Interviewing: Inside the Interview
This is the final article in my four-part series on prepping yourself for success in the interview process. So far we’ve talked about making a good first impression, showing your readiness in the daily grind and developing your examples. I want to finish up by discussing the interview itself and ways to show that you are the best candidate for the job.
In fact, that’s exactly where we’ll begin. When I interview prospective candidates I’ve noticed that many of them seem to forget why they are there in the first place. Some candidates seem determined to show that they are the smartest person that I’ll talk to or that they have the most experience. Others seem to get caught up in the process of answering questions, as if the goal of the interview is having an answer to all of the questions. If you go into the interview with the wrong idea of what you are trying to accomplish you are putting yourself at an extreme disadvantage. When you are being interviewed you should have only one goal in mind – to show that you are the best person for the job.
This is why some of the preparatory work mentioned in the previous articles is so important. It is very difficult to show that you are the best fit if you don’t know anything about what the interviewer values. It is possible that the interviewer is looking for the smartest person; in which case trying to show that you are the smartest might actually help you get the job. But if they are looking for the best leader, the ability to sell or experience with a particular tool then you’re going to be out of luck (smart guy).
Assuming you’ve done your prep then you should have a better plan than most candidates. If you haven’t though, there are still some safe assumptions that you can make. In a pinch you should realize that you need to showcase your ability to sell if you’re interviewing for a sales position. If you are interviewing for an analyst position then it would be wise to tailor your answers to show the ability to spot trends and analyze data. If you’re going for a leadership position then it would behoove you to point out times when you’ve determined an appropriate direction and successfully led people to a goal in that direction.
Do you get the picture? The position that you are interviewing for and the person that you are interviewing with should have a great impact on the way that you spin your examples and the examples that you choose. It should also impact your mannerisms. A good leader is generally confident and looks comfortable under pressure. A good salesperson should be able to sell themselves with winning words and smiles. Etc, etc…
One pet peeve of mine that I will warn you about is self-talk during the interview. I can scarcely think of a bigger turnoff than to hear a candidate talking to themselves with phrases like, “hmm, should I use this one or that one,” or “I know I have an example here”. It is very unprofessional. You should also avoid saying things like, “I’m really good at this,” if you can’t think of a single example to show that you are good at it. Remember, the interview is not about convincing somebody of something with words. The interview is about showing someone how good you are by sharing real life examples. The words and mannerisms you choose reveal things about you socially, but they do not substitute for real examples.
Using Your Examples
If you’ve followed my advice so far then you will be walking into the interview with your examples firmly ingrained and you’ll also have a cheat sheet to help jog your memory if necessary. When you are in the interview you should remember this – Your best examples are your best examples, regardless what questions you get asked. They are your best examples because they are the ones that make you look the best and they are the examples of which you are proudest. You are doing yourself a disservice if you leave the interview without using your best examples.
When you notice an opening for one of your best examples, even if it’s not perfect, then you need to take it. You don’t know if a better opportunity will come so you need to take the one you have. Because you’ve practiced for the interview you should have experience spinning your examples in different directions so that they can serve for multiple questions. Take advantage of it.
Think about it from this perspective. When I hear an example that isn’t a great one then the maximum score that it will get is 3 out of 5. Even if it answers the question logically. You can consider those your “3” answers. But if you give me a great answer, a “5” answer, then you have a chance at a 5 or a 4 out of 5 even if it wasn’t perfect for a given question. That’s a better score than you got with your mediocre example, even if it was a better fit.
Please understand, I’m not advocating the usage of examples that don’t fit the questions. It is important to try and fit them as well as possible. But if you think you can spin a great example to fit pretty well, then it is smarter to use it than to use a lesser example and hope that you get a better opportunity later to use the great one.
Tell Your Stories
One way to make all of your examples seem better is to turn them into stories. This works because it engages the interviewer and if they get caught up in the story then they will be less likely to nitpick over technicalities. In addition, by turning the example into a story you are more likely to provide all of the information that the interviewer needs to hear because the story won’t make sense without it.
Here’s a short example of a dry example:
1. I used to key claims for unit X. I really wanted to make change Y, but my peers were against it. However, I persevered and eventually change Y went into effect.
Pretty dull eh? Now, here’s the same example in story format:
2. A few years back I was keying claims in unit X. I noticed that this unit didn’t have change Y and even though I was pushing for it my peers didn’t like the idea. However, I knew from my time in unit V that this was going to be better for all of us because of reason Z. I persevered and used examples from unit V to convince my coworkers and boss that this would be a positive change. It took two months of convincing, but we finally made the change and it resulted in these positive outcomes…
Believe it or not, it’s the same example. The only difference is that when I turned it into a story I was forced to add things like my motivations and what I did that resulted in my success. A good story always has some background, a logical goal and a procession of events that led to that goal. Stories don’t have to have a happy ending either. You can give an example where you tried and tried but weren’t successful. As long as you end it with the lesson that you learned (and it’s a good one) then it can be a successful story.
Go back and look at your examples, are they dry when you tell them? When you practice with your friend/mentor make sure to ask them if your example was interesting. Imagine it’s a story that you’re telling to a friend and try again. By the time you get to your interview it should feel like you’re sharing your favorite stories with the interviewers instead of examples that you aren’t really familiar with.
One of the pet peeves of any interviewer, myself included, is the chance that we will be tricked into making a bad hire. If you’re dealing with a good manager then they have put some effort into their questions. They do this in order to make sure they have the ability to determine if the person in front of them is right for the job. Yet some people slip by with pretty words and great examples but don’t have anything to back it up.
You can stand out from the crowd of candidates if you are able to prove that you are capable of the things that you say you are. The best way to prove yourself is to bring physical examples of your work and use them as props during your examples. I remember an early interview that I went through to obtain an analyst position. I brought in three documents that I had used to make recommendations in my previous job. When the appropriate example came up and I was telling my story I was able to put a physical example of the data I used and walked them through my process of developing a recommendation.
That was an absolute game changer for that interview. I’m sure they had many interviewees who talked about knowing how to do X, Y, and Z but you can’t always trust people’s words. Believe it or not, I’ve actually had somebody interview for a position on my team whose example implied that they were taking credit for change that I recommended to leadership based on my own analysis. Talk about a turnoff. It’s horrible. The way you can prove yourself is to put an example in front of an interviewer and show them your thought process. Then they know that you have the skill and they can imagine you using it for their benefit.
But Jonathan, I’m not an analyst, I don’t have anything to bring.
Make something! Are you interviewing for a sales job? Create a 1-pager that you use to identify clients’ needs and desires. Interviewing for a leadership job? Create a document that you use to identify opportunities and points of leverage. The fact is, no matter what job you have you are doing a lot of work in your head. Make a nice 1-page document that legitimizes that thought process and then show how you use it to accomplish success.
But I just take phone calls…
Great example! If you take phone calls then you have a decision tree you go through in your mind when you’re talking to the customer. Document the decision tree and show the interviewer that you understand why each question and response on the tree adds value and point out places where you do things differently than your peers and why. That’s how you get an interviewers attention and give them confidence that you actually know how to do the things that you say you can.
Along with your physical examples you always want to bring at least 3 physical copies of your resume to the interview printed on good quality paper. Hand these out at the beginning so that the interviewers can browse them. In many cases the interviewers will see something interesting and ask you a specific question about one of your bullets. This is a fantastic situation because the bullets on your resume should be reflective of your best interview examples. That means this is a chance to use one of your best examples. It’s a win for you.
On the flip side, if you don’t have stories to back up what you have on your resume then you would best well advised to remove the bullet. I know that other people tell you to beef up your resume and take credit for some things that might not necessarily be true. If you are caught on this in the interview then it is game over. You should be able to speak to every single thing on your resume, and if you can’t, then the interviewer knows immediately that they are dealing with a fraud.
The Standard Questions
We’ve all heard the standard questions haven’t we? What is your greatest strength/weakness, why are you right for this job, what are your passions, etc…
I’ve got a surprise for you. These are trick questions and your response to them reveals a boatload about who you are as an employee and as a person. As an interviewer my favorite question to ask is, “What do you think is your greatest weakness and why?” It gives me a chance to test your honesty, self-awareness and drive all in a single question.
Wait, you’re getting all of that from a single question?
Why yes, yes I am. In a moment I’ll show you how that works, but first I want to debunk some bad advice that I’ve seen play out time and time again. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “When they ask for your weakness you need to choose a strength that sounds like a weakness. Things like, I work really long hours, I’m always thinking about work, etc.”
Really? You think I can’t see through that? All this does is make it appear that you have zero self-awareness and are most likely a blatant liar who will tell me the things that you think I want to hear. A good manager doesn’t want you tell them what you think they want to hear, they want you to tell them the truth and then talk about your plans for dealing with it.
As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how you should answer this question. If I ask you for your biggest weakness then I want to hear something that sounds like the truth and I want to hear things that you have already done (not things that you are going to do) to take action and work through it.
Here are some examples:
1. My biggest weakness is procrastination. I’ve realized that I tend to wait until the last minute and then struggle to accomplish something. I’m currently reading book X around time management and here’s an example of how I’ve started applying it on the job.
2. My biggest weakness is speaking in public/selling my ideas/pride/etc. I’ve realized that it is displayed in the work place in X manner. I’m currently doing X Class/Book/study/practice/etc… to get better at it and here’s how I’ve applied it so far.
The ability to state a real weakness and how it impacts you at work is critical. If you can’t finish that sentence then I really don’t want anything to do with you on my team. It means that you don’t understand the frustration that you cause in the office or the trouble that you make for other people.
Who says I cause frustration?!
I do, and I’m betting that your peers do to. None of us are perfect. We all cause frustration or problems for other people in the office. This is because we think more about ourselves than we think of other people. It’s ok; it’s not the end of the world. But the difference between the people that I want to hire and those I don’t is that the good ones are willing to admit this and are actually trying to improve upon it. This is the foundation of self-awareness that is critical in a good employee.
I think you can already see how this question tests your honesty, but do you also see how it tests your drive? Notice that every time I talk about the appropriate answer I mention something about “this is what I’m doing about it”. This is the he hidden gem in your answer. It reveals that you have more than just honesty and self-awareness. The thing that really separates the contenders from the pretenders is action. A contender takes action when they learn something. A pretender lets it sit and when you ask them about it they will tell you about all the wonderful things they know but can’t say anything that they’ve done with what they know.
What about the other questions?
The same is true for all of them, they are all testing something. All you need to do is look at the question from the interviewer’s perspective to figure out why they are asking you the question. A question about your biggest strength is a question about drive. Everyone can name a nice trait; you need to show how you’ve maximized that strength in the workplace. A question about passion is also about drive, but has a hidden component that requires you to explain why you think you are great for this job if your passion lies elsewhere. A question about being the best person for the job requires you to say what makes you stand out, but the hidden test is to see if you understand exactly what you’re getting into. If you can tailor your answer to the truth behind the job then you will stand out.
Questions like these are huge opportunities to stake your claim to the job. The key is making sure that you are ready for them and that you understand the purpose behind them.
We’ve come to the end of the line folks. I hope that you have found this series useful. I truly believe that these tips and practices can help you improve your interviewing skills and more importantly improve your actual performance on the job. And remember, don’t fret too much if you don’t get the job. Look at the interview and the situation and learn from it. If you are learning then you are growing and you will be more likely to succeed the next time around.
Posted on February 7, 2011, in Career Development and tagged business, drive, Employment, Interview, Interview Advice, Job interview, jobs, jobsearch, leadership, promotions, self-awareness. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.