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CIO Unplugged 8/31/16

August 31, 2016 Ed Marx 27 Comments

The views and opinions expressed are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

My Secret Interview Questions Revealed

I have been blessed to serve with some amazing teams over the years. I have written extensively on teams because I believe that great ones are the key to individual and organizational success.

How do you recruit the right servant for your team? Here are the only three questions I ask in every interview. Yes, only three. I used to ask five to 10, but over the years learned that the answers to these three provide everything I need to determine if the person will be a good fit for our team or not.

Before I reveal the questions, some caveats:

  • These are not foolproof. Despite solid answers to these questions, I have made hiring mistakes. I will make more mistakes.
  • You will have better questions than I do. Share them in the comments section.
  • There are no right answers. That said, the answers you receive do allow for key insights that might determine a good fit for your team.
  • Yes, I have missed hiring some superb teammates given my narrow questioning focus.
  • My existing team makes the final decision.
  • Like all other interview questions, these are imperfect.
  • I know some will have a violent reaction and leave a nasty comment or two. I am OK with this when comments are constructive. However, some people are generally unhappy and will look for any opportunity to vomit. We still post everything. (As an aside, I find it interesting that people who vomit never identify themselves, nor are they willing to contact me for constructive dialogue. They tend to be cowards.)

Here are my questions that have been effective in hiring the right team.

When was the last time you cleaned a toilet? Tell me about it.

  • What am I looking for? I want to know that this person is willing to get their hands dirty, figuratively and in real life. If someone has not cleaned a toilet lately, I become skeptical.
  • Answers I like: People who volunteer to clean toilets. People who admit it is not glorious, but it must be done. People who talk about how it makes them feel to make a toilet sparkly.
  • Insights: A willingness to clean toilets tells me a lot about someone’s service orientation. A willingness to clean toilets tells me a lot about humility.
  • Bottom line: Listen, if someone can’t quickly respond with anecdotes about the mundane things in life, they will be slow to clean up messes the team makes and feel that certain tasks are beneath them. I need teammates who are willing to do anything.

What does your ideal vacation look like?

  • What am I looking for? My teams are action-oriented and if someone’s desire on their time off is strictly to lie around, that becomes a red flag. My teams tend to move at a high pace and slackers will be exposed.
  • Answers I like: Of course you want to sleep in and lay at the beach, but tell me you mix it up and balance with adventure and exploration.
  • Insights: People who visit new places and try new things have key traits I covet. Those who keep going back to the same destination and doing the same things may have the same propensity at work.
  • Bottom line: There is no right answer and everyone is entitled to do what they enjoy on vacation, but those stuck in repetitive actions, avoid action, or who don’t like to try new things will be uncomfortable on my team.

Tell me three historical or contemporary heroes, each of whom I must have heard of.

  • What am I looking for? What the key values of their heroes are. First, this will reflect their personal values and possible impact on the team. Second, answers to this question reveal thought and logical processes.
  • Answers I like: Less important than whom, I focus on the values and traits the candidate brings up. Any succinct summation is key. Bonus if the hero traits coincide with team needs. If the team is up against insurmountable challenges and the candidate discusses someone who won against all odds, that demonstrates likely alignment.
  • Insights: I am keen on the third hero discussed as this is where the person tends to go off script and personality is revealed. I look for a structured thought process. If they jump all over the place or become flustered I know a high-pressure environment is not for them. It also reveals someone who is likely to bullshit under the gun.
  • Bottom line: If the candidate struggles to identify three heroes or has difficulty sharing why they are heroes, they may not have the introspective capabilities required for continuous self-improvement.

I used to be one of those candidates who would research the “50 top interview questions” and memorize my answers. Boy was I good at what I call beauty pageant questions. Strengths and weaknesses? Check. Tell you about the company? Check. Why should you hire me? Check. It didn’t take long to realize that other wise candidates were doing the same thing. The intent of the three questions above is to take people off script and listen to the story inside the story.

There are other great interview questions out there and I encourage you to share your favorite. Now, I need to develop new ones since I shared my secrets!

Ed encourages your interaction by clicking the comments link below. You can also connect with Ed directly on
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Currently there are "27 comments" on this Article:

  1. How do you recruit the right servant for your team? Servant REALLY…..was the definition changed? get a clue! Just in case you need help…..see below….typical CIO thinking they know everything!

    noun ser·vant \ˈsər-vənt\
    Popularity: Top 40% of words
    Simple Definition of servant
    : a person who is hired to do household or personal duties such as cleaning and cooking
    : a person who is devoted to or guided by something
    Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

    Full Definition of servant
    : one that serves others ; especially : one that performs duties about the person or home of a master or personal employer

  2. I love the toilet question! I still clean my own toilet. One of the most humbling experiences of my life was cleaning a particularly dirty toilet while working at an all you can eat pizza buffet in high school. This is one of my favorite Ed Marx posts.

  3. Servant? Sir, I had a lot of respect for you reading your many posts, but this “servant” term just blew me away. Are you that out of touch with the rest of us?

  4. Three great questions. I have cleaned a lot of toilets in my life. If you are too important to clean a toilet . . . well, we just aren’t going going to enjoy each others company.

  5. The “servant” thing rubbed me the wrong way too… but what really set off alarms bells for me was your vacation question, and your desired answer. For me as an interviewee, that would be a huge red flag that I probably don’t want to work for you. Not because I’m looking to slack off – but the idea of having a boss judge my work potential by how I choose to spend my VACATION time is highly suggestive of an unhealthy working environment.

    It seems like you hold your employees in very little esteem.

  6. I’d go for the fake iPhone call and blow that pop stand right after Q2, but Q3 was thought provoking. If I came up with a name you knew I’d confess it would be totally BS. The guy next door with MS, my Dad or any of the nameless who helped friends in Louisiana are my heroes for reasons far different than any workaday team’s needs…..

  7. Ed, I love all three questions and your reasoning. I also understand the concept of servant-leadership that maybe isn’t understood by some of the other posters. It is a biblical concept for those who don’t know. Christ taught the greatest among us become (by choice) a servant to others. Really good stuff! I like the way you think!

  8. Another thought for the person who didn’t like the vacation question. You aren’t saying you dictate how someone takes a vacation rather it is a glimpse under the hood to see what fuels their engine. I think the questions reveal what is inside. I’m impressed.

  9. I’m pretty sure this guy is trolling histalk. He keeps posting these sorts of articles despite continuous negative feedback in the comments.

  10. Really – I don’t think Ed meant servant like some have implied here… I am sure he calls himself that too… often in healthcare we are indeed servants to the ultimate goal of serving our patients.
    I enjoyed the questions- and while I would likely not lead with them, I could see using them in the 2nd half of the interview to really see how someone does under some pressure – I think there could be a number of good answers, and would not look at them as a black or white hierarchy, as much as a way to understand the personality better.

    Some other ones I have found used
    • Tell me about a patient (or provider) that influenced you- and why… I love hearing these, and tells me if someone truly understands empathy.
    • What do you look for in hiring people. Experience, Attitude, Creativity? If this is a position that will help hire others, I want to know if they have some mindset on the topic of course… maybe I’ll even ask them what their top 3 questions would be!

  11. So, if you were interviewing me I’d answer your silly pompous questions and then I’d ask you two of my own:
    1. Do you have an alcohol or drug addition problem?
    2. If you are married have you ever cheated on your wife?
    I’ve had the displeasure of working under someone where both answers were ‘yes’. If you have an addiction problem then you’ll happily destroy my career along with your own. If you cheat on your wife – the most important commitment you can ever make – then odds are everything you just told me was a lie.

    I don’t know this ‘Ed’ cat from Adam and I’ve read several of his columns over the years, but this is just silly. If you are hiring folks to meet the demands of your responsibility then you better hire competent, capable staff with a proven track record of delivering results – otherwise you’ll have really clean toilets, lots of stories about vacations, a listing of ‘heroes’ and still not be delivering the products and services to your organization that you are responsible for.

    Incredible to find that these things are what you deem as important and how you strive to get the measure of people that you’ll add to your staff. What a joke!

    One can only imagine what your staff meetings are like – are you looking for real answers or is there some secret code by which you are measuring each of the vocalized comments/suggestions? To me this sort of silliness represents all that is wrong with healthcare IT – if you clowns had to go succeed in a for profit environment you would be out of work in months, if not weeks. Results, not an affinity for cleaning toilets are what matters, and every moment you spend wasting your employers wages (as in your captive audience) on such things is the equivalent of theft. Get over yourself and get a grip, for crying out loud!

  12. The questions work both ways. These are very interesting questions because they tell you as much about who you will be working for as they might tell the interviewer who the candidate is. I have no problem with answering these questions, but I would also have to be in a bad place to take a position for someone asking them.

    You just have to be careful what you screen for. You might have a certain person in mind, but think to yourself who else would answer these questions successfully, and what might motivate them. I would personally not want a candidate that answered these questions perfectly. I don’t think they would be a good fit in a team. Sounds more like a crusader who’d become a PITA and annoy everyone else in the team.

  13. Ed, you can’t be serious. When you go look for your next position, they will google this nonsense and it will reveal a lot about you. You must be running out of your evangelical things to write about. Maybe time to climb another mountain. Geez, I would be embarrassed to be interviewed by you.

  14. While the position of others that have commented is understood, there is meaningful psychology behind questions like what Ed provided.

    Well qualified candidates for a healthcare IT position can talk about tech, processes and methodologies all day long. What really counts is self discipline, communication, teamwork, and getting the job done. A technologist can have all the skills in the world, however if they have a crap attitude or flawed character traits then they can be the rotten apple in the basket.

    Some unusual questions like Ed’s can be entertaining during a candidate interview and can go a long way to uncovering the work ethic of a candidate.

  15. The negative comments on here are coming from people who forget that Healthcare IT departments are SERVICE departments, thus we are servants of our end users and our patients. They probably treat every call from a physician, nurse or staff person like a nuisance. They would never dream of cutting their lunch break short or stepping out of an unimportant meeting to address a production issue. Ed’s questions are spot on, and it’s why he’s been successful at the executive level. The people criticizing Ed’s questions will probably never achieve the same success, and it’s a shame if they do with their mentality.

  16. Ed,

    How I choose to decompress on vacation has absolutely no bearing on how I do my job. It might be that my current role is so b*lls out that I just need time to sit on a beach close to home. Or maybe, I can’t afford fancy trips and prefer doing short day trips to some places in my state. Or maybe I just like spending time with my family and my house.

    I typically find your columns trite and wonder how you got where you are. Congratulations, you have confirmed my beliefs that you really have no knowledge to share. Servant? Please.

  17. Way to create some discussion, Ed! I recently heard Patrick Lencioni speak on related topic. In his experience, the most successful team player is “humble, hungry, and smart.” The smart refers to people smart. That is able to connect and work with others well, to discern what’s going on in conversations and take the appropriate action. Related to that, Travis Bradberry, who writes about emotional intelligence, claims that 60% of our success in a job is related to emotional intelligence, and 90% of high achievers have high emotional intelligence.

    The point here? The soft side drives more productivity. I’m guessing your teams have been more productive as a result of this line of questioning. I’m surprised with the energy behind some of the responses. Interesting.

  18. I understood exactly what Mr Marx was saying when he meant “servant” and it set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head about his inability to separate his professional life from his personal life, and his inability to judge people on merits rather than his pre-conceived notions of what a good person looks like.

    Yes, IT is a service department. We are professionals who provide a service to our organizations. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities & priorities outside of what end users see. No, you can’t just have administrative rights on every computer you touch, because our responsibility to the organization is to assure that malicious software doesn’t get installed, and most end users don’t understand that . No, you can’t buy an unknown product from an unknown source and just tell us to install it, because we need to research how that affects other users and how it fits into the overall strategic plan of the organization. Yes, there is a strategic plan and everything we do is supposed to be aligned to it.

    If you asked me where I took my last vacation, I’d have to ask if that included long weekends. If it does, that was a family reunion. If it doesn’t, it was the trip to Europe someone else paid for. Neither is terribly indicative of who I am as a person or how I work. Trying to glean some scrap of insight into my working habits from my answer to have I cleaned a toilet lately or where I go on vacation would be a waste of valuable interview time that might be better spent actually asking me about my work habits and what motivates me.

  19. I have had the opportunity to work with Ed twice and would jump at the opportunity again with out hesitation . He walks the walk with commitment to serve and better his teams . There are more CIOs that have worked for Ed at one time then most leaders can claim and I would challenge anyone to not say great leaders Produce other great leaders. He makes work , fun , challanging , a safe learning environment and a customer focused organization .for those who Atrack I wonder what you have accomplished since you do it under the cover of not putting your name in public . I always wonder if people who do this are the ones who don’t have the courage when they need to make a stand on issue with risk fold like a cheap deck of cards. I have witnessed organizational courage from Ed and aspire to achieve his greatness .

  20. Way to get people talking, Ed! LOL I was surprised to see only one other person recognize the concept of Servant Leadership (which I’m guessing is what you were referring to, eh?) which doesn’t have to refer to someone in a “true” managerial position, but is more of an “attitude”. Don’t worry, Ed, many of the current HIStalk readers may be too young to know of this concept/book. But perhaps they should read it? If the shoe fits…..
    What worries me more though, is that there probably are a lot of new employees who have no clue why the concept of Servant Leadership might just be the key to their success.


    There are several good books on the topic. Check out Amazon!

  21. I haven’t done a lot of hiring, though I have sat in on many team interviews. I’m not really sure what I would do with the information from these questions. It would be interesting to ask, and see how well the interviewee can shift gears to a direction they did not anticipate. Especially in view of the many meetings I have with my healthcare colleagues where we start with a question or design strategy, and find that the clinician is looking in a completely different direction than I expected.

  22. 1) No one who takes in a middle class salary or above should ever consider themselves as “serving”. They are PAID well. And it’s especially incongruous at Ed’s level.

    2) I want Ed to tell us when and where he last cleaned a toilet. I understand he has a new wife because I guess the previous one reached her expiration date? Did he ask her this?

    My take on the toilet cleaning is that I am smart and successful enough to outsource that work and become a jobs creator, thereby freeing me to devote more time to my work!

    The toilet question is also a tad demeaning as the subtext is: “are you willing to be a girly-man?”

    3) Vacation question is potentially discriminatory. Ed’s basically going to weed out the differently abled, persons who are at a point in their life where they sacrifice their hobbies to raise children, those that find more joy in the arts and in cerebral pursuits.

    4) The last question is so much hubris because he insists he’s heard of the person. Guess what? Maybe I don’t NEED a hero! A person up against insurmountable odds is laudatory, but there’s the everyday heroes who would be mortified at being identified as such. Maybe Ed would learn from someone about a new hero.

    And then there’s the “existing team gets to make the final decision.” This is classic old boys/old girls club. Ecosystems benefit from new organisms being introduced.

    As to my questions? My organization has an international HR department that provides us with a range of questions so that we can get an exciting and capable mix of people. It’s a form of quality control as well. The toilet question would be seen as offensive because we often hire people from emerging nations where this is VERY much a social class issue. The vacation question is not anyone’s business. And the same with the heroes.

    What Ed practices is “hire someone like me”.

    There is however a much better way of phrasing these questions to get at the essence of what he’s trying to find out. Instead of being an 8 yr old boy giggling over toilets, that question could actually be rephrased. I leave it as an exercise for the reader.

  23. I heard Ed speak several years ago about how he hires more for the heart and passion of the person than the technical skills. When you look for heart/passion along with necessary skills, you’ll have the best employee. That is the intention of his interview questions. There could be a 100 people interviewing for a position that have the required skills, but the best person will be the one whose character and work ethic fit the culture of the organization. You can see skills on a resume, but you have to ask “out of the box” questions to get real answers (not rehearsed) from a candidate.

    Ed’s speech gave me the courage to apply for a position in his department even though I didn’t have all the skills necessary, but I had the heart and willingness to learn what I didn’t know. I did not interview with Ed, but I did get the position, and it was one of the most rewarding career moves in my life. I was never in leadership, but I witnessed what kind of servant leader he is. As several have said, this is not a demeaning term, it is having a heart for doing the work that needs to be done and not thinking you’re too good to do it. Over the years, I saw Ed work as a servant leader, behind the scenes taking care of and helping his employees in situations where there was no glory or recognition to be had. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

    In summation: a servant leader is a good thing and the out of the box questions help reveal insight into the character of the candidate so you get a glimpse of who they are, not just how well they can rehearse standard responses.

  24. Servant leadership is nothing new. I’m surprised, frankly, that HISTalk readers aren’t more evolved.

    Anyway, my favorite interview question is: Tell me about a time recently that you broke the rules at work

  25. Favorite Color and why?

    Like you there is no right answer. I am looking for someone who has an internal awareness. They can give me a color and a reason.

    Even 6 year olds have favorite colors- they change weekly but at least they have one.

  26. Great interview questions….Here a pure speculation what a candidate will learn from them about your org.

    1. toilets
    Be prepared for major frequent unplanned clean ups of all kinds. Why? Because when you have a system and a process to “clean toilets”, it is not dirty work at all. On the other hand, it is those panic-driven, last minute clean up drills that become “dirty”.

    2. vacations
    Let me spell it for you, it is a question about 24×7. Prepare to be always accessible, weekends, holidays, family events, etc to spring into some extremely important, last minute, work-related action. That will be a future work expectation.

    3. 3 (and only 3 please) role models
    3 is the most important thing here. You have only 2? That will not cut it. More then 3? You resume goes into a future record pile. And btw, for every future challenge, make sure to propose 3 options, no more and no less, and put you own favorite as #3, because that’s the one which stands a chance.

  27. Ed was on the faculty when I attended the CHIME Bootcamp and he challenged my thinking in so many ways. He talked about the importance of understanding what his staff wanted…if their goal was to become a CIO he helped them on that path, and the stories shared by staff members of his in that class showed that he “walked the walk”. I am thankful for my time with him and the other faculty members, as they have helped shape me into a better leader than I would have been without it.
    Servant leadership…wow, I can’t believe people aren’t familiar with term.

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