

        What’s been left unsaid about going through the HR channel is that this limits us only to visible jobs. There are the invisible and unexpected jobs, plus interim assignments, that are being formed in the minds of the real hiring managers, that haven’t made their way to resume central. Yet another reason for, shall we say, going the extra mile.

        1. You make some interesting points. You’re absolutely right that most applicants who come through HR come out on the losing side (not getting the job.) But that’s a universal truth, having nothing to do with the application method. Most people who apply through networking or going around HR come out on the losing end too, don’t they?

          I want to address your point about going through HR limiting applicants to only “visible jobs.” In my world this is far from true. All staff jobs, visible or otherwise, come through my team. I have a constant pipeline of talent for a variety of job types that are always a phone call away. This is who I go to first when a new job comes up, before it’s posted. How did I come to know this collection of talent? Most likely I interviewed them for another position or in an informational setting, or I have worked with them before. Most people in my industry have a similar network of “go-to” talent, and often I find that mine has the same people in it as the hiring manager’s that I’m working with.

          I’m certainly not saying that HR people are the only people worth knowing – far from the case. I’m just saying that we’re as worth knowing as anyone else.

          1. Dave – Thanks for your willingness to engage in dialog.

            It’s good news to learn that “in your world” you have a pipeline to a variety of jobs that are a phone call away, and you can talent scout them before they’re posted. Then it does make some sense to tell you what we want to do, as you blogged.

            On the other hand there is a body of comment from assorted realists, including your peer group, that nobody cares what “we” want to do. Hiring is based on what the company needs and what problems need to be addressed. All too often this is decided upon by strict adherence to functional qualifications detailed in formal job descriptions written to an ideal. Come to think of it, when does a job description ever reveal the problems and struggles at hand?

            That brings us back to the shortcomings of the application method because HR is programmed to make hair trigger decisions to eliminate people. Also known as the famous 10-second resume glimpse. HR’s value is in reducing the applicant pool to a manageable few; the few with the most obvious qualities in sync with formal job descriptions. Making a case for comparable experience and transferable skills doesn’t get much attention from first level resume screeners.

            Big difference between an empowered Director of Talent Acquisition and HR bureaucracy that’s overwhelmed with resumes. You are worth knowing, provided we can get visible to you. You don’t address how diligent HR works to keep people at a distance, stay anonymous, and restrict human contact. I’ve gone through channels and tried to follow up with HR only to be told that HR doesn’t take outside calls. Either that or you get the anthem. Thank you for your interest in our company but we’ve found someone that better meets our needs. Non-informative and brutal! If you build these walls, don’t blame us for attempting to maneuver around HR.

            You say, “Most people who apply through networking or going around HR come out on the losing end, too, don’t they?”

            Maybe so, but there’s a qualitative difference. Through channels is passive. Some of us would rather lose by being aggressive. Let’s imagine I worked for company X and they expected an outcome, like a sale. If a higher up checked with me and I said, I submitted a presentation to no one in particular, and I’m waiting for them to call me. If that’s the approach I take and limit myself to, then I should be fired.

            We know executive time is in short supply, thus the need to delegate. But try to keep in mind that our time is precious, too. I’ve supported sales and marketing all my professional life. Lesson #1 is identify and get to the buyer with purchasing authority. And towards that end, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

  4. DO NOT answer ” perfectism ” ” working too hard ” as weakness. Interviewers are bored with hearing this kind of answer from many people. Plus, if it were the job seeker’s weakness, the job seeker would be a successful person

    Actually, this question is ” let you confess your gap to their requirements “

  5. I have just come across your blog post and it is really fantastic. I graduate in May and am absolutely terrified about the interview process and this post has been extremely useful in preparing myself for those dreaded questions I could be asked. So, thank you very much!

  6. Hi, great post. Lots of questions to think about before an interview including ‘why do you want to work for us?’ – often a good answer to this question can make a candidate stand out from the competition!

    I have recently written something similar to this – after speaking to various employers I compiled a complete guide to preparing for a job interview based on employer feedback and the piece is very in-depth :

    Might be worth a look for anyone job searching – hope it helps.

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