Clients frequently ask about difficult job interview questions. They want to know how to speak the magic words that will turn into a job. Here's the real question: What does the employer need? The better you can understand what the employer is looking for, the more likely you are to get the job. Rather than study canned answers to interview questions, I recommend preparing for an interview this way:
1. Know your strengths. Practice talking about why you are good at what you do. Be able to tell stories that will help an employer see how you have used your strengths on the job.
2. Listen and ask questions to learn what the employer needs. An interview should be more of a discussion than a test. Your challenge is to understand what the employer is looking for and show that you are the solution to the company's problem. I recommend asking this question: What are the three biggest challenges I'll face in this position? After the employer answers this question, demonstrate how you can meet these challenges and be an asset to the company.
It's never easy to get a job. Rather than worry about questions you might not even be asked, figure out what the employer needs and demonstrate why you are good at what you do. If you can do those two things, employers will want to hire you.
One of my clients is making a career change. He was a senior manager, but is now looking for a lower pressure role. We were practicing interviewing skills, and he talked about problem solving, leadership, and communication skills. The problem was that he never gave any idea about how he would use those skills in the job he was applying for. I recommended that he take about ten note-cards, put a soft skill on top of each one, and then list 3-5 examples of how he used those skills. After that, he should practice telling stories without worrying about saying the same thing each time. Good interview answers should be clear and concise. They also need to be substantial if you want potential employers to recognize that you can do the job.
One of my clients, we’ll call him Nate, recently interviewed for a managerial position. He said the company owner was charming throughout the interview. An employee politely interrupted the interview to ask a question that sounded important. The owner order her out of his office, slammed the door shut, and told Nate, “Some people don’t know how to behave.”
Does this mean Nate should not take a job with this company? Not necessarily. He should so with some caution. I recommended that he do a little background research on the company owner. Has anyone written anything about him online or social media? He should also ask to talk to employees before accepting an offer. Talking to them might give him a better idea of what it would be like to work for this person.
Pay attention to such cues when you are interviewing. Taking a job with a bad boss usually is a path to unhappiness. Such bosses also tend to be misers when it comes to pay.
One of my friends runs a small business. He is currently looking for someone he can rely on to manage the business when he is out of the office. He showed me two resumes and asked me which candidate was superior. I chose the candidate who claimed to have had a similar position for five years. My friend laughed and said he did the same thing, which seemed to make sense until he interviewed both candidates.
The candidate with more experience gave canned answers and often contradicted himself. When my friend asked him what accomplishment made him proudest, he talked about being trained to work as a manager. The other candidate had less experience, but she listened to what my friend was saying and answered his questions in a manner that sounded sincere and honest. She said she was proudest of her ability to take on extra responsibility. My friend was impressed by the kind of detail she used and the level of passion she showed. He felt that she really wanted to work for him. The candidate with more experience just wanted a new job that paid more. Guess who got the job? The person with less experience who presented herself as somebody who could do the job and wanted to do it.
Beware of scripting answers when you prepare for a job interview. Good managers see through this trick. Know your strengths and be able to sell them in your normal speaking voice. Show why you want to do the job and why you’ll do it well.
We are all nervous during job interviews. Some of my clients have tried to come up with scripts to give themselves more confidence. The problem with this approach is that the interview usually does not follow their scripts. Rather than scripting, I urge clients to put an emphasis on listening. Nervousness will not disappear through active listening, but it will be more controlled and your interaction during the interview will be more relaxed and natural. You cannot control an interview with a script. The best we can do is to engage the interviewer through listening.
As a culture, we train people to value team achievements. From the time we’re young, we’re drilled with cliches such as, “There is no I in team.” Many of the clients I work with talk about their jobs in terms of “we.” I frequently stop them and remind them that employers are not hiring “we.” To be successful in a job search, you need to be able to let potential employers know what you can do for them, not what you did as part of a team at your former job.
Practice what you will say at interviews, but don’t do it in a way that will sound scripted or canned. I recommend that clients use 5-7 index cards. Put one achievement or success story on each card and then practice telling the story different ways. For example, a success story in sales can also be a success story in negotiation or problem solving. The key is to use the story in a flexible way that tells the employer how you will help her company.
Remember what the employer is looking for in every interview: someone they can trust. You need to talk about yourself in a way that is clear and believable. “We” stories don’t tell the employers anything about you. Keep them focus on you and what you bring that will make you a great employee.
A friend of mine is in HR, and he told me two interesting stories about how candidates talked themselves out of a job by focusing too much on personal issues.
In one case, a candidate whose primary function was not client facing said that he did not really care to interact with the company’s type of client. In one sense, it shouldn’t matter since he’d seldom meet a client. Still, a VP told my client that he wants an organization that is totally client focused. By talking too much about his personal preferences, this candidate talked himself out of a job.
In the other case, a candidate rambled on for 10 minutes about his daughter’s professional accomplishments. Both my client and his boss tried to redirect the candidate to his qualifications for the job, but he was determined to finish his story about his daughter. In doing so, he showed terrible communications skills and a lack of respect. It’s great that this candidate loves his daughter, but his demonstration of love was not appropriate for a job interview.
Bottom line: Keep business about business. Revealing personal information in a job interview can often boomerang and hurt a candidate’s chance of landing a job. Keep focused on what the company needs and how you can contribute to its success.
Interviews are all about questions, so the most important interviewing skill would seem to be answering questions. Many book titles play off this assumption, offering 100 or 200 best answers to interview questions. In coaching clients at all stages of their career, I’ve found that there is a skill that is much more important: listening.
A job interview is not a test. Companies evaluate potential employers based on a variety of factors. Interviews are usually the final evaluation, and they often get down to intuition about who will be the best fit. Employers offer positions to candidates who make them the most confident. Someone who is listening will speak more clearly to what an employer needs. Rather than spitting out scripted answers, someone who is listening will build a dialogue with the people who are interviewing her.
When we show that we are listening, we also demonstrate that we respect other people’s ideas and opinions. We also show an ability to understand other people and what they need from us. If a candidate doesn’t listen well during a job interview, how will that person perform after she has been hired?
To improve your odds of landing a good job, it is important to improve your listening skills. Practice interviewing with a friend, and have her occasionally ask you to repeat the question that was asked. Another good tactic is to repeat the resume or key word or phases in the question at the beginning of your answer. Listening is a skills, and it can be improved with practice.
Here’s one final benefit of focusing more on listening and less on having the perfect answer: You will be less nervous during interviews. People who script answers go into an interview with an anticipation that they know what questions will be asked. The problem is that interviews seldom follow the script. By listening, you will be engaged in a dialogue with the interviewer. You will be speaking to her questions and asking questions that will help you show what you can contribute as a new employee. You will also be more relaxed because you will not be focused on uttering the perfect answer. Listen first – that’s the key to a great interview.
I’m working with a client who wants to use a portfolio to demonstrate her skills at a job interview. Some employers ask for a portfolio, especially in fields such as graphic design and teaching. I’ve also had clients in sales use portfolios to supplement their resumes. A portfolio can be a great asset, or it can work against you.
A winning portfolio has two elements: limited content and flexibility. As a rule, a portfolio should 8-10 elements that can be present in crisp manner. It should be flexible in covering different aspects of what you have to offer an employer. For example, a teacher’s portfolio might touch on class projects, curriculum development, extracurricular activities, and professional development. A sales professional’s portfolio might display evidence of sales success, photos with customers at leading professional events, and examples of marketing materials.
Put yourself in the place of the interviewer. You want to present evidence, but you don’t want to hear the same kind of fact again and again. As an employer, you would also want the candidate to demonstrate good presentation skills through planning and organization. Keep your portfolio clear, tight, and interesting.
I was helping a client prepare for an interview. He kept talking about what he has done over the last three years at his current job. While his experience is good, he has more to offer. More importantly, he missed several opportunities to show how his experience, education, and qualities meet the employer’s need. In the end, the interview is not about you. It’s about the employer and how you can solve her problem.
Too often job seekers get tongue tied because they want to phrase the perfect answer. A better way to interview is to listen carefully and speak to the employer’s concerns. If you do that, you will be focused on what the employer needs and, in most cases, feel a lot less nervous. Stay focused on what the employer needs, and you’ll know what to say about yourself.
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