There are a number of job interview styles, from a structured meeting with a list of questions, to a more relaxed setting with free-flowing conversation.
Either way, in most cases CEOs have at least one go-to interview question that they believe reveals everything they need to know about a candidate.
Some go for serious, thought-provoking questions. Others believe that culture-focused queries will let the potential employee open up.
We asked 28 Australian CEOs of their number one interview question that they ask job candidates, and asked them to explain why they use it.
Here’s what they had to say.
Tell me about a time you screwed up
The way I hire is on attitude, skills and knowledge. While they’re all important, the one I look out for is attitude — you can’t fake, make or develop that. You either have a great attitude and work ethic, or you don’t.
When you’re growing your team, it’s important to ensure that the right attitude is there. You need diversity in terms of skills and knowledge, but every member of your team has to be clear when it comes to the long-term goal and what you’re trying to achieve — that’s how you stay laser focused and keep driving a team forward. There has to be genuine passion.
— Trent Innes, MD of Xero, Australia
What kind of culture do you thrive in?
The reason this is key to our business is because we are very family oriented and we are very much about working as a team and we look for candidates who are seeking a supportive team environment where they will be nurtured. I also believe that it’s important to hire for culture and attitude fit rather than skills as skills can be learned, whereas attitude and culture fit are very difficult to change.
— Anna Thomas, chief operating officer at Stockdale & Leggo
What work do you enjoy the least?
Even though we all have work we dislike (I’m partial to admin end emails for example), most people can’t answer this question properly. I use it to see how self-aware a candidate is and if they can’t describe work they dislike I’ll dig deeper to ensure we aren’t missing something relevant to the role.
— Beau Bertoli, joint CEO at Prospa
What style of books do you read, and what’s your favourite book?
This is the number one question I always ask any potential Cohen Handler employee. I know that time is extremely valuable, and you can’t buy extra time in your life. This is why it’s important to know how people invest their personal time, and what they choose to read during their time off gives me a really good understanding of the candidate.
It doesn’t matter what genre they prefer to read because everyone will have their own personal preferences. However, it does give a good glimpse into their character and personality… will provide an indication of how they will fit into our team and culture.
— Ben Handler, CEO and co-founder of Cohen Handler
What is your “side hustle”?
With this question, we are essentially asking any prospective employees to discuss their passion projects outside of work. This both allows us to see if they have entrepreneurial drive and where their ambitions lie away from the office.
Some candidates can get a little nervous because they think it could be seen as a distraction from their job, but we actively encourage our employees to follow their personal ventures.
— Robin McGowan, co-founder of InStitchu
What is one product you love, why, and what’s the one thing you’d change about it?
This question is an old chestnut but incredibly effective as it helps surface genuine passion for product and reveals where the candidate’s focus lies and what they care about. Some folks dive into the visual aspects, some on user flow, some on pure functionality, some on high-level strategy or business models. These tendencies tell you something about how they think and operate, and whether these mental qualities will fit the role and the team as a whole.
— Dylan Baskind, CEO and co-founder of Qwilr
What did you achieve that you were most proud of in your last role?
This question shows a history and scale of success in their current and previous role. At GYG we’re committed to reinventing fast food with fresh Mexican food being served quickly to our customers with no compromise. This all starts from within by hiring candidates who demonstrate they can lead real change in the industry versus managing the status quo. It’s always a good sign when this is obvious in an interview!
— Mark Hawthorne, CEO of ANZ at Guzman y Gomez
What is 0.7 x 0.7?
For those comfortable with numbers it is as easy as 2 + 2. For those uncomfortable with numbers, it can throw a moment’s confusion. It’s not something used to decide between candidates, just to understand.
— Richard Knott, regional head of APAC of Celtra
Tell me why you really want to work here
While qualifications, experience and other business-specific questions are important… we build a culture where everybody wants to come to work and wants to work with their colleagues. So I always like to delve a little bit into their personalities.
What I’ve found is that candidates fall into two distinct groups: they either give a textbook answer that I could have Googled or will be totally candid and you can feel their authenticity.
If they’re in that second camp, it shows me that they really want to work here, that this isn’t just a job for them and that they’ll be a great culture fit.
— Sandra McLeod, CEO of Travelport Locomote
What have you been up to the last couple of years?
This question allows people to speak openly about themselves. As an opener it invites them to relax and speak more naturally. It gives us a very good insight early on as to whether the candidate is a cultural fit in our business.
— Anthony Halprin, co-founder and MD of Sense
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
What I like about this question is that it tells me more about the candidate’s energy and drive than any job-related question can. The best employees are ones that live and work with purpose — they are more motivated to learn and grow, have the confidence to try something new and the drive to keep going when things don’t go as planned.
— Dr Marcus Tan, CEO and medical director of HealthEngine
What would you need from us?
I like to ask all prospective hires what they would need from us (environment, support, team skills, tools) to deliver optimum results. This question reveals whether they have the forward thinking, planning and initiative in order to be able to thrive in the business. It also tells me whether the candidate is a good fit for the culture and work environment.
I don’t let the interviewee get away with preordained one-word answers to questions, either, we always try to dig deeper and get more explanation and rationale on why they answered that way. This ensures that the answers they are supplying are real and not practised, and access the thought processes they display while thinking on their feet.
— Nathan Ruff, co-founder and CEO Hoozu
If you could be or do anything, starting tomorrow, what would it be?
I’m very interested in knowing what type of person I’m dealing with and by understanding this question, I’m able to understand consistencies in the rest of their answers.
— Tony Wu, head of Growth at Weploy
What do you do outside of work?
For me, I have to assume that technically if a candidate is in front of me they can do the job. It then becomes much more important to me that they have activities that challenge and excite them outside of work. I think that makes for much more interesting people.
— Nazar Musa, CEO of Medical Channel
Tell me how your last role shaped the values you hold dearly and why those values led you to look at this role?
We’re conscious of making sure that the people we hire are the right cultural fit and hold the values we do. It’s much easier to bring people up to speed on the technical requirements of the job than change who they are as a person and what they believe.
— Darcy Naunton, founder of York Butter Factory
If you became a multi-millionaire overnight, what would you do with that money, or your life?
This dives deep into someone’s passion, and their character – where they put their money in probably tells about their priorities i.e., buying a house, car, etc. provide for family. As an employer we can use that in the future because we know their internal motivations, what they care about and what makes them happy in life. It’s important to see what they care about and see if it aligns with our values.
— Daniel Liang, CEO of Qnect
What are your main interests outside of the office?
Culture is our greatest asset and really should be for all businesses, especially startups. People must bring other interests into the office, it helps on so many levels. We actually spend quite a bit of time talking about these other interests.
— Ben Brophy, CEO and Co-founder of Upwire
What milestones do you celebrate? How and why?
When I’m interviewing I’m more interested in the person rather than their skills and experience, as someone else has already screened them first.
— Paul Marshall, CEO of RateCity
No questions are good questions
I actually don’t go into the interviews with a set list of questions. I think it’s counterproductive. I have always taken a more intuitive and flexible approach to it, and I think that’s because you want to avoid a stock answer from a candidate. Chances are, if you go in with a set list of questions, they will have rehearsed answers, answers they think you want to hear, and just feed them back to you.
There are themes I always try to work in, like finding out their recent successes, why they left their previous job, and so on, but by having a more flexible approach you tend to get much more interesting and insightful answers that really gives you an idea of whether the person will be a good fit for your business.
— Dr Ross Macdonald, CEO of Cynata Therapeutics
What’s the square root of 169?
I always ask what’s the square root of 169 or 13 squared. This style of question is great for two reasons. Firstly, it allows me to see if they are numerate, which is essential given my employees work with numbers all day. Secondly, I get to see how they handle pressure and if they will be able to function at a high level under stress.
— Yanir Yakutiel, founder and CEO of Sail Business Loans
Can you describe a time where you’ve had to be courageous and stick to your ideals in the workplace?
We align this question to our to our core value, which is have the courage to stick to our ideals, no matter what. The answers [to this question] give a lot of insight into how ethical and values driven the people we interview are.
— Gemma Lloyd, co-founders of Diverse City Careers
What incentivises you?
It is important to understand what drives your employees as these factors can be used to incentivise them during both the good and bad times. Some people are driven by money, some by holidays, and others have a more intrinsic motivation. Understanding your employees is crucial to ensuring how everyone in your team can better work towards a goal.
— Will Strange, founder and CEO of Sports Performance Tracking
How do you go about continuing to develop your own professional skills and knowledge?
More than ever it is important to be attracting people into your organisation that have a desire to continue learning. We want to hire employees who believe in continuous improvement and development. A really good way of doing this is to gauge whether the prospective employee pursues his or her own professional development independently (because they see it as important), or whether they depend on their employer to provide the development opportunities.
— Stephen Hampson, CEO of Powerhouse Ventures
Sell me this pen
Besides the usual running-through-the-resume style of questions, I like to throw one in that’s a bit left field. My go-to is the classic ‘sell me this pen’ challenge. Not only is it a great way to see how people think on their feet, but their ability to sell something, anything, is a vital skill no matter what the role is. Whether it’s selling an idea to a colleague or a product to a customer, the ability to win someone over to your way of thinking – to persuade someone to do something they weren’t initially going to do – is a skill I value highly in an employee.
— Arjun Singh, founder and director of ezyCollect
Tell me about the most challenging moment in your life and how you pulled, or are pulling, yourself out of it?
The reason I ask this is I want to see how much frustration that person has gone through and been able to tolerate, their methodology of innovating their way out of that situation, what they learned from that period of time about themselves, and the application of that lesson that now lives with them forever.
We’re looking for good character traits in our employees; do they have a victim mentality or do they hold themselves accountable and responsible for their own actions? How much resilience, self-awareness and mental toughness a person has can help show the level of leadership quality they also possess. But above all else we want people to positively bring others along with them to build and achieve huge milestones when everyone around us thinks it is impossible.
— Joel Macdonald, CEO of GetSwift
In researching our business, what is the one thing you would do differently if you were the CEO?
This allows the candidate to articulate what they know about our business and our sector, understand their ability to think strategically and gain an insight into their commercial thinking.
— Kelly Quirk, CEO of Harrier Human Capital
What are you really passionate about and enjoy doing that makes your heart sing? Why?
On paper, we’ve seen the candidate’s qualifications, work experience and have formed an opinion on whether they can professionally fill the duties. Personally, I’m equally as interested in candidates being passionate about something outside of work, whether it’s playing the guitar, fanatically supporting a sporting team or cooking.
— John Bush, co-founder of easyshare
Can you do a VLOOKUP in Excel?
It’s really random but tells us a lot about the candidate and their fit with our business. Knowing how to work with data is so crucial to succeeding in business today – it’s everywhere and extracting insights to make decisions is super important.
It was really eye opening for us to see just how many candidates simply didn’t know how run a basic analysis. This questions quickly separates those that are comfortable with data versus those that will rely on others for insight.
— Rob Hango-Zada, co-founder of Shippit
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