The most important job interview question to ask candidates

How people answer this question tells you more than you may realise.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

I’m not a recruitment professional, yet it’s always been part of my job. As a startup CEO, hiring the right people is critical to our success.

Avertro is just over a year old now. In that time, I’ve reviewed more than a thousand LinkedIn profiles and CVs, and interviewed close to a hundred people for our open roles. In my 20-year cybersecurity career, that number is much higher.

The Question

There are a few questions candidates are advised to be prepared for, and the most important question is one of those. What’s surprised me over the years is how often people cannot answer it. They don’t just answer it badly. In many cases, they simply don’t have an answer.

“What do you know about us?”

A candidate’s answer to this can tell the interviewer many of the key things one needs to know about the kind of team member they will be.

Preparedness

Do the homework. Look at the company website. Browse the company’s social media accounts and updates. Use a search engine to see what else comes up.

Doing the bare minimum should take about 30 minutes. It’s easy to do. In many cases, the company’s website will have most of the information required for the interview. Speaking from experience, just doing this will put a person in the top 25% of shortlisted candidates.

Attention to detail

It’s always interesting to see how in-depth of an answer a candidate provides. If they’ve taken the time to get behind the core messages on the front of the website, it speaks volumes.

Getting into the detail shows that they are curious, and that they care enough about the company they are hoping to work for to get a more complete story.

Resourcefulness

Sometimes, a candidate will bring up an obscure point that really shows they have done their research. This can come from a public source that is not easily found (e.g. not linked from the website, or not listed on the first few pages of search engine results), or by speaking to someone familiar with the company.

Being able to do this shows they are able to use sources of information that are not typical, which makes for a more valuable team member. It bodes well for all the tasks requiring more than a basic “Google search”.

Conscientiousness

The best answers to this question are typically well-structured, have a logical beginning, middle, and end, sound natural yet prepared, and conclude with confidence because they know they nailed the answer.

Being able to do this suggests that the candidate wants to do their job to the best of their ability, are thorough, and will always do their best to get the desired outcome they committed to. In essence, they take pride in doing their job well.

Interest

In most endeavours, genuine passion and interest more than compensate for a lack of knowledge or experience. We should give people extra credit when they show an elevated amount of curiosity for the role they could be doing.

The tone, enthusiasm, and depth with which they respond to the question suggest more about their real reasons for wanting the role than anything else they will say during the interview.

Bonus question

I usually follow with:

“Why cybersecurity?”

Of course, substitute “cybersecurity” with your relevant industry. The answer here should tell the interviewer if they truly want to be in the industry, or whether they simply think “it’s a good area to be in” or they are “in it for the money”.

These other reasons are valid. But it’s better to know up front instead of finding out later, especially if you are a startup and want people to be aligned with the mission you are on, and the vision for the company.

Caveat

I’m aware that candidates should not be judged purely on the strength (or lack thereof) of their answer to one question. We want to hire the complete person, not a single response.

All I’m saying is that in the world of startups, we like to optimise for efficiency. If I had to give a score for “insights per question”, this question would be at the top of that leaderboard.

Extra Credit

If you are a candidate and about to interview with me for a role, mention this article. For extra kudos, say it’s because I told you to: it will help prove you really did your homework :)

Ian Yip is the CEO of Avertro, a venture-backed cybersecurity software company. Avertro CyberHQ is the strategic cybersecurity headquarters that helps leaders manage the business of cyber, explain cybersecurity to executives, forecast outcomes, right-size spend, and validate strategy so leaders can optimise the use of external assistance and prove they are doing cyber right.

Cyber Risk. Cybersecurity. Business. Tech. Entrepreneur. CEO at Avertro. Former CTO at McAfee Asia Pacific.