Entire books have been written on the art and practice of interviewing, from the perspective of both the interviewer and the person being interviewed. Here, I wanted to share with you the one question I believe every person being interviewed should ask the person who would be their boss. It’s not about the company or institution, and it’s not a question designed to share how smart you are about their strategic direction, stock price, revenues, clients served or anything. Understanding that you have this one opportunity to best sell yourself relative to this position, I believe this is the only question you MUST ask to be sure you haven’t missed selling toward something of utmost importance to your future boss. You probably would get the opportunity to ask the question late in the interview, after the interviewer has the full opportunity to ask his or her questions. When the time arrives, usually signaled by a question such as “Do you have any questions of me?” or “What questions do YOU have about the position or the company?”

Here’s how I suggest you proceed and I really believe you should ask it in this manner:

“Let’s assume you’ve hired me into this position and it’s now a year out, and we’re about to do my performance review. We might even be doing it right here at this table (or in this room, at this desk, or whatever). And, you are just delighted (with emphasis) with what I’ve accomplished in my first year. What did I get done that’s made you so pleased? “

Yes, this is a variation of the more hypothetical question “what outcomes or results are you looking for?” However, you are asking this person to imagine having already hired you, and we know that visualization improves the probability of the outcome. You also project that image into the future, so not only did they hire you, but you’ve been around for a year already. Then, you make a concrete connection to the workplace by referring to the actual review, a reality at the one year mark for most organizations, which may be done at that table (it even helps if you tap the table as you refer to it). All this lends tangibility to your story. Then, you engage the emotions by suggesting the person is DELIGHTED with what you’ve done. Notice what you’ve built: an image of you being there, on the job for a year, integrated into their work environment and standard practices, with the boss having positive feelings about your performance. Now, in my experience, the actual question part: what did I get done that’s made you so pleased?, elicits the boss’ idiosyncratic desires of what he or she would really like to see accomplished in this role. When you ask the question in a general way like “what’s required to be successful in this role?”, you tend to get job description language back. However, when you ask in the way I suggest, you tend to get exactly what the boss personally wants done. It’s a much more accurate picture of what would be expected of you. The answer, which is likely to be something you haven’t already heard in the process, gives you another opportunity to sell against these items. This is your last and best chance to match your experience and qualifications to the real and specific desires of the boss. Let’s repeat that: this is your last and best chance to match your experience and qualification to the real and specific desires of the boss. Nothing is more important than that. The best way to sell against the new information is to do so conversationally, in a matter-of-fact way….”oh, I know what you mean…I faced similar problems at XYZ Corporation and was able to make significant headway by….or “in my last role, I had to handle similar negotiations so I know how hard they can be…but we were able to…” Please note how handy your accomplishments can be at this point.

A very important further note: make sure you write down the boss’ answers to that question, as verbatim as you can. This will help big time after you’re hired. You can use that information to create your performance objectives or results expected document which you can hand to the boss and say “I think this is what you want me to be focused on”. Typically, the boss doesn’t recall having said all this in the interview and you show him or her just how smart you are and how easy you will be to manage. For most managers, a smart, low maintenance employee is a very valuable commodity indeed.