Behavioral interviews are useful…to a point. It’s essential to separate out people with real performance strengths from those who know how to interview. There are a lot of people who can figure out how things happened in retrospect. There’s a smaller subset of people that can make things happen in the moment. Those are the ones you want to hire.

Go beyond the initial behavioral examples someone gives you in an interview to probe idea ownership. In a variation of the five levels of why, I look at levels of “How did you come up with the idea?”

P&G Brand Manager in the right place at the right time

The resume of a Procter & Gamble brand manager in Austria said he had grown his brand +40% in two years. Great stuff.

“How did you do that?”

“We had a new advertising campaign that repositioned the product.”

“Tell me about the advertising.” [He did.]

“How did you come up with the idea?”

“It wasn’t me. It was the agency.”

“OK tell me about how you led the agency.”

“It wasn’t me. It was the global agency.”

“OK then, what was your contribution to growing the brand?”

“We customized the advertising for our market.”

“Tell me about that.”

“It wasn’t me. It was the regional agency.” [Which he did not manage.]

“OK then, what was your contribution?”

“We developed the media plan.”

By now you know how this story ends. The media plan was developed by the media agency – which he also did not manage. The repeating theme in this interview was “It wasn’t me.” He was there when the brand grew +40%. But he was unable to point out anything he initiated on his own to drive that growth.

Marketing Director candidate missing critical strength

An executive recruiter recommended a candidate for a marketing director job. I asked him one question: “Give me an example when you came up with an insight and turned it into a business success.” I was explicit about the key pieces being 1) coming up with an insight, 2) applying that to strategic thinking and planning, and 3) implementing the plan.

The candidate described an insight. I asked him how he came up with it.

“Focus groups.”

“Great. Which particular focus group?”

“I’m not sure I remember exactly.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’m looking for the spark of inspiration, the moment when someone in the room said something that led to your insight.”

He couldn’t answer. And he couldn’t come up with another example of when he had gotten an insight.

The Working Girl Question

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got to be wondering how I came up with this idea. I stole it from Kevin Wade’s “Working Girl” movie.

In the movie, Tess McGill and Katherine Parker were both trying to convince Oren Trask that they had come up with the idea for him to buy a media company, Metro. After McGill explained the various connections that to her insight, Trask turned to Parker and said,

“Well, Miss Parker…let me ask you a question. How did you come up with the idea for Trask to buy up Metro?”

Parker: “How did I, uh…? Well, let’s see, the, um…”

Trask: “The impulse. What led you to put the two together?”

Parker: “Well, you know, I would have to check my files. I can’t recall exactly the, um…

Trask: “Oh, generally. It’s not as if it was in the mainstream.”

Parker: “You know, it would have to be the, um…Jack…help me out here….”

(Cut and paste this link if you want to watch the scene. Can’t do a direct link from Forbes:


There are only three interview questions getting at motivation, strengths, fit. First ask, “Why would you want this job?” Then, dig into behavioral examples of strengths by asking people how they came up with the idea, insight, approach or the like, all the while keeping cultural fit in the back of your mind.