The Question that Starbucks' former HR Chief asks each Candidate that is a greater predictor of success


When interviewing, it may be easy to ask a candidate about their flaws and stumbles but hard to get an honest answer.

Sometimes our prompt is literally, "what's your greatest weakness?" Other times it's, "why were you let go from your last job?"

If you're interviewing with Traci Wilk, the former HR chief at Starbucks, there's a good chance she'll encourage you to "tell me about the most challenging work experience that you had and what you learned from it."

At Specialized Staffing, we always ask, “If we called your last supervisor or report to, what would they say about you?”  This allows a candidate to assess their own performance, not only from their own perspective, but from that of their supervisor. 

It’s the hope that this out-of-body thought exercise will force a candidate to see their strengths and flaws as it added to or subtracted from the goals of the department or company as a whole.

Wilk recently told Business Insider that, when she asks candidates to share their most challenging work experiences, she's not exactly trying to find out their tendency to miss deadlines or talk back to their boss.

Instead, she's looking for evidence of a "growth mindset." 

Wilk said that if the candidate naturally talks about "things that they would have done differently," that's a good sign because it shows a "high degree of self-awareness." She especially wants to see the candidate share some "reflection or a postmortem that they may have done after the situation, how they've taken that and applied it into future situations."

In fact, Wilk added, she's generally more interested in a candidate's ability to learn than in their résumé. "Is this someone that's going to come into the organization certainly with best practices, but also willing to be flexible, willing to be innovative? That's really the main thing that I'm assessing when I'm meeting with a candidate."

At Specialized Staffing, when a candidate expounds on the answer, giving an example of a success from failure or a failure that lead to a learning opportunity, we know we have someone solid that can add value to clients.  An opportunity to simply recognize their own role in a failure shows their willingness to admit their own accountability – a precursor to having a true “growth mindset”.

The term "growth mindset" was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that your talents can be developed. (The opposite is a "fixed mindset," which refers to the belief that your talents are innate and can't change much.) Dweck's research suggests that people with a growth mindset tend to be more successful.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Bloomberg that Dweck's book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," inspired him to emphasize the importance of a growth mindset among his employees. Microsoft's chief people officer, Kathleen Hogan, told Geekwire that Microsoft employees weren't supposed to prove they're the smartest people in the room, but they were instead supposed to "learn and bring out the best in people."

If you sense some hesitation in a candidate’s willingness to be honest, it may help to coach them a bit.  Say, if they're worried about being too candid about their screwups, they probably shouldn't be, according to Wilk.

"It really shows that this person is confident enough to be vulnerable. I'd much rather bring somebody into the organization that has taken risks and failed than [somebody who] has always taken the safe route," Wilk said.