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After 20 years of hiring, I now refuse to ask 'Tell me about yourself'—here's my new No. 1 interview question

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In my 20-plus years of hiring and recruiting, I've always started off my job interviews with a simple question: "Tell me about yourself."

Many people see this as one of the "toughest" or "trickiest" interview questions. Still, it's been a popular go-to for hiring managers because it tells them a lot about a candidate's professional priorities.

But now, I'm asking something entirely different: "What have you been working on?"

The new 'tough interview question'

In today's world of ever-accelerating change, it's never been more important for leaders to hire people who have a well-rounded perspective and are forward-thinking enough to help their company fuel the future.

That's why, going forward, "What have you been working on?" is the No. 1 interview question candidates need to prepare for. 

It cuts through all the well-intentioned (but vacuous) words people often use to describe themselves (e.g., "team player," "strategic thinker," "highly dedicated," "results-driven") that managers like myself are no longer interested in hearing.

How to answer 'What have you been working on?'

When I ask someone what they've been working on, I'm looking for clues that tell me how the words on their resume translate into the needs of our current world, and how involved that person is in today's most critical missions.

I also want to know whether they can think, act and work as if they're in a startup, because that's what companies need to thrive and survive.

Here are a few things to think about when crafting your answer:

1. The world is changing. Are you changing with it?

For most companies, the way they operated in the past is no longer effective today. Amid times of unprecedented change and ambiguity, employers need people who are agile and can think creatively.

In the past few months, many workers have had to adapt to working remotely for the very first time. If that's you, consider talking about what you've been doing to be more productive or make collaboration easier.

2. Are you okay with not having all the answers?

The way forward will come in waves. No one knows for certain what the world will look like in five, three or even two years. And you must be comfortable with accepting this truth.

If you've been experimenting with different strategies to achieve goals, for example, be candid about the struggles you faced along the way. What did you learn from the failures and setbacks? How did you apply those lessons to come up with new ways of making tomorrow different and better? 

3. Are you a strong leader?

Even if you don't have a leadership role right now, companies want to know that you have the potential to lead. And if you are a leader, they want to make sure you're likable, have the right values and can easily get along with others.

When things get rough, do you give up or do you get up?

If you're interviewing for a managerial position, talk about what you've been doing to make your team feel supported, driven and inspired. Positive thinking is also valuable. During difficult times, employees need a leader whose spirit and personality can give them hope and motivation.

4. Do you have strong decision-making skills?

The most indispensable employees can nimbly adapt their decision-making skills in changing conditions, without losing sight of company goals.

Perhaps you were chosen to lead two or three projects at the beginning of the year. But in the months that followed, your team got smaller due to layoffs. You also have less resources due to budget cuts. In your answer, talk about what decisions you had to make — quickly — to meet deadlines and make things work.

5. If you're not working, how have you been spending your time?

Millions of people have lost their jobs this year — for understandable reasons. So just like the 2008 financial crisis, anyone who is unemployed doesn't need to give a lengthy explanation.

The key is to let the hiring manager know you've been spending your time productively. Here are some good answers I've heard lately:

  • "I've been homeschooling my two kids. I now know more about geometry than I did in high school. And it has helped me use my brain in different ways."
  • "I've always wanted to read Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.'" When I asked what the takeaways were, this candidate didn't skip a beat: "It's about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, which was a huge disaster. Talk about sticking with a strategy even though it's obvious you're losing!"
  • "Volunteering is something I've always wanted to do, but never had the time for ... until now. So lately, I've been making face masks for health care workers at the local hospital."

These answers reveal qualities I always look for: Insatiable curiosity, a constant desire to learn, passion for social change and openness to trying new things.

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The new and improved version of yourself

No matter how difficult your journey has been, I want to know how resilient you are. When things get rough, do you give up or do you get up?

Even if the hiring manager in your next interview doesn't directly ask what you've been working on, find ways to bring it into the discussion.

The things you accomplished in past years are still important, but what's far more interesting — and will set you apart from other qualified candidates — is who you are today.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, the world's largest hiring and recruiting firm. Gary is a New York Times best-selling author. His latest book, "Advance: The Ultimate How-to Guide for your Career" shares an insider's look on everything you need to take control and get ahead in your career. He previously authored "Lose the Resume, Land the Job." Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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