From the Desk of Brad Smart: The Most Revealing Hiring Question

At Topgrading, Inc. our main business is interviewing — interviewing candidates for hire or promotion to senior jobs, where the costs of bad hires/promotions are what you know to be HUGE! One bad mis-hire of a CFO or COO in a small company can push it to bankruptcy.

As a Ph.D. Psychologist, author of seven books on hiring, and interviewer of over 6,000 candidates for executive jobs, I have developed and tested every imaginable interview question.

To begin, many reading this know that the Topgrading hiring method we teach includes a chronological interview with 10 basic questions about every job, plus more:

  • The Topgrading Truth Motivator assures HONEST responses to interview questions,
  • Candidate-arranged reference calls with bosses achieves the best imaginable verification of what candidates tell you.

Obviously, there are hundreds of questions, right? But what is not obvious is what happens at the beginning of a Topgrading Interview. After building rapport, interviewees are told, “As you’ve learned, the Topgrading interview will touch briefly on your education years and then delve into your full career. We’ll spend the most time on your recent career, and of course there will be breaks.”

Here comes the most revealing question:

To start, tell me briefly about the people who were most influential up until your high school graduation. They may be parents, teachers, coaches or anyone who made you who you are today in terms of your personality, values, and career interests.

What makes this understandable to candidates are:

  • “briefly” (no big emphasis)
  • “… who you are today in terms of … career interests (ie., only share what is relevant to your career.)

“Huh?” you say – “are the first 18 years that important?” Yes. I’ve written 6,500 reports sent to CEOs and HR, recommending they hire or promote the person … or not … with my reputation at state. In 100% of my reports my first paragraph (after recommendations) would spell out how early influences are very evident today and persist in the person’s behavior. The question is that important.

You say, “Why?” Fair question, and to be frank, other Topgrading professionals say they don’t “get” the full significance I do, because of my doctoral training. Over the years, only about 25% of the client managers we’ve trained say they get a LOT from the responses to that question.

“Again, why is it so important?” For several reasons. To begin, we are all “hard-wired” in our childhood and early teens, in the sense of deeply, deeply believing how much people can be trusted. People who are abused “way down deep” fear that people will hurt them … that fear lurks in their subconscious. Their view of the world is that people generally cannot be trusted. Decades later those people EXPECT bad things to happen, so they tend to have lousy relationships with bosses, are not very cooperative with peers, take criticism personally, and are overly controlling as managers.

People can change, and when they overcome a negative upbringing you’ll know it. But don’t think that a workshop on Emotional Intelligence will improve someone who has not had the self-awareness and desire to improve.

People who generally had warm, supportive, empowering parents/teachers/coaches go through life with a more optimistic view of people in general. Since people are generally trustworthy, they:

  • Take direction without a chip on their shoulder,
  • Are co-operative, and
  • As managers inspire and show appreciation of their team.

When you ask the question, follow up by asking for specifics. But don’t pry. Maintain a positive relationship with your candidate. Throughout the interview ask yourself, while discussing each job, “How did their upbringing impact their performance in the job, how much they liked or disliked it, their relationships, and their next job change.” As you finally arrive at your hire/no hire decisions, pause to ask yourself, “To what extent did their upbringing impact their career success?” By using “the question” you’ll more frequently see the profound impact of their childhood.

Dr. Brad Smart is Founder and CEO of Topgrading, Inc. Topgrading is dedicated to helping companies of all sizes maximize the hiring of high performers. Topgrading assesses candidates for senior positions (where the costs of mis-hires are high) and trains all managers to create teams of almost all high performers.

Brad has seven published books on hiring; the most recent three (the first, second, and third editions of Topgrading) were all best sellers. Brad, and President Chris Mursau’s new book, Foolproof Hiring (Forbes Books), is available for purchase by clicking here. After just six weeks, Foolproof Hiring, has achieved Amazon Best Seller status.

Brad can be reached at

To learn more, download our free eGuide or attend our next Topgrading Webinar. Our webinar explains the most effective recruitment methods, how to immediately identify the most honest, high performing applicants, and how to (finally!) verify what candidates tell you (since reference calls are usually worthless).

Contact us to learn more.

Improve your hiring success with Topgrading. Our proven hiring process will transform your selection methodology so that you get better hiring results across all industries, including hiring HR professionals.  Our leadership and candidate assessment tools will help you assess, hire, retain, and grow outstanding team members. Contact us to learn more!

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