Yes, Virginia. There are only three interview questions. It was true when I first wrote about them in this publication in April 2011. And it’s still true. What’s changed is the order in which you should ask them and what you should look for in answers.

The questions are:

  1. Will you love the job? (Motivation)
  2. Can you do the job? (Strengths)
  3. Can we tolerate working with you? (Fit)

Here’s what’s changed:

  • The order of asking the questions is different. Lead with motivation.
  • You need to expand your definition of strengths. Add in experience.
  • The importance of fit is even more important – especially how people direct or influence others.

Lead with a question about motivation

Asking “Why would you want this job?” gets at how people balance doing good for others, doing things they’re good at, and doing good for themselves. You’ll understand it from their very first words.

  • If they talk about the impact and effect they could have on others, their bias is most likely to do good for others.
  • If they talk about how the job could allow them to leverage their strengths, their bias is most likely to do things they are good at.
  • If they talk about how the job could fit with their own goals or progresses them towards those goals, their bias is most likely to do things that are good for them.

While the world generally needs more other focused leaders, this may not be true for your particular situation. The strongest leaders and strongest organizations over time will, indeed be other-focused. They think outside-in, starting with the good they can do for others. They are the leaders and organizations people will want to work for over time, will want to learn from, and will want to help.

The reason to ask this question first is to take out the order bias. Every question you ask and every answer they give influences what follows. You want the answer to this question to be clean. Hence the placement.

Expand definition of strengths to include experience

Gallup suggests that a strength is a combination of talent, skill, and knowledge.

  • Talent: Innate, naturally occurring preferences.
  • Knowledge: Acquired through learning.
  • Skills: Acquired through practice.

While scientific and artistic leaders can build strengths on their own for the most part to influence and impact knowledge and feelings, interpersonal leaders’ essential ability to interconnect to influence and impact actions can be built only by doing it. Individual strengths are mostly individual gifts sharpened by individual activities while interpersonal strengths require … wait for it … interpersonal experience – which can be developed only by actual interpersonal experience.

Thus, for interpersonal leaders, add Experience to Talent, Knowledge and Skills.

Probe how people influence others in evaluating fit

40% of new leaders fail their first 18 months, either getting fired, forced out or quitting. They fail because of poor fit, poor delivery, or poor ability to adjust to changes down the road.

Fit is the overlap or proximity of their personal preferences around behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and environment with those aspects of the organization’s culture. While it’s hard to get a real read on many of these, you can gauge their attitude to influencing others.

One fundamental difference is between managing and leading. In brief, managers direct while leaders influence and try to bring out others’ self-confidence. Know which you’re looking for and probe to find that attitude, looking for examples of how they delegated to others, accepted accountability themselves, and held others to account. Dig for examples of when others complied with what leaders directed, contributed to shared direction or committed to meaningful and rewarding shared purposes.

The Working Girl Follow Up Question

The best ever follow-up question remains the Working Girl Question, “How did you come up with the idea?” 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 and can tell you how they came up with the idea, insight or approach. Those are the ones you want to be and the ones you want to hire.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #679) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.