The simple interview question that most people fail

Monday, March 13, 2017

I've interviewed thousands of people over the years as a Career Coach, Recruiter, Selection Panelist and Trustee. They have usually researched thoroughly and have a structured answer to everything - what experience do they have of influencing an organisation, what are the key characteristics of a good Non Executive, how have they built leadership credibility, etc etc.    Admittedly you can get them on a trick question (normally asked when the Interviewer's ego is in over-drive rather than to assess the candidate's cognitive strengths).  You know the ones: how many table tennis balls are there in China, how  many people in the world do you share your birthday with, how many manhole covers are there in New York, type.  Candidates normally enjoy figuring these out anyway.  There's a much simpler question to ask that will totally wrong-foot them:


It's so obvious, but people rarely prepare for it.  They are on-message, on-personal brand, on all their numbers and matrices, but can't cope with a simple quasi-personal question.  It's often met with 'well as you can see from my CV, I started back in....' or even worse, a fumbling, 'er, well, what do you want to know?'   They aren't sure if they should launch into their work history, the elevator pitch they have prepared (hours of googling went into this), or if they should talk about their children or hobbies.   While they work it out, they look stressed, there's a toe-curling delay and it's all gone horribly wrong before the coffee has even been poured.  


Of course first impressions count for everything.  Business is as much about building relationships and engaging with people as it is about hitting KPIs.  I hire you, you meet my CEO and get flustered like this, it reflects on me.  You need to be able to cope in unstructured situations, have great social skills and think on your feet.

There's some fascinating research on recruiter bias also.   No matter how well trained we are, we make subconcious judgements.   We form impressions early in the interview which we then seek to confirm, favouring the applicant most like us (who fits in like an employee, not a visitor).  This is called the 'similar-to-me' effect.  We are also more likely to be influenced by negative than positive information.  So, if you aren't relaxed and engaging right from the get-go, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to claw it back.  


To work this out, first understand why we ask the question.  What we really want to say at the start of the interview is 'so why are you here, how can you solve my problems, what have you got for me and please don't be a waste of my time'.  Most of us are too polite, or at least conscious of our employer branding, to be this frank.  However, you can show that you understand our pain by the way you answer the question.  We want to see that you understand the truth behind the job description and have the skills and experience that are relevant to the position you are applying for.  


I use a Face Out philosophy to careers.  If we focus on how we can solve other people's problems, rather than our own, then our careers seem to click into place.   Your approach to the whole interview should be to demonstrate that you understand why the job exists and what the real expectations/problems are.  The 'tell me about yourself' question gives you an opportunity to frame the entire interview with this philosophy in mind.

The structure should be similar to the personal statement on your CV (and LinkedIn summary) - where you are now in your career, what you want to do next and the skills/knowledge/abilities (i.e. competencies) that bridge the two.

I have been an HR Director in the NHS for the last twelve years and I now want to take my understanding of  best practices and regulation into the private sector, ideally an NHS supplier where my network and knowledge would be most useful.  So obviously I am really interested in Medi-Instruments because I feel you are at exactly at the right stage of growth to need someone like me.

I have been working in supply chain management in the consumer sector and had a really interesting roller-coaster ride with Red Jams Ltd across three continents.  I feel that my FMCG experience is relevant to  the pharmaceutical sector as it is experiencing some of the same global supply chain issues we have solved in the past.  I wanted to talk to you more about this and see if there is any synergies.

I've had a fantastic time selling paper with Writesmiths - they give such great training too - and developed a really strong client base across professional services businesses like law firms and accountancy practices.  I've decided that my next career move should be to sell a higher value product and I know my clients would love your water-coolers as much as I do.  So I wanted to find out more about the business and if you think I'd be the right fit for you.

These sample answers immediately address the requirements of the organisation and put you in control of the interview.  They bring in the vital hooks as to why your previous experience is exactly relevant to the job description even if they are less obvious transferable skills. The rest of the meeting will be about maintaining your strong first impression. Obviously inject some of your personality, smile and try to relax,   Treat it as a two-way business meeting if you can, rather than batting questions and answers backwards and forwards in a stated way.  Interviews are social interactions. 

This article was written by Executive Coach Zena Everett