Difficult interview questions fall into a few different categories, including stress questions (“I don’t think you’re good enough…”), seemingly off-the wall questions (“how do you find a needle in a haystack”), behavioral questions that assume a negative (give me an example of a time when you had a difficult employee…”) and “greatest weaknesses” types of questions. In answering these questions, the key thing to remember is, as we say at the Five O’Clock Club, to play the interview “game”. That is, you don’t necessarily have to literally answer the question as it is asked. Instead, pause, and quickly ask yourself: “How can I keep this as positive as possible”, and “Can I use this question as an opportunity to either learn about the issues they are facing, or to illustrate how I can help them using one of my success stories?”
If you can’t use the question this way, then you are either wasting time or hurting your chances. In that case, it’s best to just answer briefly and get back to playing the game to win, i.e. illustrating how you can help them using your success stories.
Let’s address the greatest weaknesses types of questions (I’ll tackle the other types in future blog entries). These include “What is your greatest weakness”, “Give me an example of an area for development that was in your last review”, or “tell me about a criticism a boss once gave you.” Don’t get tripped up here by going all negative– it is not the place to say “often after lunch I tend to fall asleep at my desk.” Another rule about interviewing— keep it as positive as possible! Negativity is a no-no.
Here’s how to answer a question like one of these. Take an example of something that happened to you a while ago, say 5 or 10 years ago, that illustrates a weakness, a criticism, or something on your development plan. Then talk about how you learned from it, and how it has helped you become more successful. Then end with an example from one of your “success stories” to illustrate how you’ve learned from it. This way you end on the most positive note possible, and essentially change the subject back to illustrating how you can help them!
Here’s an example. A client, in answer to the “greatest weaknesses” question, said “about 10 years ago I realized that I have a tendency to get carried away by my enthusiasm for a project, and I make mistakes—in this case I didn’t get the results I wanted with a proposal I was making. But I’ve learned from that experience, and it’s made me better ever since. In fact, that learning experience has been a key to my success in, for example, winning the contract for <insert success story here>…”
Telling stories about your experience is one key to making a powerful presentation in the job-search process. Illustrate how you can help an employer by using interesting examples from your experience. Go beyond just telling them what you are good at or what you can do. Give examples– paint a word-picture. Organize your thoughts and presentation using a story-telling format. One example of such a format is Situation/Problem-Action-Result, or SAR. That is, describe the situation or problem your department faced, then the action you took to improve the situation, and lastly the result of your efforts.
Don’t give too much detail, or too little. Rather, focus on making it interesting! Use images, and even drama. Your presentation will resonate far more with your audience when you do. Some clients pretend they are telling the story to a child, which makes it all about interest and drama, and not about boring detail and jargon.
Here’s an example. An interviewer asked one of my clients “What is your greatest strength”. This client didn’t just say “My analytic skills” and stop there. Instead, she said “My analytic skills. For example, two years ago we were seeing a retention problem with our accounts—people were leaving in droves. No one was sure why or what to do about it, and it was threatening the department’s plans. So I took the initiative to analyze the data. I looked at x, y, and z. It became clear to me that the people leaving were all related to one product where we had recently changed the service terms! So I presented my findings to management, and suggested they do x. They adopted my recommendation and over the next six months our retention problem reversed itself!” (Yes, she got the offer)
At the Five O’Clock Club, we recommend that you have two or three such stories ready to share in an interview, examples that are highly relevant to your potential employer’s needs or situation. Look for opportunities to tell these stories throughout the interview (and getting-interviews) process.
Below are four of the areas that I focus on with clients when helping them to prepare for a job interview. They stem from my training and experience as a Five O’Clock Club Career Coach.
1) Be a consultant (take a strategic approach to the interview)
This is a whole mindset that can change the dynamic of the interview. You do this by figuratively sitting on the same side of the table as the interviewer, helping the interviewer solve her or his business problems. It’s NOT about just memorizing the answers to their questions and then asking three of your own (this is the way many job-seekers approach the interview). It IS about preparing extensively through research (like any consultant would), anticipating what issues they face, and gaining the understanding needed to demonstrate how you can help them.
2) Seek to tell two or three “stories” about your experience that are relevant to the interviewer, and that you’ve practiced beforehand.
Make it your goal to get these stories out in the interview. Use them in answering most of the interview questions you receive. Telling a story, or illustrating your expertise (i.e. saying “I have strong analytic skills, for example…”), can make all the difference between a lackluster interview and a powerful, compelling presentation. I tell clients to use a storytelling format, such as “situation, action, result” (or SAR), and make it interesting!
3) Surface objections to your candidacy by asking these two questions at the end of the interview…
1) How do I stack up against the other candidates? 2) Any reason you couldn’t see me in this position? These questions are essential to conducting an effective followup (see below). There’s a saying that the sale doesn’t begin until you find out what their objections are.
4) Follow up effectively (like any consultant would)– don’t write a thank you letter– write an influence letter.
Use the answers you receive from the questions above, and other questions you asked about their needs/issues, to write that powerful followup. Address their objections to your candidacy, if any, and show how you can help them solve their problems. The follow-up is often more important than the interview itself– I’ve seen numerous cases where candidates have turned a “no” into a “yes” from an effective followup.