“What’s the hardest problem you’ve ever had to solve?” This is an interview question that I use quite often. Unless you’ve interviewed with me before (or you’ve read this blog entry before coming to interview with me) chances are it’s going to catch you off guard.

In technology, that question boils down to troubleshooting process and conflict resolution. However, I don’t just ask that question of technology professionals. I ask that of my office administrator, my accounting employees, I’d ask it of my cleaning staff if I had to hire any.

The reason I ask isn’t because I’m trying to stump someone, although that is most often what happens. A quote attributed to Walt Disney remarks upon this as, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” I ask the question because I believe that we are defined by how we overcome the challenges that we face.

The question is a lead in to finding out how a candidate deals with stress, both in the context of having to come up with an answer to this question and in the context of the actual answer itself. Telling me something small means that the employee has either never been challenged or has shied away from challenge. Telling me that they’ve never met a problem they couldn’t solve tells me that they didn’t put a lot of thought into my question and take an avoidance stance when faced with difficulty. Telling me about a large problem that they thought through, maybe got outside help for, and struggled through – that tells me they learned. But it’s not always the best answer.

I’m not only looking at the answer to the question, I’m looking at how the candidate reacts to the question itself, to the situation, and, ultimately, their mannerisms and processes. I’m looking at who they are for the duration of the answer they provide, including the time it takes to get there. Taking a short time for a prepared answer is not necessarily going to gain any ground. This is the moment where you, as a candidate, are being read.

There are many good answers that I’ve heard over the years, but moreso there are many good methods of answering that I have seen. I have also seen people fall back on the answers of “nothing that I can recall” or “I’m good enough that problems face me, I don’t face them” and those are the people that did not advance to the next round of interviews. From my experience, those are the people in life that don’t advance to the next round of “drive.”

So, take some time today, think about it, and maybe learn a little about yourself – What’s the hardest problem you’ve ever had to solve?

Posted in Interviewing.

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