Are these the 3 most important interview questions?

by Derek Winter


Everyone has made hiring mistakes. It’s not an easy task and yet it is critical to the success of any team, department or organisation, large or small. The impact of a ‘wrong recruit’ can be devastating and is certainly more costly and painful to correct than it is to get right in the first place.

I have long held to the advice that says hire slow and fire fast, but recently came across the following quote from Warren Buffett which has helped crystalise for me what is most important in any recruitment activity - and it’s not talent!

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”  (The Tao of Warren Buffett)

In chasing down more details about this quote I came across a very succinct appraisal as to why a candidate should possess these 3 qualities from Scott Olson of Getty Images:

Low integrity, high energy and high intelligence and you have a smart, fast-moving thief;

Low energy, high intelligence and integrity and you have a shopkeeper, not an engine of growth

Low intelligence, high energy and integrity and you have strong functionary, but not a great problem solver or visionary.

I doubt that I’ll have many arguments so far, it’s common sense stuff. However, when it comes down to candidates in an interview process, we’re still left with evaluating these traits. Assessing people for technical skill or domain specific knowledge is straightforward. Even going down the track of personality profiles is a well trodden path these days and provides insights, but how do you determine integrity and general intellectual capabilities in the relatively short period of time that you get to spend with job candidates?

A recent interview with Penny Herscher, the chief executive of business analytics firm FirstRain gives some outstanding suggestions. 

To test for integrity she explores why people switched jobs. Were they running from something or to something? Do they trash their previous manager or previous companies? She is looking for people that respect the places they have worked and people they have worked for. No company is perfect, and it’s a sign of integrity whether the candidate can be fair and reasonable about their past.

As one of the tests for IQ (beyond specific tests) she asks for the ‘short version’ of their career path first. Many people fail this because they will end up talking for 10 or 15 minutes, They miss the ‘short’ part of the request entirely. I’m least convinced by this one, however people’s ability to listen well, answer clearly and succinctly (and validate they understand the question first if they’re not sure) is definitely revealing.

Lastly, a sense of someone’s energy is about how they behave in the room. Are they engaged? Do they lean in to the conversation? What is the pace of the discussion? How do they talk about their personal activities and interests? These are all indications of their energy levels. This is also worth exploring through different types of exposure to people throughout the interview process. Don’t only meet them in a formal interview room, Q & A style. Meet them over coffee for a discussion. Have a relevant portion of the team meet them over lunch and get their sense of the energy.

The essential point is that Integrity, IQ and Energy can’t be taught or trained and there are danger signs of they don’t exist. A lack of integrity will inevitably lead to a lack of trust. When someone is untrustworthy, that impacts every aspect of his or her life, and work is a major one. Intelligence can be easy to measure, but what’s really needed is very specific to the type of role you are filling and the appropriate person needed for that role. An exceptional software engineer might have the social skills of a pre-schooler, but that may be OK. Energy doesn’t just equate to physical endurance. Enthusiasm for life and mental energy are significant contributors to success.

Following these guidelines is a good way to attain the Jim Collins “Good to Great” principal of  "First Who, Then What" and get the right people on the bus.