The number 1 question to ask in any job interview

You’re a part of the Ladders community, so you already know the basics of interviewing – dress the part, avoid clichés, and don’t just recite your resume. Because you’re a pro, you might also already know how important it is to ask questions in any job interview.

It’s difficult enough to make an impression in a remote setting. Meeting your interviewer’s final ask of, “So, do you have any questions for me?” with a blank stare, or else a brusque “I think I have all I need!” can be the kiss of death.

Why ask questions?

According to Kasia Makie, Senior Consultant at Change Recruitment Group, being able to ask intelligent questions at the end of the interview is “the last impression that you will leave before walking out the door or hanging up the phone.”

You don’t want to relinquish that power by asking something off-topic, obvious, or clearly scripted. Interviewers know when your interest is genuine, and will resent a candidate who takes up their time needlessly.

At the same time, not having anything to ask about or follow up with can easily be interpreted as having a lack of interest in the company, or not being thoroughly prepared.

You don’t want to relinquish that power by asking something off-topic, obvious, or clearly scripted. Interviewers know when your interest is genuine, and will resent a candidate who takes up their time needlessly. At the same time, not having anything to ask about or follow up with can easily be interpreted as having a lack of interest in the company, or not being thoroughly prepared. 

The key is to ask tailored questions to the company and the role that you’re applying for. Following up on top priorities that they mention during the interview itself, asking about any challenges your predecessor may have faced, and inquiring about opportunities for professional development are all good options to spark some end-of-interview discussion. However, there is one question that interviewers describe as the strongest you can ask. 

What’s the number 1 question to ask?

At the end of an interview, ask your interviewer if they could describe someone who’s been successful at their company, and what makes them that way. At a large company, or for a job that’s part of a very specific team, you may want to narrow it down more closely to the role that you’re interviewing for.

One way to do that is to ask, “Thinking back on who you’ve worked with previously in this role, could you describe what makes someone not just good at it, but really great?”

Why?

The answer to this question is telling in any number of ways. Job interviews are a two-way street – or they’re supposed to be. If you’re just trying to pitch yourself as an employee without taking the time to find out if you can actually do your best work there, then you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity. 

The way that someone describes a successful employee can tell you everything you need to know about the corporate culture, as well as what you can expect your work-life balance to be. It’s hard to ask, “will I be expected to come in on weekends?” without seeming like you’re not motivated enough. But if you hear that a successful employee is always burning the midnight oil, or that they’re the first person in and last to leave, then it can be a red flag that you’ll also be expected to work long or unusual hours in order to be seen as successful there.

Likewise, you want to know if the company is looking for an innovator, or someone who plays by the book. You can (and should!) ask leadership and growth opportunities, but often people hesitate to ask in a first meeting.

The Harvard Kennedy School finds that women especially are forced to navigate the “social backlash” of being seen as too pushy in an interview or negotiation, and so will wait to ask about leadership roles. The success question is a simple workaround to find out whether or not a company’s dream candidate is someone interested in bringing in new ideas, or if they’re looking for the ultimate team player. 

Defining success

Defining success is usually more personal than it seems. It can mean someone who’s always in on time and never needs reminders, or it can look like the one who came up with a new system, plan, or great idea that tripled everyone’s productivity.

It can be someone whose deep connections brought in valuable new business, or someone who has been there the longest, and knows the ropes the best. You won’t know what’s valued at a company until you ask how they define being successful there.

Whatever you do, prepare

Remember, if you’re stressed about an upcoming job interview, the most important thing you can do is to take some extra time to prepare. According to CNBC contributor and management author Suzy Welch, the number one question that she asks her interviewees is not about their previous experience, qualifications, or education, but instead: “what did you do to prepare for this interview?” 

So take some time, look into the company’s history, the job description, as well as their clients and connections. And, most importantly, think about what questions you’ll ask at the end of the interview. Don’t miss out on a chance to leave a strong last impression. 

Asking the hiring manager about a successful employee at their company, or in the role that you’re interviewing for, can make you seem serious about the position, and willing to go the extra mile to be a great, and not just good, at a job. Even more importantly, it will help you understand if the position will be a good fit for YOU. You deserve a role that matches your own personal vision of success – the only way to know if your definition is the same as theirs is by asking.