Strategic Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates

The interview process helps you determine which candidates should make it to the hiring shortlist. It’s important to ask strategic questions to get the most out of interviews and go beyond simply ticking off boxes for education and experience. Asking the right questions can help you find employees who fit into your company goals, team strategy and culture. Interviews provide a resourceful way to evaluate each applicant’s skills, personality and career aspirations.


Strategic thinking interview questions assess each candidate in the following areas: 


  • Desired behavioral qualities 
  • Ability to navigate specific situations 
  • Career advancement potential 
  • Skills and experience 

This guide reviews examples of strategic interview questions you can ask to learn what you need to know about each candidate before considering them for a position in your company. It’s important to form your own questions tailored to the demands of the role. Instead of focusing solely on skills, experience and education, include intangibles that show what makes each candidate truly different. 


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An overview of using strategic questions 

Before beginning the interview process, you’ll need a strategy that allows you to make quick and conclusive comparisons between the people seeking the position. Conduct each interview in the same structured way as the last by preparing a list of questions to ask every single candidate. If you’re not consistent, you can’t truly compare talent


Evaluate your needs for the position and throw in some questions that pertain directly to those needs. If you need a problem solver, gear some of the questions toward how the candidates handle stress and overcome obstacles. If you need someone who works well on their own without constant managing, ask questions that pertain to how well the candidates motivate themselves.  


Take care about how each question is composed. An open-ended question requires an in-depth response, while a closed-ended question only requires a yes or no response. Here’s how to take a closed-ended question and turn it into an open-ended question. 


  • Do you handle stress well? becomes Tell us about a stressful situation you faced at a previous job and how you handled it.
  • Would you consider yourself a self-starter? becomes What are some of the ways that you motivate yourself to achieve your goals? 
  • Do you have any management experiencebecomes How have you managed other people in the past? What are some of the strategies you found were most successful? 

There are three types of strategic questions to mix into the list of interview questions you choose: career development questions, behavioral questions and situational questions. Including all three types allows you to get an idea of how the candidate would act under stress, how well they handle adversity, whether they fit into your corporate culture and if they have specific aspirations to consider when they perform well. 


Career development questions 

These questions are meant to evaluate if each candidate wants to pursue a higher role in your organization and if they have a plan for reaching their goals. If the candidate doesn’t seem to have much ambition or concrete goals, they may be treating the position as a job and not a career. Those who have a goal to pursue are more likely to stay with you for a long time, while those lacking in drive may leave your company the moment something that seems better comes along.  


Here are some sample career development questions: 


What are your career goals?

This question is designed to start the conversation. Whether a candidate wants to lead their own department someday, become a top sales representative, work effectively on a team or be recognized for their achievements, they need to have a plan for how they’re going to reach that goal. Another purpose this question fulfills is revealing whether what the candidate wishes to pursue is something that is possible within your business. If you’re unable to offer the advancement opportunities the candidate wants, it could make it difficult to retain the employee later. 


How do you plan to accomplish your goals? 

You’re looking to see if the candidate has drive, ingenuity and the ability to set realistic goals. If someone reveals they desire something but doesn’t recognize the need for personal growth and development on the path to fulfilling their dreams, they’re more likely to be reactive to the situations around them and unable to see the larger positions. Look for someone who’s proactive and knows that the only way to get to their destination is to plan several steps ahead, take advantage of their opportunities and resources, and communicate well with management to understand expectations. 


Tell us about your greatest accomplishments 

Including this in the strategic questions as a follow-up confirms whether the candidate can actually form and initiate a plan on their own. Look for the candidate to explain what value these accomplishments brought to past employers. If the response only reveals the personal impact of the achievements, the job seeker may be more concerned with their own aspirations and not how they contribute to something larger than themself.  


Behavioral questions 

These questions reveal how candidates approach work to see if they’re compatible with your business policies, goals and work culture. Select questions that align with the requirements of the role the candidate would fill if hired. There are different types of behavioral questions, including the following: 


  • Questions about teamwork 
  • Questions about the ability to adapt 
  • Questions about communication skills 
  • Questions about morals and ethics 
  • Questions about leadership skills 

Here are some of the more common behavioral questions that interviewers ask: 


Describe the ideal team member you’d like to work with

This question reveals the qualities the candidate appreciates in others. Many times, those are the same qualities that the candidate sees in themself or aspires to have. It also reveals whether they can work well with the other employees in the department they would work in if hired. 


How have you handled angry clients in the past? 

If the candidate has de-escalation skills, they’ll shine through in their answer. The question evaluates whether the potential employee has the ability to handle stress, criticism and conflict. If the position has direct contact with customers, it’s important to know how your new employee handles these inevitable situations and if they know when to direct the situation to someone with more authority. 


How do you handle failure? 

Everyone falls short at some point and knowing how your candidates respond when they fail to hit their goals reveals their ethics, strength of character and resilience. Seek an employee that takes failure as a learning experience and uses the lessons to improve.  


Tell us about a time you failed to persuade someone to accept your point of view 

This is a communication-based question that doubles as an adaptability question. Can the candidate admit failure and adapt? The ideal candidate will speak about how the experience improved their communication skills and how they were able to communicate more effectively following the incident.


How have you responded to difficult coworkers in the past? 

This question covers two bases. It reveals how well the candidate works on a team and assesses their communication skills. When your potential employee has disagreements with members of their team, it’s important they have the ability to find a way to work with the other person to accomplish the goals they share with the person they don’t agree with. 


Have you ever followed a rule that you didn’t agree with? Tell us why you followed it 

This question challenges the ethics of the candidate and assesses their willingness to put their morals to the side for the sake of their position. You’re looking to avoid hiring employees that won’t speak up when they believe that something is wrong, but who are also willing to make minor compromises when the reason for compliance isn’t due to a breach in ethics. 


Tell us about a time you needed to change course after making a decision 

Adaptability in leadership is an important trait. This question evaluates how well the candidate leads, communicates and responds to stress. In a world where needs, goals and environments are constantly changing, try to find a candidate who’s able to keep the entire team on the path to the finish line even when facing unexpected roadblocks. 


Situational questions 

When creating strategic interview questions, create specific problems that someone filling the role might face. This will help you evaluate how the candidate handles these scenarios, enabling you to determine which applicants can effectively address the challenges your business encounters most. Come up with questions that address situations directly related to the position you’re looking to fill. Here are some examples of situational questions: 


What is your reaction when your manager criticizes your job performance? 

Some people don’t handle criticism well, and you’re looking for candidates that view criticism as a constructive way to help them become better in their roles. The ideal candidate recognizes that the scrutiny isn’t personal, asks questions for clarification and makes the recommended changes following the feedback.  


What is your response when you’re given new priorities to focus on as you’re about to complete a project?

This question tests the candidate’s ability to adapt and work under pressure. They may have had a vision for the project and almost completed it prior to being told there is a new focus. How well can they salvage the work they’ve already done while still meeting new expectations? 


Describe a situation where you’ve needed to place something else above work

People work to live, and their personal lives are important to them. There are some situations where a candidate’s personal affairs may interfere with their work. This question evaluates the candidate’s priorities and how they resolve these inevitable conflicts. It’s okay for a worker to take time off due to health concerns, family needs and other personal matters, but you want to know how they’ll return and meet their obligations to your business. 


Tell us about a time you solved a problem at a past job 

What you’re looking for in response here is an answer that talks about the benefit the resolution had for the employer. People solve problems every day, but your ideal candidate makes sure the solutions provide some sort of value by saving your business money, increasing sales volume or making it easier for team members to perform their duties. 


Have you ever needed to impress a customer before closing the sale? How did you do it? 

This is a good question to ask if the role you’re looking to fill is in sales or customer service because it asks the candidate to describe a process that’s going to be used in their position within your organization.  


How would you handle having more things on your to-do list than you have time to complete? 

Can your potential employee work under stress and manage their time effectively? This is one of the strategic interview questions that checks a lot of boxes. It reveals how the candidate communicates, works under pressure, solves problems and prioritizes their work duties. 


Now that you’ve got some sample questions to guide you, come up with your own strategic thinking interview questions that address your specific needs for the position you’re filling. Interviews are a great way to narrow the field of candidates down from many to just a few that you can call back for a final interview. Make sure to prepare a set of questions to ask every candidate so that comparing the results is streamlined and informative.

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