Since the past is a reasonable indication of the future, here are some great interview questions intended to find out what job candidates have done.

1. "Tell me about a goal you recently achieved. What did your initial plan look like? What worked particularly well?"

This is a great icebreaker question. Any candidate who can't talk in detail about a goal achieved is likely to be a terrible candidate.

Most candidates will describe a goal that was set for them, a plan that they were in large part given, and then the steps they took to achieve the goal. And that's fine, but what you're really looking for are candidates who set their own goals, created their own plans, and then not only followed those plans but adapted to circumstances and changing conditions along the way.

After all, the best employees are able not just to plan well, but also to react and adjust well.

2. "Tell me about a goal you didn't manage to achieve. What happened? What did you do as a result?"

Disappointment, adversity, and failure are a part of life — both professional and personal. That's why everyone has failed. (In fact, most successful people have failed a lot more often than the average person; that's why they're successful now.)

Most candidates will take responsibility for failing. (The ones who don't you definitely don't want to hire.) Good candidates don't place the blame on other people, or outside factors. They realize that stuff happens, and a key element of success is having the ability to adjust.

Great candidates take responsibility but also learn key lessons from the experience, especially about themselves. They see failure as training, and can describe in detail what perspectives, skills, and expertise they gained from that training.

3. "Tell me about a time you initiated an uncomfortable conversation with a co-worker. What did you say? How did it turn out?"

When there's a problem, many people hesitate to be candid and open. It's a lot easier to stay silent and hope someone else steps up.

But any candidate who has never started an uncomfortable conversation is a candidate you probably don't want to hire. Great teams possess an element of self-policing. They're willing not only to praise one another, but also to provide constructive criticism.

And, of course, you want to build a great team.

The best candidates show they have a feel for team dynamics, interpersonal issues, etc., and are willing to step up and raise issues when other employees hesitate.

4. "Tell me about the last time someone got upset with you. What did you do in response? How did it turn out?"

Conflict is also a fact of professional life. Every job at some point requires dealing with conflict. (Possibly the last time someone got upset is the time the candidate raised an uncomfortable issue.) The candidates you definitely don't want to hire place the blame on other people — and place the responsibility for making the situation better on the other person, too.

Good candidates worked to address and resolve the problem; they didn't shy away from conflict but dealt with it in a professional (and hopefully emotionally intelligent) manner. The best candidates do that, but are able to admit as well that they played a part in starting the conflict, whether by words or actions or by noticing too late that a simmering issue was about to boil over.

And they can share what they learned from the experience.

5. "Tell me about the first three months at your last job. What did you do? What did you accomplish?"

The best employees don't want to spend their first few weeks just learning about the organization, getting their feet wet, and finding their way. They want to hit the ground running.

That means they can describe:

  • how they determined their job created value, and how that helped them focus on doing the right things;
  • how they immediately applied the skills they brought to the job;
  • how they determined who were their key constituents, and how best to serve them; and
  • how they identified practical changes — for greater efficiency, or quality, or customer satisfaction, etc. — and then found ways to implement those changes.

The best candidates are self-starters. They don't wait to be given tasks, duties, responsibilities, etc. — they dive in. After all, every employee is an investment, so don't you want to start seeing a return on that investment as soon as possible?