The Most Important Interview Question

“What do you consider to be the most important accomplishment in your career to date?”

That’s it.  It’s not that complicated on the surface.

This question has been around for years.  The version of the question using the phrase, “greatest accomplishment” is one of the most commonly discussed interview questions which is why it is so surprising to me when I ask this question during an interview and the candidate seems surprised.

What makes this the most important question for both hiring managers and candidates?

It is a behavioral interview question

Why this matters to hiring managers

The typical interview can feel like a first date.  You are getting to know the person, finding out mutual interests, and seeing if there is a reason to continue the conversation.  These types of interviews primarily assess if the interviewer likes the candidate and helps them evaluate if they’re the “type of person” that fits in the organization.  

This approach to interviewing carries a massive risk of implicit bias and increases the chances that over time you will decrease all forms of diversity within your team.

The most effective managers prefer behavioral interviews. These interviews use a consistent set of questions which focus on the actions a candidate has taken and what they’ve accomplished.  Behavioral interviews uncover actual results.   

Why this matters to candidates

In order to answer the question, “What do you consider to be the most important accomplishment in your career to date?” you have to be able to articulate:

  • The demonstrable results you’ve produced
  • How you specifically contributed to these results (most things are team efforts, but what was your contribution?)
  • The context of the work you’ve done in the past to someone who may not be a subject matter expert
  • What types of accomplishments you value

It is an iceberg question…a question that looks simple on the surface but has significant depth below

Why this matters to hiring managers

This question is the opener in a longer conversation. It will allow you to discover additional questions to ask or areas to explore. You will likely hear something in the candidate’s answer that leads to another set of questions you didn’t initially anticipate.

If you want to learn something unexpected about the candidate, this question helps with that.

Why this matters to candidates

If you get this question in an interview, expect that it is the beginning of a dialog.  This is not a fact-based trivia question for which there is one right answer.  This is a question about your experience.  What makes it an interesting question is that the interviewer cannot predict how you will answer.  

If you get this question without additional follow-up questions, that tells you something about your interviewer. It can also help you evaluate if you’d like to work for this person or at this company.

What you should expect is to have follow-up questions based on your initial answer.  These allow the interviewer to dig into specifics of your work history. It also gives them ample opportunity to challenge the depth of your experience.

It demonstrates the candidate is able to reflect on the past and articulate the value of their work

Why this matters to hiring managers

As an interviewer, a candidate’s ability or inability to answer this question tells me a lot about how they think about their own work.  What do they value?  Are they proud of the same results their organization would be proud of?  Are they internally or externally motivated? Did they care just about the results, or did they also care about the process used to achieve those results? etc.

If someone is very early in their career, I’m OK if they don’t have a great answer, because this is a question that requires experience.  However, if someone is more than 5 years into their career should be able to articulate which accomplishments they find most important.

Why this matters to candidates

This question gives you a prime opportunity to tell your story. This single question lets you demonstrate to the person interviewing you that:

  • You deliver results
  • You help the people around you deliver results
  • You care about the goals the company sets for you
  • You go above and beyond in achieving those goals
  • You can look back on what you’ve done before and can think of ways you could do it better in the future

The most impactful answers I’ve seen to this question hit everything in the list above, but they always include that last bullet about acknowledging what didn’t work (in the middle of this story of success) and what you’ve learned from it.

Demonstrating that you are successful and you have the self-awareness and confidence to be open about ways in which you aren’t perfect sends a powerful message to a hiring manager. It demonstrates that you will work to improve on your own, and that you likely will be responsive to feedback, which is a critical attribute all managers look for.

Conclusion

When this question is asked skillfully and answered skillfully, it provides a prime opportunity for both the hiring manager and the candidate to evaluate if the candidate is a good fit for the role and the organization.

As the hiring manager asks follow-up questions they can probe the experience of the candidate while thinking of the critical skills necessary for the open role. This question (and the follow-on questions) give a great opportunity for the hiring manager to “picture the person doing the job”. If the manager can walk out of the interview with a picture of how the candidate will do the job and fit in with the team, that gives them confidence that this candidate would make a good hire.

For the candidate, this question provides a platform to show off the best of what you can do. You can demonstrate results, critical thinking skills, the ability to learn from adversity, and so much more.

And, as you listen to the follow-on questions that the hiring manager asks, you can get a sense of what that manager and that organization values in an associate. If you listen carefully, you can learn what matters to them, and that helps you decide if this would be a good fit for you.

“What do you consider to be the most important accomplishment in your career to date?”

Expect this question. Plan for this question.

It is a small question with a big impact.