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Table of contents :
How to use this book if you have an interview TOMORROW
List of worksheets
How to make the most of this book
List of 225 questions
About the author
1 The interview game: Getting started
2 Planning to succeed: The secrets of interview preparation
3 Opening questions: Breaking the ice
4 Unpacking your CV: Presenting your work experience
5 Probing your learning: Your personal knowledge bank
6 Getting your key messages across: Communicating the things that matter
7 What kind of person are you?: Personality questions
8 Motivation – what drives you?: What energizes your working life?
9 Making an impact: How long before you get cracking?
10 Revealing your ‘edge’: Sharpening up your evidence
11 Competency-based questions: Behavioural questions
12 Difficult questions: Can you take the heat?
13 Wildcard questions: Questions that mess with your head
14 Towards the finishing line: Your questions and closing statements
15 The decision: Last questions, offers, and rejections
“In a tough market with strong competition for just a handful of roles, you need to be the best on the day. Only careful preparation and ensuring you match everything you say and do to the specific role, employer and even interviewer, will position you as a serious contender for the role. John once again combines a proven, thorough approach with practical tips that will equip you with the skills, examples and confidence required to achieve interview success.” Isabel Chadwick, Managing Director, Career Management Consultants Ltd “John’s book is a great asset to anyone who fears the interview process. As well as some very practical and useful exercises, designed to help capture powerful information and to get you thinking, he gives a fascinating insight into the psychological processes, making it much easier to understand and put yourself into the shoes of the interviewer. John’s style is very accessible, demonstrating his years of experience and translating it into an easy-to-read collection of hints, tips and guidance. I suspect a lot of interviewers will also want to use this book to help them raise their game!” Kerwin Hack, Consultant Director, Fairplace Cedar “This book is an extremely comprehensive guide on how to succeed in job interviews. John takes you ‘backstage’ into the mind of the interviewers so you can understand what they are thinking and what they really want to know when asking a range different of questions. Getting a job interview into today’s difficult employment market is a privilege. This manual will help you to be much better prepared so that your next job interview becomes a positive opportunity to show what you can really offer, not an ordeal to be feared. He covers everything from warm up questions to the tricky issue of salary.” Simon Broomer, Managing Director, CareerBalance “John Lees is the career professional’s professional; the doyen of careers experts. His books and advice have helped countless numbers of people to enjoy better, more fulfilling careers. This book is an essential read for anyone who is about to attend a job interview.” Dr Harry Freedman, Career and Business Strategist, Hanover Executive “John gives consistently good, pragmatic advice and provides suggestions to help people make the most of themselves and the opportunities they get. Easy to read, relevant and straightforward, the book offers so much more than standard self-help books – it provides practical steps to get readers started and give them confidence to take ownership of their careers. A great resource to ensure a head start in a competitive market.” Denise Nesbitt, Senior Change Delivery Manager, Talent & Development, Lloyds Banking Group
“John Lees’ writing offers insight and knowledge which allows you to think in new ways and achieve changes you didn’t think possible. In these difficult and challenging times, his books help you achieve your next career step.” Laura Roberts, Chief Executive, NHS Manchester “This book is invaluable. Follow the guidelines and your chances improve beyond measure. You will be sharp, focused, and not only make the most of your own abilities, but also have a clear understanding of what you need to offer to employers. This moves you from the ‘me’ agenda to the ‘we’ agenda.” Stuart Walkley, Director, Oakridge Training and Consulting “As a careers adviser, I often find that clients know that preparation is the key to a successful interview but are unsure where to start. John Lees deals with this clearly and comprehensively. This book is based on real evidence gained from employers and this new edition has been comprehensively updated. I would recommend the book for anyone who is anxious about interviews and to people applying for any level of job, regardless of how much interview experience they may have.” David Levinson, Careers Adviser, The University of Edinburgh Praise for J ohn L ees “John is an excellent writer and his career advice is always intelligent and well-judged. Anybody in search of the perfect job would do well to follow his sound guidance.” James Brockett, News Editor, People Management “John Lees’ approach works, because he gives readers simple, practical steps to help flip their mindsets into the more daring, exploratory and confident mode needed for career transition success.” Stuart Lindenfield, Head of Transitions Practice, Reed Consulting “John Lees is a purveyor of sound, no-nonsense career advice which delivers results – whatever your age or status.” Carol Lewis, Business Features Editor, The Times “For years, John Lees has been the smartest voice in career coaching. His insight and advice are a must-read for anyone entering today’s competitive job market.” Rebecca Alexander, Dossier Editor, Psychologies Magazine “I know first hand the joy that being in the right career can bring and I commend John Lees for his books and seminars which help other people do just that.” Rosemary Conley CBE
How to use this book if you have an interview TOMORROW Twenty-six of the questions covered by this book are given a ★ rating. This symbol is included in the list of questions (see page xiii), and also against each question as it appears in the text. These questions represent the basic toolkit – the main questions to prepare for in any interview. Even if you don’t read anything else, you’ll still have an advantage in the interview. One final tip: don’t discuss pay until you’ve read the answers to Question 225 (see page 233).
Job Interviews Top Answers to Tough Questions Third Edition
London • Boston • Burr Ridge, IL • Dubuque, IA • Madison WI • New York San Francisco • St. Louis • Bangkok • Bogotá • Caracas • Kuala Lumpur Lisbon • Madrid • Mexico City • Milan • Montreal • New Delhi • Santiago Seoul • Singapore • Sydney • Taipei • Toronto
Job Interviews Third Edition John Lees ISBN-13: 978-0-07714160-8 ISBN-10: 0-07-714160-1 e-ISBN: 978-0-07714161-5 ISBN 13: 978-0-07-711909-6 ISBN 10: 0-07-711909-6
Published by: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Shoppenhangers Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England SL6 2QL Telephone: 44 (0) 1628 502500 Fax: 44 (0) 1628 770224 Website: www.mcgraw-hill.co.uk British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Copyright © 2012 by John Lees. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Typeset and designed by Gray Publishing, Tunbridge Wells Printed in Great Britain by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow.
How to use this book if you have an interview TOMORROW
List of worksheets
How to make the most of this book
List of 225 questions
About the author
The interview game Getting started
Planning to succeed The secrets of interview preparation
2 3 4 5
Opening questions Breaking the ice
Unpacking your CV Presenting your work experience
Probing your learning Your personal knowledge bank
6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Getting your key messages across Communicating the things that matter
What kind of person are you? Personality questions
Motivation – what drives you? What energizes your working life?
Making an impact How long before you get cracking?
Revealing your ‘edge’ Sharpening up your evidence
Competency-based questions Behavioural questions
Difficult questions Can you take the heat?
Wildcard questions Questions that mess with your head
Towards the finishing line Your questions and closing statements
The decision Last questions, offers, and rejections
List of worksheets If you would like larger, A4 versions of these worksheets they can be downloaded free of charge from www.johnleescareers.com/downloads.asp
Organization fact sheet
Job fact sheet
Critical incidents worksheet
Job offer checklist
Preface This book prepares you for job interviews. A conversation that may take little more than an hour can have a huge impact on your confidence and career future, yet too many people leave the results of job interviews to chance and instinct, hoping to improvise on the day and pluck answers out of the air. Taking time to anticipate what will happen in an interview makes the difference between occasional knock-backs and repeated rejection. There are many aspects to preparation, and apart from giving example questions and answers, this book reveals the things that above-average candidates do to get results: anticipating what an employer is looking for, thorough research, fully understanding your strengths. Strong performers prepare for every kind of interview question – routine, difficult, probing, competency-based, skill-probing, or just plain off-the-wall. This third edition has been thoroughly revised and updated: n Previous versions listed 201 questions; this edition covers 225 questions. n Over 50% of the questions in this edition are new or substantially revised. There are more sample answers provided than any previous edition.
n All questions and answers have been revised to reflect today’s demanding job market, with insights into the employer mindset when vacancies are thin on the ground. n All exercises have been refreshed and updated. You may want to use this book alongside other John Lees titles such as The Interview Expert (Pearson), or How To Get A Job You’ll Love, or Career Reboot, or Why You? – CV Messages To Win Jobs (McGraw-Hill). This book draws on hard evidence of what employers and recruiters ask, and what they hear in your unguarded reply. This advice is designed to help you improve your interview performance in a tough marketplace where jobs seem hard to find. It will help you whatever kind of job you are chasing – public or private sector, mainstream employer or not-forprofit organization. The approach of this book is practical. There are no magic solutions on offer – no killer answers that guarantee a job offer. You’re going to have to do some thinking and some work. You will learn what makes an interviewer tick, and the signals that set off alarm bells. You will learn how to cut out material and only say the things that matter – taking care to be both coherent and memorable. You will learn how not to shoot yourself in the foot, and how to get past the toughest interview questions. Don’t just read the questions – use them to develop and practise your answers until your interview performance reflects the best version of you that you are capable of delivering.
How to make the most of this book Chapter 1 sets the scene and reminds you of the types of interview you may face. You’d be unwise to skip Chapter 2 on preparing yourself and preparing your evidence in response to an employer’s requirements. Small talk, first impressions and opening questions are dealt with in Chapter 3. The basics of explaining core information in your CV are covered in Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Chapter 6 outlines typical interviewer question strategies and also helps you to start thinking about the messages you want to plant in the mind of the interviewer. Questions on your personality and motivation are explored in Chapters 7 and 8. For more demanding jobs, look in detail at Chapter 9 on making an impact, and Chapter 10 on the best ways of showing you have an edge over the competition. Chapters 11–13 take an in-depth look at questions that require even more preparation – competency-based approaches, difficult questions you can predict, and oddball ones that you often can’t. Finally, we look at the last stages of the process – the questions you should have prepared for the end of the interview (Chapter 14), and your strategies for handling final questions, scrutinizing a job offer, and picking yourself up if you get a rejection letter (Chapter 15). The various worksheets in this book are downloadable in A4 versions free of charge from www.johnleescareers.com/ downloads.asp – all you need to do is register on the site.
List of 225 questions Chapter 1: The interview game
Q1 What prompted you to apply for this role?
Q2 What kind of job are you looking for?
Chapter 2: Planning to succeed
Q3 What do you think of our facility here?
Q4 How did you come across this job?
Q5 How much do you know about us?
Chapter 3: Opening questions
Q6 Did you have any problems finding us?
Q7 What do you prefer to be called?
Q8 How long have you been interested in history?
Q9 Did you enjoy your time at university?
Q10 How do you like living in Bristol?
Q11 Did you hear the news this morning?
Q12 Can we offer you tea, coffee, a glass of water?
Q13 Where did you see the job advertised?
Q14 I know your boss well. How is she?
Q15 You’re not what we expected …
xiv List of 225 questions
Chapter 4: Unpacking your CV
Q16 Tell me about the job you’re doing at the moment.
Q17 Describe a typical day in your last job.
V Q18 Talk me through your work history …
Q19 What did you dislike about your last job?
Q20 You appear to have had a number of careers. Perhaps you’d like to explain …?
Q21 How much did your last job stretch you?
Q22 What exactly were you responsible for?
Q23 What contact have you had with senior management? 45
Q24 Give me an example of when you have been flexible about a work problem.
V Q25 Tell me about a major project you’ve worked on recently.
Q26 What have you learned from the jobs that you have held?
Q27 Where did your job fit into the organizational structure?
V Q28 There’s something puzzling me about your CV …
Q29 I don’t understand the terms you have used here in your CV …
Q30 There appears to be a gap in your CV. What were you doing during this time?
V Q31 You seem to have done a lot of unpaid work …
Q32 Tell me more about your work with the Salvation Army …
Chapter 5: Probing your learning
Q33 What have you most enjoyed studying?
Q34 Why did you choose that course of study?
Q35 What’s this qualification all about?
V Q36 What have you learned from your studies that will help you in this job?
Q37 What would you say if I suggested that you are over-qualified for this position?
Q38 We’re concerned that you don’t have a degree …
List of 225 questions
Q39 What have you learned in the last 12 months?
Q40 How have you kept up your professional development?
Q41 How do you prefer to learn?
V Q42 How do you keep informed professionally?
Q43 What made you choose to become an environmental engineer?
Q44 What important trends do you see in our industry?
Chapter 6: Getting your key messages across
V Q45 Tell us about yourself.
Q46 You have very little work experience. Why should we take your application further? 75
Q47 I notice you were made redundant from your last job. How do you feel about that?
Q48 Your experience is all in the public sector. Why should we consider your application?
Q49 How did you get into your last role?
Q50 What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Q51 Tell me about an important goal you would like to achieve.
Q52 What is your current salary?
Q53 What sort of pay package are you after?
Q54 We’re going to ask you to take some tests. Have you been tested recently? 80
Q55 Can we contact your current employer for a reference?
Q56 Why am I unsure about whether you actually want a job?
Q57 Would you consider this role on a short-term basis?
Q58 So, if I could just summarize …
Chapter 7: What kind of person are you?
V Q59 How would you describe your personality?
Q60 How would your work colleagues describe you?
xvi List of 225 questions
Q61 What personal characteristics do you have which will make you successful in this position?
Q62 How resilient are you?
Q63 How determined are you?
Q64 How much freedom of action do you like in a job?
Q65 What kind of people do you like to work with? What kind of people do you least prefer to work with?
V Q66 What are your strengths? V Q67 What are your weaknesses?
Q68 If I spoke to your former boss, what would she say are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Q69 What kind of manager do you prefer to work with?
Q70 Who’s the most difficult manager you’ve ever had to work with?
Q71 What rattles your cage?
Q72 What parts of your last job would you prefer not to repeat?
V Q73 Tell me about a time when you were part of an effective team.
Q74 What do you normally contribute to a team?
Q75 What would be your ideal team?
Q76 Let me describe the team you would be joining if we appointed you. How would you fit in? 103
V Q77 Why do you feel you have management potential?
Q78 What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to do as a manager?
Q79 In what ways are you creative?
Chapter 8: Motivation – what drives you?
V Q80 What makes this role the right next step for you?
Q81 What has been the high point of your career?
Q82 I notice you left your last role some time back. How’s the job search been going?
Q83 I notice you’ve been working as a consultant. How are you going to convince me that you want a permanent job?
List of 225 questions xvii
Q84 Why do you want to leave your present job?
V Q85 Why are you on the market right now?
Q86 Why did you leave your last position?
Q87 Have you been tempted to leave your current job before? If so, why did you decide to stay?
Q88 How will you react if your present employer makes a counter-offer? 116
Q89 What will you say in your resignation letter if you’re offered this job?
Q90 What career options do you feel you have at the moment?
Q91 What would you look for in your ideal job?
Q92 Who would be your ideal employer?
Q93 What’s the best job you’ve ever had?
Q94 What gives you a buzz at work?
Q95 How do you feel about your career progress to date? 121
Q96 How far do you see yourself rising in our organization?
Q97 What parts of this job appeal to you? Which aspects are less appealing? 122
Q98 I’m coming to the conclusion that you don’t have the right experience for this job. Do you want to try to change my mind? 124
Q99 Would you consider working for us on a voluntary basis?
Chapter 9: Making an impact Q100 How do you define success?
Q101 What have you done that you’re really proud of?
Q102 What were the key projects you completed in your last job?
Q103 Talk me through the way you normally plan and manage a project.
Q104 How do you cope when you have to manage several projects at one time?
Q105 Give me an example of where your job changed significantly.
xviii List of 225 questions Q106 What are your long-term goals?
V Q107 Where do you hope to be in five years’ time? V Q108 What difference will you make in your first 90 days?
Q109 How long will it take for you to make a meaningful contribution to the role?
Q110 What do you identify as our biggest opportunity? What do you feel is our market advantage?
Q111 Where’s our weak spot?
Q112 When have you had true bottom-line accountability? 140 Q113 If you could, what would you change about this position?
Q114 What would we have to do to keep you challenged?
Chapter 10: Revealing your ‘edge’ Q115 How does your job support the overall goals of your organization?
Q116 Give me an example of a time when you solved a tricky problem.
Q117 What was your workload like in your last job?
Q118 Tell me how you added value in a role.
Q119 In what ways has your career prepared you to take on greater responsibility?
Q120 How would you rate your progress compared with your peers?
Q121 How do you motivate people?
Q122 Do you prefer to work alone or with your team members around you?
Q123 How often did your boss check on your work?
Q124 What’s your normal communication style?
Q125 Tell me about a tough decision you had to make at work.
Q126 Describe a time when you had to make a rapid decision under pressure.
Q127 Tell me about a time when you had to make an unpopular decision.
Q128 I see you received only an ‘average’ rating in your last appraisal. Would you like to comment?
List of 225 questions xix
Q129 How did you know you were doing a good job?
Q130 What things do you find difficult?
Q131 How would you react to fairly routine or repetitive work?
Q132 Tell us about a time when you had to consult carefully before introducing change.
Q133 How is this role different from your last job?
Q134 What will you regret about leaving your present job? 155 Q135 What makes you think you could handle a position that requires such a range of skills and experience?
Q136 What kind of people do you think do well in this sector?
Q137 Where’s the evidence?
Chapter 11: Competency-based questions
V Q138 As you know, we’re looking for candidates with specific competencies. How does your experience match?
V Q139 Where exactly have you used this competency?
Q140 What competencies were required for your last job? 164 Q141 Describe a complex problem that you had to deal with.
Q142 Tell me about a time you coached someone in the workplace.
Q143 Tell me about a time when you failed to get on with your work colleagues. 166 Q144 How did you get along with your last team?
Q145 Give us an example of a time when you worked in a difficult team.
Q146 Tell me about a time when you were part of a team failing to achieve its goals. 168 Q147 How good are you at reading people for the first time?
Q148 Tell me about a time when you had to persuade someone to do something they were unhappy about. 169 Q149 Describe a situation where you failed to reach a goal 169 that had been set for you.
xx List of 225 questions
V Q150 Where have you had to work under pressure? V Q151 Where do you think you could make the biggest impact in this role?
Q152 How capable are you of making decisions not covered by the rule book?
Q153 How do you interact with staff at different management levels?
Q154 How do you manage people?
Q155 What do you see as the hardest part of being a manager?
Q156 Tell me about a time when you took a tough decision as a manager.
Q157 Where have you displayed leadership qualities?
Q158 Can you really sell?
Q159 Where have you made cost savings?
Chapter 12: Difficult questions Q160 What kind of person are you?
Q161 What do you want to get out of today’s meeting?
V Q162 How do you see us as a business?
Q163 What is the worst thing you have ever heard about our organization?
Q164 How do you get on with your former employer?
Q165 You’ve gone back to your former employer on a consultancy basis. What’s that all about?
Q166 Can you work overtime? Evenings? Weekends? Do you have any restrictions on travel?
Q167 What’s your pressure point? What makes you crack? 185 Q168 Have you ever been turned down when you asked for a salary increase?
Q169 Have you ever been asked to take a pay cut? How did you respond?
Q170 I hear you took your previous employer to an Industrial Tribunal – tell me about that.
Q171 Have you ever been asked to resign?
List of 225 questions xxi
Q172 Have you ever been dismissed from a job? Describe the circumstances.
Q173 When has your work been criticized? What was your response?
Q174 Is there anything that you think is missing from the job description? 191 Q175 If you take this job, how long would you expect to stay in it?
Q176 How do you feel about working in this location?
Q177 Why aren’t you earning more at your age?
Q178 Do you think that perhaps you should have moved on quicker in each job? Do you wait until you’re pushed before making a move? 194 Q179 Why would someone with your experience want to work here?
Q180 You’ve met the boss earlier today. How do you think you’ll get on? 195 Q181 Would you like to have my job?
Q182 Would you have any reservations about taking this job?
Q183 Don’t you think you would be better suited to a different type of organization?
Q184 Why do you think we might not offer you this job?
V Q185 Everyone on the short-list has similar background and experience. Why should we give you the job?
Chapter 13: Wildcard questions Q186 What kinds of contacts could you introduce us to?
Q187 What new products will your employer be launching this year? 200 Q188 What question could I ask that would really challenge you? 201 Q189 If our roles were reversed, what questions would you ask?
Q190 If you were an animal in the jungle, what animal would you be?
Q191 If you were going to Mars, what three things would you take? 204
xxii List of 225 questions Q192 What’s 17% of £40,000?
Q193 How many lightbulbs are there in this building?
Q194 Sell me this stapler.
Q195 How would you deal with an angry customer?
Q196 How do you deal with people who keep saying no?
Q197 Where does your boss think you are right now?
Q198 How would you fit in here in an all-white workforce? 209 Q199 How do you feel about working with a female boss? 210 Q200 Are you married? How would your husband feel about you taking this job?
Q201 How will you manage childcare while you are at work?
Q202 Do you plan to start a family?
Q203 Do you have any dependants at home that you look after? 211 Q204 This job requires long hours. Will this be a problem for your family?
Q205 Why should I hire someone who hasn’t worked for 10 years?
Q206 Your last job was 12 years ago. How up to date are your skills? 213 Q207 Don’t you think you’re a little old for this job?
Q208 Don’t you feel you’re a little too young for this job?
Q209 That is an interesting accent. Where do you come from?
Q210 Which country did you qualify in?
Q211 Have you ever been in trouble with the law?
Q212 Can you do this job with your health problem?
List of 225 questions xxiii
Chapter 14: Towards the finishing line Q213 Is there anything you’d like to add?
V Q214 Do you have any questions for us?
Chapter 15: The decision Q215 What other job offers do you expect to come in soon?
Q216 Which other organizations are interested in you?
Q217 How does this job compare with others you are applying for?
Q218 Is there any reason why you couldn’t accept this job if we offered it to you? 230 Q219 How quickly can you come on board?
Q220 Do you have any problem with us taking up references?
Q221 We have some concerns we’d like to go through with you …
Q222 We’d like to offer you the job, but …
Q223 The job is yours. I assume you’re OK with the standard package. When can you start?
V Q224 Would you take the job at a lower salary? V Q225 What sort of pay figure did you have in mind?
About the author John Lees is one of the UK’s best-known career strategists. His book How To Get A Job You’ll Love regularly tops the career bestseller lists and has twice been selected as WH Smith’s Business Book of the Month. As a career transition coach, John has helped people across the UK to make difficult career decisions – difficult either because they don’t know what to do next, or because there are barriers in the way of success. He is in demand as a keynote speaker in the UK, and has presented at international career conferences and at events in the USA, South Africa, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. John is a columnist for a range of national titles including Metro and People Management. He regularly appears in the national press and magazines ranging from Psychologies to She. His work has also been profiled in The Sunday Times and Coaching at Work. John broadcasts widely and has contributed to the BBC interactive Back to Work series programme, BBC2’s Working Lunch, Channel 4’s Dispatches and ITV’s Tonight – How To Get A Job. He is a regular blog contributor to Harvard Business Review online. John is a graduate of the universities of Cambridge, London and Liverpool, and has spent most of his career focusing on the world of work. He has trained recruitment specialists since the mid-1980s, and is the former chief executive of the Institute of Employment Consultants. He has
About the author xxv
worked with a large range of organizations including British Gas Commercial, The British Council, Career Management Consultants Ltd, CIPD, Cranfield School of Management, The House of Commons, Imperial College, Orange, REC, The Association of MBAs, Lloyds Banking Group, Marks & Spencer, Reuters, and Tribal, as well as business schools across the UK. John is a Fellow of the CIPD, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Recruitment Professionals, a Career Management Fellow, and Joint Chair of ACPi-UK. Alongside his careers work John serves as an ordained Anglican priest in the Diocese of Chester. He lives and works in Cheshire, with his wife, the children’s writer, Jan Dean, with occasional visits from their two adult sons. John Lees Associates provides one-to-one career coaching in most parts of the UK. For details visit www. johnleescareers.com or telephone 01565 631625. Other Careers Books by John Lees published by McGraw-Hill Professional (See www.johnleescareers.com/books.asp) How To Get A Job You’ll Love (2010), £12.99, ISBN 9780077129934 Career Reboot – 24 Tips For Tough Times (2009), £9.99 ISBN 9780077127589 Take Control of Your Career (2006), £12.99, ISBN 9780077109677 Why You? CV Messages To Win Jobs (2007), £9.99, ISBN 9780077115104.
Acknowledgements With age comes, perhaps later than it should, a realization of those many people I haven’t thanked enough. I owe a huge debt to Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the world-famous What Color Is Your Parachute? My work as a career strategist was inspired by the creativity, wisdom and generosity of 125 hours’ teaching from Dick Bolles at two of his summer workshops in Bend, Oregon, and a decade of continuing encouragement. Thanks again to Matthew DeLuca, President of the Management Resource Group, Inc. of New York city, for allowing me to adapt his title Best Answers To The 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions as the original edition of this book. My thanks go to those who have recently invited me to write about job interviews: Parminder Bahra (Wall Street Journal Online), James Brockett (People Management), Sarah Green (Harvard Business Review online), Martin Stevens (Metro), Thomas Watson (totaljobs), and to those who have allowed me to road test ideas with different audiences: Judith Armatage (Recruitment & Employment Confederation), Isabel Chadwick (Career Management Consultants Ltd), Graeme Dixon and Steve Gorton (AMBA), Suchi Mukherjee (Gumtree), Deborah Hockham (I Am Events), Mary Maybin (Passport), Helen Marriott (One Life Live), Brian McIvor, Lorraine Silverman, Janie Wilson (Can Do It Now), and Robin Wood (Career Management Consultants Ltd).
Thanks are also due more people than I can hope to remember for their insights and good ideas. First, particular thanks go to Stuart McIntosh, Ian Webb and Robin Rose, sources of great expertise over many years. Special thanks go to Gill Best, Managing Consultant at John Lees Associates, for being a friend and mentor as well as a great business colleague. I am indebted to Bernard Pearce (Career Inspirations) for his thinking on presentation statements. Thanks go also to Jo Bond, Julian Childs, Delia Corrie, Zena Everett (Second Careers), Pete Hawkins (Windmills), Mike Higgins (This Is My Path), Kate Howlett (Ruspini Consulting), Daniel Porot, Stuart Robertson, Sophie Rowan (Pinpoint), Sital Ruparelia (Sital Ruparelia Solutions), Joelle Warren (Warren Partners), and to fellow members of the Linked-In Career Coach Forum. Particular thanks are due also to my editor Monika Lee and the marketing team at McGraw-Hill, and to Elizabeth Choules for editing the first edition. My huge appreciation goes to my agent James Wills at Watson, Little, for his diligence and encouragement, and to Sue Blake, very possibly the best publicist on the planet. This book is dedicated with love and ever-increasing appreciation to my parents, George and Mair Lees. John Lees
1 The interview game GETTING STARTED
If you’ve got as far as a job interview you’ve already demonstrated your ability to do the job. Take this as real encouragement – in a tight market you won’t get into the interview room if the job is outside your range. Therefore, the task ahead isn’t about proving you are worth talking to – it’s about standing out from a short-list of capable people. The employer is talking to people who have roughly the same experience, skills, and qualifications as you. Some of them may have done this exact job before. Some may be internal candidates already known to the organization. To get the job, being competent isn’t enough. You have to put in an above-average interview performance, match yourself to the employer’s top items, and at the same time make sure you don’t talk yourself out of the job. You might think that employers choose the candidates who are the best fit, but often they give more weight to your performance in the interview than any other factor. Good interview performers get jobs. Too many candidates believe that interview success is more about luck than preparation. They are right, but only in the sense that we manage part of our luck. You will find your luck improves with effort and practice. Anticipating the questions you will be asked at interview is a critical part of the process of improving the odds in your favour. You might be looking at the list of chapters in this book and reviewing the
The interview game
wide range of questions covered, and thinking that interview preparation looks like very hard work. There’s no way round that fact, but look at the return on your investment: transforming your performance, becoming a winning candidate, shortening your job search time, and very possibly getting a job that feels worth doing. Most candidates are perfectly happy to put hard work into job interviews, but often that effort goes in the wrong place. Although they pay lip service to preparation, their underlying plan is to channel all their effort into the interview experience on the day, improvising answers under pressure. This is a high-risk strategy. This book shows you how to put in the right effort long before you get anywhere near the interview room. When the first tough question is fired at you, you won’t be surprised, and you will be ready. You will have done your thinking in advance. You’ve prepared your examples, and you’ve worked out your replies in outline, not memorized in rote form, but with sufficient detail so that your reply will be clear, confident, and to the point. Going to interviews can often feel like a series of experiments, trying out your material on different audiences, testing to see what kinds of questions come up. Indeed, you hear candidates say they are going to interviews ‘just for the practice’. This is a questionable tactic, as it often leads to rejection and knock-backs to performance, not added confidence. Don’t use live interviews as your only method of improving interview skills. Take as many opportunities as you can to improve your techniques and awareness. Try out trickier answers on friends and colleagues. Seek out anyone you know who has HR, recruitment, or similar experience and roadtest your answers. Practise talking about yourself, and ask for feedback from colleagues or friends. Don’t just seek praise and reassurance, but ask someone listening to you to summarize what they have heard. Do everything you can to make sure you are close to the top of your game before going to a
real job interview, with well-prepared examples at your fingertips, perhaps inspired by suggested answers in this book.
Types of interviews you may experience Effective recruitment has been described as the right person in the right time at the right cost. Recruitment is an expensive and time-consuming process, and interviews are a major drain on staff time. So why do they happen? Essentially because employers want to discover information that your CV doesn’t provide, and to see, face to face, whether you will fit. Screening interviews are often conducted by telephone. These interviews tend to ask a handful of key questions in order to filter candidates in or out, and successful candidates will then usually go to a face-to-face interview. Registration interviews are most often conducted by recruitment agencies, but also by some employers, to get a broad sense of your experience and skills and to see how you might fit a wide range of positions that might come up in the future. In this interview it’s often important to be clear about the kind of work you are looking for. Recruitment consultancy interviews are sometimes registration interviews, but may be a stage in short-listing you for a particular role. Here, the external recruiter acts as a gatekeeper, deciding whether to put you forward to an employer. A recruitment consultancy will charge the employer a fee if you are appointed, so it is important that you show that you will put in a strong interview performance. Dress and present yourself as if it was the final interview, and treat the consultant as the eyes and ears of the employer. Telephone interviews are often used to reduce costs and to speed up recruitment, but usually only for the very first stage of short-listing. Some recruitment consultancies nearly always conduct interviews this way. When you cannot see the
The interview game
other person in an interview, the only tool available to you for building relationships is your voice. Make sure you don’t sound flat or monotone – talk energetically about your interest in the role. Competency-based interviews are covered in detail in Chapter 11. Here employers will be probing your experience in some depth, drawing out not only skills but know-how, attitude, and the results you have achieved. This process begins with an employer defining the competencies found in above-average performers, and giving you the opportunity to present evidence which shows where you have demonstrated these abilities. Panel interviews, common in charity and public sector appointments, often worry candidates. Several interviewers will be in the room, sometimes working to a predetermined sequence, sometimes firing questions from all directions. Identify key decision-makers in advance, but establish eye contact with as many people as possible while giving your answers. If the panel asks highly structured questions which allow no follow-up or probing, make sure you give full and detailed answers to every part of the question. Follow-up interviews are common in today’s market. Some organizations will require you to go through three or more interviews before a selection decision. Other forms of assessment may include intelligence or personality testing (see Q54), skill tests, in-tray exercises, group discussion, leadership or team exercises, presentations from candidates, and a number of other measures.
Interviews in a tough jobs market In any year many people will say ‘this is a really bad time to be changing jobs’, but recent years really have presented tough challenges for job-seekers. It’s easy to feel downhearted
or that applying for jobs is a waste of time, and this feeling is very easily reinforced if you experience repeated rejections. There have been large-scale redundancies across all sectors, there are fewer jobs advertised, and more jobs are filled by informal connections including word of mouth. The result? A buyer’s market. Employers now believe that they can set the bar even higher in terms of candidate ability. They can hold out for candidates who have done the job before. They can often take their pick from a highly talented field, with many graduates applying for relatively low-level positions. Nevertheless, employers report two continuing trends. One is that they still have difficulty finding staff with the right ability, attitude to work, and skill set. The second is that they still see too many candidates who have done minimal preparation for the interview and seem to have only the vaguest idea about how they match the job. So, the good news is that the well-prepared candidate still has an advantage. A well-planned job search campaign, good attention to your interview performance (thinking about your overall impact, not just what you say), and smart anticipation of interview questions will all help move you closer to the point an employer says ‘yes’.
Questions, questions … This book is full of typical interview questions with supporting commentary and a range of example answers. Here’s your first sample question – one which shows the importance of the employer perspective. Q1 What prompted you to apply for this role? In the small talk at the beginning the interview (see Chapter 3) an interviewer may express curiosity about what motivated
The interview game
you to contact the organization about the job on offer. Was it on impulse, or part of a bigger plan? This question is a good opportunity for you to make a positive first impression. Remember the one message an employer does not want to hear – ‘I was looking for a job and this came up’ , or, even worse ‘I need a job, and this will do for the moment’. A question like this is essentially looking at four key areas: attracts you about this job? (See also Q97.) do you find interesting about this organization? (See Q5.) n How clear are you about what you’re looking for? (See Q2.) n How sure are you that you match what we’re looking for? (See Q135.) n What n What
Whatever you say, begin with enthusiasm, moving on to offer a quick match between what you’re looking for and what’s on offer: ‘I was really excited to see this position advertised. I’ve been in L&D for five years now, designing courses and developing a wide range of learning materials, but this role would be a great step up for me because of the opportunity to develop a full range of intranet resources.’ Q2 What kind of job are you looking for? This is a big question and yet it’s often asked at the very earliest stage of the recruitment process – perhaps during a telephone screening interview or a registration interview with an agency. It’s a question which captures your motivation, your clarity of thought, and your career intentions, so don’t duck it or hope it won’t come up.
If someone asked you this question over coffee, you would probably mention job titles, but in many career conversations naming jobs like this can limit your options. A strong answer conveys the main components in your ideal job mix, but relates them closely to the opportunity on offer: ‘My background is 10 years in financial services with a strong emphasis on the customer experience. I’m looking for a role where I can use this knowledge in the hospitality or entertainment sectors.’ ‘The reason I’m excited about this job is that I’m looking for a role where I can draw on my design skills but also spend more time talking to end users.’
Top 10 ‘start-up’ tips 1. Begin by browsing through the book. Pick out the questions you know are most relevant to you, and the questions you will find it most difficult to answer. Start preparing your response. 2. Plan your time and use it effectively, particularly if you are unemployed. Get support from friends, colleagues, and groups designed to assist job searchers. Commit to spend about twice as much time on your job search than you were planning to when you bought this book. 3. Pick out questions in the book that worry you the most. Start to sketch out answers on paper before finding a colleague to practise with. 4. Gather evidence. Many questions will require you to have evidence at your fingertips, so start to review your work history. 5. Start cataloguing. Write in the book. Complete the exercises and keep a record of your discoveries.
The interview game
6. Focus on preparation – yourself, your evidence, and your homework on the organization. 7. Focus on your strengths. Do not get stuck criticizing yourself, but examine your behaviours and accentuate the positives. 8. Enjoy the interview process – meeting people and learning about different organizations. 9. Learn from each interview. Whether you were offered the job or not, use each interview experience as a laboratory to develop better techniques and better answers. 10. Prepare for rejection. You’ll get knock-backs – everyone does. Accept the fact that a proportion of interviews may be unsuccessful. Pick yourself up, cheer yourself up – but don’t commit to a major change of strategy when you are at your lowest ebb (see Chapter 15).
Planning to succeed THE SECRETS OF IN TERVIEW P REPARATION
Your next interview is approaching. If you want to improve your odds, don’t make the mistake of the average job-seeker. Most candidates have a simple interview strategy: they plan to do the work in the interview room itself, by believing they can ‘wing it’ on the day. This is fairly passive, operating around the idea ‘I don’t know what they’ll ask me, so I will respond as things come up’. The experiences of thousands of interviewees will tell you that this doesn’t work. You will need to work hard in the interview itself, but you need to work harder before it happens. The real work is in advance preparation. This works on two levels. First, you don’t guess what questions are going to come up – you anticipate them by reading clues. Second, you have practised responses ready to those questions and areas where you know you might get into difficulty.
Understanding yourself and your ‘offer’ With any job search process, you need to begin with a personal audit so you’re clear about what you have to offer. This will help you to prepare for interview questions, but will also provide big clues about the kind of work you might like to do in the future. Complete the personal worksheet to start to catalogue information about yourself that you may be discussing at interview.
10 Planning to succeed
Personal worksheet What I am like: List all the adjectives that can be used to describe you (for example, cheerful, resourceful, creative, loyal, methodical …).
What I can do: List the skills that you regularly use under the headings provided. Skills I use around people
Skills I use with technical problems
Skills I use requiring imagination & creativity
Skills I use requiring a nalysis & organization
Skills I use to solve practical problems
Skills I regularly use outside work
The secrets of interview preparation 11
What I know: List any areas where you have particular knowledge or expertise. Start with your studies, but look at areas of work where you have acquired specialist knowledge.
Activities that give me a ‘buzz’: List 10 activities you would like to do in a new job. 1.
12 Planning to succeed
Skills You may have had difficulty listing your skills in the personal worksheet (page 10). Many job changers only see half the picture when it comes to their own skill set. Sometimes they don’t know what their skills are, and at other times they only see the skills that mattered in their last job, or those which other people valued. Look in detail at past jobs, and think about the skills that were required, and the new skills that you brought to the role. Which skills do you use well? What do you have in your skill set which other people don’t have? Most importantly of all, think about the evidence that you have to support any statement you might have about skills. Evidence might include: n Qualifications, certificates of attendance on training courses. n Appraisal records, and praise from managers. n Awards or prizes. n Feedback from happy customers. n A portfolio recording work you have performed. n Photographs, models, prototypes, press cuttings.
The secrets of interview preparation 13
Analysing and communicating your skills
For more on skill discovery, see How To Get A Job You’ll Love. If you are unclear of your motivated skills and how to communicate them, try the JLA Skill Cards. The skill cards come with a full set of instructions to assist career changers, and ensure that you have detailed achievement evidence for job interviews. See www.johnleescareers.com for details.
Gaining a better understanding of what the employer needs Research as if you were investing in the business Sometimes it’s the best informed interviewee who gets the job. Employers frequently complain about the fact that people who turn up to interview don’t seem to know very much
14 Planning to succeed
about the organization. It’s surprising how little background research it takes to put in above-average research on a target employer. Use the organization fact sheet (page 15) to collect facts about the business. Start to create a research file, including cuttings and print-offs from web pages. In the past, detailed research meant spending a lot of time in business libraries. Today, the Internet will tell you most things you need, but you need to spend time researching the right things. How long has the organization been in business? Where is it based? What are its main products, services, and competitors? Then focus on the people involved – who are the key people in the organization? Who will be interviewing you, and what are their roles? Make sure your research is up to date. What has the organization been doing recently? Dip into trade journals or search different product names to find out, but you may learn a great deal by clicking through to the ‘press and media’ part of an organization’s website and downloading recent press releases. If appropriate, call up the employer and request a recent annual report or any other publications. You can find a great deal of information about the organization from a range of sources: n The organization’s website or documentation. n Media coverage. n Current employees. n Former members of staff. n Suppliers, external consultants, and sister or parent
zations. n Other industry or professional contacts. n Staff on reception on your way into the interview. Wherever possible supplement your research through conversations with anyone you know who has worked at this organization in the past, or contacts who know the employer
The secrets of interview preparation 15
well (for example, a contractor, consultant, or other kind of supplier). Organization fact sheet Name of organization: Office location: Website: Contact person:
Email: Names and job titles of people interviewing:
Nature of business: Number of years trading: Number of employees: Number of locations/sites: Ownership: Key people in senior roles:
Main products or services:
16 Planning to succeed
Key facts and data:
Recent and current market trends:
Zooming in on the job Next, use every job-related document you can, supplemented by personal and website research, to fill in the job fact sheet. Job fact sheet Job title: Where advertised/how did I come across the role? Name and contact details of recruitment consultant: Job description: Main tasks
Main skills required
The secrets of interview preparation 17
Personality attributes required
Key result areas
Size of unit: Size of department’s annual budget/staffing requirements? Location of unit: Who does the job report to? How many staff report to this post holder? Budgets or targets for the role How is the company doing compared to others in its sector?
If this is a new job, why has it been created? Organizational chart: others on ‘my’ level? Salary range: When will the final decision be made? How long has the position been open? How many on the short-list?
Q3 What do you think of our facility here? This is partly an icebreaker question (see Chapter 3), but also probes your knowledge of the organization. Any question along these lines is really a variation on ‘what do you know about us?’ (see Q5), and therefore a good chance to drop in one piece of information from your background research.
18 Planning to succeed
Mention any previous visits you’ve made to this site or other locations. Even if the building is in need of a facelift, say something positive about the way the building ‘feels’. You might pick up on historical features or any facility that is clearly innovative and well designed. Your comments on what you see should reveal something of your knowledge of the business. ‘I love the high-tech feel to the building, and the fact that people smile at you in the corridor!’ Q4 How did you come across this job? (See also Q13.) You get no brownie points by answering ‘through your advertisement’ or ‘on the Internet’. If this is the first time you have come across this organization, try not to let that show. There are many ways you might have fallen across the vacancy; you don’t need to get into great detail. If the connection was made through your personal network it would be natural to mention a name. Only do this if (a) the intermediary is someone you know well and (b) the name is going to mean something to your interviewer. If you know someone who works at the organization, it may be best to declare that now. Avoid name-dropping, but if your neighbour happens to be a senior manager who recommended that you apply, don’t hesitate to mention the fact. Warm introductions work because organizations generally prefer talking to people they know something about. On the other hand, don’t risk falling on your face by pretending you know senior staff better than you do. Use this opportunity to show that you are generally aware of what is going on in the sector, and you’ve done further research: ‘Clearly you’ve been a key player in this sector for a number of years, and you’ve made a big impact recently with your new
The secrets of interview preparation 19
product range, so I was pleased to hear that this role had come up …’
★Q5 How much do you know about us? (See also Q110 & Q163.) If you are unprepared for this question, you should not be sitting in a job interview. You owe it to yourself to learn as much as you can about any organization offering an interview. For almost any job in the world you can go online and find out a great deal about job content, challenges, learning opportunities, and career prospects. If you know nothing at all about the role, begin with the basics – go to a site such as www.prospects.ac.uk to get an overview of a sector and roles that exist within it. Look at the organization’s website, and similar jobs advertised by other organizations. Ask around to find people who can give you an insider perspective. Spend at least an hour on the Internet researching the organization so you can discuss its main products and services, recent developments, headaches the business is facing, or awards it has won. If you uncover negative views about the organization, exercise judgement about how much you share (see Q163). Try to determine how the department you want to join fits into the bigger picture. Then find out, using LinkedIn, as well as the organization’s website, something about the people who will be interviewing you. There really is no excuse for turning up and claiming ignorance or saying you haven’t had the time to look. Provide a concise overview of your findings: ‘I understand the business went through a management buy-out last year and since then you’ve diversified considerably. I believe you plan to open two new regional offices early next year.’
20 Planning to succeed
Personal preparation checklist n Check the location of the interview. Plan your route carefully, perhaps even doing a ‘dummy run’ the day before if it’s a really important interview. n Telephone to double-check arrival instructions if you are uncertain. Ask whether you need exact change to pay for parking. n Check the names and titles of people you are meeting, and ask reception how a name is pronounced if you are in doubt. n Allow a big safety margin in terms of arrival time. Sit quietly in the car park or in a nearby café, and turn up at reception 10 minutes before the interview is scheduled to take place, unless you are given more specific joining instructions. Arriving early will give you a chance to look around the area and the site, and talk to the reception staff. n Take a copy of the CV and cover letter you used to win the interview. n Take a copy of the job advertisement and job description. n On one side of A4 take along the highlights from your research notes and your pre-prepared questions for the end of the interview (see Chapter 14), plus a note of any key messages you want to get across. n Switch off your mobile phone before entering the building. You don’t need any distractions. n While waiting, ‘warm up’ through small talk with anyone you run across in the reception area. Get a feel for the culture of the organization – is it formal, friendly, up to date? Do people look engaged and interested in their work? Look also at the way the organization values the interview itself. Is the interview on time? How many interruptions are allowed? These observations may affect whether you take the job.
3 Opening questions BREAKING THE ICE
Interviews often begin with small talk. The first question put to you might be ‘How was the motorway this morning?’ A question that takes very little brain power to answer, encouraging you to relax. Small talk is often undervalued. It oils the wheels in social situations by helping people discover they have things in common, even if it’s just the weather or parking problems. Some people engage in small talk naturally, without a thought. If you’re queuing at a supermarket checkout, for example, some people stand in silence while others naturally strike up a conversation with someone standing close. Relaxed conversation makes life easier. If you want to ask for something difficult, such as a discount, you get a very different result beginning ‘how are you today?’ rather than ‘what’s your best price on this item?’. Every day people achieve extraordinary outcomes simply by engaging others in warm conversation. So, naturally, in an interview room you are more likely to get a good result if you match the efforts an interviewer is making to create a genuine conversation. Effective small talk in the interview achieves a number of things simultaneously. It helps you switch your brain into active listening mode, so you really tune in to what the interviewer is saying. It encourages you to open up by giving you a few moments to talk without any obvious agenda. What’s more, it’s an early opportunity for you to show,
22 Opening questions
quite naturally, that you’re the kind of person that would be welcomed into the work environment – the kind of new hire that always makes a line manager look good. If small talk isn’t a normal part of life for you, it may feel odd in the interview room. You might be expecting just to talk about the job on offer, not about trivial matters. It will almost certainly pay to get some practice just chatting with people in a relaxed and open way. Don’t confine small talk to interviews. If you’re looking for a job or want to make a career change, talk to people about the things you are most curious about, in any kind of social setting. You never know when you might fall over a useful connection. You might begin by expressing a broad interest in a certain line of work, and suddenly you’re discovering the most useful information of all – about real people in real jobs. One of your key objectives is to make the interviewer feel comfortable. This may seem rather the reverse of what normally happens in interviews, but if you don’t take some responsibility for building rapport, you’re relying very heavily on the interviewer’s skills.
What interviewers say when things go well n The
candidate responds openly to the interviewer’s handshake, smile, and opening remarks. n The interviewee seems to find the questions stimulating and interesting. n The candidate listens and speaks carefully, respecting the interviewer’s point of view, and not interrupting. n The interviewee responds positively to probing questions and affirms when summaries are correct. n The candidate opens up as the interview progresses.
Breaking the ice 23
parties feel that the conversation has been a useful experience. n The candidate says a warm thank-you for the interview.
Seek personal overlap Experienced salespeople will tell you that their best results happen when there is a connection where people find something in common. This is often nothing to do with work, but areas of mutual interest (sport, family, where you were brought up) can stick in the memory for a long time, which is why they are called personal ‘hooks’. Look around you if you find yourself in the interviewer’s office. If an interviewer is wearing a lapel badge or wrist band for a charity you support, make a comment. Naturally, if the room is festooned with sports memorabilia or pictures of vintage sports cars, it would be socially odd not to comment. If there are obvious links you can make between the organization’s role in the community and your own experience, mentioning this will help: ‘I see your company has strong links with the High School – I’ve been a governor there for two years now.’ If you find a shared interest, the ice is broken. A word of warning: be careful about commenting on family photographs. You have no idea if the person interviewing you has been bereaved, divorced, or is highly sensitive to personal comments.
Initial impressions Like it or not, an interviewer makes a quick judgement about you from the moment you walk into the room. Research has shown that this initial impression is formed in less than
24 Opening questions
30 seconds. Most candidates believe they can do nothing about that fact, but of course it’s your job to manage that initial moment. Opening signals In under 30 seconds an interviewer makes judgements based on a range of signals:
n How you look (scruffy, over-dressed, professional? Like a visitor or someone who works there already?)
n Your emotional state (flustered, worried, uptight, relaxed?)
n How you manage the event – are you personable, friendly, and open?
n How you speak (clear, articulate, too loud, too quiet, too fast?)
n Your confidence (assured, attentive, nervous, overactive?)
Even the best-trained interviewers enjoy the process more with a candidate who is open, responsive, and personable. The interview starts to feel like a genuine conversation – which is why practising small talk in a variety of contexts outside job interviews helps you speak just a little more confidently. First impressions are mostly formed about personality, rather than content. If you sound flustered and cross because of a difficult journey or poor directions, that’s your opening message. If you sound bored or irritated by the questions you’re asked, you quickly communicate indifference or arrogance. If you look and sound pleased to be in the room, you signal your ability to respond well to the context, no matter what mood you’re in. Your evidence will be tested very shortly, but the right kind of first impression can take you at least halfway to the finish line. Opening signals matter.
Breaking the ice 25
Strategies on arrival Every conversation you have on the premises is part of your interview. Look for conversational opportunities from the moment you arrive in reception. Don’t sit in silence looking like a big black cloud is hanging over your head – initiate conversation, or enter into it warmly if invited to do so. Small talk with reception or security staff may matter more than you think – they are often asked for their views on what you were like ‘off camera’. These conversations, which can help you discover useful information about the organization, also help warm you up for the real thing, so that you’re speaking confidently when you get into the room. During the day you may meet people from the department where you might be working. Show an informed interest in the work they are doing. Ask intelligent questions – these will show your homework but may also provide better insights into the job. These staff members will also frequently be asked how you came across, and how interested you seem in the job. Try to be adaptable if things don’t go to plan. The interviewer may be late, or may not have had the opportunity to read the papers properly. The person talking to you may be friendly and engage in a lot of small talk, or rather cooler, going straight into job-related questions. Don’t be thrown by the interviewer’s mood, strategy, or opening questions. This is the script you have to work with – make the most of it. Going with the flow, for example by being gracious about an interviewer running late, is a good way of acknowledging that you understand what things look like from the organization’s perspective. Being difficult or icy at the beginning of an interview is an almost sure way of wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
26 Opening questions
Gradual disclosure Imagine you’ve just taken off on a long plane flight. You chat politely with the stranger in the next seat. At first you talk about the queues at the airport, or your destination, or the shortage of legroom. Next you may say a little about the reason for your journey. You disclose a few things at the outset, while working out whether you want to talk to your fellow passenger for several hours, or whether you want to watch the movie. In this kind of low-commitment chatting there is a tacit agreement that you disclose small amounts of information and only move into more detail as the relationship builds. If one person discloses and the other does not, the conversation may feel uncomfortable. An interview uses an adapted version of social rules. It may feel like a pleasant conversation, but it has an agenda and a goal. Although some interviewers like to talk at length about the role and the organization, during the questioning process the flow of information is largely one way – which is exactly how it should be. The interviewer builds trust, encouraging you to disclose increasingly significant and personal pieces of information – your motivation, your skills, your experience, your life choices, and your aspirations. An interview requires you to discuss strengths that might normally be too modest to mention, and admit to weaknesses that make you feel very vulnerable. So, disclosure is a necessary stage, and the more you can do to help an interviewer feel that disclosure is happening, the better. Occasionally saying things such as ‘that’s a really good question’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that in detail before …’ reassures the interviewer that the process is working well. However, if you over-disclose, you fail to reach your objective, which is to get enough memorable information across to move to the next stage of the process. Most candidates say far too much at interview. Excessive information can overwhelm
Breaking the ice 27
the interview, distract the listener from the most important things you have to say, or simply encourage the interviewer to tune out and start thinking about the next question.
Active listening Under stress, we listen even more ineffectively. Think of a time when you had something on your mind, and someone talked to you about something routine or trivial. What small part of what was said did you register? How difficult will it be in an interview for you to hear the actual words that are spoken, so you hear and understand the key words in every question? Listening is a powerful tool for interview candidates. It can provide you with vital clues – what should you say? How long should your answers be? Does the interviewer want to hear more? Preparing material in advance means that you are a much more effective listener. You can keep your ‘radar’ fully switched on during the interview rather than getting caught up in your inner turmoil of wondering what on earth you’re going to say next.
Tips to become a better listener n Relax as much as you can. n Pay attention to your surroundings.
Take in the way things
look and sound around you. carefully to the language the interviewer is using. Try to mirror its style (formal/informal, technical/nontechnical, free-ranging, or tightly focused). n Pay attention to the speaker and value what is said. n Be aware of the listener’s body language. Comfortable? Attentive? Eager to move on to another topic? Bored? n Listen
28 Opening questions n Do not interrupt. n Respond with empathy
when the interviewer mentions a difficulty or problem facing the organization. n Don’t be afraid of silence. You are allowed time to think. n Don’t jump in and say the first thing that comes into your head. Pause to be sure you really understand the question. n Prepare answers for difficult questions (see Chapter 12). Finally, be aware of the talking and listening balance in an interview. Oddly, it seems to pay to get the interviewer to do a fair amount of the talking. Often interviewers who have spent most of the time talking rather than asking questions feel that it has been a positive experience. If interviewers talk a lot, they feel good about themselves; if they feel good about themselves, they credit the person who is responsible for this feeling. However, if you use this strategy, don’t neglect to get across your key messages before you leave the room (see Chapter 6). Q6 Did you have any problems finding us? So, small talk. It may sound like chat, but an interviewer is already making half-unconscious judgements about your personal style – how do you come across? (Friendly, standoffish, loud, inaudible?) What kind of interviewee are you? (Difficult, negative, irritable, open?) As this chapter suggests, plan for small talk, whether it takes place in the corridor or in the interview room itself. When you answer, speak clearly and at a good volume. Keep it positive – if you start by complaining, even if it’s only about the weather, you set up a concern that this is the way the interview will go: ‘I had terrible problems parking, in fact – pity nobody told me I would need change for the pay and display. I didn’t know how far I’d have to walk, which is why I got soaked …’ Good responses (in other words, answers that give interviewers no cause for concern) tend to be mildly upbeat and
Breaking the ice 29
uncomplicated. Affirm that everything has gone smoothly so far (if things haven’t, why mention it?) and your opening answer will instantly show three great job qualities – you’re decisive, concise and good at seeing the positive side of things: ‘Not at all – very clear directions, and the traffic was relatively easy.’ Q7 What do you prefer to be called? Often this question is a polite way of asking permission to use your first name. If the relationship warms up reasonably well you might feel free to do the same in return. Make life easier for yourself – type your name at the end of your covering letter in the way you prefer to be called. So if you’re ‘Christopher’ on your passport but everyone calls you ‘Kit’, make that clear in writing. If you really prefer a different version to the name the interviewer is using, mention it but don’t be fussy or long-winded about it: ‘Chris is fine.’ Keep nicknames to yourself until you’re in the job. A big smile, an offered handshake, and a simple response make life easier for the interviewer and lower barriers: ‘My friends call me Bill.’ Q8 How long have you been interested in history? If not history, then whatever you have listed on your CV as a spare-time interest. Interviewers often pick up on this part of your CV at the opening of an interview. Discussion of your interests and hobbies is often seen as useful for ice-breaker questions, to help you start talking. Some interviewers want to know if you have any interests outside work, to find out if you are a ‘rounded’ person and not a complete workaholic. In addition, this discussion can provide you with a great opportunity to talk about motivation and transferable skills.
30 Opening questions
If you mentioned anything on your CV under ‘Interests’, this is fair game for enquiry. Therefore, listing interests on a CV may be more trouble than it’s worth if you have little to say about them. Never claim interests that you don’t really hold, or only hold lightly. Don’t put ‘reading’ unless you’ve just finished something worth talking about. Don’t put ‘keeping fit’ if your gym membership expired last winter. If you are perceived to be dishonest on this point, everything in your work history will seem untrue. Interests are far more likely to come up at interview if your work experience is limited, and in that case it’s a good idea to ensure that you say something in the ‘Interests’ part of your CV. If you are fortunate enough to hit on something which the interviewer finds genuinely interesting, it’s more likely that you will be remembered. Show that you actively chose an interest rather than drifting into it by chance, and if possible use the topic to draw out skills and qualities that matter to your next employer: ‘I’ve been learning the tango for a few years now, and it’s still a challenge, but it really makes you focus – and it’s a great way to meet fascinating people.’ In your CV include only hobbies or interests which tick at least one of the following: n You
can talk about the topic enthusiastically, showing what you’ve learned. n You can answer follow-up questions from someone with an avid interest in the same topic. n Your choice reveals activity – physical, intellectual, or activity involving other people. n The topic shows that you keep up with current trends or technology (for example, website design). n Talking about the topic helps communicate your skills (fund-raising, organizing, public speaking for instance).
Breaking the ice 31
topic has some direct relevance to the organization (for example, hill walking if you’re after a job with an outdoorclothing shop). n Talking about these interests helps you communicate employment-related skills such as leadership or teamwork, or personal qualities such as painstaking research, dedication, or commitment. Q9 Did you enjoy your time at university? This is a typical ice-breaker, but any question about learning is also a veiled request for relevance and connection. So what you should hear is ‘what did you get out of that learning experience?’ and ‘how was it relevant to the world of work?’. Employers are far less interested in your choice of subject at university or college and more interested in outcomes – what can you do now that you couldn’t before? However complicated the ups and downs of your study history, it’s generally best to begin an answer ‘Yes, absolutely’. Then go on to say, briefly, why you chose your subject and what you got out of the experience. If you keep up with your alumni association this is a good sign of your networking ability. Q10 How do you like living in Bristol? An employer gives quite a lot of attention to the address at the top of your CV. If it’s local you may be asked a chatty question about living in the area. If it’s some way off this may trigger questions about travel or relocation. Even if the place mentioned feels like the worst place in the world, talk about its qualities, simply because you don’t want to start an interview on a negative note or cause offence. Try offering a balanced opinion, for example when talking about a big city: ‘It’s a terrific place because of the huge range of people you meet, but it’s a nightmare if you want to park your car.’
32 Opening questions
This question may also be a subtle enquiry about relocation (see also Q176). If you enthuse about your home town, you sound as if you don’t want to leave it. ‘It’s a great city, but I’ve lived in lots of good places. It’s all about how much you throw yourself into life when you move somewhere different.’ Q11 Did you hear the news this morning? This is a question that may crop up in small talk just before the interview. It might be the interviewer’s attempt to see if you are keeping up with current events, or it may just be a friendly way to get you talking. If you’re unsure what the news item is: ‘Most of it, yes – what caught your attention?’ If the role you are up for requires at least a passing knowledge of the outside world of business or politics, or some interest in the media, then it makes sense to read a good newspaper on the day of the interview. If the big story of the day is a political one, show that you are well informed but try to avoid taking sides or adopting a strong opinion on a topic, as you have no idea of the standpoint of the person interviewing you. Under no circumstances should you signal any sense that your mind is closed to issues or new ideas, since this will very quickly communicate inflexibility and a lack of willingness to learn. If you’re approaching an organization that has clear and strong views on an issue, perhaps because it is a charity or lobbying organization, then you will need to show more than a background awareness of the key issues of the day. Review a wide range of the organization’s press releases to get a clear feel for its point of view.
Breaking the ice 33
Q12 Can we offer you tea, coffee, a glass of water? The best advice is to accept the offer if you’re waiting in reception, but decline in the interview room itself. Your hands may already be trembling slightly and you may now have to juggle a cup and saucer as well as your papers. If you really are too parched to speak, ask for a glass of water, take a good sip, and then put it down somewhere you won’t knock it over. If your mouth regularly dries up when you are nervous, eat a hard sweet or drink sweetened black coffee just before the interview – coating the mouth with sugar works better than water. Q13 Where did you see the job advertised? (See also Q4.) Now we’re moving on from ice-breaker chat to questions which revolve around the main reason you’re in the room – the job itself. Remind yourself before the interview: where did you see the post advertised, and what was it about the advertisement that attracted you? You should have a copy of the advertisement and job description. This question can in fact give you an early opportunity to show how you match the three or four top elements in the job: ‘I’m not sure where I spotted the ad, but I was excited to see it because I’ve been interested for a while in the work you’re doing here. I was interested to see that you’re looking for a mix of IT knowledge and general management experience …’ Q14 I know your boss well. How is she? It’s possible to be floored by a question in the first two minutes of an interview. Any mention of your boss or senior managers in your current organization may well put you on the back foot. Does your boss know that you are going for
34 Opening questions
interviews? How would your boss react if the news comes to light? You will not be able to find out how well the interviewer knows your boss, but it’s safe to assume that you live in a small world and news gets around. Don’t be too put off by this. Interviewers keep the fact that they have seen interview candidates confidential, and it’s unlikely that your boss will be told immediately that you’re attending interviews. However, it’s a safe bet to guess that a reference may be taken fairly soon if things go further. Clarify this gently: ‘Clearly you know Jill, and I am sure that she will be happy to give me a reference in due course. I assume my application is confidential at this stage.’ Q15 You’re not what we expected … This may feel like an off-putting comment, but it might in fact be a sign that you are doing better than expected. Many candidates come across very differently on paper than the way they do in the flesh. You might, for example, have emphasized technical rather than interpersonal skills and come across on paper as rather cold. Perhaps the jobs you have done automatically suggest a certain kind of person – again, your CV is probably not doing you justice. The chances are that this comment is a favourable early response based on first impressions, and you’re doing well. Answer with a smile rather than making any kind of challenge: ‘I’m intrigued – what were you expecting?’ However, this comment might indicate that you appear less experienced or authoritative than your CV suggests. Therefore talk about the level of responsibility you have achieved in various roles – and perhaps think about wearing clothes that convey more authority next time?
Breaking the ice 35
10 steps to creating a good first impression 1. Wear smart shoes and clothes, but break them in beforehand so you look and feel at ease. 2. Be very clear of the names and roles of the people who will be conducting the interview. 3. If you have mentioned any interests outside work in your CV, be prepared for an opening question on this topic. 4. Don’t ignore small talk – it may be taken as a reflection of your ability to make relationships quickly. 5. Even with social chat, speak clearly, confidently, and not too quickly. 6. Don’t let delays or disruptions get in the way of your performance. 7. If you’re offered a drink, don’t take it if you shake when you’re nervous. You will end up wearing it, not drinking it. 8. Be ready to jump in early on with a detailed discussion of any of the big five interview areas: your skills, your achievements, your career ambitions, your knowledge, your personality. 9. Seek early opportunities to demonstrate that you have done your homework on the organization. A lack of interest in the employer is one of the most common reasons candidates don’t get beyond first base. 10. Don’t use live interviews as rehearsals – practise and prepare.
Unpacking your CV PRESENTING YOUR WORK X PERIENCE E
You might believe that your CV sets out everything an employer needs to know about, but documents are just the beginning. For most interviewers a CV represents questions, not answers. Drawing out and testing detail is what matters. Review the CV you used to get the interview in the first place, and try to see it through the eyes of a busy recruiter. Where is the interviewer going to want more detail? What new information not included in your CV will you be able to add? Can you give tangible evidence of achievements? Plan how you will bring out the highlights in your CV. In order to do that, you need to make sure it contains the right ingredients.
Cataloguing your experience You probably have a CV, but you may be unsure if it’s working. You may be even less certain that it gets the right messages across (see Chapter 6), or if it plays to your strengths. Two facts about CVs are evident to those who read them all the time. Many CVs convey information which recruiters find routine and not particularly noteworthy of attention (for example, qualifications you studied before the age of 18, your driving licence, and the hackneyed claims you make at the beginning about being motivated and reliable).
Presenting your work experience 37
On the other hand, most CVs miss out important information which is often only revealed at interview. Make sure that your CV gets across your most important facts in advance, so that what you do in the interview room is add more colour and detail. Of course, you may already have submitted a CV, so it’s too late to change it for this interview. If so, get your head around the idea that an interview performance is about reminding, not announcing – you will be reinforcing material already in the interviewer’s mind, not introducing a great mass of new evidence which may confuse the picture. Your qualities and experience should be clear in your application documents, and then reinforced at interview (where, incidentally, it pays to describe past achievements in slightly different language to the words used in your CV).
Career overview Even if you already have a CV, start again with an unedited catalogue of your experience. Use the career overview worksheet (page 38). Here you are not going to list one job after another as you do on your CV, but dip into any part of your history to pull out interesting projects and other activities which might be worth including in your CV. Don’t filter anything out or edit at this stage, and use short phrases to remind you of the things you will flesh out later. Don’t worry about the sequence. Put the information down in random order as things come to mind – you can fit them into the right place on your CV later. Go back through every part of your work history; look at old diaries and work logs. Don’t forget temporary and holiday jobs and work placements. Then try to remember things you did outside work, for example, study, volunteering, personal interests. Keep adding information until you run out of material.
38 Unpacking your CV
Career overview CAREER HIGHLIGHTS, for example:
n An interesting project
Where did you do this?
n Something you initiated n An activity you led n Somewhere you learned a new skill n A moment when you excelled n A personal or work achievement n A time when you changed something significantly
n A turning point in your career
What do you do with your career overview? Keep adding to it over a week or so as you remember additional material, and then file it somewhere safe. This is the data that you will use to compose your CV, and the raw material that will form the basis of your well-prepared interview questions.
Presenting your work experience 39
Drilling deeper Next, start work on your experience worksheet (below). This looks at one job at a time, making sure that you have adequate information about past roles before you summarize them in a job application. If you have not yet written a CV you will find this assists enormously. Start with the most recent job. In general, you probably only need maximum details for the last two or three jobs you have held, and you probably don’t need such detail for jobs you did over 10 years ago. However, if a job held a long time back makes an important contribution to your overall message (for example, you worked in marketing 12 years ago and want to highlight that experience), then perform this analysis on those jobs, too. Experience worksheet Employer: Role: Job title of person you reported to: Dates you worked in the role: How did you get this job? What were the most important duties in the role? What activities did you do most of the time? Describe the team you worked in, and your contribution to it: What parts of the organization did you work with? What kinds of external contacts did you develop? Where did you introduce innovations? Where did you meet targets in terms of growth or cost savings?
40 Unpacking your CV
How was your work evaluated? Results of any appraisals received: What did you like best about this job? What did you like least? What were your greatest accomplishments in this role? Skills used? Training received? Qualifications obtained: Promotions/awards/recommendations received? How did you add to or change the job description? Why do/did you want to move on from this position? Other important information:
Balancing experience against potential In a recession, employers become more conservative, wanting candidates who have the exact mix of skills and experience, preferring those who have done the job before. The problem with this strategy, if applied unimaginatively, is that organizations appoint people who won’t be challenged and stretched by their new job. Some employers, of course, actively seek potential because they want someone who will grow into the job. It often depends who you are talking to in an organization. HR staff frequently prefer to short-list candidates who show they have done the job. Line managers are often more influenced by personality and team fit as much as other factors. If your experience isn’t a close match, it’s your job to demonstrate potential and help the employer feel that risk is being managed.
Presenting your work experience 41
Q16 Tell me about the job you’re doing at the moment. Interviewers often like to start the interview with a question which is relatively easy to answer, but also starts to zoom in on your skills. Remember that with any question you’re asked at the beginning, it’s important not to get bogged down in a long answer. Most candidates provide far too much detail, which sounds like a regurgitated job description – where they fit into the organization, the main duties of the job, how and why the job was created. Prepare instead a punchy summary which offers two or three messages about your strengths: ‘It’s been great working in a customer service role. It’s a good team, and we’ve achieved some great results. I really enjoy dealing with customers and coming up with different ways of solving their problems. But I think it’s time to move on into a role with greater responsibility.’ ‘My job is all about organizing and retrieving data to meet the needs of internal customers. Most of the data requests are routine, but what I really enjoy doing is working closely with clients and creating the kind of customized reports you produce here.’ Q17 Describe a typical day in your last job. This question may be asked early in an interview, particularly if someone is unfamiliar with the kind of work you’ve done. It’s often used with junior staff who may find it difficult to jump straight into answering broad questions about responsibilities and achievements. Use your experience worksheet (page 39) in advance to pick up the major elements you want to talk about, even if they are not done on a daily basis. Get your key points across swiftly and then let the interviewer pick things up again. The interviewer doesn’t need microscopic detail, so don’t begin
42 Unpacking your CV
‘I always start by making myself a cuppa at 8.30.’ What details should you provide? Competencies which show your level of responsibility or skill, and those that match tasks in the job you’re chasing. ‘OK, in a nutshell, my job is to log in all the day’s jobs and allocate them to other staff members, handling any queries or problems they have. The rest of the day is spent making sure work is on schedule – plus of course dealing with additional one-off requests that come into the department. May I ask how that compares to the work flow in this role?’
★Q18 Talk me through your work history … This question might seem rather odd considering that you have already supplied this information. This could be an indication that the interviewer hasn’t yet read beyond the headlines in your CV, in which case talk through your history, but at a reasonable pace. Talk about roles you have held, what you learned from them, and be specific about job titles and your responsibilities. Prepare short and clear answers to deal with any obvious gaps in your work history. Don’t repeat the phrases used in your CV – use new terms to make your work history sound fresh and interesting. This question really means ‘help me make sense of your work history’. Here’s your chance to do two things. First, describe your work history in a way which shows it has an understandable ‘shape’ to it (you might talk about what the jobs you have done have in common, or what you’ve learned). Second, get across two or three strong points about why you are a good match to the role: ‘I think there’s a thread that links all the jobs that I’ve done, and it’s an interest in developing people. I started my working life as a lecturer, but then moved through a series of commercial training roles. More recently I’ve managed a training department and
Presenting your work experience 43
commissioned a number of major new projects. Perhaps it would help if I tell you a little about the job I’ve done most recently …’ Q19 What did you dislike about your last job? Exercise caution. If you volunteer a long list of things and people you disliked, you sound like a problem employee. Even the best jobs have their ups and downs, so don’t give the impression that you are only prepared to take on a job which is 100% perfect. If you want to say more, mention only negatives which show you in a good light. Saying ‘my colleagues were lazy’ would send out a very clear message about your tolerance for others. Try using the question as an opportunity to make it clear why you are looking for a new role: ‘For the most part I really liked my job but – as with any job – there were a few minor frustrations. Some issues I could do something about by seeking learning opportunities. However, the major frustration in my role was that my company wasn’t prepared to invest in the latest web design software and I felt we were publishing materials that looked very old-fashioned. That’s why I’m very excited about the high-quality work you’re producing here …’ ‘I really enjoyed the job, but I felt very frustrated by shrinking budgets …’ Q20 You appear to have had a number of careers. Perhaps you’d like to explain … ? Don’t be surprised by this question if your work history might be described as ‘chequered’ (recruiter shorthand for ‘never settled down’). Find someone to talk this issue through with, well before you sit in front of a decision maker. The first principle is that you don’t offer your CV apologetically (‘all I did was temporary work’ ) or throw in caveats such as
44 Unpacking your CV
‘this may not make sense to you … my CV’s a bit of a jumble sale’. Although you may have done many jobs, you only have one career (see also Q26 & Q80). It is your job to get across a clear picture of a single, unified career: ‘I have enjoyed a real variety of work experience but in every part of my career the thing I have enjoyed most is customer interaction. My experience in hospitality, the finance sector, and retail environments has shown me what first-class customer service looks like. My goal now is to build on that career by finding a long-term position in a sector where I can influence how that is delivered.’ Q21 How much did your last job stretch you? (See also Q114.) Walk into this question without preparation and you set yourself up to fail. If you weren’t stretched by the role, why didn’t you do something about it or move on earlier? If you were stretched by it, why are you looking for a new job? This question seeks to discover what makes a job challenging or motivating for you, and get a sense of how long it takes for you to get on top of a role. ‘It was a very exciting learning curve, and in hindsight I can see how useful it was to be thrown in at the deep end. I had to learn fast how to respond to demanding clients under time pressure and at the same time keep costs under control.’ Q22 What exactly were you responsible for? Weaker candidates talk vaguely about ‘management responsibility’, stronger candidates give concrete evidence of how many staff they supervised, their responsibility, and their accountability:
Presenting your work experience 45
‘It was my job to make sure that each member of the sales team was hitting their targets, generating new leads, and feeding back the right information to head office.’ Q23 What contact have you had with senior management? (See also Q153.) This question is looking for several things. What experience have you had of working alongside senior staff or communicating with them? How confident are you when that happens? Can you initiate contact with someone more senior than you and ask for advice or information? Some people find such circumstances intimidating, missing important opportunities to impress. Mention the person’s job title and briefly describe the purpose and extent of the contact: ‘When my line manager was on sick leave last year I suddenly discovered that I had to give verbal reports directly to the Finance Director to discuss budget variances. I wondered how to do this at first but I found the best way was to send him all the details in an email half an hour beforehand and then use the meeting to explain any details and talk through the issues. It was a really good learning experience.’ Q24 Give me an example of when you have been flexible about a work problem. ‘Flexible’ in this context usually means the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances or to other people’s agendas: ‘I was asked to design an innovative leadership event. I spent a lot of time researching options, including outward-bound centres. I was asked to draft a programme, but was also warned that it might not get budgetary approval. So while we were waiting to see what funding was available I also wrote my Plan B – a
46 Unpacking your CV
conventional event, but one that incorporated some new ideas. As I secretly suspected, the budget was constrained so I was able to roll out my Plan B very quickly.’
★Q25 Tell me about a major project you’ve worked on recently.
Plan to talk about a project that is sufficiently complex and where your personal contribution is very clear. This is a good topic for a presentation statement (see Chapter 6) – a wellrehearsed summary of a recent project that shows you in a good light, has a clear beginning, middle, and end: ‘A good example is where my manager asked me to rewrite our training pack for new staff. I negotiated a deadline and also delegated some tasks to create the time to complete the job. I had to consult five team leaders, but I also checked things out with one or two people who had been through the induction process recently. I rewrote about 50% of the material, and after the next induction course we got a much improved score on the quality of materials.’ Q26 What have you learned from the jobs that you have held? One of the ways you convince an interviewer that your career ‘story’ makes sense (see Q20 & Q80) is to show how each job has presented you with opportunities to grow: ‘I took on the role to gain experience of a regional sales role, and that’s exactly what I got. I learned how to manage a wide range of personality styles, and also the importance of shaping a team out of a bunch of individualists’. Every job represents a learning curve – steep at first when you are thrown in at the deep end, and flattening out as the job becomes more routine. Probing may seek to reveal evidence from this curve:
Presenting your work experience 47
n How quick a learner are you? n How much do you manage your own learning? n How long does it take you to get on top of a new job? n What happens when the learning curve flattens out?
Are you the kind of person who moves on when you’re just a little bit bored?
‘When I started the job I knew nothing about financial software packages, but within six months I was familiar enough with the system to take on full responsibility for draft VAT returns.’ Q27 Where did your job fit into the organizational structure? With this question you’ll probably start visualizing an organizational chart in your head, wondering how to describe it. Perhaps you reach for a pen and paper to draw it. Stop. Think. How much does an interviewer really want to know? The key issues are these: n How
senior was your role – what was your actual responsibility? n How senior was your boss? n What part of the organization were you working in? ‘I was responsible to the assistant secretary, which in this organization is equivalent to a departmental head. I was responsible for a team of 15 staff, including four team leaders.’ Point out useful parallels between past jobs and the organization you’re talking to: ‘With the last two foreign banks that I worked at I became very flexible about frequent changes in senior management. I found one key to my success was to remain non-political and to build relationships with new senior staff quickly.’
48 Unpacking your CV
★Q28 There’s something puzzling me about your CV …
If your CV is confusing, puzzles the interviewer (see Q29), or feels incomplete, watch out – this kind of question will come up pretty early. Interview time is often wasted querying typical CV problems: n Gaps in your work or study history. n Qualifications an employer cannot understand. n Job content that is meaningless to an employer
sector. If you know that you regularly trip up on this kind of question, rewrite your CV or take more care completing application forms. Make sense of study or training that won’t be clear to an employer (what did you achieve in terms of applied learning?). Don’t just reprint job description phrases in your CV – talk about the skills you used in terms that anyone can understand. Deal with gaps, and be honest about your employment history. It’s a small world and facts usually come to light eventually (or you will get an ulcer worrying about their discovery). In any event, if you include false information in a job application form it may be grounds for dismissal. Q29 I don’t understand the terms you have used here in your CV … Don’t give the interviewer a tough job by filling your CV with jargon or technical terms only meaningful to someone with specialist knowledge. The function of a CV is to give a decision-maker reasons to call you for interview, not to create a smokescreen of impenetrable language which shouts out ‘non-transferable skills’. The use of technical, ‘insider’ language can be very offputting and can alienate interviewers rather than impress
Presenting your work experience 49
them. Learn to speak and write in plain English. If you do use jargon, be sure your terms are up to date, and be on your guard for probing questions designed to check your real level of knowledge. Where an interviewer uses jargon for this purpose, you can be comfortable using matching language, but otherwise explain what terms mean in everyday language: ‘My apologies – I’m so immersed in the job I sometimes forget that these terms don’t have wider currency. In plain language, what this technology does is to …’ Q30 There appears to be a gap in your CV. What were you doing during this time? Gaps in your history should ideally be dealt with at the CV writing stage. If this question is unavoidable, make your answer crisp, brief, and positive rather than defensive. For example, if the reason was personal: ‘I spent some of that year looking after a relative in the last stages of her cancer. It taught me a lot about personal resilience, and the important things in life …’ If you had a long job search: ‘I was working hard at finding a new role, and also took the time to keep my skills up to date …’ If you took time out to see the world: ‘I made the decision to take a career break. It was a great experience, required a lot of organization, and really added to my skills …’ If you dropped out of an academic course: ‘I made the decision not to finish the course as it wasn’t giving me what I needed, so I gained work experience in a number of temporary jobs, picking up skills and knowledge along the way …’
50 Unpacking your CV
★Q31 You seem to have done a lot of unpaid work …
In a tough economy, it’s common for people to work on a voluntary basis (see also Q99). Sometimes this is about supporting good causes. These days it’s also common to find people working for nothing just to try to establish themselves in work. Sometimes this is on a formal internship basis with very clear learning agreements. Often many people work free of charge just to get sector experience, or in the hope that they will be offered a paid position. Make your work history sound as if you had some kind of a plan in mind. An employer is worried by an answer which sounds like ‘I couldn’t find anything else …’. It’s perfectly sensible to undertake unpaid work if it gives you new skills, new exposure, and new contacts. Talk at interview about what you learned so that it doesn’t sound as if you were just waiting for a ‘proper’ job to come up. If you undertook an unpaid internship, a penetrating follow-up question is ‘why did you stay there so long?’. In a tough market it’s sometimes easy to find yourself hanging on in an unpaid role longer than you planned. Role development may provide a credible reason: ‘I stayed on because I was given the chance to work with a completely different team and really understand the business …’ Q32 Tell me more about your work with the Salvation Army … Here’s a chance to say more about your personal commitment to charitable causes. Employers often allocate money and staff time to such causes, and therefore it’s no surprise that many of them value staff who volunteer in their spare time. Volunteering may demonstrate that you’re prepared
Presenting your work experience 51
to do something rather than just talk about it. The danger when talking about voluntary work is that you say it was ‘just’ voluntary work. Good volunteering experiences allow you to develop new skills, gain employer feedback, and make a difference. Don’t forget that this kind of question can open up opportunities for you to demonstrate links between skills you acquired outside work and the demands of the job: ‘I spend a lot of my time working as a Scout leader. It’s great fun, and very demanding. One of the things people often don’t realize about Scouting is that you get access to some excellent management training …’
5 Probing your learning YOUR PERSON AL KNOWLEDGE BANK
Many candidates make a big thing of their educational qualifications, making this information the main focus of their CV. It may then come as a surprise if your qualifications are not discussed at all during an interview. Employers have only a passing interest in your study history. There are tens of thousands of qualifications available, and employers only know about a fraction of them. Some employers have little confidence that education provides what they need in the workplace. Your excellent academic history may be less of a dooropener than you think; employers are generally more influenced by evidence of skills and achievement. This can mean that if you lack relevant qualifications you may find you can compensate by giving strong evidence from your experience. However, there are good reasons why an employer might be interested in your history as a learner: n The role needs specific qualifications. n A particular standard of intellectual working is required. n The job requires specialized knowledge. n You need to show that you can acquire new skills and
knowledge quickly. n You need to show you are capable of managing your own learning. In the past, the dominant model was ‘train then work’; today employers are interested in life-long learners, people who
Your personal knowledge bank 53
enjoy learning about new systems, techniques, theories, and technological developments. This matters in a world where technological change is accelerating, and the way work is done alters rapidly. Employers require staff who want to learn quickly about the organization, the sector, products, and the marketplace.
How your applied learning may be probed at interview If you qualified recently, questions will probably focus on why you chose a particular course, and what you wanted to get out of it. You may be asked to explain your course of study and talk about aspects which are relevant to the job. If you have studied something which doesn’t appear to relate to your chosen career path, you need a brief presentation statement (Chapter 6) to communicate a link. If you qualified some time ago, an interviewer is going to wonder if you have kept up your learning, and what you have done in terms of continuous professional development (CPD). Remember that this includes attending conferences and seminars, reading articles, online learning, following blogs, and networking with fellow professionals. Demonstrate that you have made tangible efforts to keep skills and knowledge up to date. If you have few qualifications, an interviewer may be concerned that you lack confidence in certain areas (see Q38 where you may feel vulnerable because you don’t hold a degree). Offer compensating evidence which shows that you performed at least as well in the workplace as better-qualified peers. Complete the education worksheet (page 54). Knowledge, of course, is not limited to classroom learning; so review again the ‘what I know’ section of the personal worksheet (page 11) to remind yourself of ‘hidden’ knowledge. For
54 Probing your learning
example, you may have knowledge of Sage accounting software because you use it for your personal bank records, or you may have learned Spanish in a holiday job. Do not neglect to list any on-the-job training, seminars, or workshops you have attended (especially those which did not lead to certification, which you may have missed off your CV). Look again at all the night classes, distance-learning courses and books you read just to learn things for the sake of learning. List the areas of knowledge which seem necessary for the position you are applying for. Next, match them against your own learning history. Remind yourself of where and when you acquired know-how. Education worksheet Secondary school: Qualifications (and grades): Other learning acquired: College or university: Qualifications (and grades): Why did you choose this course of study? Special projects or detailed areas of study: Other learning acquired during full-time education: Date graduated (or expected):
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Future study plans: Training courses attended: On-the-job training: Courses you have pursued in your own time: Other forms of self-organized study (distance learning, online study, textbooks, or management books):
Allowing skill information to leak out Talking about your study history is often a good way of subtly bringing skills information into the discussion. Many academic courses provide students with skills which they rarely talk about, even though they are attractive to employers: n Researching a subject in depth. n Analysing, processing, and checking information. n Exploiting information technology. n Group or team working. n Organizing events. n Community involvement. n Motivating yourself towards difficult goals. n Managing your own time and workload. n Making contacts with people and organizations. n Influencing and persuading. n Presenting information and ideas in writing or
56 Probing your learning
Levels and standards At interview, when you are talking about an area of knowledge or expertise, try to offer evidence which communicates the standard you have achieved. Ways of doing this include: n Being clear n Explaining
about the grade or class of a qualification. how the qualification relates to others which might be more familiar to an employer. n If your knowledge was acquired on the job, think about how you can show the standard achieved. For example, you might have written a report or been asked for advice by colleagues. n What have you done with this knowledge in the past? What problems have you solved? n How have you applied one area of knowledge to another? For example, ‘I learned a huge amount about project management in the telecoms industry and discovered that I could usefully apply these disciplines to the field of logistics.’ Q33 What have you most enjoyed studying? Pick up on that prompt word ‘enjoyed’ – show some enthusiasm for your past study choices. If you don’t demonstrate enthusiasm for what you have done, the listener certainly won’t. ‘What I really enjoyed most in my studies was writing a dissertation on my favourite author. This involved tracking down all kinds of things, and I learned how to organize information and resources for myself. I was even able to persuade this busy international writer to give me an interview, which I think demonstrates tenacity and powers of persuasion!’
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Q34 Why did you choose that course of study? Any question that includes the word ‘why’ is potentially challenging. In all likelihood, the questioner isn’t particularly interested in your exact motivation – just the fact that you had a reason. A throw-away ‘It seemed a good idea at the time’ is dangerous. Worse still: ‘I thought I would enjoy it, but …’. Be ready with a short positive answer that indicates that you thought about subject choice carefully and you found your studies interesting and useful. Even the suggestion that you chose the wrong subject is disturbing to the interviewer, because it communicates confusion about career objectives. You may be uncertain, but it does your cause no good to share this in a job interview: ‘The reason I chose economics was that I was fascinated by the subject and believed that it would equip me with a better understanding of the way businesses operate.’ ‘I was really keen to study English, and I have noticed that quite a few people who work here have a humanities or arts degree. I believe it has helped me to absorb ideas quickly and communicate them in a language that is readily accessible …’ If you are not practising in the field that you studied – for example, you studied law but decided not to work as a lawyer – it’s often a good strategy to make it clear that you have moved in a conscious direction rather than recovering from failure to continue in your first choice of profession: ‘Although I did get a law degree, it was never my intention to train as a solicitor. I felt that a legal background combined with my facility with language would uniquely prepare me for an international role.’
58 Probing your learning
Q35 What’s this qualification all about? It’s your job to communicate the value of your qualifications. Don’t assume that an interviewer will understand them or the work that went into them. What does the qualification mean? What were the main things you studied? What did you enjoy about the course? What did you learn – in terms of skills as well as knowledge? If your dissertation title was ‘Semiotic Dissonance in Paradise Lost’ your interviewer will find little of relevance to the modern workplace, but the skills you used to negotiate, research, write, and communicate your findings to others most definitely are, if you learn to talk about them properly. ‘Translate’ your studies into terms that your interviewer will understand. Even if your subject of study doesn’t seem to be directly relevant to the job you’re after, you should still be able to talk about other skills you used during your studies which are relevant, for example, working in a team, organizing projects, managing your workload, meeting deadlines. ‘Essentially it’s a degree which mixes economics and history, but the main thing is that it showed me how to research things in great detail by tracking down difficult and obscure information, and making connections across a wide range of information. For example, I undertook a project looking at the factors that make smaller organizations become large businesses …’
★Q36 What have you learned from your studies that will help you in this job?
This builds on Q35 above, and will be tricky to handle unless you are prepared. Don’t assume that you will have done nothing of interest. The interviewer may only have a sketchy idea of what your academic subject covers, and will certainly be keen to hear you explain how skills you have acquired will be useful in the workplace. Identify one or two key areas in
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the job, and pick out matching areas of skill or knowledge from your studies (or from extracurricular activities): ‘I can see how a degree in zoology may not seem like exactly the right qualification to get me into management consultancy. However, I believe that the function of a degree is really to teach you how to think, how to organize your own learning and manage your time so that you end up with a good degree without being excessively in debt.’ ‘In my final year I organized a field trip to Norway, using a number of organizational and planning skills which I think will be useful in this job.’ ‘As organizer of the year’s largest charity ball I had my hands pretty full – and I learned a huge amount about booking facilities and entertainment, and how to feed 300 people and make a profit.’ Q37 What would you say if I suggested that you are over-qualified for this position? The interviewer has concerns, but is giving you a chance to address the problem. Think yourself into the interviewer’s shoes. Candidates who are over-qualified may, in the eyes of a recruiter, be: n A problem – you will want promotion quickly. n Someone who will rapidly become bored with the
move on quickly. n A know-it-all who will make your boss’s life hell. n A threat who will challenge authority. n Desperate to take any job at any salary. If it’s clear that the job you’re looking at will be a step down, or that you will be much more qualified or experienced than others in the team, don’t leave this issue unaddressed:
60 Probing your learning
‘Yes, on paper I will be more qualified than others in this department. However I respect that people are a lot more experienced than me and I have a great deal to learn.’ Q38 We’re concerned that you don’t have a degree … This question may present less of a barrier than you think. As explained above, employers only have a vague idea about how and why qualified people make better workers. Often there is a broad assumption that staff will do better if they have a good standard of education, or that graduates are more likely to have the intellect to cope with certain aspects of the job. Those without degrees often have alternative things to offer. First, they are often more experienced, having started their careers earlier. Second, if you can show you have skills, experience and know-how at least as good as a graduate, that will often get you past this road block: ‘I’ve worked alongside graduates in many stages in my career and I have often achieved promotion quicker than they did. I believe my track record shows I have the skills and knowledge you require for the role, and far more experience than a graduate my age.’
Q39 What have you learned in the last 12 months? Try to avoid giving a time frame in your answer, but show that you are an interested, active, lifelong learner: ‘I’ve learned a wide number of things. I suppose the course that’s most relevant is my recent evening class in business French. This has hugely widened my vocabulary and given me the chance to try out some live negotiation over the phone with French companies.’
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‘The job has been too pressured for me to attend any external training programmes, but I have personally led a number of in-house seminars. Teaching your colleagues means you really do have to do your homework …’ Q40 How have you kept up your professional development? It’s widely recognized that talented professionals make a conscious effort to maintain their learning and take responsibility for continuous professional development (CPD). Give examples of recent experiences (perhaps building on your answer to Q39). This issue is particularly important if you have been out of work for some time or lack recent experience in a particular sector: ‘I really enjoyed the team-building course I did this spring. It was well run, and gave me a huge number of insights into leading and motivating a team.’ ‘I’ve managed to arrange visits recently to a wide range of manufacturing units so I feel I have a good understanding of the quality challenges you face.’ Q41 How do you prefer to learn? People have different learning styles. Some are fascinated by different theories, others want to see practical applications. Some learn best by reading, some by listening or talking, some through visual aids, others by trying things out for themselves. Don’t assume that your training will be tailored to your learning style, but show that you know yourself well enough to effectively manage your own learning. This is not the place to say, ‘I really prefer to study all facets of an issue and become an expert before committing to action’ (see Q108). Give examples which show you learn quickly and hit the ground running:
62 Probing your learning
‘I like practical ideas I can put into practice as quickly as possible.’ ‘I’m really interested in underlying theories – but I want to know how they can be used in real workplace situations.’ This is all you say at interview. Before accepting a job offer, however, you may want to find out a lot more about the learning opportunities on offer, including training events and possibly support and financing of courses you want to pursue.
★Q42 How do you keep informed professionally?
The question (a variant on Q39 & Q40) assumes that you do keep informed professionally, so prove it. Talk about conferences or learning events you have attended in the last two years. Think about publications and journals you regularly read, and also online discussion groups or blogs where you are a contributor. ‘Even though I have very little time for reading, I regularly read The Economist.’ Match the learning you talk about with the level and nature of the job. If you’re interested in becoming a journalist, you should read newspapers. Avidly. If you’re seriously interested in working in HR, talk about the range of professional journals which cover this field. Whatever the sector, have at your fingertips: n Key industry facts and figures. n Trends in your sector (see Q44). n Key people in the industry. n Major upsets and scandals. n New theories, applications, and ideas.
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‘I make sure I get to a couple of good conferences every year, both to network and to keep learning. Two months ago I heard a great speaker …’ Q43 What made you choose to become an environmental engineer? The occupational title here is of course infinitely variable – this is another question probing whether you are a passive or active careerist. The question is far more likely to be put to you if your original training (to be an engineer, banker, chemist, teacher) is not directly related to the role on offer. Therefore, this question offers you a chance to sell yourself, perhaps as a candidate with a slightly unconventional background. If the occupation mentioned is something you trained in a long time ago, avoid the temptation to be flippant. Here’s another opportunity to explain your career story. Talk about the way you moved on from one area of work to another, but make it sound like an intelligent response to circumstances and opportunity. The important thing is to demonstrate that you were always serious about your career and that fact hasn’t changed: ‘I felt originally that I was drawn to banking, and I had five really exciting years in the City. What I eventually realized was that I was much more interested in how people grow and learn, which is why I moved into learning and development …’ Q44 What important trends do you see in our industry? One important area of homework: research the industry as well as the job, even if you think you know it well. This homework will probably involve talking to people rather than just desk research. Prepare yourself to speak knowledgeably about:
64 Probing your learning n The
industry – is it rising or falling? How far is it vulnerable to external factors such as overseas competition or automation? n What issues are hot in this industry right now? What are people worried or excited about? n How does this organization perceive its effectiveness in dealing with these trends and issues? You should relish this kind of question as a great opportunity to show you have done your research and you have valid reasons for wanting to join this organization. Go to the organization fact sheet (page 15) to determine if you have enough information to speak intelligently about the industry. Check relevant websites and publications, and keep copies of relevant articles. Pick up the names of key people and organizations. Try to gain a picture of the way this organization sees its future, and demonstrate that you can be part of it: ‘Clearly the biggest trend is the way that conventional newspapers now need to have a live web presence with up-to-date video material. With my journalistic background and my experience of website design, I am really excited about your plans to re-launch your title early next year.’
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Building on your education and training n Learn to describe your studies in language that anyone can readily understand and find relevant to the workplace.
n Don’t assume that academic subjects are obscure or irrelevant – draw out useful transferable skills.
n Don’t over-emphasize academic qualifications in your CV or at interview, especially if you also have a good range of skills you can talk about instead. n Maintain professional relationships, particularly if you are currently unemployed. Attend seminars and workshops when possible. n Be aware of industry trends – and double-check your assumptions with solid research. n Teach or train others, either on a paid or volunteer basis, for example, as a business mentor, or as a coach, trainer or lecturer. n Think of job search as a chance to learn, to learn about yourself, to learn new skills, and to learn about a range of organizations and disciplines. n Maintain and follow your curiosity – it’s the key to lifelong learning.
Getting your key messages across COMMUNICATING THE THINGS THAT MATTER
How many answers are you likely to give in an interview? Depending on the length of the experience, that could be anything between 20 and 100. Here’s the million-dollar question: how many pieces of information will be retained by the decision-maker? The answer may surprise you. An interviewer may take notes, but when he’s driving home and mulling over your interview, it’s unlikely that more than three to five of your messages will remain in an interviewer’s memory. Strong candidates decide in advance what messages matter, and ensure they get them across in the best way possible. Communication in interviews is about disclosing information that matters and making sure it sticks. Too much information and your key messages are lost in the fog. Too little and you’ve failed to score enough ticks on the interviewer’s mental checklist. You will probably decide in advance how you are going to communicate key messages around a range of vital topics, for example: n What makes you a particularly strong candidate for the job. n Your unique mix of skills and experience. n Your personal strengths. n Your attitude, particularly your willingness to learn a job
quickly. n Projects, sectors, or organizations you have worked with.
Communicating the things that matter 67
which you believe may be worrying the interviewer (see Chapter 8).
Since an interviewer is going to remember only a handful of points about you, make them positive. If the main things remembered about you are that you were recently made redundant, you’re feeling a bit low, and you’re unsure of your transferable skills, your application is unlikely to go any further. Once you have secured an interview, the most important task is planting the right messages firmly in the mind of the decision maker. The six-point structure at the heart of all interview questions One way of looking at the process is to say that in every interview there are just a few big ticket items an employer wants to know about. 1. What brought you to us? Why did you apply? What is your career story? 2. What do you have to offer? What do you bring to the party? What solutions do you have to offer which match our problems? 3. How well do you understand us? Have you worked out how we tick as an organization? Have you worked out the key result areas of the job? 4. Who are you? What kind of person are you? Are you like us? Will you fit in? What will you add to a team? 5. Why you – rather than someone else with the same general profile? What puts you ahead of the pack? What’s your unique selling point? 6. What will it take to bring you on board? What will you cost us? How do we have to motivate and develop you to retain you in the future?
68 Getting your key messages across
Conversations and interviews If any employer says to you ‘it won’t be an interview – just a chat’, be cautious. There’s no such thing as a ‘chat’ in recruitment. No matter how informal, it’s an interview. As Chapter 3 discussed, an interview is a conversation which has a structure, a purpose, with one person very much in control. This can feel confusing because an interview mimics informal conversation (smiling, showing an interest in the other person, listening, encouraging someone to speak and feel comfortable), but unlike a conversation with friends over coffee, this exchange has a clear goal in mind. It is also an interaction that can affect the next 10 years of your life. An interview is all about disclosure. The reason interviewers are trained to get you to ‘open up’ at interview is that when you are relaxed enough to talk openly about your experiences you will start to disclose information that isn’t in your CV – your personality, your motivation, the way you perform skills. If you remain taciturn or defensive you won’t reveal this information. If the interviewer feels you are holding back information, the relationship is unlikely to develop. On the other hand, disclosure can mean that you can be seduced into giving away all kinds of negative information.
Tips for keeping your answers short and to the point n Don’t
dwell on trivia. Don’t give a 10-minute explanation of your journey when asked ‘How was the trip here?’. n Don’t get too detailed. Don’t recite the full job description for every task. n Don’t give too much context. Learn how to set the scene quickly without getting involved in over-complicated descriptions of organizational structures.
Communicating the things that matter 69
practise. Anticipate killer questions by using this book and by speaking your prepared answers out loud two or three times. n Don’t hold the floor. Deliver your answer quickly, clearly, and then hold back to allow the interviewer to engage further with your answer or move on to another question.
Tricks of the trade – techniques interviewers will use on you Interviewers have techniques to open you up like a book. They begin by asking you low-order questions – ice-breakers to get the conversation flowing. These are easy questions you don’t need to think about, questions such as ‘isn’t the weather dreadful today?’ or even the slightly absurd ‘did you get here all right?’. This is to a large extent ‘social noise’, but your responses are being judged, as you discovered in the discussion on first impressions in Chapter 3. Subsequently you’ll find that an interviewer’s main tool for getting you to talk freely is the open question. Essentially this is a question that you can’t answer with ‘yes’, ‘no’, or a simple fact. Good open questions often begin ‘Tell me about …’. They encourage you to unpack information and provide relevant detail. Your task is not to over-supply either – you need to hold, and keep, the interviewer’s attention. Throughout this book we’ll look at the need for controlled, brief responses. You’ll hear closed questions too. Closed questions like ‘did you enjoy that?’ don’t open candidates up terribly well, but you can always choose to add some detail to your answer. Sometimes you’ll be asked a closed question that seeks a fact, for example, ‘when was your last proficiency test?’.
70 Getting your key messages across
n May require ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an
n Leave respondents open to
answer (for example, ‘Do you enjoy this kind of work’?)
n May be used to contain an over-talkative candidate (for example, ‘Just let me check: what profit margin did you actually achieve?’)
n May be used to check numbers (for example, ‘How many staff did you supervise?’)
n May simply check a date or number (for example, ‘When did you qualify?’)
answer however they wish (for example, ‘Tell me about your present job’)
n Encourage candidates to disclose and communicate freely (for example, ‘What did you enjoy most about that job?’)
n May be probing (for example, ‘Why did you leave your last job?’)
n If done well, will draw out a candidate’s relevant experience and achievements
n May double check a detail (for
n May dig deeper for content
example, ‘How big was your marketing budget?’)
(for example, ‘Tell me a bit more about how you handled that problem’).
As the interview progresses, the tempo changes and the interviewer will probably start to throw in some tougher questions. These questions are designed to make you stop and reflect on your experience (for example, ‘what was your biggest challenge in the job?’) and to get behind your first, glib answer. These are high-order questions, because they require your brain to get into a higher gear. They usually require some thinking time – so don’t be afraid of pausing and reflecting for a few seconds (but not too long, or the interviewer may jump in with an alternative question, spoiling your opportunity). Well-trained interviewers listen carefully to your responses and then dig underneath what you say with probing ques-
Communicating the things that matter 71
tions. These throw badly-prepared candidates who only have a superficial grasp of their own evidence. Probing checks what you actually did, and the problems you had to overcome. A question may also probe parts of your experience you are not too happy about discussing. Probing questions can open the door to an entire chain of related questions. Prepare for them by looking at all the information on your CV and all the extra pieces of evidence you intend to put forward (see presentation statements, page 73), and imagine that an interviewer drills down several levels by asking those questions you just don’t want to hear. Here are two examples of typical sequences of questions used by an interviewer, beginning with a closed question to set the scene and moving gradually through other question styles.
Question sequence 1: team working n Closed:
‘Have you ever had to work in a team?’ A closed question to establish the simple facts with the briefest of replies ( ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘frequently’). n Open: ‘Tell me what you added to the team.’ Open to persuade you to disclose information about your workplace behaviours. n Closed: ‘Have you ever had to work with a difficult or unmotivated team?’ A closed question to determine if you have worked in more complicated situations. n Open: ‘What happened?’ The interviewer asks you to set the scene. n Probing: ‘What did you do to make the team work more effectively?’ The interviewer probes your actions. n High-order probing: ‘What else did you try?’ The probe goes deeper. There’s no way out except to be very specific about what you actually did, and why.
72 Getting your key messages across n High-order
probing: ‘What would you do differently if you faced the same situation again?’ Another level of probing, this time to look at what you learned from the experience.
Question sequence 2: your IT experience n Closed: ‘Do you have a PC at home?’ n Open: ‘What do you use it for?’ n Closed: ‘What image-processing software
are you familiar
with?’ n Open: ‘What is your experience of working with Photoshop?’ n Closed: ‘Do you know how to convert RAW files into
JPEGs?’ n Closed: ‘Do you prefer using Photoshop on a Mac or on a PC?’ n Open: ‘What do you find most challenging about using the latest version?’ n Open: ‘Where have you trained and instructed someone else in the use of this package?’ n Probing: ‘Which areas of the program are you less familiar with?’ n High-order probing: ‘What’s the most complicated thing you’ve done using Photoshop?’
The killer pause A technique that may throw you slightly is where the interviewer waits in silence at the end of your answer. You need to be very clear whether you need to carry on. Sometimes a pause like this will draw unwary candidates into saying rather too much. An interviewer will always make it clear if you haven’t provided enough information. Sometimes a pause occurs simply because the interviewer is digesting what you
Communicating the things that matter 73
have just said, or thinking up the next question. If you speak, you’re interrupting the flow of the interview. In general, learn to say less and make what you say effective and appropriate. Presentation statements I am indebted to my career coaching colleague Bernard Pearce of Career Inspirations for the brilliant concept of presentation statements, an essential element in every job-seeker’s toolkit. When you are preparing for an interview there are some questions you hope will not be asked. These are topics where you know you are vulnerable – more likely to stumble, to blush, and to come up with an inadequate answer. You’ll probably say too much, or say something that will plant a negative idea in the interviewer’s mind. This is where presentation statements really help. These are short, well-practised answers that get you past these small moments of crisis and into safer, positive territory. There are many question topics which press people’s buttons, including:
n Gaps in your CV. n Relationships at work. n Strengths and weaknesses. n Difficulties in your job search. n Reasons for job change. n Redundancy and unemployment. n Challenges and achievements. n What makes your application distinctive. These are the topics where candidates are typically most vulnerable, but you will have ones that are personal to you. Spend more time on these issues than any other, preparing answers of no more than three sentences. These answers should deal with the matter as quickly and positively as possible. This book is full of example presentation statements (see, for example, Q37 on qualifications, or Q82–Q86 on the reasons you’re job hunting). Write down your answers, then practise them out loud – it makes a huge difference. Presentation statements work – they deal with the issue, convey one single positive fact, and allow the interviewer to move on to the next topic.
74 Getting your key messages across
★Q45 Tell us about yourself. This apparently innocent and simple question is one of the toughest candidates ever have to deal with. The problem is that you have no frame of reference. Should you use a oneline summary? Should you talk in detail about your history, your work experience, your goals, or your personality? The question can appear at the beginning of an interview (and may even be used to throw you off balance just a little). The trap that too many candidates fall into is to give longwinded answers that try to summarize their CVs. Think about why an interviewer might ask this question. Possible reasons include: n The
interviewer is behind with paperwork and hasn’t had a chance to review your CV properly. n It’s a very general opener encouraging you to give a (brief) overview of your background. n It’s a question seeking evidence of your personality. n It’s a deliberately broad question just to see what you will come up with. Sometimes the interviewer will be far more specific: ‘Tell me about your career, starting with school, and progressing through the jobs that you have held. Include any accomplishments, and bring me up to the present.’ Even in this scenario you’ve got to remember to keep things brief. Respond in an answer lasting no more than two or three minutes, otherwise you lose the interviewer’s attention. Plan a short script – your first presentation statement. Get your message across in two or three short sentences, and then be quiet and wait for a response – the interviewer will either move on or tell if more is required. Here are some sample answers for different scenarios. n If
you are re-entering the job market after a time away: ‘I have experience in both the third sector and commercial
Communicating the things that matter 75
environments, primarily managing information. I’ve been away from salaried positions during the past few years to focus on my family, but even so I have been involved in a number of community-based projects that have enhanced my business skills and given me a good range of contacts.’ n Where you are looking to make a move up the ladder: ‘After starting as a management trainee and taking on additional responsibilities, I then enjoyed the responsibility of managing my own team. I’m looking now for a chance to broaden my management skills in a larger organization …’ n Where you want to make a career change: ‘After achieving my degree in engineering I very much enjoyed the opportunity to work in the utilities sector, with a strong emphasis on infrastructure. That has shown me that what I am really interested in is broader project management work, which is why I am now looking at construction companies …’
Q46 You have very little work experience. Why should we take your application further? If you are short on work experience and hear this question, revisit your CV. Have you done everything you possibly can to draw out relevant skills and experience? Have you communicated them on the first page? Have you thought about holiday jobs, Saturday jobs, work experience, unpaid work, times when you were ‘just helping out’? Look again at your experience outside work. Sit down with a friend and draw out every scrap of information you can about skills, knowledge, and work attitude from the following list: n School-based
work experience – what were you doing? What did you learn? n Family commitments – organizing your nan’s eightieth birthday party.
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studies (see Q36) – when did you organize yourself or others, communicate something, research something? n Your hobbies and interests (see Q8 & Q50), for example, leadership and coaching skills running a junior football team. n Personal achievements (see Q101), for example, how you motivated yourself to be a better swimmer. n Community involvement (see Q32), for example, team involvement in a big clean-up. n Influencing others (see Q148), for example, motivating your friend to give up smoking. n Your
Q47 I notice you were made redundant from your last job. How do you feel about that? This is a good example of a question that might get you bogged down in all kinds of negative territory. An interviewer does not want to hear about how hurt you feel, how badly you were treated, or exactly where you are up to in your dispute over your redundancy payment. In fact, an interviewer isn’t that interested in what happened at all, but is concerned about how ready you are to move on. If you don’t linger over this issue, it won’t become one – redundancy has become a common experience across all kinds of job sectors, and many people have been made redundant more than once. Using terms like ‘redundant,’ ‘laid off,’ ‘given a severance package’ are all euphemisms that say the loss of your job was due not to your performance but to circumstances beyond your control. All the interviewer needs to hear is that the experience isn’t a problem area for you: ‘The merger led to a major restructuring and understandably a number of people were laid off. Actually, it’s been a good opportunity to move into something different …’
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Q48 Your experience is all in the public sector. Why should we consider your application? In recent years many people have migrated from the shrinking public sector. Moving into the private sector isn’t easy if you lack the right experience. In addition, the kind of interview questions you face will be very different. Private-sector employers are often looking for a very positive and motivated attitude to work, and a track record of achieving results. Rethink your experience by rewriting your CV in terms of deadlines, goals achieved, and accountability. Look for examples of where you have saved money, exceeded contractual requirements, and times when you have acted like an entrepreneur – creating things that weren’t there before and adding new ideas to the job. Many private-sector employers start with wrong assumptions about the public sector, believing that staff work short hours, seek an easy life, and don’t have to meet real targets. The important thing is to convince an employer that you have the right attitude to work, and you enjoy what you do. Using the right kind of language is vital. If your interview answers are full of public-sector jargon it reinforces the idea that your experience is different from that of others being interviewed. Do your research carefully to pick up not only job content but job language. Prepare good examples that do exactly that, but re-frame what you have done in terms that anyone can understand: ‘I can see why you’d assume that my experience is very different, but the culture I was working in changed considerably in recent years. You might be surprised to hear that in my role I was accountable for specific results, and judged on the basis of customer feedback.’
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Q49 How did you get into your last role? Was your last job move planned, or did something just come along? Planning a career move demonstrates to the interviewer your sense of direction and purpose, and it indicates that you are a person with a strong picture of how you want your career to come together: ‘Since leaving university I’ve enjoyed working in a variety of organizations, but I’ve always worked in roles which are about getting the best out of other people. My next role, ideally, will give me experience of designing and managing training programmes.’
Q50 What do you enjoy doing outside work? Q8 on hobbies looks at the way your interests can become a focus of the interview fairly early on. Sometimes this isn’t just idle small talk, but a way of finding out what kind of person you are. There are two points not to be missed. First, your response could define you to the interviewer. What you choose to do may say a lot about who you are. Are you active (‘avid runner’ ) or passive (‘spectator’ ), a reflective individual (‘write poetry’ ) or an active joiner-in (‘Round Table’ )? Do not mention too many interests because that may imply that work takes second place in your life. Be prepared to discuss any interest you mention in more detail. Whatever you put under ‘interests’ in your CV, make sure that it is either relevant to the job or something you can talk about enthusiastically for five minutes if pushed. For example, you might talk about how golf helps to extend networks or cement relationships. Emphasize things that show you are active – mentally, physically, or actively co-operating with others. Don’t claim interests just because
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they sound good – a knowledgeable interviewer can undermine these claims in seconds, and interviewers assume that if you’re dishonest about one thing, you’re probably dishonest about a great deal more. Q51 Tell me about an important goal you would like to achieve. Think about important goals and linked achievements (see also Q101 for past successes). The goal may be job-related (‘to achieve Chartered status’ ) or personal (‘to run in the London marathon’ ). Talk about steps you’re taking towards achieving your goal. If you can include a time frame, do so – it demonstrates that you work towards goals rather than dreams. Q52 What is your current salary? Tread carefully. There are three key issues here: n Did
you mention your salary in a covering letter or an application form? If so, be consistent – give a factual answer but follow it up with a clear statement of intent: ‘I’m paid £XX but looking for a salary that reflects my skills and experience.’ n If you are paid more than the job on offer: ‘I fully recognize that this will be a pay cut but this is a role that really interests me …’ n If you are paid significantly less than the job on offer: ‘This job would be a pay rise for me – exactly what I can’t get in my present role.’ Q53 What sort of pay package are you after? A question posed this way may seem easier to deal with, but still presents problems. Try to defer any discussion of salary until you have a job offer. If the issue comes up earlier, try not to get into detailed discussion without having a real sense
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of the value of the role – what problems does it solve? How eager is the employer to fill the job quickly? Naming a figure too early is problematic: too high and you may rule yourself out early in the process, too low and you may suggest you’re not up to the job. Find out the salary range for the job you’re applying for (work this out from a variety of sources including job advertisements, websites and industry contacts). If pressed, start by asking what the salary range is for similar positions in the organization, and then continue to talk about a range rather than a specific figure (‘Top 40s, ideally’ ). (See also Chapter 15 for detailed tips on pay discussions.) Q54 We’re going to ask you to take some tests. Have you been tested recently? Candidates who have experience of different kinds of assessments (this might include in-tray exercises, role plays, or a range of psychometric tests) show that they are regularly considered for senior appointments. ‘What kind of tests will you be using?’ Do some background research on the different kind of tests that employers use. Tests fall into several categories. The simplest are skill tests (for example, measuring your typing speed). Intelligence tests cover verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and numerical reasoning. Personality questions are rather different as they have no right or wrong answers and are designed to give clues about the way you respond in a range of situations. Here the best strategy is to answer honestly rather than trying to second-guess what the recruiter is looking for or trying to impress. If you have undergone personality tests in the past, you may want to talk about past results: ‘No problem, but interestingly tests always pigeon-hole me as an introvert, when in fact I am pretty good at establishing new relationships quickly.’
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Take note of the names of tests the employer will be using. Go to find out more and try practice questions. Ask the employer what feedback you will be given after the testing process – you may find the results very helpful. Q55 Can we contact your current employer for a reference? This is a question you should enjoy hearing because it’s a buying signal. Hopefully you haven’t made the mistake of listing referees on your CV. Provide them only when they are asked for, because you should always know when a reference is going to be taken. Notify referees when you know they are going to be approached, tell them about the job you’re after, and tell them why you think the role is a good match up (see also Q220). You may not want your current employer to be approached for a reference at this stage. Clarify exactly when references will be taken: ‘I will be very pleased to provide a reference from my current employer if a position is offered. I assume you’ll let me know before taking up any references?’ Q56 Why am I unsure about whether you actually want a job? This is a challenging and important question. Think about the variety of reasons an employer might ask this: n You
may have come across as lacking interest. In which case, redress the balance. Be clear that you’re not just looking for any job, but this job: ‘OK, let me tell you why I would be really excited to get this role …’ n You may have over-emphasized the richness of your life outside work, giving the impression that what you want is
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an undemanding job to fund your outside interests. Make your priorities clear: ‘I’ve given you lots of details about my outside interests to show my range of skills and experience, but let me be very clear that work is the main energizer for me and I always put work deadlines first …’ n You may have come across as someone lacking motivation. Talking in more animated terms about what you bring to the party will help: ‘I definitely want this job because it would be a great opportunity to put learning into practice …’ n Employers are often unsure about people who have had a series of interim or temporary roles. Give a clear reason why you are now looking for something more stable: ‘I want to be in a permanent position because I want to commit to longer-term goals …’ Employers are sometimes wary of people who have been selfemployed, particularly if they are still company directors. ‘Working for myself was right for that phase in my career and gave me exposure to a wide range of interesting organizations, but I’m very clear now that I want to spend the next stage of my career working inside a big organization.’ Q57 Would you consider this role on a short-term basis? In the not too distant past, jobs were clearly divided between permanent and temporary roles. Some people actively sought out temporary or short-term positions either as a way of establishing themselves in the job market or because of lifestyle choices. The labour market has now changed significantly, partly because of employers’ need to control payroll costs, and partly because of social trends towards increasing flexibility. Flexitime arrangements and distance working from home continue to increase. Employers often think about filling jobs in a variety of ways which might include interim roles, fixed-term contracts, and engaging self-employed consultants.
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What starts out advertised as a permanent role may change part-way through the hiring process to something part-time or short term. If the employer is interested in you but you insist that you are only looking for a permanent, salaried role, you may talk yourself out of the process. The actual working arrangements are in fact best resolved when an employer decides that they want you. That’s the best time to negotiate anything – hours, money, the nature of the contract (see Chapter 15). At this stage of the conversation get the employer to talk about the problems the job is there to solve. Ask the same kinds of questions that you would ask if you were an external consultant: ‘Ideally I’d like a permanent position, but I’m really interested in working here, so I’m happy to look at alternatives. Why don’t we start by looking at what you need? What problems are you dealing with?’ Talking about ‘alternatives’ makes you flexible without committing yourself. You have, however, shown a strong interest in the organization, and started to get to grips with its biggest headaches and greatest opportunities. That way you get a clear idea of what success might look like. Help an employer think through the challenges of the job, and offer yourself as a matched solution. If you manage this conversation well, you may persuade the organization to make a temporary position permanent. Employers are often far more flexible about this than you think – but only when the need is clear and they have decided that you are the answer to the problem. Q58 So, if I could just summarize … You may hear an interviewer summarizing all or part of the interview. A good summary will be very helpful to you in establishing what the interviewer has actually heard and
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understood. Listen carefully – you will also pick up interesting clues about what the interviewer has given most attention to. Reinforce information that is correct, affirm the quality of a good summary, and don’t be timid about correcting a misunderstanding: ‘That captures things nicely, but may I just add that although I am not currently in a B2B role I have in the past built sales with a number of small business contacts.’ Take this as a welcome opportunity to add vital information: ‘Perhaps it would be helpful if I add that I also had purchasing responsibility in my first job – I had to put together the company’s first preferred suppliers list.’
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Getting your message across 1. Keep your purpose in mind. What are the three to five main messages you want to get across? 2. If it’s a closed question seeking facts or numbers, answer very concisely. 3. Respond with detail, but not too much. The interviewer may be happy with your initial response if it is focused. Saying too much increases the chance of introducing negative ideas and information. 4. Anticipate through your preparation exactly where an interviewer is going to probe. Imagine that each piece of information you put in front of the interviewer is like bait on a fish hook. Which answers are going to make the interviewer bite? 5. Keep it conversational. Do not sound rehearsed, even if it is. 6. Accentuate the positive. Put negative aspects in the best light. 7. Give relevant details. Quantify. (How many people worked for you? What results did you achieve? What costs have you saved?) 8. Do not give monologues. Ideal answers last from 30 seconds to two minutes. Don’t feel you need to tell your life story. As in advertising, you don’t have to give every detail of a product to gain a sale. 9. Show strong interest in the questions and excitement about the role. 10. Leave on a high note. End the conversation with some good questions about the future of the role and the organization (see Chapter 14).
What kind of person are you? PERSONALITY QU ESTIONS
Interviewers like to believe that they work objectively, matching facts about candidates against carefully measured job components. The reality is that many interview decisions are at a gut response level, highly influenced by personality. In the most extreme cases, interviewers select people they like or – worse still – people who are like them. It’s understandable; most of us feel happier with people who share our values and sense of humour. Even skilled interviewers admit that, consciously or unconsciously, they favour people who make them feel comfortable, and respond negatively to people who don’t. The effect of these judgements is known as the ‘halo’ effect. Interviewers who admire one aspect of a candidate tend to like all aspects. The opposite is also true, one off-putting characteristic can make an interviewer dismiss all of your experience. Personality is one of the more difficult dimensions to measure accurately in interviews, but it’s a vital part of the world of work. Personality issues can make or break working relationships. These are all broad labels that don’t account for the subtleties of human personality, but they are useful enough categories for the interview process, because often decisions are made around simple and rather opinion-driven questions like ‘is the candidate ambitious?’. Your personality influences the way you communicate, listen, and win people over. It shapes your ability to cope with rejection, criticism,
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and emotional or time pressure. Motivation is very much a part of personality (see Chapter 8). Examine job documents in detail and highlight any personality attributes you can identify. Then think about how far your personality might match. So, for example, if the job seeks someone who is ‘innovative’, think of good examples. Visualize the work context so you can get a feel for what the post holder will actually need to do, and then think about what personality characteristics would be most useful. Pay particular attention when a mix of personality attributes is required. For example, a project manager will need to be ‘objective’, ‘analytical’, and ‘task-focused’, but if the job also involves people-influencing skills then the job description may add words such as ‘flexible’, ‘responsive’, and ‘consultative’. Using the job fact sheet (page 16), list those personality aspects you believe the job requires. Against each item on the list, record examples from your experience when you have demonstrated these qualities, preparing yourself for the questions in this chapter. Even in the most carefully structured competency-based interview (see Chapter 11) there is still an unspoken question: ‘does this person fit?’ When a new person joins a team the chemistry can change very quickly, and a positive or negative person can quickly change the atmosphere in the workplace. Personality questions are therefore designed to help the interviewer understand: you will fit into a team or organization (see Q73– Q76). n How you might get along with demanding customers (see Q195 & Q196). n How quickly you can establish relationships of trust (see Q132 & Q144). n How you think, learn, and make decisions (see Q41, Q125 & Q126). n How
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you will operate undertaking routine work (see Q131). n How you respond to pressure (see Q150 & Q167). n How well you can multitask and deal with conflicting deadlines (see Q104). n How quickly you bounce back from failure or disappointment (see Q62). n How you respond to control and supervision (see Q64). n How well you manage others (see Q154).
Your emotional radar Emotional intelligence enables you to observe and understand your impact on others, and become better at predicting other people’s emotional responses. Most emotional radar, of course, happens instinctively: some people are just good at people, and others aren’t. We can learn compensating strategies and behaviours, but these can only take effect if you listen carefully to feedback about your actual behaviours – particularly the way you work under pressure. Personal development will often improve this radar and help people learn to establish and build relationships, empathize with others, and display more effective social, communication, and management skills. Learning to moderate and adapt behaviours is often seen as a useful management tool. Staff often enjoy working for managers who can get the best out of them and can provide support as well as criticism. An interview allows you to reveal how your personality plays out at work. Are you comfortable in your own skin? How do you motivate others? Can you empathize with customers, clients, supervisors, fellow workers? Can you see another’s point of view? When things get tough, boring, hectic, or chaotic at work, how do you react and how do you help others to manage their feelings? Can you defuse emotionally charged situations?
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Depending on the interviewer’s agenda, questions on personality can quickly screen candidates in or out. Traits can be viewed either as positive or as negative. Take, for example, the adjectives ‘creative’ and ‘aggressive’. Creativity in an advertising manager is a laudable trait; ‘creative’ bookkeeping could cause problems. Aggressiveness in sales managers pushing into new markets could be vital to a start-up company, but aggression is something a childcare agency wishes to avoid.
★Q59 How would you describe your personality? Think first of all about the two kinds of answer an interviewer doesn’t want to hear: (1) a long list of over-blown adjectives, or (2) ‘I’m not sure’. Use the list below to kick-start your thinking. Tick the ones that apply to you. What words can you add? Ask friends, family and colleagues what words they would use to describe your work personality. Words that capture my personality Gregarious Open to new ideas Innovator Listener Good at detail Work oriented Task driven Completer-finisher People driver Spontaneous Self-motivated High energy Self-starter
Relaxed Deadline-driven Focused Questioning Analytical Empathetic Assertive Loyal Punctual Planner Leader Risk taker Analytical
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Alternatively, relate this question to Q66 on strengths, and provide an exact match for the job: ‘From what I can see you need a combination of an analytical thinker and someone who is good at handling client enquiries. That’s the way I was described in my last appraisal.’ Q60 How would your work colleagues describe you? Behind this question lies a concern: how self-aware are you? Do you make claims about your working style that others would find difficult to recognize? An interviewer has no easy way of double-checking your picture of yourself against the views of others (although this might come out in a reference). This kind of question shows very clearly that claims you might have made in your CV or earlier in the interview will not be taken at face value. Therefore, inform your answer with evidence rather than guesswork or false modesty: ‘Among my group of friends I’m usually the one who arranges meals or days out. The feedback I get from colleagues at work is that I’m good at getting things organized and a natural project manager, and not afraid of ruffling feathers to get things done on time.’ Q61 What personal characteristics do you have which will make you successful in this position? This kind of question often comes up late in the process, perhaps in a second interview. An employer is probably already fairly convinced that you can do the job. The remaining puzzles now are ‘will you fit in?’ and ‘do you have the right mindset?’. Persistence, loyalty, a strong work ethic, strong communica-
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tion skills, results orientation, team player, insatiable curiosity – these are typical characteristics required by more demanding jobs, but find out for yourself. Scrutinize the language used in job documents describing things like attitude and working style. Then go beyond documents – talk to people. Find someone who knows what kind of people your target employer considers useful and successful – this will include past and current employees, or consultants, or suppliers who know the organization well. This is a moment when insider information helps, but in fact it’s not that difficult to get hold of. Your goal is not just to list the personal requirements of the job, but to think about what a top performer looks like. If you’ve done your homework well this question is an open goal – you’ll have great examples at your fingertips which match the organization’s picture of the job. ‘My last boss said she valued having me around because I am open to new ideas, innovative, a good listener, and someone who gets things done.’ Q62 How resilient are you? Any number of words can of course replace the word ‘resilient’, but this quality – the ability to bounce back after setbacks – is important in many roles (other top favourites include assertive, inventive, proactive, decisive, influential, dynamic …). Think of a good example which demonstrates how you applied this quality; the best answers on personality show by telling a story rather than simply asserting. ‘My last two jobs have required tremendous resilience. For example, the project to develop the new transmission was sent back to the drawing board five times, sometimes for technical reasons, usually because of changes of policy. That got some people down, but I just got on with the job and gave the project the same attention I gave it the first time it crossed my desk.’
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Q63 How determined are you? This question is looking for a quality that is often sought by employers: the ability to stick with a task, overcoming obstacles, and keep going until the goal is reached. What is perceived to be determination in one person may of course be regarded as stubbornness or inflexibility in another. Dogged persistence can be seen as a negative characteristic in the workplace, for example, where you insist on continuing a project that is losing money, simply because the project was your idea. Of course, it doesn’t take much determination to achieve an easy task. So a good example of a situation involving determination will involve some degree of opposition or difficulty. Perhaps you faced personal criticism or objections, or others actively undermined what you were doing. This is all good evidence of your ability to keep pushing, despite setbacks – times when you stuck to your guns in the face of difficulties and took something to a successful conclusion without causing a staff walk-out. Ideally your answer will be taken from a work context, but here’s an example taken from a career break: ‘I had to be pretty determined to arrange my career break in New Zealand, because I wanted to get an internship with a wine producer, and I was told that competition for places was high even for locals. Nevertheless, I pulled in favours and rang a few people directly. I got one offer which was then withdrawn because of timing issues, but I got on the phone right away and told them that I really wanted to work with them, and they let me go on the dates I had planned.’ Your story may well bring out useful competencies (see Chapter 11) such as problem-solving, improvising under pressure, and assertiveness.
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Q64 How much freedom of action do you like in a job? This is another killer question. A great many workers secretly wish they had more autonomy in their jobs; freedom of choice about how the work gets done. Employers value this, but also worry about it, because in every job there are boundaries and deadlines. Take this as an opportunity to reflect the employer’s perspective, showing you appreciate the need for balance between the way you want to work and organizational needs: ‘I’m very used to working within tight reporting structures, for example …’ Or, if you know you like rather more freedom: ‘Give me a clear brief and a deadline and I’m happy to get on with the job. I’ll provide progress reports if required, but I won’t need to keep asking for guidance. For example …’ Q65 What kind of people do you like to work with? What kind of people do you least prefer to work with? This may look like a gentle enquiry about your preferred team arrangements, but is of course a fishing trip seeking evidence of past relationship difficulties. Stack up positive examples, thinking about team members, staff who have reported to you, previous managers, and customers or clients you have worked with. Talk about people who have inspired you, energized you. Talk about people you have learned from. If you worked in a good team, say so, and explain why the team worked. This is a very good opportunity to praise past colleagues, which sends out a signal that you work well with others and can learn from a variety of contexts.
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Spend more time talking about the people you like to work with, and give a brief answer on the second part of the question. You might just allow yourself one short anecdote about someone who displayed work practices that would irritate the most saintly worker, for example, people who over-promise and under-deliver, colleagues who sit on vital information, or people who are sloppy about important details. Talk about the behaviour, not the person, and be prepared for the followup question ‘so what did you do about it?’. ‘I like being around people who look as if they enjoy their work and think about how they can do things better. I’m afraid that I am rather less energized with people who don’t seem to care what they do as long as they can leave by five o’clock.’
★Q66 What are your strengths? It’s almost impossible to get through a job interview without answering this question, which goes straight to the heart of the matter. What makes you an unusually suitable applicant for the job? Two principles matter here. First, get the balance right between egotism and modesty – you are going to have to say what you are good at. Second, the most impressive answer in the world will score you no points if your answer is not closely related to the job. Strong candidates resist the temptation to unload a long list of empty adjectives: selfstarter, great communicator, team player, natural leader. An interviewer has heard them all before – from this year’s school leavers and graduates. So coming out with that kind of list is really saying ‘I haven’t bothered to think about this question’ or ‘I have nothing to offer that you can’t get from someone younger and cheaper’ – both great ways of talking yourself into the reject pile. Smart candidates start with the organization’s top three to five needs, and then provide matching evidence. It pays to use
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words that are slightly different from the terms used in the job description, otherwise your answer sounds a little too glib. Then move into a short burst of evidence that reveals where you have demonstrated the abilities you claim: ‘I’d like to talk about the strengths that are relevant to this job. My understanding is that you’re looking for someone who has top-level influencing skills, good public-sector contacts, and an in-depth knowledge of procurement. In my last job …’ Don’t forget that the broad term ‘strengths’ allows you to talk about any factors which make you a strong candidate. If the interviewer wants to bring you back to personality factors, look again at Q59. The best strengths are usually combinations of personality, knowledge, and skills: ‘I think I am unusual – I have actuarial training, experience of technical roles in the banking sector, but also the communication skills to inform and persuade.’
★Q67 What are your weaknesses? See also Q130. If you get a question about strengths, a follow-up question about weaknesses usually follows. Don’t go anywhere near an interview without thinking about this topic. Practise short convincing responses about strengths and weaknesses by writing them down, then speaking them out loud two or three times, and then testing them out on a good friend. Anything else is leaving far too much to chance, as we are now in the ‘make or break’ zone of the interview. Some candidates risk saying ‘I don’t have any weaknesses’, but a good interviewer won’t let you get away with that – you will be pressed to name at least one, and doing so without preparation is a dangerous game. Naturally, you won’t be as open about your weaknesses as you are with your strong points. Most interviewers pay
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close attention at this point, secretly hoping you will reveal something that undermines all the good work you have done so far. Not only that, but interviewers will usually admit that they give far more weighting to negative information and remember it much more clearly than all the positive things you have said. So do not, under any circumstances, volunteer information about past relationship problems or culture clashes at work. Do not talk about critical failings like poor attention to detail. Do not talk about negative feedback you received in the past, or what you are worried people say about you behind your back. Sometimes it’s acceptable to talk about allowable weaknesses (for example, being bored by routine work if you are in a creative role), or to talk about something which is a minor weakness that is a learning goal: ‘I recognize that sometimes when I am working to tight deadlines I don’t always communicate progress to my team as often as I should. I’m working on that with a mentor right now and trying out some new strategies.’ Or give your answer a twist: ‘Because service is such an important hallmark of our approach to internal as well as external customers, I sometimes spend a little more time than I should making sure that people get the help they need.’ A good strategy is to simply repeat the top skills and qualities that are required for the job and then add: ‘Having reviewed the key things you’re looking for in this job I think my evidence has shown that I’m a pretty good match. If there are gaps, I can assure you that I am a very quick learner and happy to find the right colleagues or resources to bring me up to speed.’
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Q68 If I spoke to your former boss, what would she say are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Back to personal strengths and weaknesses, but with a different spin, and an approach that seeks more tangible evidence to back up your claims. Clearly you are not going to be believed if you say ‘My boss would say that she isn’t aware of any weaknesses’. This, is, however, a good opportunity to describe a very solid working relationship that included honest feedback and mutual appreciation of different working styles: ‘In my first appraisal my boss told me I was a perfectionist and that could get in the way. I always wanted to complete every project perfectly. So I watched the way she worked, and learned to see when it was appropriate to do a “good enough” job. My next appraisal said I was a person who got things done and kept customers happy, which worked much better for both of us.’ Or, where you are on more equal terms with your manager: ‘This used to be a kind of running gag between myself and my boss. She would tell me that my strength was that I would get on with the job, but then she’d keep checking in on me to make sure I was making progress. We developed a good system in the end: she’d pretend to leave me alone, and I’d pretend to give weekly progress reports. It worked really well!’ Q69 What kind of manager do you prefer to work with? This is, of course, a loaded question, tempting you into a particular kind of minefield. A weak candidate unwisely takes this as a prompt to start sharing anecdotes about past bosses who were unreasonable, pushy, Machiavellian, and so on.
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The interviewer nods sympathetically, while probably writing down ‘responds badly to supervision’. You may be asked about ‘the best boss you ever had’, or about your ‘ideal manager’, but you can’t pick and choose who manages you. You can choose whether or not to take the job once you’ve discovered what your new boss is like, but that’s an issue to deal with after a job is offered. For now, disclose information very carefully. Don’t volunteer examples of times when you have found a boss challenging or unlikable. Aim for a balanced position: ‘I’ve worked for a range of managers in my time with very different working styles, and I have got on with all of them. I don’t need to be told things twice. Give me a job to do with clear objectives, and I’m happy to get on with it, just checking back with my manager if I hit a major problem. If I have to go to my manager I try to take solutions rather than just problems.’ These answers reveal something important: that you’re flexible enough to be fairly easy to manage. You may also find it helpful to be clear that (a) you are aware of areas of potential difficulty in management relationships, and (b) you respond well to supervision, but you don’t need to be micromanaged. If pressed about the kind of manager you prefer, talk about what most organizations would see as a good manager: ‘I always admire managers who set and communicate clear goals, give good feedback, and build on the strengths of team members. That’s the approach I took when …’ Q70 Who’s the most difficult manager you’ve ever had to work with? This is the dark side of the previous question, probing for evidence of difficult working relationships. It is a rare candidate who gets away with a frank and open discussion about the failings of a past boss – it’s far more likely that criticizing
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a past manager is taken as clear evidence that you don’t take well to supervision. Your first line of defence is to give the first response that was suggested for Q69 above, indicating that you’ve worked for a range of managers and adapted to each set of circumstances with some success. Don’t criticize a manager for behaviour that is par for the course, such as being directive, pushy or target-focused – that’s what bosses do. And don’t complain that your boss held views that the interviewer may share, such as a rigorous ‘clean desk’ policy. A skilled interviewer may want to probe further and ask for an example of a time when things didn’t work out so well. In which case, talk about the situation rather than the person: ‘We were all working under a great deal of pressure and against tight schedules, so it wasn’t surprising that my boss didn’t have much time to explain objectives.’ As long as you don’t display contempt or frustration, you can be fairly safe giving examples of bosses who were a ‘challenge’ for reasons that most people would not find surprising, for example, a boss who trusted no one to take responsibility, a boss who failed to communicate important information, a boss who was absent, or a boss who did not put the needs of the organization first: ‘My boss was one of the most challenging people I’ve ever worked for. He had a lot going on personally and he was rude to a lot of my team. We had a lot of staff turnover as a result and we were starting to get things wrong. However, I decided to consider my boss as my most demanding “customer” and that strategy made things work for a while, but after six months I was glad to move on.’ Q71 What rattles your cage? Variations on this question are ‘What irritates you?’, ‘What makes you angry?’, or ‘What gets under your skin?’
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This is another tightrope question. If you talk revealingly about times when you blew your top at work, you suggest that you’re something of a loose cannon. On the other hand, if you say that nothing makes you angry, you may come across as just a little too placid and difficult to motivate in terms of meeting deadlines. Focus on those areas where frustration is a boost to work performance: ‘I rarely get angry, but I can get frustrated when suppliers let us down badly. The trick is to do what you can to solve the problem and then go back to ensure there is a good system in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ If you’re going for a role which demands passionate intensity (for example, a role campaigning for animal or human rights) then a potential employer would probably be surprised if you didn’t talk about strongly held beliefs or a sense of injustice. Q72 What parts of your last job would you prefer not to repeat? (See also Q19.) A professional interviewer wants to get under the glossy surface you present when talking about your past. Aspects you like are easy to identify, and talking about them will naturally make you sound engaged and positive, but do try to tailor your evidence to match the job. Talking about the aspects of past jobs that you disliked is more precarious. It should by now be clear that you should never talk about past relationship problems or frustrations in the job. It doesn’t impress an interviewer if you say you’re bored by a job, because you need to show that you made efforts to make the job more challenging. Prepare for this question carefully because it’s a great opportunity to turn negatives from your past into positives for the future. Describe the factors that motivate you in a job, making sure that you match your answers to the role:
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‘I really don’t enjoy working in telesales – I’d much rather be seeing customers face to face.’ ‘I don’t work well if I am completely on my own – that’s why the team aspect of this role appeals to me so much.’ ‘I like to be learning, all the time, which is why I am attracted to an organization that has such a well-established training programme.’
★Q73 Tell me about a time when you were part of an effective team.
(See also Q143–Q146.) All team questions are opportunities to show how well you understand teams, and where you have made strong contributions. Learn how to ‘set the scene’ for this kind of answer. If you spend too long giving an overview of why the team was formed and what the team did, you will lose the interviewer’s attention. Give the background quickly. Mention in particular if the team included a mix in terms of disciplines or seniority, and be sure to say what you brought to the party: ‘I was part of a multidisciplinary team looking at the customer experience. My role was to give a chalk-face perspective and show what our customers actually think and feel when they come into our stores. Many of my colleagues in marketing and distribution hadn’t thought about that perspective before and took some wining over. As a result we brought in a brand-new training module and some very different point-of-sale materials.’ Q74 What do you normally contribute to a team? This is a natural follow-up question on teams which may not be asked if you have covered Q73 fully, so be aware of the different ways that people contribute to teams. Don’t be
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satisfied with the generalized term ‘team player’. When we talk about ‘team players’ most people mean those who are naturally extrovert and who display leadership characteristics, but there are many different roles in successful teams. Look, for example, at Belbin Team Roles (see www.belbin.com). Alternatively, use your own terms to describe the different ways people contribute to teams, for example: n Team n Team
leader: the person who sets targets and boundaries. coach: the person who gets a great performance out of others. n Team builder: the person who makes sure that other members of the team get on with each other. n Idea builder: the person who is good at generating new ideas. n Idea developer: the person who is good at building on other people’s ideas. n Safe pair of hands: the person who makes sure things get done and projects are completed on time. Often candidates say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ when talking about team accomplishments. That’s fine for a while, but do make it crystal clear what you contributed to any team. Were you the ideas person, the co-ordinator, the project driver? Or perhaps you were the person who stopped the other members of the team strangling each other? Q75 What would be your ideal team? In the world of work there are few dream teams and many compromises. The motive for asking the question is to check out if you are compatible with the team you hope to join. There are two strategies here: n If
the employer has already described the team, then talk about how you would fit it.
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the interviewer has not described the team, describe an effective and mutually supportive team you have worked in.
‘My ideal team was the team I worked in three years ago. We had a strong work ethic but also a sense of fun. Every team member had a real commitment to quality improvement – plus a respect for each other’s ideas and input. This kind of team performs with very little guidance and direction. If a problem arises, it is addressed and solved by the group itself.’ Q76 Let me describe the team you would be joining if we appointed you. How would you fit in? This question clearly signals that you are being seriously considered as a post holder. Even if this question isn’t being asked by the interviewer, you should be asking it of yourself. Can you see yourself fitting in to the team described? What role would you perform? What problems would you anticipate? It doesn’t harm at this stage to ask additional smart questions: ‘OK, tell me a little bit more about the mix of people you have working for you right now. Where do you see gaps? What improvements would you like to see?’ This gives you a more information on the team environment, plus a little thinking time. Naturally you can’t have a complete understanding of the team at this point, but if you match your experience and evidence to the things that appear to be on the employer’s shopping list you will do well enough: ‘It sounds like the team doesn’t always feel it’s being consulted. I work hard at getting people to feel that their views matter. For example, my team was asked to investigate centralized accounting. The team’s first reaction was that this was already a done
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deal so there was no point talking about it, but I persuaded them to look at risks and benefits, and by doing so they got much more involved in making things happen.’
★Q77 Why do you feel you have management potential?
You may be after a job which is the first rung on the management ladder, but you have little management experience or training. It won’t help if you simply state that you have always wanted to be a manager. You will, no doubt, have some experience of supervising, informing, training, coaching, or supporting others – this is what you draw on so that evidence reveals potential. Seek even stronger evidence if you can, for example, where you took responsibility for a project or task, or deputized for a manager. ‘We had a dozen temps in and it was my job to show them how to scan documents for electronic filing. I wrote out a sheet with key instructions set out, but also explained it on a one-to-one basis and dealt with queries and problems.’ ‘I was asked to represent my department at a recent meeting chaired by the FD. I consulted colleagues on their views, wrote a short report, spoke about it at the meeting, and brought comments back to my boss and the rest of the team. The feedback was that I had done a good job representing the team’s views diplomatically.’ Q78 What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to do as a manager? (See also Q156.) Expect this kind of question if you have managerial experience. Employers are seeking evidence that you have got to grips with the difficult aspects of the job which weaker managers avoid by delegation. Examples
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include telling someone they are underperforming, saying no to a request for training, giving someone a verbal warning, telling someone they are going to be made redundant. Once again, balance is everything. Show you’re not afraid of tackling difficult tasks, but you can act tactfully. ‘Since I was in charge of the unit, I was responsible for the annual review of staff members. Generally people were reasonably well motivated but I had one individual who was always late for work, and I had to go through a formal process of warnings with him which eventually led to his termination. I was always very straight and open with him and on the day he left he thanked me for my patience.’ Q79 In what ways are you creative? If you are a copywriter in an advertising agency or a fashion designer your creativity will be obvious, but other jobs also draw on creativity. You might feel that if you are working in an accounts department, creativity is not highly valued, but you may have an inventive way of organizing data or designing spreadsheets. You may have come up with novel solutions to problems, or built on the ideas of others. Being creative is often about lateral thinking in a job, and being flexible enough to re-invent the rule book from time to time. Work out what kind of creativity is required for the role, and offer matching examples from your experience. ‘Most people don’t think that purchasing is a creative role, but in fact it’s about constantly reinventing the relationship with suppliers, and coming up with some fairly innovative solutions to make them work.’
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When the spotlight is on you 1. Prepare for classic questions about your personality. 2. Think about the way you normally behave and influence others. 3. Dig deep into the job documentation to get a feel for the personality style that would best match the role. 4. Ask trusted colleagues for honest feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your working style. 5. Practise talking about yourself. It feels odd at first but you soon get used to it. 6. Don’t contradict what you say with the way you act. Your ‘non-verbal’ messages should match the person you are describing. 7. Do not let your guard down for questions you may think are ‘soft’ or ‘informal’. Everything is part of the interview. 8. Write down and rehearse crisp, upbeat responses – don’t memorize them word for word, but have a pretty clear idea about what you are going to say. 9. Make the interview a good experience for everyone else in the room. That shows more than anything you say how easy you will be to work with. 10. Form a ‘success team’ of two or three trusted friends to meet periodically to discuss career strategies and help pick you up if you experience rejection.
Motivation – what drives you? WHAT ENERGIZES YOUR WORKING LIFE?
What kind of work feels worth getting up for on a Monday morning? We are motivated by different things at different stages of life. Younger workers often seek change and opportunity, while older workers may prefer security. Some seek the potential to earn a high salary; others seek work which feels meaningful. Some live to work, while others very much work to live, motivated by activities outside the nine to five. Interviewers want to discover what motivates you on a daily basis, and also what has motivated past life choices. An organization is going to invest time and money recruiting you, so an employer also wants to know what keeps you energized in the long run.
Evidence that makes interviewers worry There are many things that might give an interviewer cause for concern, but here are some of the classic danger areas:
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What your CV appears to say
What the Interviewer worries about
I’ve changed jobs f requently.
Flits about. Can’t stick to a job. See Q86 & Q87.
My jobs have little in common.
Chequered history and no clear career story. See Q80.
My main qualification has nothing to do with my career path.
What do this candidate’s s tudies contribute to the job? See Q36 & Q43.
I have lots of qualifications but little work experience.
Could be a perpetual student. See Q37.
I have lots of consuming interests outside work.
Might take too much time off work. See Q50.
I am in a secure, well-paid job.
Will probably turn the job down if it’s offered. See Q84.
I’ve done a lot of v olunteering.
Unable to secure paid work. See Q32 & Q99.
I love taking career breaks.
Will be off again soon – leaving us in the lurch. See Q30.
The high point of my career was 10 years ago.
Little motivation to succeed. See Q93.
Work has been stressful recently.
Looking for a quiet life. See Q117 & Q167.
All my work has been in the public sector.
Won’t be able to adjust to the cut and thrust of business. See Q48.
I am happy to do any kind of work.
Is this person motivated by any part of the job? See Q97.
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I have a very broad range of skills.
Jack of all trades, but not necessarily the right person for us. See Q98.
I have been running my own business.
Will only be in salaried work until the market improves. See Q83.
I am not sure what I am looking for in my next job.
Unfocused on the right next step. See Q91.
If you suspect that the interviewer is worried about any aspect of your CV, it’s often a good idea to pre-empt the question yourself before leading into one of the answers suggested in this book: ‘I expect you’re thinking …’ ‘I imagine you might be concerned that …’
★Q80 What makes this role the right next step for you?
Stronger candidates avoid giving the impression that their careers were shaped by random events. Summarize your study and work history so that it sounds like a coherent career story, not several episodes stitched together. Don’t apologize for your CV or say it’s a bit of a jumble sale, but learn how to sell it as a coherent story with consistent flavours and themes: ‘You might wonder what a history graduate is doing working in accountancy and then property management. Well, in my studies and in every job I have done the big theme for me has been about digging down through information and working out what’s really going on – in historical documents, company accounts, or property management contracts. However, I’ve also realized that
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property is the sector that offers me the opportunity to use my full range of skills, which are …’ Q81 What has been the high point of your career? If you talk in glowing terms about a job you held in the past, the interviewer may feel that the rest of your career has been a disappointment. On the other hand, if you can’t identify a high point, that communicates a lack of engagement. Try linking past and future: ‘I think the role I most enjoyed was working as an account executive in a PR company. However, as enjoyable as the job was, it didn’t really give me an opportunity to work with top decisionmakers. This role, however …’ Otherwise, seize this opportunity to outline your skill set, showing that it is highly relevant to the role: ‘I got a real buzz out of managing the repairs department – ensuring that repairs were done properly, work went out on time, and we kept customers informed and happy. When the business folded I realized that these were the skills I wanted to use in a new role …’ Q82 I notice you left your last role some time back. How’s the job search been going? Candidates often feel vulnerable talking about periods of unemployment, and where they give downbeat answers and talk about repeated rejections, interviewers may see someone who is disheartened and lacking energy. Employers get worried by individuals who don’t get offers – they start to wonder why so many other organizations have said ‘no’. Show that you have been actively applying for jobs and making connections. Focus on the job, not your difficulties
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finding it. Talk about the people and organizations you have met, and talk about voluntary or project work you have done: ‘Looking for another job has been a great opportunity to look at other sectors and organizations and to see how my skills adapt to a range of new contexts.’ ‘I want to make a career change so I have put a lot of time and energy into making new contacts in my target sector.’ ‘I’ve been keeping my head up in a tough market – I knew it was going to be difficult, but I’ve got a plan and I’m getting in front of the right people.’ Be aware that ‘I’ve been doing some consultancy work’ is a somewhat over-used excuse for people who have been out of a job for some time – see Q83 below. Q83 I notice you’ve been working as a consultant. How are you going to convince me that you want a permanent job? This is an important issue for job-seekers who enter into consultancy or interim assignments while looking for a permanent role. (See Q165 if you have been retained as a consultant by your former employer.) A rule of thumb among executive recruiters is that one or two consultancy assignments are experiments; three represent a career decision. Employers wonder whether your career has moved in a new direction – are you really interested in a salaried job? Are you looking for a job because your consultancy business has failed? Will you be setting up in business again once the economy picks up? Some candidates identify their own consultancy as their current employer. If you make the interviewer aware of your business by listing your website or handing over a business card, you’re effectively saying ‘I’m no longer interested in
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working in a fixed role inside one organization’. Underplay this aspect in your CV, and have a good line of defence to deal with this question: ‘I’ve been talking to a number of organizations and a company I know well asked me to sort out its logistical problems, which seemed a good idea to sharpen up my skills and knowledge. However, I’m not interested in long-term consultancy work, and I am looking for the kind of role on offer here …’ Or, if you have been consulting for some time: ‘I made the decision to do 18 months’ consultancy work to broaden my sector knowledge and get under the skin of a wide range of organizations. The long-term plan was always to move back into a permanent role, because I recognize that you have more influence and more chance of achieving long-term results inside an organization.’ Q84 Why do you want to leave your present job? Prepare well for this question if you’re in a job at the moment. Again, think about what is going through the interviewer’s mind. Are you genuinely on the market or just testing it? Are you unhappy and underemployed in your job? Do you have a clear reason for job change? If you don’t think about what the interviewer is most worried about, the danger is that you confirm that sense of worry. Your answer should focus on positive reasons for change, and should avoid criticism, implied or explicit, about the organization. Don’t complain about your employer or demonstrate disloyalty – interviewers assume that’s how you will behave in the future. A short, upbeat statement will generally get you past this moment, particularly if it is one of the classic reasons for job change:
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been through the process several times and it’s time to do something new.’ n ‘I’ve really enjoyed the job, but I’m looking for a new challenge.’ n ‘I love the job, but I’d like more responsibility and since my boss is fairly new to the role I can’t see a management opening coming up for several years.’ n ‘I’ve learned what I can in the role.’ (Be careful that your message doesn’t sound like ‘I’ve learned all there is to know about the job’ – that contains more than a hint of arrogance.) Alternatively, take the interviewer into more neutral territory: n Industry-wide
changes. ‘New technology is making the organization’s product obsolete.’ ‘Manufacturing is going offshore.’ n Organizational circumstances. ‘The organization is restructuring … going out of business … has been acquired/merged …’ n Relocation. ‘The organization is leaving the area.’ ‘My partner is moving to a new job in this area.’ n Uncertainty and risk. ‘We’ve gone through three reorganizations in two years and I’d be foolish to think that my job isn’t at risk, so it seems sensible to move on in my own terms rather than wait to be pushed.’ Careers author Daniel Porot taught me a brilliant idea for helping interviewers get past their concerns. The attraction of the new must sound stronger than the repulsion of the old. You score more brownie points by having good reasons why you want a new job than by listing all the reasons you’d be happy to leave your current position.
★Q85 Why are you on the market right now? Here’s a question that tests your motivation for looking for a new role. If the reason is clearly about external circumstances
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(for example, redundancy through restructuring or closure) then say so briefly: ‘I was made redundant last June. The first three months were tied up taking a refresher course in accounting. Since then I’ve focused on making good connections to spot roles before they’re advertised …’ Or, if more detail is required: ‘My last employer let me go because there was a major downscale of activities. I was given the choice of taking a position of less responsibility or leaving. If I had taken the lower-level position, there still would have been no guarantee of job security, so I took the initiative and found a position offering a 20% pay rise. As luck would have it, shortly after that the business went out of existence. However, I’m lucky because I was already really focused on getting a job and have been able to keep up a constant level of activity.’ If you decided to make a move, be clear about your motivation for doing so, and how this fits within your career plan: ‘I always intended to work for just three or four years in marketing to give me a better insight into that part of the business, but my long-term aim has been to move into a general management role …’ ‘I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a very professional team, and to be given projects that really stretched me. Unfortunately the company couldn’t afford to invest in the next generation of technology and I realized that I need to move on.’ Q86 Why did you leave your last position? Interviewers are always curious about reasons for job change. Were you pushed around by circumstances, or do you make your own decisions? Was your last employer glad to get
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rid of you? Do you drift from job to job? Remember these nightmare scenarios are running through the interviewer’s mind when this question is asked. If you have stated a reason in your cover letter or in conversations with a recruitment consultancy, be consistent in your interview answer, and make sure it tallies with information provided by referees or your former employer. It is a small world, and it’s not difficult to corroborate your account. If the reason you left your last job was that you resigned, you need to summarize this quickly without lingering over any sense of disappointment or resentment: ‘I realized the best way to move on was to call it a day and focus on finding a new role, creating space and time to do some active networking that I couldn’t do while holding down a full-time job.’ If you were asked to leave the job or dismissed formally, this may have to be disclosed (see also Q171). Don’t lie, but don’t leave what you say to chance. This is a very clear example of a need for a presentation statement, well rehearsed, brief and quickly moving on. Talk about what you learned from the experience. This answer will never be easy, but you can make the best of a bad situation: ‘I was dismissed from the role, formally on performance issues, but we all recognized that the relationship wasn’t working. I’ve done a lot of thinking since then and I know now where things went wrong and what kind of role would work best for me …’ Q87 Have you been tempted to leave your current job before? If so, why did you decide to stay? This question operates on several levels. First, it tests whether you understand what keeps you motivated in a job, and what
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factors push you into making a change. Second, it finds out whether you decide about career moves or simply endure them. If you decided to stay on in a previous job, was it simply because it was more comfortable than moving on? It may also be a check to see how likely it is that you will accept the job if it is offered (see Q88). Talk about how you weighed up past career decisions and made active choices. Employers are aware that people apply for jobs out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction, often testing the market to receive reassurance of their value. Show your awareness that you are marketable, but up to now you have made a conscious decision to stay in the role: ‘I was approached by a company that were interested in getting me to set up a new sales branch. However, at that time we were in the middle of a really important project and I wanted to see it through to the end.’ Q88 How will you react if your present employer makes a counter-offer? Even in a recession organizations have problems retaining talented staff. Recruitment consultancies are particularly aware that a number of candidates go through several interviews, receive job offers, and then turn them down – often because they have not thought carefully enough about making a change. Sometimes it is because they have decided that the job isn’t what they are looking for. Often it’s because they are not ready to face the insecurity of a job move. Candidates sometimes apply for jobs just to ‘test the water’, or they are ‘fishing’ to see what salary they might command. For this reason some agencies ask how you will feel writing a resignation letter (see Q89). If you announce that you’re leaving, in some circumstances an employer may make a counter-offer to persuade you to stay. This might simply be a pay rise, but could include a
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promotion, role enhancement, new learning opportunities, even a new boss. You may have skills the employer wants to retain, and it may be cheaper for an employer to offer you something rather than to accept the cost and trouble of recruiting your replacement. Expect an interviewer to probe hard about counter-offers. There is a theory widely held in the recruitment industry that anyone who accepts a financial counter-offer from their current employer moves on anyway within 12 months. Usually a counter-offer only gets the money issues right, and doesn’t deal with the underlying problems. If you receive a counter-offer from your employer, the question to ask yourself is ‘does this get me closer to the right mix?’ and ‘will this enhance my CV, or will recruiters still ask me why I didn’t move on?’. ‘With current budget restraints I think a pay rise is unlikely, but it wouldn’t alter my decision. I know it’s time to move on because the role isn’t stretching me any more and there’s nothing my employer can do to change that.’ Q89 What will you say in your resignation letter if you’re offered this job? This question builds on Q88 by probing whether you are just thinking about changing job or are ready to make a move. Some candidates haven’t thought about what resigning from a job will feel like. Sitting down to write a resignation letter, and then handing it in and seeing your boss’s reaction, and then telling family and friends about your decision – these are seriously big steps. If you go pale when this question is asked, you show an interviewer that you’re a window shopper who won’t commit. An interviewer wants to see that your motivation to change jobs is genuine, and you’re not taking interviews just to check your market worth.
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‘I’d state very simply that I had enjoyed my time with the company and was moving on to new things. And I’d thank them for giving me a really interesting opportunity.’ Q90 What career options do you feel you have at the moment? Are you passive or active in your career? Do you set sail towards a destination, or bob around like a cork in the water? Share some of your thinking, but not your wildest ideas, since you need to be careful how much you disclose. If your heart is clearly somewhere else, you’ve talked your way out of the interview because the employer will feel this job is your consolation prize if your great plan doesn’t work out. Alternatively, if you can’t identify any options you are effectively saying that any job will do. Remember: the job you are being interviewed for is, right now, the most important job in the world. Rehearse a presentation statement for this point, demonstrating clarity and flexibility: ‘In my career in sales I have worked in both new business development and managing existing accounts. I enjoy both challenges – winning new clients and keeping existing ones.’ Or talk about paths you have considered but not taken: ‘I strongly considered moving back into a finance role, but having looked at a number of roles I’m more convinced than ever that I want to stay in an operations role, because I really enjoy being at the sharp end and influencing what gets done.’ There are two exceptions where you can afford to be rather broader in your statements: n Where
you are talking to a recruitment consultancy that has a range of roles that might fit you. In this case try a line such as: ‘I’m very flexible as long as I can work for an exciting
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organization that’s going places, in a role where I have some control over results.’ n Where you are applying at entry level to an organization that has a range of roles or offers general training, for example, a graduate programme. In this case what matters most is that you understand the organization, its culture, and have two or three simultaneous and realistic plans for how you might build on the opportunity: ‘I’m really looking forward to a chance to experience HR, L&D and possibly also contract management as I know I am going to want to specialize in one of these areas.’ Q91 What would you look for in your ideal job? This might puzzle you at first. Why does the interviewer want to talk about your ideal job? Surely it’s the job in hand that matters? Good interviewers instinctively know that employees are more motivated in roles which are a good match to their personal qualities and skills. You may have reflected on your best job ever, and developed a sense of what 10 out of 10 looks like in your job wish list (if you haven’t, read How To Get A Job You’ll Love). This is probably not material you share with an interviewer – the danger is that you describe something much better than the job on offer. Talk about a solid overlap between your ideal role and the job available: ‘I am looking for a company that really wants to offer added value to customers, and a role in that organization where I can make a real difference to staff attitudes and behaviours.’ Q92 Who would be your ideal employer? This is a question you are more likely to be asked by a career coach or a recruitment consultant who is trying to match you to a range of positions. In a well-organized job search it sometimes helps to create a short-list of your top five target
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employers. If the recruiting organization isn’t on that list, keep it to yourself, but talk about any features on offer that are matched (culture, challenge, learning, environment, style, people, etc.). At interview this is an opportunity for you to reveal your homework: ‘I know I am definitely looking for an organization that hangs on to talent and provides a wide range of learning opportunities. I can see from your leadership development programme that you invest a great deal in people, and I believe it’s also true that your staff turnover is well below the industry average. I’m very attracted to an organization that manages staff retention so well.’ Q93 What’s the best job you’ve ever had? This is a great coaching question similar to Q91 that identifies specific ingredients to help you decide what you’re looking for in a job. However, if your answer is going to be credible your ‘best’ job should not sound too dissimilar from the one for which you are being considered. What you are essentially doing is offering a ‘recipe’ for job success that should be fairly close to the position on offer. If you were highly motivated by a job that sounds very unlike the one on offer, make as many useful connections as you can and reinforce the message that the job on offer is what you’re looking for: ‘Easy one that – I loved the job I had in the recording studio. However, that’s the kind of low pay, high excitement job you do when you’re 23. Looking back on it though I can see that it gave me great organizational skills and the ability to get results out of very difficult people!’ Q94 What gives you a buzz at work? If you haven’t been talking along these lines just yet, it’s time you started. Interviewers pay more attention when they hear
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real energy in your tone of voice. This, more than anything, conveys what will really motivate you in a job. Equally, nothing talks you out of a job faster than tired, dull responses that sound as if everything in life is slightly too much trouble. Prepare in advance to talk about those parts of a job which have energized you in the past: ‘I always get a buzz out of working with committed people and finishing a project on time. For example …’ ‘The thing that floats my boat is being given a problem that everyone says can’t be solved.’ ‘A real high point for me was designing our last exhibition stand. I wanted to do something really different, really high-tech – and it worked!’ Q95 How do you feel about your career progress to date? (See also Q178.) You can openly discuss the ups and downs of your career with a friend or a career coach, but don’t do so in an interview, otherwise you might start to talk wistfully about ‘the path not taken’, or express regrets about unfulfilled potential. Remember that you are not dealing with a therapist but a job interviewer. Go for safe ground: ‘I’m happy with my career so far.’ Then, if you need to think of something you might have done differently, talk about something that would have made your arrival at your current point swifter: ‘I only wish that I had applied to this organization when I was starting.’ A key planning stage when thinking about this question is to listen to feedback from agency recruiters, who often have a finely-tuned sense of typical and untypical career progression. If you believe that your CV indicates slow progression or confusing changes of direction, plan an answer which tackles that head-on:
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‘I’m aware that I could have moved up the salary ladder quicker if I’d hopped around organizations, but I really enjoyed the organizational culture and I had a series of exciting roles offered to me.’ If you’re looking to make a career change, have a clear explanation: ‘I’ve really enjoyed working in human resources, and I’ve had the chance to do a lot of fascinating jobs. However, I’ve come to realize that I actually enjoy making a direct contribution to the bottom line of a business, which is why I am now actively seeking a business management role.’ Q96 How far do you see yourself rising in our organization? (See also Q107 & Q181.) Your interviewer is trying to discover not only how ambitious you are, but how well you have decoded the organization. Be diplomatic and realistic: ‘I need to concentrate on the position I am being considered for at this time. That will be more than enough to occupy my efforts for quite a while to come.’ Alternatively, talk about job content rather than job titles or status: ‘Within a couple of years I would like to be handling blue-chip accounts.’ ‘I would like to have full responsibility for the marketing budget.’ Q97 What parts of this job appeal to you? Which aspects are less appealing? If you can’t talk about what you might enjoy about the job, why are you still in the interview room? Fall back on the
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preparation you’ve done matching the needs of the employer against your personal career aspirations. Focus on two or three elements that really matter to the organization: n ‘I
love the fact that the job is really focused on client relationships.’ n ‘I particularly like the problem-solving elements of the position.’ n ‘The team that I would work with looks terrific.’ Now to the harder version: what aspects of the job are less attractive? Don’t stumble into an answer with your eyes half shut – this is a danger area. If you pick on any part of the job that really matters, you are ruling yourself out of the process. You might get away with avoiding the question: ‘I can’t think of anything that I dislike about the position.’ Or, ‘It sounds just like I had hoped it would be.’ Better answers show a healthy realism: ‘Of course every job has its less fulfilling aspects, and although no one enjoys writing up weekly reports you and I know it comes with the territory.’ ‘You’re operating on a split site which I guess is a problem for everyone …’ Leave the interviewer in no doubt about two essentials: n Any n You
drawbacks are of minor importance. very much want the job as it stands and you don’t have an unrealistic or idealized picture of the role.
Don’t use this question as a prompt to push back on salary, hours or any other conditions – leave that, and any discussion about tweaking job content, until the point you have a job offer in hand.
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Q98 I’m coming to the conclusion that you don’t have the right experience for this job. Do you want to try to change my mind? This question is more friendly than it sounds. Most of the time an interviewer will not give you any clues that they have written you off, but will either curtail the interview or stop listening to your answers in any detail. Here is a rare example of an interviewer who is giving you a half-time score. Don’t react badly. Recognize the person’s concerns, and acknowledge that you haven’t yet got the right evidence across. You may not have explained your experience properly. In which case, focus now on the evidence that really matters: ‘OK, so I’d like to say a lot more about what I was doing in my last job …’ Alternatively, perhaps your experience doesn’t yet feel like a match to the job description. If so, get the interviewer to focus on the problems that need to be solved, and then argue the case that your experience, even if unconventional, offers you the skills to deal with the task: ‘I realize that the job description talks about sales experience, but I’d like to clarify that my role has been all about building longterm customer relationships which lead to repeat orders …’ Don’t fail to address any wrong assumptions that the interviewer has made about experience, training, or qualifications: ‘I am not certain whether I stressed my experience in designing websites in my spare time using professional standard software …’ In the worst-case scenario, when it’s perfectly clear you don’t have the experience required, agree with the interviewer – it’s your only chance of rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat. Then talk about your potential and why you feel confident you can grow into the role. Employers sometimes buy confidence over experience, and then value the opportunity to
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shape new staff rather than risk someone who has a fixed way of doing the job. Q99 Would you consider working for us on a voluntary basis? At one time this question was asked almost exclusively by charities or to school leavers, but in stringent economic conditions many employers offer voluntary work. Some roles are ‘internships’ – unpaid, supervised positions which offer valuable work experience. Sometimes the situation is one of a start-up company short of funds; at other times the reason is that candidates are desperate to gain a foothold, for example, in media or publishing. Consider whether volunteering will add something useful to your CV, and enhance your value to future employers. One danger of working for nothing is that employers only give you low-level tasks and may leave you unsupervised. With more senior appointments the risk is that employers may place less value on your advice because they haven’t paid for it. Also keep in mind that while you are in work it may be harder to find time for an active job search. All work is a deal, whether it’s paid or unpaid. You may feel the deal is entirely one-sided – your labour given free of charge, but an employer has to provide your workspace and supervision. Seek a healthy trade-off between your labour and non-financial benefits. Work out what they might be in advance and negotiate the ones that matter most to you. Always seek something in return – your contribution will be valued more. Benefits you should think about negotiating if working as a volunteer: n You may receive travel expenses, particularly if you are asked to work in a variety of locations.
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should receive on-the-job training. Throw yourself at a variety of tasks, and keep a learning record. n Negotiate opportunities to develop your skills, even if this is just for part of the working week where you are attached to a different team. n Ask in advance for regular feedback on your performance, and a reference at the end of the assignment. n Seek opportunities to meet new people inside and outside the organization. Your natural curiosity may prove to be a door opener. n Volunteer workers often recognize that they have a ‘foot in the door’. If a paid post comes up you are a known quantity with a distinct advantage over external candidates. If you want the job but you can’t afford to work for nothing, don’t be offended by the suggestion. Continue to show strong interest in the organization. You might indicate that this mode of working isn’t right for you at the moment, but you’d like to be considered for any paid roles that come up in the future: ‘I would jump at the chance to work here, but unfortunately my financial situation means that I would be distracted by any other paid job offers that came along.’ Focusing on the employer’s needs may unlock the coffers: ‘That’s a tempting offer because I really believe in what you’re doing here. However, I’d like to think that you’d get more out of me if I was firmly committed here by receiving a salary, and if you have a moment or two I’d like to explain why I’d be a good investment …’ If you take the offer, see also Q31 on how you will talk about voluntary work in a future interview.
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Preparation for motivation questions If you can answer these questions for yourself, you’ll be far more prepared if questions on this topic area come up during the interview.
n Not having enough money or being underpaid is a powerful demotivator. How far is money a motivator for you? How long does a pay rise improve your performance? n What really motivates you in work? Look at the key issues that matter to you once you feel the pay is about right: respect from colleagues, a good boss, recognition, status, learning opportunities, a challenge, meaningful work, etc. n What motivators have been missing from jobs you have done so far? n What things tend to demotivate you at work? How affected are you by the physical environment (grubby offices, poor location)? How easily are you demotivated by criticism or uncaring colleagues? n What could past employers have done to retain you? n What can you negotiate with your present or next employer that so you stay motivated and on board? n What kind of work would you do if all jobs paid the same? For further exploration on the power of motivation, see Take Control of Your Career.
Making an impact HOW LONG BEFORE YO U GE T CR ACKING?
In a difficult economy, employers want to maximize the return they make on their staffing investment, and achieve this in the shortest possible time. In the past there was a longer period of time when you might establish yourself in a role. Today an employer is often looking for almost immediate results. Questions will probe your past to find how long it normally takes you to get up to speed with new projects. What kind of training and support are you going to need to deliver results? With more senior candidates, impact is vitally important. You will need to give tangible evidence of where you have solved employer problems in the past, through your own skills and know-how, but also through consultation with stakeholders and alliances with providers. If you are after toplevel responsibility, you will need to provide matching highlevel experience and accountability.
Focusing on critical incidents By looking at isolated, high-energy moments from your career you can start to assemble useful evidence of the impact you bring to a role. Critical incidents might include:
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n A n A n A
time you faced a major challenge. day when you worked out of your depth. moment when you learned something or adapted your working strategy. n The beginning or end of a major project. n A day when you solved a difficult problem. n A day you made, or damaged, an important relationship. n A time you received praise or tough criticism. n A day when you left work on a ‘high’. n A time when your contribution was noticed. n A day when you feel you made a difference. Use the critical incidents worksheet (page 130) to list these highlight events, situations which perhaps involved a degree of risk and uncertainty, but also concrete results. Trawl your work history for useful examples, and for each one say something about the nature of the problem, the skills you used, and the outcome you achieved. This evidence-gathering process is also very useful when looking at competency-based interviews, which will be discussed in Chapter 11. Look, in particular, at critical incidents in the past two years; you have good recall of detail, they carry more weight as recent events, and are more likely to be probed. However, don’t exclude evidence from deeper in your work history, particularly if this allows you to mention important skills. Prepare to talk about projects that went well, but also prepare to talk about events which were unsuccessful but good learning experiences.
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Critical incidents worksheet Job 1: Critical incident
Job 2: Critical incident
Q100 How do you define success? Broad questions like this appear to seek your opinion. It is important that you have thought through issues and formed opinions, but it’s best to move quickly into concrete examples. The danger is that you answer vaguely (‘it depends …’ ) or in generalized terms (‘I suppose it’s about giving customers what they want and making a profit’ ). You may consider linking results to recognition: ‘I define success as being well
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rewarded for achieving an organization’s critical objectives.’ If so, be prepared for a probing question on past results. It’s safest to read this question as a camouflaged way of saying ‘where have you been successful?’ and, perhaps even more important, ‘where have you failed to be successful?’. Unsurprisingly this is a question that needs careful planning, but if you think about it in advance it’s a great opportunity to offer a tasty morsel of evidence: ‘Success for me is always about getting the best out of people, and in my current role I know I have built a great team. Success for us was closing the deal on the sale of the business, on time and for a better price than we expected. Job done – which is why I’m looking for a new challenge.’
Q101 What have you done that you’re really proud of? While Q51 looked at an important goal you hold, this one is seeking actual achievements. If possible, keep your first answer focused on work. Offer concrete examples, when you won an award or were specifically rated against others (for example, sales turnover, savings, efficiency). You might also think about instances where you were singled out to teach new employees or serve on a special team. Remember that average candidates make general claims, strong candidates list achievements. Achievements don’t need to be extraordinary – see the checklist at the end of this chapter. Look again at your experience worksheet (page 39) for suitable examples. ‘Just this month I organized a thorough review of our research expenditure. I looked at what we were spending and what we really needed. I was able to rationalize things so we have only three suppliers and we’ve negotiated an overall 45% reduction in costs.’
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Learn how to communicate accomplishments as short, upbeat stories – people respond well if you do so. You might start with the headlines only: ‘OK, I can talk about our expansion into Ireland, designing our new online catalogue, or developing my team. Where would you like me to start?’ Accomplishments outside work are also useful, the restoration of a house, completing a degree, or planning an overseas expedition would all qualify. ‘I’m most proud of raising £50,000 of funds for a local heritage project.’ ‘I completed the London marathon in 4 hours 10 minutes.’ Q102 What were the key projects you completed in your last job? Regardless of your level of seniority, dip into your experience worksheet (page 39) and critical incidents worksheet (page 130) prior to your interview to spot anything that you can describe as a ‘project’. Think about this carefully, because many people unconsciously initiate, lead or manage projects at work without being aware – it’s all about the language you use. Break down your job so that you can see individual ‘projects’ that had a clear beginning and ending, and where you took a key role. Projects will include: n Reviews of the way work is done. n Research inside or outside the organization. n Exploring the benefits of a new product or method. n Planning activity or change. n Redefining an area of work. n Responding to a crisis. n Preparing non-routine information for a particular purpose.
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Q103 Talk me through the way you normally plan and manage a project. This is a great opportunity to talk about your experience with projects, which might include experience outside work. Use the critical incidents worksheet (page 130) to help you identify times you initiated projects yourself, managed one given you by someone else, where you faced obstacles and challenges, and perhaps where you had to change strategy to get things done. It might help to break down your discussion of the project into five simple steps: n The problem you needed to solve, or original brief. n How you got your initial project plan signed off, and
you had to influence. n How you kick-started the project. n Snags you hit along the way. n How you reached successful outcome. If you’ve received training in project management mention that in passing, but don’t over-stuff your answer with theory or jargon. Even if you haven’t undertaken training in this area, providing a step-by-step approach shows that you are capable of working with goals in mind, and capable of dealing with each stage of a project’s life cycle. This is a great opportunity to make good job content sound great: ‘Last year I was responsible for organizing the company sales conference. I start by putting the date in my diary and then working backwards from there to identify all the critical steps, such as booking speakers and confirming travel and accommodation arrangements. Then I look at what needs doing within the next six weeks, and allocate tasks accordingly. The main thing with an event like that is not to let it creep up on you with important things unplanned.’ If you are at a loss and cannot think of any project at all in your current job, think about your activities outside work.
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Be careful not to overlook everyday projects like rescuing an overgrown garden, a community clear-up, planning a wedding, fund raising, or event planning. Throw in a bounce-back question if you feel comfortable: ‘What opportunities would I have to use these skills here?’ This gets you useful clues about the kinds of projects handled, and organizational expectations about how things are monitored. Q104 How do you cope when you have to manage several projects at one time? Don’t over-promise, or portray yourself as a wage slave who takes an ever-increasing burden of projects, and never says no. However, do show you can handle a full workload: ‘I have frequently handled overlapping projects in the past, but whenever I take on a new project I always check whether I have the resources and people available to meet the deadline.’ ‘I know that this is a busy workplace and everyone is multitasking. For me the key thing is understanding which projects are important as well as urgent, and being clear about what can be sidelined when something big comes along.’ Q105 Give me an example of where your job changed significantly. Since we live in a world where organizations restructure themselves all the time, an interviewer would be surprised if you haven’t experienced this several times in your career already. Use this as an opportunity to show how you have adapted jobs to changing circumstances, all the time focusing on the needs of the organization: ‘Sure, nobody expects their job description to be valid for more than a month, do they? My job changed dramatically as soon as we hit the downturn, when I became responsible for work that
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used to be done by two colleagues. What I did in fact was to improve work flow in the department so we got better at anticipating which fires we were going to have to fight tomorrow.’ Q106 What are your long-term goals? This, of course, relates very closely to your career story, discussed above. Other questions look at goals you have achieved already (see Q101), but here the questioner wants to know if you have any defined goals, and how ambitious they are (and possibly also how realistic). This question is often given another wrapper: ‘Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?’ (Q107). It’s fairly safe to assume that the interviewer wants you to talk about a work context, but if you have other goals (fitness, sporting, personal achievement, or learning) and they don’t detract from your overall offer, it can be appropriate to mention them too. If your long-term plan is to run your own business that is something to keep to yourself. Don’t be too specific about salary or job levels you’d like to attain, but do talk enthusiastically about your hopes to undertake certain kinds of roles that you believe might be on offer if you are successful: ‘I would like to continue to make a real contribution to the organization’s success while growing professionally.’
★Q107 Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?
This is similar to the previous question, one of those standard off-the-shelf interview questions that has never fallen out of fashion. It is not a bad question because it gives a clear time frame. It seeks evidence of drive and ambition, but also checking out how well you understand the role and the organization.
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Weaker candidates tend to use a gimmicky textbook answer like the outrageous ‘in your job!’, the very off-putting ‘running my own business’, or a vague answer like ‘I don’t mind as long as I have job satisfaction’. Be realistic but also optimistic: ‘I’d hope to still be with this organization, in a position of increased responsibility where I will be able to continue my professional growth while making an ongoing contribution to the organization’s success.’ If the role is one which has a regular turnover and people typically move on after a year or two, a realistic take on the situation may help: ‘I recognize with a sales role that you hit a point where things can feel routine, but I’ve always got past that point in previous roles by seeking new methods of business development or by coaching and managing other staff. Either direction would work for me.’ If asked about how quickly you would like to be promoted, be diplomatic: ‘I need to concentrate on the position I am being considered for at this time. That will be more than enough to occupy my attention for quite a while to come.’ Another tried and tested approach is to adjust the timeline and effectively answer the question as if it was Q108 below: ‘In the current climate very few of us know what the world will look like in five years’ time, so let me tell you what I think I can achieve in the first three months of the job …’
★Q108 What difference will you make in your first 90 days?
First, the good news: this question is a very strong buying signal. The employer is clearly imagining you in the role.
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Recruitment specialists often talk about the critical first 90–100 days in the role. Whether it’s accurate or not, this three-month period is a widely-used benchmark to indicate whether the hiring decision was right or not. In his book, The First 90 Days (Harvard Business School Press), Michael Watkins suggests that up to 50% of external appointments fail to achieve the desired results, and this is perfectly clear within 90 days. If you are asked to give a presentation during the interview process it’s worth reflecting that, no matter what the topic is, your ‘pitch’ is essentially an audition, and the content will give your audience clues about whether you are capable of delivering within the first 90 days. Interviewers are asking themselves ‘what will this candidate look and sound like in the role, and what results will be achieved’? You need to show a recruiting employer that the time and money involved in hiring you will be well spent. Answering the 90-day question takes a lot of thinking and careful balancing. An entirely safe answer, offered by many candidates, is along the lines of ‘I would definitely not change anything until I had learned a lot more about the job and can understand the perspective of colleagues and other departments’. Cautious, safe, but sounds a lot like ‘slow progress which may not go anywhere’. On the other hand, employers are right to be suspicious of candidates who have all the answers without a real in-depth understanding of the organizational context and barriers to success. So, anything that sounds like ‘I’d be a breath of fresh air!’ will fall on sceptical ears – too many candidates over-promise and under-deliver. If you are asked about changes or improvements you would make, be careful. The things you see as untidy or badly planned may be the responsibility of someone in the room. It’s a very different matter if the employer points to clear problems that need solving. Unless the organization is explicitly looking for aggressive turnaround, you need to find a mid-point between ‘consult
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slowly and carefully before I change anything’ and ‘I’ll shake things up’. Adopt a balanced position which conveys the subtext ‘I will consult carefully enough not to tread on toes, but I will also get things moving from day one’. Suggest experiments and pilot schemes. Rather than offering the perfect solution, try pitching things along the lines of ‘an approach that might work well is …’, ‘in a previous role I had some success with …’. Present your proposed strategy as something open to discussion rather than a fixed plan which is your only option. It also helps to offer quick wins, short-term gains that can be obtained at speed and with little investment or disruption: ‘I’ve got some ideas for procurement cost savings you might achieve, based on my last role – I’d really like to get to grips with your purchase ledger …’ What matters, of course, is not what results you will achieve, but whether you sound as if you will hit the ground running. You definitely need to create the impression that you will be doing more than talking to people for the first three months. (See Take Control of Your Career for more on making an impact in the first three months of a new job.) Q109 How long will it take for you to make a meaningful contribution to the role? In Q108 the interviewer set you a time frame, this time you have to choose your own. Being realistic, most employers want to get value out of a new hire within three to six months. If you provide too long a time frame, interviewers wonder if you will ever make a contribution. Saying ‘From day one’ requires an explanation of what you can do for the organization immediately. Organizations recognize the learning curve that any new employee is expected to undergo. The higher the level of the person hired, the more tolerant the
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organization is about expecting quick results, but organizations are understandably worried about their return on investment. Don’t extend the time frame beyond six months, and mention any ‘quick wins’ you might hope to achieve – see Q108. Q110 What do you identify as our biggest opportunity? What do you feel is our market advantage? Here is an opportunity to show that you are thoroughly prepared for this meeting with an in-depth knowledge of the industry, lead products, and key players. Knowing how this organization differentiates itself from the competition is a key piece of homework. Be prepared to talk about specific services or products and their respective brand strengths. Prepare a good analysis and some concrete suggestions. Begin by talking positively about the organization’s brand image, but then move into detail: ‘Your brand is based on providing high-quality, reliable products. It seems clear that your main competitors are chasing high volume, low-margin work while you still have an edge in terms of quality and reputation.’ Q111 Where’s our weak spot? Answering this question obviously has its dangers. Don’t bring up matters regarding bad publicity or disgruntled customers. Make sure any weakness you identify is not a criticism of individuals or teams. A safer response is to talk about external factors: the economy, cost of materials, or the impact of new technology, then talk about market positioning and ways you might help this organization to gain an advantage. Another technique is to focus on a past weakness:
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‘I think a weakness in the past has been your difficulties going over to wireless technology. However I see from this week’s Financial Times that you’ve introduced a completely new product range …’ Tone matters here. Are you going to offend someone in the room? Are you going to sound naive or arrogant? If you are up for a senior role you will have asked around about an organization’s strengths and its reputation, as in Q110. If you’re smart, in the back of your head you will have conducted a kind of SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. You should be able to say something about all of them. If you don’t want to sound overconfident you can always begin your answer cautiously. Begin with a tentative question: ‘Well, naturally I can only give you an outsider perspective that doesn’t take account of the complexities of the problem, but my reading of your market position is that you are perhaps overreliant on two or three big customers. Is that comment wide of the mark?’ Q112 When have you had true bottom-line accountability? More senior candidates will find themselves facing this kind of question, particularly those mid-range candidates who make claims about responsibility. If you’re arguing that the buck stopped with you, prove it with hard evidence. Were you responsible for both income and expenditure? What controls did you have? What happened if targets weren’t met? What did you do to make sure they were? With the most senior roles, for example, certain heads of function or company directors, you may be asked if you have had ‘full P&L responsibility’, which in its tightest definition means that you are responsible for income, expenditure, and profit for one area of the business. If you haven’t had that
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level of responsibility, say so honestly but talk about the level of experience you’ve attained: ‘I had no control over income levels. My responsibility was cost control, and we came in 12% under budget in year one and 18% under budget in year two.’ Q113 If you could, what would you change about this position? (See also Q174.) Your interviewer may be genuinely interested in your views about the way the job is constructed, but frequently this is a trick question to see how happy you are with the job. However, jobs are often changed during the hiring process, so don’t dismiss the chance that you may have some influence over job content. If an employer has decided that you are a fit, you have some limited leverage in re-designing the job to match your strengths. This is best done at the job offer stage, so at this point in the interview the safest answer is: ‘Until I am actually in the position and see what works and what doesn’t, I would be hard pressed to make any recommendations, but it all makes sense to me.’ Or, conveying even more enthusiasm and linking in to a factor which really motivates you: ‘Not a great deal – I’d really enjoy the chance to work with your new software and put some exciting project plans together.’ Q114 What would we have to do to keep you challenged? (See also Q21.) This question looks again at retention issues. It might be raised if the job is routine, or if the organization has staff turnover problems.
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Look carefully at the organizational culture. In a paternal organization your career development may be supported, with frequent chances of new learning. With this kind of organization you can safely say: ‘One of the reasons I’d be excited about working here is the clear opportunities you offer for learning and career development.’ In other kinds of organizations where individuals are expected to manage their own careers, you may have problems with an answer that sounds as if you want career development handed to you on a plate. Many employers want applicants who bring solutions with them – they have enough problems already. So an equally valid approach is one that recognizes your part in the ‘deal’: ‘I’m sure that the challenges would keep on coming, and if they slowed down I’d like to hope that I’d be able to introduce some new ideas.’
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Evidence of achievement Don’t just make broad claims about what you have done. Tell achievement stories. Here are some tips about how to remember times where you made a difference:
n Look for times when you took on a challenge and overcame difficulties.
n Focus on occasions when you made a personal contribution. If you were part of a team, concentrate on what you added to the mix. n Go back through work logs to spot projects where you feel you made a difference. n Spot times when projects would have failed if you had not been involved. n In what ways have you redefined jobs that you have held? n Look for times when you invented a new solution or way of working, or re-wrote the rule book. n Think of times when you went the extra mile in terms of customer service. n Wherever possible express achievements in measurable terms. n Remember to look at achievements in your non-working life.
10 Revealing your ‘edge’ SHARPENING UP YOUR EVIDENCE
It’s an old saying in the recruitment industry: employers buy experience. Everybody wants to avoid risk, so the best bet appears to be someone who has done the job before. In a tight market employers become even more conservative because they believe there are so many candidates available they can demand an exact fit for the job. This may feel dispiriting if you haven’t the exact experience an employer is looking for. Don’t be disheartened. The way you present your experience is as powerful as the content. That doesn’t mean that you can talk your way into any kind of job with minimal experience, but it does mean that a highly motivated candidate who can present evidence of experience in the right way will often be favoured over someone who has more experience but is less capable of communicating it. Experience questions are the bread and butter of recruiters, and the most important to deal with for three reasons: questions provide an opportunity for reflection on what you’ve done and what you’ve learned – an important stage in career development. We’re not doomed to repeat mistakes, but we are at risk of doing so if we don’t look at past experiences and reflect on what we learned. n Experience questions are closely related to the benchmarks for success in a job interview, and ultimately to the selection decision. The big questions in the interviewer’s mind include ‘where has the candidate done this before?’ or ‘where has this person done something similar in the past?’ n Experience
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questions are a great opportunity for you to shine. Just as manufacturers create packaging and develop marketing campaigns to promote their products’ latest advantages, you are effectively communicating your own strong brand. What is the unique mix of skills, experience, know-how and positive attitude which will make you stand out from other candidates?
Predicting your future work performance Look at your work history the way a recruiter looks at it. Have you already done the job? If so, will you be bored doing it again? If not, where have you done something similar? Think also about evidence of your potential, for example, where you supervised someone but weren’t formally a line manager, or where you showed someone how to do a job without the event being described as ‘training’. Remember that an interviewer is trying to predict your future workplace performance. If you repeatedly tell convincing stories of where you have tackled problems, generated solutions, overcome opposition or criticism and got things done, you are piling on reasons for the interviewer to say ‘yes’. Interview preparation is about editing down your experience so that you talk about the highlights and the things that get you noticed. Learn to provide just enough detail on the projects and tasks you have handled, your past working relationships, your successes, and problems. Q115 How does your job support the overall goals of your organization? Try to be aware at every stage of your career of how your role contributes to the broader goals of your department or the organization as a whole. An interviewer is interested to know
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whether you have a ‘silo mentality’ (just focusing on your team) or whether you respond to a bigger agenda: ‘Every department relied on my monthly budget reports to check how close they were to projections, and I relied on the various departments to get accurate numbers to me on time. It became a real team effort because there was a profit-sharing incentive in place, so everyone wanted to control expenses and increase production.’ Q116 Give me an example of a time when you solved a tricky problem. Have at least a couple of examples ready. You want the interviewer to see you as an experienced and imaginative problem solver: ‘Our department had always struggled with the quality of temps we received from local recruitment agencies. I was able to build on my previous HR experience to do two things: tighten up the quality of agency pre-screening, and building our own small pool of regulars.’ Q117 What was your workload like in your last job? You’re tightrope walking again. Now is not the time to complain about how overworked you were – the tempo may be even faster in the new role. Nor is this a time to admit that you have been bored or under-employed. If the workload was heavy, provide a few brief details to show how. Relate the details to the position you are being interviewed for: ‘As in your organization, everything is dictated by the end of the financial year and by the dates of board meetings. Those were times when we all put in long hours. The rest of the year we took what time we could to keep on top of system improvements.’
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Q118 Tell me how you added value in a role. One way of looking at critical incidents (see Chapter 9) is to think of them as turning points – times when you noticed something going wrong, dealt with a difficult problem, turned something around quickly, made a vital intervention, or took advantage of an opportunity. Review your work history every 12 months, whether you’re job hunting or not, and ask yourself where you have added value or gone beyond the job description: ‘Although my job was to manage my boss’s diary, I discovered that I was really good at researching and tracking down the right people for him to talk to and setting up appointments with brand new contacts. That brought us in a lot of new business. No one had done that in my job before.’ Going the extra mile is about combining a positive attitude with an imaginative approach to ways of adding value. ‘This summer our biggest client started to make noises about being unhappy with the service we were offering. I went straight round and had a meeting with their buyer. The timing was dead right. Later that afternoon he was having a meeting with our main competitor. I put together a six-point plan for ensuring quality and improved delivery. The buyer thanked me for coming over so promptly and rang me that evening to say we had retained the contract.’ Q119 In what ways has your career prepared you to take on greater responsibility? By reviewing your recent work experience, you should have an idea about how far you want your next job to be more demanding. Good examples show that you have already acted, even for short periods of time, in a more senior capacity:
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‘When my immediate supervisor was called away for jury service, it was even longer than anticipated – he was tied up for several weeks. During his absence I was responsible for running the division and I enjoyed it immensely. Deadlines and production adhered to schedule, and I was also able to make some recommendations about improved performance when he returned to work, which were well received.’ ‘When I started preparing designs they needed to be doublechecked by my line manager, but in the last six months I’ve been allowed to send them straight out to clients. I feel I am on top of the job enough now to supervise other designers.’ Q120 How would you rate your progress compared with your peers? In a demanding question like this no-one is going to define exactly what is meant by ‘peers’ – you get the general drift. Compared to the people who left education and started work in the same decade as you, how are you doing? In a sense that’s only relevant if you set great store by these things, but it’s another way of expressing Q95 on career progression. This is no time for false modesty. If you have done well, say so. If you have chosen not to pursue high status, high pay occupations like others in your social circle, indicate that this is through your choice, not your failure to live up to other people’s standards. ‘It’s always possible to find people paid more than you are, but I’ve been lucky to have a series of jobs that have kept me interested and motivated on a daily basis. How many people can say that about their work?’ Q121 How do you motivate people? The assumption here is that you are capable of motivating others, so reinforce that with good evidence. You have scope
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here to talk about motivating colleagues or those who report to you. Prepare several examples: n Improving
or maintaining performance, for example, in sales or customer support roles. n Helping people stay motivated in difficult situations, for example, where others have been laid off. n Dealing with underperformers – without creating resentment or hostility. n Managing change – and persuading people to accept it. You won’t be believed if you say you get it right first time, every time, so have at least one example of a time when it was difficult to motivate someone and you adapted your approach. Consider any situation where you worked with or in a team; it may be appropriate to talk about sports or other out-of-work activities. Describe ‘push’ leadership skills (driving people towards goals), and ‘pull’ leadership skills (drawing out the best from people). You might like to probe what motivational skills are required in the new job. ‘Although people are motivated by very different things, a good place to start is to ask them about their most important goals, and then ask them for an honest view about what gets in the way of results.’ Q122 Do you prefer to work alone or with your team members around you? Find out about the job on offer. If the balance is completely wrong for you (for example, you don’t want to be left on your own, or you hate working in an open-plan office), then maybe the job isn’t for you. That’s something for you to decide later. For now, try to work out what balance of group working versus isolation the job offers, and be prepared to give examples of where you have worked effectively in both situations.
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‘I’ve done jobs where I have worked alone out in the field and others where I have enjoyed having people around me most of the time. It all depends what the best way is of getting the job done.’ Q123 How often did your boss check on your work? This question checks out how far you are independent and capable of managing your work where a task is delegated to you, and how far you need close supervision. ‘Some people were in and out of the boss’s office like yo-yos. I tried to talk to the boss just once a day, first thing, to determine our priorities and identify what was to be accomplished that day. If anything urgent came up, I would try to handle it myself within agreed parameters.’ Q124 What’s your normal communication style? Keeping people informed and feeling ‘in the loop’ helps oil the wheels. Think about your communication style – do you like to communicate informally, in groups or as you walk around, or perhaps more formally? Do you prefer to communicate verbally or in writing? Whatever your normal style, indicate flexibility in approach, depending on the situation, and show how you do it well: ‘Communication was very important in my last position because to complete our work successfully, we needed to liaise very closely with the client and learn about problems as quickly as they occurred. I saw it as my job then to communicate as quickly as possible to everyone on the line – often that meant walking out onto the floor and talking to team leaders, and making sure the message was passed on within 10 minutes.’
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Q125 Tell me about a tough decision you had to make at work. (See also Q126 & Q127.) Take a matter-of-fact tone and identify one or two times you had to make significant and difficult decisions. Match the level of decision-making to the role on offer. A senior buyer may readily mention handling contracts worth millions, while an assembly line worker may talk about the authority to shut the line down. Say something about the level of the decision you had to make, why it was difficult, and who you consulted; but be sure you emphasize that you made a decision and stuck to it. The interviewer is in reality probing difficulties you might have making decisions under pressure, so be prepared for a follow-up question. ‘My toughest decision was dropping a supplier we had been trading with for 30 years. They had become complacent, and twice they supplied parts that weren’t fit for purpose. I warned them they were under scrutiny, but they didn’t take me seriously, and a decision had to be made. I felt bad about it because I knew people would lose their jobs, but I had to do my job.’ Q126 Describe a time when you had to make a rapid decision under pressure. This question builds on Q125 by checking your ability to make quick, good-quality decisions under fire. These are often moments when you had little time to reflect, no-one to turn to for advice, and possibly lacked a full set of facts. Nevertheless, you made a decision and stuck to your guns. Don’t hint that you assumed powers above your station (‘I told the security team to close the whole building …’ ). Try to come across as someone who is not afraid to take the risk of making an appropriate decision – and someone who sees the risks of making no decision at all.
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‘The computers went down in the middle of a senior staff conference. We couldn’t get hold of any of the IT managers. What I decided to do was to ask our contractors to come up with an interim solution just to keep things going until the end of the afternoon, and then to provide a full report to my boss for 8.30a.m. the next day.’ Q127 Tell me about a time when you had to make an unpopular decision. A review of your critical incidents worksheet (page 130) may identify a useful example. A good answer will show how you balanced loyalty to co-workers with the needs of the organization, and the fact that you have real experience of tough situations: ‘I had to cut a project that my team were really enthusiastic about. The market just wasn’t ready for it. I decided the best thing was to take the decision quickly before any further resources were used, and then I was direct about it – emphasizing how much we had all learned from the experience even though we weren’t taking it to conclusion. The next task was to remotivate the team by giving them a new challenge.’ Q128 I see you received only an ‘average’ rating in your last appraisal. Would you like to comment? An external recruiter or organization will not have seen your appraisal records but issues may have come up in references, particularly where these are taken verbally. Wait for them to be raised specifically before volunteering information. If you are applying for an internal vacancy you may well be asked detailed questions about previous appraisals. Think about a good, short answer which does not question the judgement or integrity of the person who wrote your last appraisal:
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‘From the feedback I have received from a range of managers and clients I don’t believe that this rating really reflected my performance at work. The person responsible for that grading was not my line manager. My own manager was much more positive, taking account of my achievements in …’ Q129 How did you know you were doing a good job? This should be a cakewalk of a question, but frequently isn’t. It isn’t enough to say that you regularly had good appraisals, because an interviewer has no idea what benchmarks were used. You can refer to specific feedback from line managers or customers. Better still, relate your answer to the bigger picture: ‘I think my results spoke for themselves … Within 12 months we became the UK’s main provider of external training courses in this field.’ Q130 What things do you find difficult? This question should remind you of Q67 on weaknesses. Apart from the strategies outlined there, you can also identify job elements that are perceived as tedious and of minor importance to the interviewer: ‘Keeping up with paperwork is sometimes difficult if not impossible because new orders are coming in all the time.’ Or talk about a past problem you have addressed through personal development: ‘I used to need help designing new spreadsheets, but I found a really good one-day training programme and I can now produce all the spreadsheets I need.’
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Q131 How would you react to fairly routine or repetitive work? The interviewer may be trying to tell you that the job lacks variety, particularly in comparison with other jobs on your CV. If this is true, you may not have done enough homework on the job. If it’s simply a fact that some parts of the job are relatively mundane, show a positive attitude to the realities of the role: ‘Every job has its routine aspects and I am perfectly happy to muck in and do what needs to be done.’ Q132 Tell us about a time when you had to consult carefully before introducing change. This question provides a strong clue that this job may require sensitivity and consultation as well as the ability to get things done. It may be that the last post holder upset a lot of people, or perhaps it is an environment where there are turf wars or power struggles. The worst outcome might therefore be a new appointment who changes everything without consultation. Talk about a time when you introduced change through a process of consultation with different groups of people. The important thing is to show that you can act appropriately, but also that you are capable of getting things moving. This relates very closely to Q108. Here your answer should balance planning and action, emphasizing your ability to undertake careful consultation: ‘I can see that the last thing you want here is someone bulldozing through new ideas without consulting. In my last job I had to relocate our research function, and I realized that there was a range of stakeholders I needed to talk to before putting plans in motion. The most important thing was to make people feel they had been listened to properly …’
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Q133 How is this role different from your last job? This is a good question, because a seasoned recruiter knows that for a person to stay in a job there needs to be some extension of the learning curve (see also Q21). You need to have a clear reason for moving on to a new role, which means showing how the new job is a better fit. Start with a positivesounding opening such as ‘this role is much more exciting because …’ followed by an appropriate reason: n ‘The marketing budget is much bigger.’ n ‘The challenges are greater.’ n ‘It’s a chance to get some hands-on experience.’ n ‘Your machines are the best in the business.’
Q134 What will you regret about leaving your present job? This question seeks further evidence that you have a valid reason for leaving your current role. It can, however, give you a good opportunity to reframe your career story while talking about skills and enthusiasm that will transfer: ‘Naturally I would really have liked to take the e-business project to conclusion. However, your investment in e-business is one of the things that really appeals to me about this job …’ Q135 What makes you think you could handle a position that requires such a range of skills and experience? (See also Q46.) This question is a polite way of saying ‘You don’t seem to match what we need, so why should we appoint you?’. This is an important opportunity to play your best cards. Talk separately about skills and experience:
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‘It’s my understanding that this position requires the following skills … Is that correct?’ List the skills briefly and then seek the interviewer’s buy-in. Now select and emphasize those that play to your strengths. If the interviewer names an essential skill that you appear not to possess, either set them straight or – if it is a gap for you – ask what aspect of the job requires it. You may cause the interviewer to rethink the job or open the door to the alternative experience you’re offering: ‘It is true that I do not have experience with this software package but the one I’ve been using is so similar I feel confident that I can get up to speed very fast, particularly if I do some learning in my own time.’ Q136 What kind of people do you think do well in this sector? You could consider this a strange question, but it’s a very straightforward opportunity for you to match yourself against the top requirements of the job. If you have done your homework on your target sector, including conversations with current workers and industry contacts, you should have acquired an accurate identikit picture of a top performer. You will also have gained a sense of how the sector is changing. Put a spin on your answer by bringing it back to the needs of this specific organization: ‘I believe it’s true that in the past, employers in this sector have hired people with a strong academic and technical background. However, I understand that what you are looking for in top performers is flexibility, good influencing skills, and the ability to exploit rapid changes in data-storage technology.’
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Q137 Where’s the evidence? As this chapter reveals, evidence is the key when it comes to selling your experience in an interview. A strong interviewer will keep pushing you for more detailed examples: what exactly did you do? How did you do it? What happened? What did you learn? Less proficient interviewers won’t do this, so you will have to make sure evidence is supplied anyway. Beginners in the job search game use clichés, saying they are self-starters or team players. Others list more developed characteristics and throw in bigger claims (‘highly motivated’ …, ‘a born winner’ ). Average candidates make claims, but they are often unsubstantiated: ‘I am highly experienced at customer service.’ Strong candidates offer claims and evidence: brief statements quickly backed up with hard evidence taken from their work history: ‘Yes, I have experience of supervising others under pressure. Last summer I managed a team of temps who sold our products in an exhibition tent. I was the only company representative there so I had to show them how to demonstrate products, give them advice on customer service and deal with the more difficult queries.’ Presenting evidence: the essentials When you’re firing evidence at a decision-maker, it’s worth remembering that a recruiter has three basic ingredients for a successful selection decision:
n ‘Can do’ – you have a track record demonstrating your ability to do the job.
n ‘Will do’ – you possess the motivation to do the job, or the potential to grow into it, fast.
n ‘Natural next step’ – the role looks like a sensible next stage in your career.
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Evidence tips An interview is an opportunity for you to reveal those parts of your experience which are more likely to get you a job offer:
n Point-by-point matching: look closely at all the job documentation. What experience is being sought? What kind of problems is the job going to solve? n Priorities: what areas of experience are of less interest to an interviewer? What will all candidates have in common? What have you done that’s different? n Plan to talk about key projects: don’t just think about the topics you will talk about, practise the actual words you will use. n Build in enthusiasm: learn to talk about your experience in an animated way. Show that you were motivated by past projects, and you can’t wait to sink your teeth into the next one. n Compress: learn how to communicate your experience in short, interesting narratives. n Focus: keeping the focus on your professional experience helps the interview stay away from less tangible issues such as personality. n Think about what your experience reveals: don’t forget that evidence of past behaviour also provides big clues about working relationships and your attitude to work as well as hard evidence of your skills and expertise.
Competency-based questions BEHAVIOURAL QU ESTIONS
Employers want to know about skills – the things you can actually do. However, skills are rather difficult to measure unless they can be tested directly. What an interviewer really wants to know is the standard to which you perform the skill (in a range from novice to expert), and how you use a skill. This is one of the reasons that professional interviewers turn towards competencies.
What is a ‘competency’? A competency has been described as a set of ‘performance behaviours’ – observable things that you do in the workplace that create results. One of the proponents of the idea was Richard Boyatzis, who defined a competency as ‘an underlying characteristic of an individual which is causally related to effective or superior performance’. For Boyatzis, a competency is therefore more than simply a skill, but is a blend of know-how, skills, attitude, and demonstrated behaviours – all directed towards outcomes which actively assist an employer. A competency is not just about what you do, but how you do it. A simple example is a competency which might be defined as ‘giving excellent service to customer telephone enquiries’. A competent operator will be able to answer a phone within a prescribed number of rings and deal efficient-
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ly with a customer. An above-average performer displaying deeper competencies will also make the call feel like a good experience for the customer. Other competencies frequently seen in service sector roles include: n The
ability to handle multiple tasks under time pressure (see Q126 & Q150). n The ability to prioritize workloads (see Q117). n Problem-solving in complex situations (see Q152). n A capacity to learn quickly in new situations (see Q41). n The ability to cope with difficult customers (see Q195). n The ability to manage projects and achieve goals (see Q103). n Managing people (see Q154–Q156). Biographical interviews, widely used in the past, focused on personal background (your schooling, family background, employment track record, for example). Competency-based or behavioural interviews place the emphasis on tangible evidence, where you have demonstrated actual behaviours in your past. Biographical interviews focus on:
Behavioural interviews focus on:
Knowledge put into practice
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Behavioural questions are at the heart of competency-based interviews, working on the assumption that past experience is the best predictor of future performance. In behavioural questioning, the interviewer asks applicants to supply evidence of past events which demonstrate all the elements that go into a competency: the skills you possess, the attitudes you demonstrate, the knowledge and values you bring to the job. Such interviews remain popular with employers because they seem fairer. A traditional interview might focus only on the skills candidates have used in similar jobs in the past. However, a competency-based interview gives you the opportunity to talk about any part of your experience where you might have displayed the required competency, including volunteering or activities outside work. In this way you may be able to demonstrate potential, for example, where you have displayed leadership characteristics outside work.
Decoding competencies If you find yourself applying for a role where competencies will be measured, complete the competency worksheet (page 162) by looking at all clues available about job content. You can spot the key competencies for a job in a number of ways: n Where
specific competencies are listed in the job description (it is also useful to dig deeper in documentation and work out what things really matter to the hiring organization). You may be asked to provide a written statement matching your evidence against each competency, in which case you can use this chapter to help you construct good written examples. n Where the job description and advertisement talk about a mix of skills, knowledge, and attitudes; again, preparing competency-based evidence is useful here too.
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the job is defined in terms of activities, targets, or outcomes – work back from those to establish what kind of behaviours will be needed to achieve them.
Prepare evidence against all competencies listed. However, you can anticipate that some will matter more than others. Scrutinize the job documentation to work out which competencies are going to be most important. Some things (for example, background IT skills or knowledge of certain work systems) may be relevant but less important. On the competency worksheet give these ‘marginal, nice to have’ competencies a score of 1. Try to spot the competencies that seem to be at the heart of the job; give them a high score of 3 for being vital ‘must have’ ingredients. Give a score of 2 to everything else in the middle – the things that are important but perhaps not the primary items on the employer shopping list. Now turn your attention to the right-hand column. List your key experiences, using bullet points to remind you about the mini-narratives you need to prepare before a competencybased interview. Competency worksheet Position: Competencies Ranking required 3 = Vital 2 = Important 1 = Marginal
Key experiences (Bullet point reminders of times you used these competencies)
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Matching your experience to the evidence Even when it comes to basic competencies, make sure you have good examples and detail. For example, if you are talking about filing as a competency, identify a time when you dealt with something difficult or unusual. When writing competency statements or getting prepared to talk about them at interview, think about the time sequence behind your examples. Where did you begin? What steps did you take? What did you do? The seven-step competency flow chart will help you to formulate your evidence Seven-step competency flow chart 1 Situation 2 Obstacles: what obstacles did you have to overcome? 3 Action: what did you actually do? 4 What did you add to the team or organization? 5 Outcome: what was the result? 6 Learning: what did you learn from the experience? 7 What would you do differently if you were to do this again?
★Q138 As you know, we’re looking for
candidates with specific competencies. How does your experience match?
This question is something of a horror because it seems to be asking you to match yourself against all competencies, which
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you will never be able to do in a brief answer. The best way to handle this question is to reframe it: ‘My interpretation is that you’re looking for a number of key strengths: leadership, commercial expertise, experience of managing budgets, and expertise in fund raising. In my last job …’
★Q139 Where exactly have you used this competency?
This is the way most behavioural questions are constructed. The question may also be used more generally about skills. Take no chances, prepare thorough answers in advance. Learn a series of mini-narratives to communicate: n The problem or situation you had to deal n What you, personally, did in response –
with. focusing on your
competencies. n The outcome or result you achieved. ‘I used attention to detail when I was given the task of editing all of our tender documents into a single ring-binder, with each document following the house style, and all cross-references and figures double-checked.’ Q140 What competencies were required for your last job? Be careful not to throw this gift question away or think it’s too easy to be worth preparing for. Too frequently interviewers are more interested in screening out rather than screening in, and this question could be the decision-maker. Don’t list these competencies in a dull way; talk about your most important responsibilities or the aspects that provided you with the most visibility. Take this as an opportunity to discuss what you added to the job description, and
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talk enthusiastically about ways you exceeded expectations, packing your answer with appropriate evidence: ‘I had to be good at writing and editing effective web pieces under time pressure, understanding the needs of our audience at all times. For example …’ Q141 Describe a complex problem that you had to deal with. (See also Q24.) To prepare an answer to this question, refer back to your experience worksheet (page 39) and critical incidents worksheet (page 130). Select a strong example where you worked with a problem which was reasonably complex. For the word ‘problem’ substitute ‘project’ if it helps to clarify appropriate situations. ‘I’ve handled a number of complex problems just in the last couple of months. One example would be the IT support behind setting up a centralized accounting function. My first task was to write the project planning document, and to do this I had to interview all the departmental heads to find out exactly what they needed and when. Next I had to put together a specification so that we could put the technical side out to tender …’ Be aware of timelines. The longer the timeframe between the start of a project and its completion, the greater the responsibility. Lower-level personnel may deal with daily pressures and deadlines; higher management looks to longer-range projects and deadlines. Position your response accordingly. Q142 Tell me about a time you coached someone in the workplace. It’s common to be asked questions about developing, coaching, and mentoring other members of staff. Don’t get into
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too much detail (it may be confidential anyway), but briefly describe the situation or problem you were trying to resolve, what style of intervention you used, and what results were achieved. This will demonstrate that you are able to keep two things in focus: organizational objectives, and the needs of the individual you have helped. The best answers show that you are flexible enough to try out multiple strategies: ‘I had problems persuading one of the older members of my team to up his game. He kept saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” but I got him to think about the way he could get alongside some of our apprentices to get them to improve their performance, and putting him in this fatherly role did the trick and he changed his own working practices to be a good role model.’ Q143 Tell me about a time when you failed to get on with your work colleagues. Here’s a question which lures you into talking about relationship difficulties. Be realistic; you have of course worked in difficult teams or with awkward people, and you have a range of approaches in your toolkit to help when this happens: ‘When I was a student I found temporary work with a distribution company. I had problems from the start because I wanted to show how productive I could be. Every day, even though I was new, I was setting productivity records. The union steward and then a few of my fellow workers let me know in very direct language that my work habits needed to change or I would encounter difficulty in my work relationships. Even my supervisor felt the need to tell me to slow down. I felt it was diplomatic to find work in another department where the work was fasterpaced.’
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Q144 How did you get along with your last team? (See also Q73.) Team working is a highly regarded competency in a variety of work contexts, so you need to show that you are an active and co-operative team member. However, don’t just say it, show it. Tell a story that includes progress or improvement: ‘I was part of the team which scoped out the new building, and at first we didn’t make much progress. People complained that our goals were unclear, but it struck me that the real reason we weren’t making progress was that we hadn’t got to know each other well enough and no one felt confident saying what they really felt. So we organized a fact-finding trip to another building and made sure this included a pub lunch, which broke the ice nicely.’ Q145 Give us an example of a time when you worked in a difficult team. This is a more focused question along similar lines, potentially seeking a time when you pulled things together when a team was not working well. Identify a situation where your personal intervention led to a positive outcome (be careful to mix ‘we’ and ‘I’ to demonstrate that you were an active participant of the group but also made a distinctive contribution): ‘We had to cut back from six to four staff members in our project team, even though our workload was increasing. We decided to meet to map out a strategy to determine how we were going to accomplish the same results with only four people. For the next two days I visited each person (including the departing employees) to hear both their concerns and their ideas for ways forward. In our strategy meeting we had five minutes of negativity, but because we had already discussed ideas for moving forward we quickly rolled our sleeves up to create an action plan.’
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Q146 Tell me about a time when you were part of a team failing to achieve its goals. Most candidates prefer to give problem-free examples of times when things went perfectly and outcomes were achieved. A good interviewer will probe for times when things didn’t go well. You won’t be believed if you say ‘every team I have worked in has been successful’. Show the interviewer that you have strategies which work if you are part of a team that is under-performing. Your answer will first show that you can spot team problems before they become major issues, and second that you are able do something about them. ‘One of our team responsibilities was finding a way to integrate two departments. The problem was that the team was composed of members of staff from both companies, and no-one wanted to give an inch. We resolved this by using an entirely theoretical model, using “red” and “green” to describe the different functions, and deliberately seeking solutions that were a win/win for each side of the equation.’ Positive team contributions
n Accepting responsibility for problems. n Encouraging other team members. n Keeping other team members ‘in the loop’. n Supporting decisions (even you’re when not happy about them).
n Sharing success and not allocating blame. n Being optimistic in tough situations.
Q147 How good are you at reading people for the first time? When you join a new team, other members need to understand just one person – you. You, on the other hand, must
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get to understand every person in the team. Successful candidates often have the knack of ‘reading’ people quickly, which usually begins by getting to know new colleagues and listening to their perspective: ‘I always make a point of getting to know people as individuals before getting down to work issues. If you find out a little about what they do outside work that helps. Also, before telling them what I want to achieve I generally ask them what ideas they already have – and what has already worked.’ Q148 Tell me about a time when you had to persuade someone to do something they were unhappy about. Prepare an answer which shows that you can get things done without being over-directive or manipulating the result: ‘A graduate we hired needed to be reminded that her responsibilities included answering the telephone and dealing with general enquiries. During the selection process we had emphasized that the “hands-on” culture of our organization meant she would have to take on basic duties from time to time. I realized that the best way of tackling this problem was to reinforce the idea that she needed to do what other members of the team do. Introduced this way, the request was accepted.’ Q149 Describe a situation where you failed to reach a goal that had been set for you. You will already have prepared for questions about important goals you have achieved, so it’s reasonable to expect questions about misses as well as hits. Interviewers want to know how you deal with setbacks, and also if you can adapt your approach if things don’t seem to be working. Note here the phrase ‘set for you’ – this is not about personal goals but organizational ones.
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Describe a time when you had to adjust your sights, regroup, and you got to some kind of win further down the line. If your interviewer is interested in resilience it’s good to show that you can keep motivated in tough times. It might be useful to refer to failures that were outside your control but helped to bring a team together or provided a useful learning experience: ‘I was asked by a client to design a programme for training internal recruiters. Many meetings were held, with senior management requesting revisions which I accommodated. The meetings never resulted in a signed contract, however, because the HR manager left in the middle of negotiations to work for a competitor. However, it gave me a real insight into the needs of the business, and we eventually designed a training programme that we were able to sell on to some of our other HR clients.’
★Q150 Where have you had to work under pressure?
(See also Q167.) Review your worksheets to find a strong and recent example. If pressure is a daily event, mention that fact and talk about routine and non-routine pressure, and how you respond in a crisis. This kind of question is often directed at those returning to work after some time out of the market. Arm yourself with examples to reassure the interviewer that you haven’t lost touch with workplace pressure: ‘I’ve been concerned not to lose my “edge”, so I enjoyed the opportunity to organize a number of big fund-raising events for our local hospice. Believe me, organizing sponsorship and guest speakers, and selling 300 places is no picnic – especially when you only have 12 weeks from start to finish.’ Be prepared for the kind of interviewer who counters ‘I mean real pressure!’. Make sure your example is about genuine pressure, not just another day in the office.
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★Q151 Where do you think you could make the biggest impact in this role?
By drilling down into job information, try to work out the employer’s number one problem. Ask for more detail if necessary; no experienced consultant or manager jumps in with a solution without understanding the size of the problem. Once you have established the key facts, put forward a realistic answer. If you have a ‘been there, done that’ experience, now is the time to highlight it. A threefold strategy works well with this kind of question: n Clarify what the problem n Find out what strategies
is. How big? How critical? have been tried (and what solutions the employer sees as possible, unless the interviewer is really not giving much away). n Offer solutions which match your experience and achievements, for example, ‘In the past what I’ve found helpful is to conduct a quick survey of methods used across departments and share best practice – better than reinventing the wheel.’ Q152 How capable are you of making decisions not covered by the rule book? (See also Q126.) This is a double-edged question. It could be trying to find out whether you can ‘think outside the box’, but it can also be used to check how far you conform within corporate guidelines. Consider what environment you prefer to work in: one with few rules and the excitement of the unknown, or a stricter environment of rules and procedures? ‘In a fast-expanding business like my last organization there are lots of occasions when you just don’t have operational guidelines. For example, one big client asked us not just for payroll support but wanted us to design and write an intranet function to handle staff FAQs on pay. We did some quick negotiations on where we could find that expertise, and had a priced plan in place within 48 hours.’
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Q153 How do you interact with staff at different management levels? (See also Q23.) You need to show that you can present information with clarity and confidence to senior staff, but also that you can communicate to your peers and direct reports as well. ‘I mentioned an idea in passing to the MD, and he asked me to make an appointment to see him the next day to explain it in detail. I knew he doesn’t like excessive detail, so I made sure I had thought through the advantages and disadvantages of my proposal, and I set them out clearly in a brief summary document. I got him to say yes in five minutes, and I got to be in charge of the project.’ Management and leadership competencies Interviewers may use the terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ interchangeably, but it helps if you are aware of the competencies that are about management (for example, organizing resources and people, trouble-shooting, setting objectives) and leadership (for example, seeing the big picture, having a sense of vision, empowering and inspiring). One classic distinction is that management is about doing things right, and leadership is about doing the right things. This chapter includes extensive material on management competencies, simply because you are far more likely to be asked about competencies if you are going for a management role. Regardless of your level professionally, consider a situation where you had the opportunity to get things done through others (that’s what management is all about) and recall what made you effective or ineffective. Did you communicate effectively? Did you encourage teamwork? Where have you initiated, led or organized – or taken responsibility? There are many different ways of describing management competencies, but the following are typically sought by employers:
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n Planning. n Organizing. n Directing. n Communicating. n Objective setting. n Progress chasing.
n Delegating. n Monitoring. n Prioritizing. n Motivating. n Problem-solving. n Reporting.
Q154 How do you manage people? You should have given a lot of thought to this question before you commenced a job search. There are many styles of management, but you will, of course, be matching your personal style carefully with the style and needs of the organization interviewing you. A manager needs to find a balance between task outcomes and people outcomes. Some of your time is spent building people up, developing them, shaping them, and some of your time is about influencing people so what they do is on time and on target: ‘I’ve had managers who talked about having an open door but they were never in their offices. I make sure I spend some time every day walking about, picking up the vibe and giving people a chance to catch me early with problems or suggestions.’ Q155 What do you see as the hardest part of being a manager? Here the interviewer appears to be seeking an opinion, but once again is chasing down evidence of what you have actually done. Clearly, your answer is going to have to deal with some of the more demanding parts of the role such as accepting responsibility, dealing with difficult situations or people, and at times having to drive people to improve their performance. Demonstrate the depth of your experience and your ability to take on the more difficult aspects of the role.
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‘Giving bad news’ is a succinct answer, but be prepared to give an example of where you have done this. Alternatively, think about an example which shows that as a manager you’re ready to take control and provide leadership from the start: ‘Getting the group of people that you have inherited to respond quickly and effectively to your authority.’
Q156 Tell me about a time when you took a tough decision as a manager. (See also Q78.) Prepare evidence of times you have supervised or managed others, particularly under difficult circumstances. You might want to ensure that your answer shows that you can review a situation, exercise control, organize, and give a clear sense of direction: ‘Relocation expenses were out of control when I took responsibility for the function. I worked with experienced staff to determine where we were spending money carelessly. My team gave me a series of recommendations and I commissioned them to draft new guidelines. We then set up a work-flow system to make sure that a new policy was published and implemented.’ Do not panic if you’ve never worked in a paid role as a manager. Think about situations where you had to manage people or resources, sort out a problem, or give a group of people instructions, encouragement, or a sense of direction. If you recently left full-time education, think about activities or teams which you led. Unearth evidence from voluntary, family, or community activities. If you have only ever managed volunteers, show how you persuaded them to achieve results; managing volunteers can be more demanding than managing paid staff.
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Q157 Where have you displayed leadership qualities? Leadership, in the eyes of recruiters, is a variable quality. In general terms, managers work within set parameters and resources, and deliver against organizational targets. Leaders tend to expand boundaries, create new opportunities and rewrite the rules when they face new situations. Perhaps the strongest characteristic of leaders is their ability to influence. Leaders tend to communicate effectively, and often, conveying a strong sense of vision and encouraging others to follow. Decide through your homework which qualities are most useful in this job context: ‘I think you have plenty of people around who can manage people and resources, but I think a leader needs to inspire others and give them exciting goals. For example …’ ‘As a leader in the charity world I recognize that you have to keep reminding people of the reasons they come to work, and showing them how they are making a difference.’ Leadership attributes
n Decision-making (particularly under tough conditions). n Setting visionary goals. n Redefining what the organization does. n Exploring new territory. n Launching new products or ideas. n Inspiring staff to improve their performance. n Keeping colleagues committed and focused.
Q158 Can you really sell? Many people record some kind of sales experience on their CV, and recruiters are often sceptical and ask a very direct
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question like this one, which might be attached to a particular competency. This question is not just seeking evidence of where you have sold, but examples of where you have sold something against resistance. For example, selling a news paper when you work in a newsagent’s takes no effort; selling something from a market stall takes more skill, while gaining a sale from a telephone sales call is rather more demanding. Trawl your memory for a time when you might have sold something: n which was a high value item n which took a long time to get a buyer decision n which had complicated features n where the buyer initially said ‘not interested’ n where the buyer said ‘not now’ n where the buyer said he or she could find
something cheaper n where the sale was achieved through a cold call n where the sale led to a long-term customer relationship. ‘I’ve never formally worked in a sales job but my job required me to sell ideas to busy journalists. They are difficult to get hold of, don’t return your call, say they are too busy and that they’re not interested. I learned how to win them over and get them to print the story my client wanted to get out there.’ It might be helpful for you to think about the selling spectrum. At one end is direct selling where you’re looking for a quick result and not worried too much about the sales relationship, for example, where a street vendor offers you a bargain and you find yourself reaching for your wallet. Some direct selling (for example, telephone sales) is simply looking to create sales leads, other kinds are seeking an immediate order. At the other end of the scale you can find consultative selling where it may take a long time to win a customer order, and what is valued here is persistence and the ability to build sales relationships that last. Sometimes consultative selling is
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highly technical or advisory, where you spend a lot of time helping clients with particular needs: ‘My engineering job doesn’t look as if it has a sales dimension, but it does. My task was to work alongside the customers, training staff in the use of our equipment. That naturally led to discussions about upgrades, replacements, and additional support contracts, and my clients gave us an extra £1.2 million worth of business last year.’ Q159 Where have you made cost savings? In a demanding economy, employers are attracted by staff who have a clear ability either to save costs or identify efficiency savings, perhaps through more effective purchasing. If you have this experience, quoting exact figures will quickly convince an employer that you have the right competences: ‘I decided to review the full range of contractors who were supplying design services and by cutting down from 22 to 6 providers and managing contracts we achieved a 40% annual cost reduction.’ ‘Our division was asked to make significant reductions in our overhead costs. I was responsible for making two staff redundant as well as negotiating tougher supplier contracts – unpleasant, but it had to be done.’ If your career has not included an obvious contribution to cost reduction, think through past jobs carefully and ask yourself where you spotted and recommended: n more efficient ways of working which saved time and money n duplicated orders n deals or discounts n equipment or software which saved costs n cheaper suppliers and resources.
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Top tips for discussing your competencies n Be objective; get to know yourself better. Seek feedback from trusted colleagues about what you are good at, and your normal working style. n Present evidence to support your claims. n Answer the questions directly with pre-prepared short stories; do not ramble. n Don’t generalize or talk about what you ‘usually’ do, give concrete examples of things you have done. n Use the appropriate vocabulary level; do not overuse jargon. n Think of evidence in terms of situation, contribution, and result. n Listen as much as you talk. Pick up clues about how the interviewer sees the competency being discussed. n Think about behaviours – how you used your skills. n Talk about activities that have demonstrated your attitude and values. n Talk about times you worked in teams, emphasizing your personal contribution. n Prepare evidence of management and leadership. See Why You? CV Messages To Win Jobs for more information about preparing for competency-based selection.
12 Difficult questions CAN YOU TAKE THE HEAT?
For the average interviewer, a job interview is a routine conversation. For the candidate it’s a potentially stressful event, and one that may impact on a wide range of life decisions. In addition, it’s personal – it’s about you and what you have to offer. An interview is designed to take you in two directions simultaneously; relaxing you enough to get you to disclose things about yourself, but also applying just enough pressure to test your answers and see how you respond when the heat is on. There are many things that add to interview stress. Although you will normally be sent directions about where, when, and how the interview will take place, things can still go wrong. You may be delayed in your journey. You may be asked to wait while an earlier interview over-runs, or discover that the ‘friendly chat’ is actually a panel interview. These are things outside your control. However, the better your preparation, the easier it is to cope when things start to go off track. Don’t beat yourself up if you find interviews stressful. Most people do. Look instead at the effects of stress on your performance. Do you avoid preparing for the interview because you don’t want to face it? Do you get a dry mouth? Do you find it hard to remember good evidence under pressure? These are all things you can address as part of your preparation. Since nearly everyone finds it hard to come up
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with perfect examples in the interview room, prepare them in advance. If you know that you are uncomfortable talking about a particular topic (for example, why you left university without completing your degree), prepare a short, clear and positive presentation statement (see Chapter 6). More things are within your control than you believe. For a start, most interview questions are predictable, especially questions which you only find difficult because they probe areas you’d rather not talk about. Any question that digs deeper into your evidence or double-checks your suitability to do the job is entirely predictable. Most questions, however challenging, usually relate to the needs of the organization. Less predictable questions are the quirky, oddball questions interviewers also throw in, along with questions which candidates might consider unprofessional. These are covered separately in Chapter 13. Q160 What kind of person are you? It’s tricky to answer a vague question like this. Is the question about your working style, your preferences, your interpersonal skills, or what you are like outside work? Should your answer be a single sentence or a full summary? Best to seek clarification quickly: ‘Perhaps you’d like me to talk about my working style? Well, I’ve been described by colleagues as a born trouble-shooter …’ ‘My background is in engineering and environmental planning, but in recent years I’ve focused a great deal on change management. I’m interested in this post because …’ Q161 What do you want to get out of today’s meeting? Provide a relaxed opener which steers the conversation where you want it to go:
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‘Naturally I’d like to find out a lot more about what you’re looking for – and tell you about where my experience would be a good fit. Would you like me to talk you through my recent job history?’ Is there a specific job vacant, or is the company simply talking to you because you appear to be interesting? Are you talking to someone who does the initial screening, or someone who can make a selection decision? Don’t try to make a pitch too early. Use a sales approach: find out what the organization’s needs are, clarifying problems and drawing out solutions. Then begin to talk about the way you match the organization. ‘I understand that you don’t have a defined vacancy at the moment, but I believe that you’re interested in developing your homecare service function. As I’ve got a lot of experience in that area I guess it makes sense for us to compare notes here today.’ Sometimes the meeting is something you’ve set up to find out more about an organization. Informational interviews are a great tool for career changers, because they put you in a room with someone who is in a role or sector you find interesting. Here the primary purpose of the meeting is information, and the more open you are the better: ‘As we discussed in our phone call, I’m talking to a range of people in this sector. I’d like to take up just a little of your time to get your perspective on where this industry is going at the moment. How did you get into this line of work, by the way?’ Informational interviews are not job interviews but great ways of discovering more about job roles and sectors, and improving your visibility in the job market. They give you a chance to get across a short, focused message about what you’re looking for. See How To Get A Job You’ll Love for the REVEAL method of informational interviews.
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★Q162 How do you see us as a business? (See also Q5.) Your homework on the organization should prepare you for this question. This is first of all an opportunity to show the depth of your knowledge and the reach of your contacts by sharing briefly what you have learned about the organization from your research and from the interview process itself. You may also be asked for your first impressions of the organization’s culture. This is not the moment to give the same feedback you would give as a mystery shopper turning up in reception. Be brief and positive: ‘You’ve got a great reputation, which is why I am pleased to be talking to you.’ Q163 What is the worst thing you have ever heard about our organization? It’s always unwise to jump in with a negative comment. If you think the organization has a relatively strong reputation, try: ‘The worst I’ve heard is how tough the competition is to work here …’ You may be talking to an employer who has a bad press. If you appear not to be aware of current news stories, the interviewer will believe either that you haven’t done your homework, or you are being cagey. If the organization has broken the law and been penalized, and all this is public knowledge, state what you know. Give an answer which suggests you’re on the same side: ‘It’s tough when the press are all over you. I know from my own experience of product recalls that journalists make half of it up, and give a completely false impression. Have you found it difficult to get accurate details across in the media?’ By throwing a question back you probably won’t have to say much more, except perhaps to give a concrete example of where you have dealt with a tricky PR problem.
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Q164 How do you get on with your former employer? (See also Q70.) ‘I have a good relationship with my former colleagues and still see some of them socially’ is a great response – but only if it is the truth. If you haven’t kept in contact, don’t worry: ‘I keep in touch with some of my former colleagues, but I feel it’s healthy to move on.’ Q165 You’ve gone back to your former employer on a consultancy basis. What’s that all about? It’s fairly common to be retained after redundancy or retirement on a consultancy basis. Why might an interviewer be concerned? There are several reasons: n You
are still committed and may not be free to take on new work. n You are now building up a consultancy or portfolio career and not really interested in a permanent role (see also Q83). n You are reluctant or unable to move on, and are still hanging on to your former employer’s apron strings. Remember that where an ex-employee is invited back in this way, this shows you’re a trusted colleague with high-value knowledge, something your answer can emphasize: ‘The offer came as a bit of a surprise to me because I was ready to move on, but I was made a very good offer to provide my services on a fixed-term basis. I did, however, make it clear from the outset that I could only do a maximum of three days a week because I need time to extend my network into new areas of work.’
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The interviewer may be worried that you are not immediately available, so be clear about notice periods: ‘I have a very clear understanding that if I find a new role I can tie things up quickly and move on …’ Q166 Can you work overtime? Evenings? Weekends? Do you have any restrictions on travel? Your preparation should tell you the hours or flexibility required and the overall work culture. In some places it’s a black mark if your jacket leaves your chair before 7p.m., while elsewhere even senior managers sometimes leave before 5p.m. and staff occasionally work from home. Talk about the demands of the job rather than your restrictions. Portray yourself as someone with a strong work ethic, but don’t appear so hungry for the job you haven’t given any sensible consideration to managing workloads as well as work/life balance. Therefore, don’t immediately say ‘yes’ to such questions, but seek details and information and respond with both a flexible attitude and evidence of past commitment: ‘As you can see from my work history, I’m happy to travel if the job requires it. How many nights away from home would you predict in this role?’ ‘My last job often required me to stay late to get things done, and that was fine as long as there was some option for late starts or home working on other days.’ You may have detailed questions about working conditions, rates of pay for overtime, travel allowances, etc. but save these questions until you are offered the role.
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Q167 What’s your pressure point? What makes you crack? (See also Q71 & Q150.) Everyone has their pressure point. When we’re working to strict deadlines or targets, certain personality traits become very evident. If you’re normally patient, you may become less tolerant of delays. If you normally check things several times, under pressure you may miss details. If you tend to be irritable or blame yourself when things go wrong, these characteristics may be amplified. A recruitment interview is not the time to bare your soul. Everyone, including the person interviewing you, behaves less than perfectly when the heat is on. What you need to do is to convey the impression that you are reasonably robust, expect from time to time to work under pressure, and have a rough idea of how you will react: ‘Pressure comes with the job. I work hard and then play hard to let off steam rather than letting my work performance suffer.’ ‘Under pressure I tend to get very focused on the real issues at hand and try not to get distracted when everyone else is running around like headless chickens.’ ‘Oh, I’m famous at work for pacing the floor like a lunatic on launch days, but that keeps me and everyone around me on the ball …’ Q168 Have you ever been turned down when you asked for a salary increase? People frequently ask for pay rises with limited success, particularly in a recession. It may, however, show a lack of drive if you’ve always meekly accepted whatever pay is on offer. On the other hand, asking for a pay rise which was not justified by your contribution shows poor judgement. If you are expected to be reasonably ambitious and assertive in the
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role, try ‘More than once – but I kept the pressure up’ or, if you believe you were underpaid in your last role: ‘My salary levels have generally been at market level but there was a point five years into my career where I knew I was seriously underpaid. I got a meeting with my boss and surprised him with a full summary of the projects I was undertaking, and I was quickly moved up a level.’ Focus on a time when you asked for a pay rise or promotion, and eventually got something on your side of the deal: ‘I did ask for a pay rise last year but I was told that the company was just about to make staffing cuts, so I pitched instead for …’ Q169 Have you ever been asked to take a pay cut? How did you respond? Being denied a pay increase is one thing, but in a difficult economy it’s common for staff to experience pay cuts or freezes. A seasoned recruiter knows that this often has a demotivating effect, so make sure that your answer shows how you kept up your motivation levels and continued to take the initiative: ‘Yes, we agreed as a team to take a 5% pay cut last year. As we were all in the same boat we kept our motivation levels up – particularly as we could look ahead to some exciting projects that had a chance of turning things around.’ It helps to show yourself as someone who is reasonably focused on your own agenda yet capable of seeing the bigger picture as a loyal employee: ‘I was asked to take a pay cut last year, and like everyone else I wasn’t too happy about it. I recognize that there can be good organizational reasons for doing this, but personally I’d rather cut wasted expenditure or seek out new income opportunities …’
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Q170 I hear you took your previous employer to an Industrial Tribunal – tell me about that. Employers are interested in your loyalty and how easily you will mesh into a team without causing difficulty. This question might only come up if you work in a very small field where employers know everything going on, in which case you might consider new sectors. On the other hand, if you worked for an employer who is regularly taken to tribunal, you may not have a difficulty. Don’t mention disputes with previous employers as a reason for job change and don’t use the interview as an opportunity to sound off about a former employer. Telling the interviewer how badly you were treated may get you sympathy, but you can easily be tainted with the label of either ‘aggressor’ or ‘victim’, neither of which encourages an appointment decision. If you left after some kind of a dispute, handle it quickly: ‘Thankfully everyone was sensible and we worked out a compromise agreement. I did a proper handover and left the job in good shape.’ Q171 Have you ever been asked to resign? The phrase ‘asked to resign’ can cover a confusing range of scenarios, for example, you decided to move on, or you were offered a compromise agreement. None of these situations fit the question. Being ‘asked to resign’ or ‘dismissed’ means that an organization formally terminated your employment. If you are in any kind of doubt about the circumstances, take professional advice about what you should disclose in an interview or on an application form (see Q172 below about being dismissed). If you left on a compromise agreement this is usually confidential so you don’t need to supply details beyond a short presentation statement:
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‘The responsibilities of the position were significantly altered between the time I was hired and the time I started.’ ‘I realized it was time to move on because it was clear that we had too narrow a skill set in my team. I agreed and negotiated an exit package so I could find a role where those skills were in high demand.’ Another situation is where your contract was not extended beyond a probationary period. Disclose facts carefully, demonstrating a firm conviction that you learned something from the experience: ‘I was asked to leave at the end of my three-month probationary period because my boss said he felt threatened by having someone more experienced than him as his number two. He was very apologetic and straightforward about it, and helped me to find a new job.’ Be certain that your version is corroborated by a former employer if a reference is taken. Q172 Have you ever been dismissed from a job? Describe the circumstances. Here the term ‘dismissed’ means something very specific: ‘fired’. If you find yourself on the job market in these circumstances, take advice from an employment lawyer, your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau, your trade union, or an experienced HR professional. This advice will tell you what you have to disclose in documents or at interview. If you start to get into the rights and wrongs of the situation, you are almost certainly going to give the interviewer grounds to exclude you. Be transparent, but show how you have changed and developed. State the bad news simply, clinically, and always steer the conversation into positive mode. ‘Yes, I was dismissed from my first sales job on performance grounds. It was a tough job but I completely misinterpreted what
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the organization meant by sales targets. As you can see from my later history, that’s an experience I’ve never forgotten. I now take performance very seriously indeed.’ Or, with a much more difficult kind of disclosure: ‘Yes, I was dismissed 20 years ago for theft of a laptop. I was young and stupid, and I have never been in any kind of trouble since.’ Don’t confuse being ‘dismissed’ with being made redundant, which is not a comment on your work performance but a situation where the workforce is too large for the work available (see Q47 on redundancy). Q173 When has your work been criticized? What was your response? This is a probing question and your answer offers the interviewer an opportunity to consider: n Your
tolerance for criticism, and ability to learn from mistakes and accept feedback. n Workplace relationships. n How easy you are to supervise. n Your openness to learning and doing things differently. n Your ability to bounce back from knock-backs. Suggesting that your work has never been criticized carries no credibility, so plan a couple of examples where you received helpful feedback and changed your approach. This is also a broad strategy for talking about weaknesses (see Q67). Refer to your experience worksheet (page 39) and critical incidents worksheet (page 130) to refresh your memory. Here are some sample responses: ‘I was criticized by my last boss for using internal email too often – and he was right. It’s much better to walk over to someone’s desk and maintain a proper relationship. Also, you are more
190 Difficult questions
likely to get co-operation and hear an honest answer about potential snags.’ ‘We were under pressure to get our new payroll software up and running. In a project meeting the technical people would not commit to an implementation deadline. Since they wouldn’t, I did. After the meeting they complained to my boss saying I took a decision above my pay grade. This was in fact a sensible deadline, but I learned to negotiate things more carefully and be clear whether I needed authorization before setting targets.’ By now you are getting the idea. Don’t choose a scenario where you really made a major error of judgement – you’ll dig a hole you’ll never climb out of. Select a situation in which, even though initially you were over-ruled, sooner or later your thinking prevailed. The only thing left is not to hammer the point home at the expense of your adversaries. Try to show win-win. If you didn’t win, it was no big deal for you and it is best to convey the impression that you did not take it personally. ‘The only area where I received a low score in my last review was in communication. Initially I found this puzzling, but when I listened carefully the feedback was that sometimes I get overenthusiastic about an idea and I am six or seven steps on before I have explained where we’re going. I’m working on that gap!’ You may decide to talk about ‘grey area’ situations where your judgement was not completely right or wrong and appropriate risk had to be taken: ‘Last year in the big snowstorms only a handful of people got into work. I thought we should say thank you, especially as many of them were worried about getting home, so I decided that the team should have a free lunch that day. Next day the MD felt the decision was over-generous and set a precedent. It was no big deal, and I accepted her decision.’
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Q174 Is there anything that you think is missing from the job description? (See also Q113.) This is another way of checking out how well you understand the role, but this time the emphasis is on your sense of realism – can the job be achieved? Suggesting that the job description is wrong is not going to win you friends, so your approach needs to be cautious: ‘I’m experienced enough to know that most job descriptions are approximations, but I can say that your answers today have filled any gaps for me.’ Or, if you spot additional skills that (a) complement the role and (b) assist you to get it, say so: ‘Although it’s not required by your job description I imagine it would be useful for a post holder to be someone who actually uses this equipment every week, as I do.’ Q175 If you take this job, how long would you expect to stay in it? (See also Q107.) Even in difficult times many employers report that it is difficult to find talented staff. You may feel that there will always be plenty of people around to fill vacancies, but you need to remember that when someone leaves a job shortly after being hired, the time and cost is painful for an organization. An initial strategy is to point to your track record to date: ‘I have never been a job hopper. I’d like to be in a role with a long-term future.’ This question is a clear buying signal showing you are close to an offer. Prepare for it by finding out how long people typically stay in the organization. If you are meeting with a highly entrepreneurial company, you do not want to say something
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along the lines of ‘I am looking for a place to stay until I retire’. However, if the company suffers staff turnover problems it might be appropriate to say ‘I’m happy to commit myself here for as long as you want me’. A secondary question in the interviewer’s mind is ‘how long before we get some return on the time and costs of hiring this candidate?’. So, rather than predicting timescales for moving on, talk about performance: ‘I’d like to hope I’d still be in the organization in a few years’ time working on interesting projects, but I recognize that I’ve got to prove myself initially, so I’d like to talk about what you hope to achieve by the end of this year …’ Q176 How do you feel about working in this location? (See also Q10.) An employer will justifiably be concerned that you may turn the job down, if it’s offered, because of its location. For some jobs you’re going to have to move house, or live away from home during the week, or face a long commute. You don’t need to communicate how you feel about relocation just yet – that’s a matter for family discussions once you hold a job offer. Your responses to this question should reflect thinking in a range of areas: n How
much consideration you have given to the new town or district. Say something upbeat and informed: ‘I’ve always liked this place – I came here a lot when I was a student.’ n How far you have thought seriously about moving house: ‘I’m perfectly happy to consider relocation.’ n How you might feel about a long journey to work, particularly during the winter: ‘I’m used to a long commute – it gives me valuable thinking time.’
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costs or interim travel arrangements. Don’t get into these before a job offer, but simply say, ‘I’d want to think about the best way of making things work, so I’d be happy to discuss options in due course.’
If the location is not the most desirable, such as an industrial park or an unattractive city centre, even more reason to emphasize the fact that you’ve thought about it: ‘I’ve worked in different places, and the most important thing has always been the job and the people, not the location.’ Q177 Why aren’t you earning more at your age? Another loaded question which challenges career progression. You’re wasting your time challenging the premise. The interviewer has decided to push this issue, so there’s no point becoming over-defensive. You can of course be direct: ‘Good question. Recently I’ve come to realize that although I’ve been good at the job I’ve not always been good at getting the right level of reward, which is why I’m looking for a better-paid role.’ Demonstrate that your career choices have been active rather than passive: ‘I’ve looked at a number of better-paid roles, but I decided that the company I was with offered me far better training opportunities than I could get elsewhere. Now that I am fully qualified, however, I want to achieve the going rate for the job.’ Another strategy is to show that you have a clear sense of the things that motivate you apart from money: ‘I have had opportunities to move into roles paying at a higher level but I have always chosen jobs that I find stimulating and interesting.’
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Q178 Do you think that perhaps you should have moved on quicker in each job? Do you wait until you’re pushed before making a move? (See also Q95.) If you have failed to achieve a promotion or gain relevant experience, it is reasonable to ask why you did not seek opportunities elsewhere. This question also probes your awareness of how often people switch jobs in the sector. Some fields demand long-term stability, but in many sectors the expectation is that strong candidates move on every few years. Candidates who enjoy stability often give the impression at interview that they are only on the job market because they have been forced to find a new role. An employer would rather hear that you have the drive to make career changes and seek new opportunities. The main thing is to have a valid reason for staying in the role as long as you did. You might have stayed in one role for many years, but in that time your job changed significantly: ‘My CV might suggest that I did the same job for 20 years, but in fact the role changed enormously, as did the level of responsibility …’ Be especially careful with your answer here if you spent time earlier in the interview stating how unfulfilling your role has been: ‘Although I was in the same organization for 16 years I did in fact work through a wide variety of roles. I was lucky to be working on projects which always required new learning and offered fresh challenges – until very recently.’ Q179 Why would someone with your experience want to work here? If this question is asked without cynicism, it’s a straightforward opportunity for you to match your skills and qualities
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with the needs of the job. However, sometimes an unprofessional interviewer will throw in a question that appears to be a subversive comment about the organization. Don’t be drawn into any kind of criticism of the organization. This is a good moment to show how this job is the natural next stage in your career journey: ‘So far all my experience has been in the public sector, but in every job what I have enjoyed the most is re-organizing the way work is done and seeking efficiency savings. I believe this skill set will gain far more recognition in the private sector.’ If the question really is loaded and you find yourself listening to a disgruntled employee’s monologue running the organization down, listen and keep your distance. You may be getting useful insider information which will help you decide whether you want to take things further. If the interviewer is singing the praises of your present employer or past employers, again use this opportunity to give a valid reason why you want to move here: ‘Yes, I’ve always worked in large organizations but the reason I’d like to move into a small business is that it’s all hands to the pump – you get to do what’s needed, not just what’s in your job description.’
Q180 You’ve met the boss earlier today. How do you think you’ll get on? Again, this may be open cynicism or a test to draw you out. The only way forward is to take the question entirely at face value without picking up on any implied criticism: ‘She seems great. I know she has a strong reputation in the marketplace and it would be really interesting to hear more from her about where she wants to move this organization.’
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If the interviewer draws particular traits to your attention, match that working style with previous bosses you’ve worked for. So if your new boss is painted as a hard taskmaster who takes no prisoners: ‘I know from working with a wide range of bosses in this sector that this working style comes with the territory. I respect someone who takes full responsibility and gets things done.’ Q181 Would you like to have my job? (See also Q96 & Q107.) You could read this question as a test of your ambition, or a signal that you’re a little threatening to the interviewer. It’s usually safe to say something which balances caution with a willingness to get on with the job: ‘With all the challenges in the job, I will certainly be kept busy for quite a while before I start to think about my next step in the organization.’ Q182 Would you have any reservations about taking this job? (See also Q218.) If you have any reservations, now is not the time to raise them: ‘Only that I am on three months’ notice. I’d love to start here right away.’ If you are pressed, for example, asked what aspects of the role you might like to change, you should still be careful. As far as this interviewer is concerned, the job should seem pretty close to ideal. Try this: ‘I see this position as a clear opportunity and the organization as one I would be proud to join. I don’t have any reservations – it all sounds very interesting.’ Or, if the job has obvious drawbacks which it would be naive not to mention:
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‘I suppose some people might be put off by the travelling involved, but that’s one of the attractive aspects as far as I’m concerned.’ Or use this as an opportunity to ask one of the questions you have ready to ask about the job: ‘No reservations, just a question – how long before I’d be handling my own accounts?’ Q183 Don’t you think you would be better suited to a different type of organization? What clues does this question provide? Often the interviewer will give you extra information, for example, that you might be looking for a bigger organization, or one which is more up to date or more traditional. Listen carefully to what is being suggested, and avoid going on the defensive. Try to take this opportunity to determine what made the interviewer raise the question in the first place – what have you said (or not said) to plant this idea? Try a quick probe: ‘Could you perhaps give me a sense of why you’ve come to that conclusion?’ This question could of course be a buying signal. You’ve indicated the right skills for the job; the interviewer is just concerned that you may be uncomfortable working in this particular organization. Will you be disappointed and move on quickly? Your answer should show how much thought you have already given to this question, and how this organization is exactly right for you just now: ‘Good question. I feel now’s the time to move into a small company environment where I can gain experience of a number of different functions and be involved in the overall strategy of the business.’
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Q184 Why do you think we might not offer you this job? You may be aware of reasons why you don’t match the job in some way, or areas where other candidates have strengths you do not possess, such as specific sector experience. This is not the moment to help an interviewer exclude you, so consider answering: ‘I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t offer me the job, but I’d be happy to address any concerns you have.’ Alternatively, if you are very aware that the elephant in the room is something lacking from your history, it might be better to tackle the problem rather than leave it unaddressed (see also ‘Evidence that makes interviewers worry’ in Chapter 8): ‘I realize that you would ideally like to have someone with sector experience, but I also note that you’re looking for new ideas, and I believe my background offers exactly that. I’d also like to say a little bit more about where I have solved similar problems in the past so you can be reassured that my skills really are transferable …’
★Q185 Everyone on the short-list has similar
background and experience. Why should we give you the job?
It’s likely that everyone who short-listed will be able to do the job. You’ve got an interview to find out what puts you ahead of the competition: why you? Weaker candidates reach for the adjective box, claiming they are more motivated, team-minded, commercial, committed. That works to a certain extent, because employers buy into attitude as much as they buy into facts, but the best way of conveying the right work attitude is through hard evidence. This is a good opportunity for a brief recap. Talk about two or three strengths that are vital to the role, and speak about
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how you use your skills and knowledge. Suggest that you have a mix of skills and knowledge which others may not possess. Reinforce the idea that you really want to be part of the organization, and you have a concise and powerful answer: ‘Not only do I have the technical understanding of the software itself but I have the communication skills to show staff and customers how to get the best out of it. I think you’ll find someone with my technical skills fairly easily, but you might find it harder to get someone who is capable of translating complex information into everyday language – and retaining customers on the way.’
Checklist for handling difficult questions n Deal with difficult questions in advance. Use this book to review the range of difficult questions that interviewers typically ask. n Anticipate the worst. Think about where you are vulnerable, and what kinds of questions might throw you in the interview room. n Avoid going on the defensive or trying to be too clever. n Ask questions to clarify need and give yourself thinking time, for example, ‘Has this been a major problem?’ n Think about the interviewer’s reason for asking the question. n Keep your cool. Fidgeting and other symptoms of discomfort may make the interviewer feel you have something to hide or that you will not be up to the pressure of the job. n Slow it down. Don’t blurt out an answer just to move on to another topic. Speak calmly. n Appear to welcome probing questions. If you appear uncomfortable, the interviewer knows that it’s time to probe further. n Keep your answers focused on the needs of the organization.
Wildcard questions QUESTIONS THAT MESS WITH YOUR HEAD
Once you have had a few interviews you will discover that interviewers ask a very wide range of questions, some of them rather odd. The first two questions below might throw you because they could be seen as requests for confidential information. Q186 What kinds of contacts could you introduce us to? If you clearly have extensive reach into your sector, you’ll find it easier to build customer relationships or network with partner organizations. Sometimes the reason one candidate is preferred to another is about contacts and connections. However, an employer should not use an interview as an opportunity for you to identify specific contacts. Some of this information may be confidential to your present employer, and if it isn’t, it’s part of your intellectual capital. Naturally you won’t mention specific contacts in an interview any more than you would list them in a CV: ‘I have a pretty good working relationship with the HR Managers of most of the larger manufacturing companies in the UK, which I am sure would be useful if you offer me the role.’ Q187 What new products will your employer be launching this year? You may find yourself pumped for this kind of information. It may feel difficult to tell the difference between questions
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probing your knowledge of a technical process, and those seeking trade secrets. Decide in advance where you draw the line between the things you might disclose to give the fullest picture of your skills, and the things that are confidential. If you jump in with protected information you risk breaking the implied or explicit terms of your former contract, and give the impression that you can’t keep things to yourself. Reframe the question: ‘You understand of course that I can’t discuss confidential plans my company has for next year’s product launches, but I can tell you what I contributed to this year’s sales campaign.’
Why do interviewers ask oddball questions? Next we move to very different territory – questions that come from left-field with very little warning. We live in two different worlds at once. The first world is one where interviewers use good, objective questions to provide good evidence to predict work performance. The second world is one where interviewers ask questions which have little obvious relationship to the job – questions which seem designed to throw you off balance. Interviewers ask wildcard questions for a range of reasons. Sometimes a bored interviewer throws one in just to spice things up. Some genuinely believe that these questions reveal your ‘true’ personality or test how you respond under pressure. These questions may simply test your sense of humour. Whatever the reason, they keep coming. Q188 What question could I ask that would really challenge you? This is where questions start to become not only difficult but fanciful. It’s very hard to answer, and would push most candi-
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dates into an awkward silence, torn between damaging selfdisclosure and saying something smart about the job. Your answer could easily reveal flaws that you don’t need to bring into the room. Think of the question as another opportunity to talk about your strengths or convert the question to one about short-term wins (see also Q108): ‘Well, I guess you’ll want to be absolutely sure that I am going to deliver in this role, so perhaps we could talk about the things you’d like me to deliver in the first three months …’ An alternative approach is to flatter the interviewer by choosing a question that has already been asked which is closely related to the employer’s shopping list: ‘Your question on managing teams of volunteers was the key question, I’m sure. Perhaps I can add some more details about my experience in that area …’ Alternatively, come up with a question for which you have a strong answer: ‘The right question I’m sure is how someone with my limited experience could succeed in this role without taking a long time to settle in. I’m able to tell you …’ Q189 If our roles were reversed, what questions would you ask? The answer ‘You have already covered things very thoroughly’ or something to that effect is too weak. Don’t suggest something which is going to floor you, but suggest the kind of question you’ve already been thinking about, since this question is really trying to probe how well you understand the role. Your homework and preparing for anticipated questions should have planted at least half a dozen killer questions in the back of your mind. Use one of them here. Ensure it’s a question about the things in the job that really matter, and one which
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affords you the opportunity to give a strong and confident answer: ‘In your shoes I’d want to be sure that I have the customer service experience required by this role. I believe that my varied experience shows you …’ Failing that, go for ‘What can you do for us?’ or ‘Why do you want to join our organization?’ as these are gift questions to a well-prepared interviewee, and show that you are confident enough to answer the most direct questions. This is also a chance to slip in a question that you really want to be asked because you have an excellent response that will set you up against the opposition (see also Q185): ‘In your position I’d ask why in a strong field of candidates I should get the job. My answer is that I have not only the right track record and proven skills, but I am a huge fan of your product range.’ Q190 If you were an animal in the jungle, what animal would you be? If you are asked this kind of question, keep a sense of humour. Respond with a smile, perhaps saying ‘you must get some interesting answers to that question’, or you might try an answer such as: ‘The biggest one.’ Sadly there are still too many employers out there who believe in the value of fantasy questions – off-the-wall questions which can throw unwary candidates. Here are some of the stranger questions that have been asked: n If you were a car, what kind of car would you be? n What’s the best way to nail jelly to a ceiling? n Who in the world would you like to have lunch with?
204 Wildcard questions n What’s on your mantelpiece at home? n If you were a biscuit, what kind of biscuit
would you like to be? n What would you like to be written on your gravestone? n What would you do if you won the lottery? Questions like this can certainly test your inventiveness. Some interviewers believe they bring out the liveliest, sharpest candidates. The reason that professional recruiters avoid such questions is that they can be seen as unfair, they provide poor evidence of likely workplace performance, and have little or nothing to do with the job. Can you prepare for this kind of question? Yes, in two ways. The first is to think about the job itself. Is it the kind of job that requires quick thinking? Improvisation? Goodnatured responses to difficult enquiries? Is it the kind of role that requires lateral thinking, mental arithmetic, or logical problem solving? These kinds of questions are covered below. The second way you might prepare is to simply be on guard for the possibility that you might be asked something strange that doesn’t seem to relate to the job. Practising short, good-humoured responses to the above will help with general interview preparation, but keep a ‘play for time’ response up your sleeve: ‘Wow – great question. While I’m digging around for a good answer, tell me – how do people usually answer that?’ Q191 If you were going to Mars, what three things would you take? Sometimes questions like this are used to seek evidence of your ability to think creatively under pressure. Don’t let the question floor you even if it really bothers you – don’t let the interviewer see that you are easily rattled. Best not to take the answer too seriously:
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‘Oh, it’s one of those questions. Let me see. A good book. A clockwork torch to read with at night. And a map of Mars, perhaps. What would you take?’ Or buy yourself time: ‘My mind always goes blank when I get that kind of question and I think of a great answer on the way home. Are you thinking of things that would be useful, or things that would be fun?’ Q192 What’s 17% of £40,000? If you know that the job requires the ability to calculate figures quickly during a negotiation, then you need to show what you would actually do in the workplace: ‘Let me tell you how I deal with pricing. I know the answer is just short of £7000, but I never respond to a price request or offer without double checking on a calculator. That way, not only do I avoid mistakes, but I get time to think if the deal is right. So … do you have a calculator?’ However, if you know that the job requires good mental arithmetic, get it right. Weaker candidates calculate quickly and, even though they are normally pretty good at juggling numbers in their heads, get it wrong. Better to check before speaking. One technique is to calculate out loud but make it sound like you are simply checking the first figure that came to mind: ‘OK – let me just double check. 10% is £4000, 15% is £6000, add an extra 2% which is £800, the total is £6800.’ Q193 How many lightbulbs are there in this building? This might not be an off-the-wall question but one which seeks out your ability to make broad assumptions quickly and come up with a working estimate:
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‘I can see six or so in this room, which takes up about one-tenth of this floor. You have 10 floors. You probably have a lot more lights per square foot in reception and in corridors, so let’s say 700. Am I close?’ A variation on this question is ‘how much soap is sold in the UK annually?’ – candidates need to estimate based on population and the longevity of a soap bar. Q194 Sell me this stapler. If you’ve applied for a job as a book-keeper, this is a fantasy question which is unlikely to distinguish top performers in a role. However, if your role involves selling, particularly the kind of sales role that requires you to think on your feet, this kind of role play is far from rare. Don’t duck the question. Can you prepare for it? Certainly. Practise on a few items that are likely to be within the interviewer’s grasp (pencil, paper clip, stapler, coaster, etc.). Perform a quick analysis – features and benefits. At the drop of a hat, be prepared to list three of each: ‘This stapler is small enough to take up the tiniest space on your desk, stylish enough to match your image, and powerful enough to do the job. This stapler is always easy to find, makes you look good, and does the job. You need this stapler.’ Sounds like improvised comedy? Of course it does – this kind of role play is closer to stand-up than a real occupational assessment. However, several things are being communicated: you can think on your feet, you sound confident, you can sell, and all with a smile. People buy from people, ideally from people they like, so you’re doing all the right things even if it isn’t actually a realistic scenario. One simple sales technique is to quickly get your target to say ‘yes’ as many times as possible – ‘yes’ to the need for a
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stapler, ‘yes’ to the fact that it will make his life easier, ‘yes’ to the fact that this stapler is both useful and attractive, and ‘yes’ to your proposition that it’s excellent value for money. Play it tongue in cheek, but play to win (see also Q158 on selling). Q195 How would you deal with an angry customer? This question is in fact not a fantasy question. Most of us from time to time will have to deal with awkward, angry, or even abusive customers. This is therefore a hypothetical question – what would you do if …? Don’t take an awkward line with this kind of question: ‘It depends …’. This simply irritates. Give an answer which reveals your actual behaviours in a fairly typical situation. A weak answer begins ‘I think it’s important to …’ or ‘what I would do is …’. The best answers dip into genuine experience: ‘The best way to answer that is to give you a real example. I was manning an exhibition stand when a customer came up to me and ranted about being overcharged. The first thing I did was …’ Q196 How do you deal with people who keep saying no? Again, a question which sounds like it might be left-field but is a real and important question for sales roles (see also Q62 on your resilience): ‘If a customer is saying no, that’s good news because they’re talking to me. I need to know what kind of “no” I’m dealing with – not at this price, not now, not this product. Then I work hard at helping the customer feel that I am there to solve problems not just to make a sale.’
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Q197 Where does your boss think you are right now? This is a nasty (and thankfully rare) question to ask an applicant, and of course applies only to those who are currently in work. Don’t use it as an excuse to vent your feelings about your boss (‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ ). Communicating disloyalty and a willingness to deceive will not endear you to a potential employer, and nor will dishonesty (‘I said I had a dental appointment’ ). Go for an answer which shows professionalism and also that you take your job search seriously: ‘I always take leave when I have an interview to give myself plenty of time to focus.’
Questions you shouldn’t have to answer How the law protects interview candidates Interviewers are not allowed to ask certain kinds of questions which directly or indirectly discriminate against you on various grounds, which include race, racial origin, sex, marital status, your family commitments, disability, age, religious belief, trade union membership, and whistle-blowing. Employers ‘discriminate’ every day, in the true sense of the word, which is ‘to choose’. However, you have the legal right to take an employer to an Industrial Tribunal (see Q170) if you feel that that the interview process treated you unfairly, or the selection decision was made unlawfully. The simple principle behind UK recruitment law is that an employer should choose the best person for the job. In addition, there are codes of practice that encourage employers to operate fair and open selection policies. Interviewers ask illegal questions, sometimes out of ignorance (employment legislation gets more complex every year)
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and sometimes out of arrogance. A minority take pleasure in asking illegal or unacceptable questions (thankfully, this kind of dinosaur is now a fairly rare beast). There are also innumerable questions that can be put to you which are discourteous, unprofessional, and irrelevant, even if they are entirely lawful. This chapter offers several examples. What to say when asked an illegal or inappropriate question The first issue is whether you state that you have a problem with the question, or answer it so the interview can continue. This is a judgement call, particularly if the question is overtly illegal or offensive. Pulling an interviewer up on a question which you may feel is illegal will almost certainly damage any rapport that exists. What if the interviewer persists with the illegal questions? It’s very difficult for you, without a detailed knowledge of employment law, to know whether an interview question is unlawful. You may decide to make a note of the question and make a formal complaint. This is your right. It could tie up a great deal of your time and energy, but it will at least encourage an employer to take the law seriously. A compromise position (suggested by several example answers below) is to offer a mild challenge (after all, you may not be 100% sure if the question is illegal) and to reframe it through your answer, bringing the focus back to the job on offer. Q198 How would you fit in here in an all-white workforce? This question might be well-intentioned, but it’s clearly illegal as it discriminates on racial grounds. It might be best to choose to hear this question as a simple statement of
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fact rather than discriminatory. Focus on the job, not the context: ‘I’m going to answer that question even though I think it might be discriminatory. I get on with everyone as long as they do a good job and pull their weight.’ Q199 How do you feel about working with a female boss? This question is rarely asked about a male boss. It’s probably best not to provide a critique of how unprofessional the question sounds, but just give a quick response that reinforces the overall impression that you are flexible: ‘Although all of my bosses have been men, I’ve often had to work alongside senior female managers from other departments. I’m happy working with a good boss, male or female.’ Q200 Are you married? How would your husband feel about you taking this job? As the law stands, it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of marital status when making a selection decision. It is, of course, irrelevant to ask about a partner’s views on your career plans. Certainly, an employer may have some concerns about the impact of a job on your personal life, so what often works best is to provide a broad covering statement: ‘As you are aware, that’s a question I don’t have to answer. If you offer me the job I will of course be discussing it with my family, but they already know that I am very keen to work here.’ Q201 How will you manage childcare while you are at work? This question is almost certainly unlawful and has an implied prejudice towards women. The question is rarely asked of
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men. You may choose not to answer, or to indicate that you find the question uncomfortable or discriminatory. If you choose to answer, once again focus on the needs of the job. The precise details of how you propose to manage childcare are not the concern of your employer. ‘What I am prepared to say is that I have always managed both a home and a job. What is the commitment here in terms of travel and nights away from home?’ ‘I believe I don’t have to answer that question, but my track record clearly shows that I’ve always managed to fulfil all the requirements of the job.’ Q202 Do you plan to start a family? This is an illegal question that is sometimes asked in a more coded way, for example, broad questions about your domestic situation. In practice it is put only to women because of employer fears about providing maternity leave and benefits, or when interviewers are probing long-term commitment. Even if you are stating an objection to the question, don’t lose your cool, and reinforce your commitment to your career: ‘I’m not going to answer that question because it’s discriminatory. However, I can give you a clear indication that I am firmly committed to having a long-term career in this field.’ Q203 Do you have any dependants at home that you look after? Unacceptable, probably illegal. An employer should select you because you can do the job, and not make assumptions about limitations on your working commitment that may arise from looking after children, elderly relatives, or anyone else. Use the same approach as Q201 above regarding children:
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‘Lots of people have family commitments, and I’ve always managed mine so that I keep on top of the job.’ Q204 This job requires long hours. Will this be a problem for your family? (See also Q117.) Once again, a question which discriminates, especially as it is almost never asked of men. The interviewer should be focusing on the actual requirements of the job, and not making assumptions about any restrictions on your working hours which might or might not arise from family obligations. Employers should state the requirements of the job, including the hours you may need to be available, any unsocial hours, any travel or nights away from home. ‘I’m happy to work the hours required.’ Q205 Why should I hire someone who hasn’t worked for 10 years? This question is potentially discriminatory because it will probably be asked more of women returners than of other job-seekers. However, although an employer cannot discriminate unfairly against women returners, you don’t get any special advantage; you still need to be able to prove that you can do the job. Remember that although a question like this is unprofessional, it does reveal a real fear that your skills are out of date and you’re only looking for a job to pay a few bills rather than seeking a developed career: ‘While I have not been in paid work for a while, I have extensive voluntary experience, working with the homeless and also at the family drop-in centre. At first I was involved in frontline roles which gave me valuable experience of dealing with a very wide range of people who were often angry or upset. Two years ago I was made manager at the drop-in centre which has given me a much broader range of skills including supervising volunteers,
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managing a budget, and keeping computer records. Talking of computers, I have been on refresher courses on Photoshop and PowerPoint, which I believe are skills needed in this role …’ Q206 Your last job was 12 years ago. How up to date are your skills? This question is perhaps not discriminatory, because it’s focusing on the skills you need to do the job. It’s important that your CV and interview performance include plenty of evidence of the ways you have kept your skills current and relevant: ‘You’re probably concerned that I don’t have the latest IT skills. I can tell you that for the last two years I’ve been honorary treasurer for my local golf club and kept computerized accounts using all the latest software. I think my skills are pretty up to date.’ Q207 Don’t you think you’re a little old for this job? Age discrimination is illegal in the UK. Employers are discouraged from asking your age or date of birth, but usually want to know the year you qualified, dates of training courses, and start and end dates for jobs, which is an important area of fact checking. An employer should not use information about your age to influence a selection decision. However, sometimes picking the best person for the job will inevitably mean choosing someone with relevant experience, which may favour older candidates. Other jobs (particularly in publishing, PR, media, and more recently teaching), often appear to be ‘young’ cultures (often because long hours are combined with low pay). You may be brave enough to push yourself into such sectors, but you might be better focusing on sectors and organizations which value maturity, steadiness, and depth of knowledge.
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You can’t keep your age a secret in the recruitment process but don’t make an issue of it or draw attention to it. If the topic comes up in interview, play to your strengths: ‘I think I have maturity and experience that younger applicants are missing. Besides, they’ll be off in two years, but I’m looking for a long-term position.’ Q208 Don’t you feel you’re a little too young for this job? Here’s the age problem from a different angle. There are jobs which require a certain level of experience, but sometimes younger applicants can get the job if they can demonstrate they have the maturity and confidence to hold down a demanding role: ‘You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been supervising people since I was 17 years old. I have no problem supervising older workers or making tough decisions, for example …’ Most younger applicants rely on personality and an optimistic sense of their potential. If you have actual evidence, use it. Q209 That is an interesting accent. Where do you come from? When interviewers ask questions about ‘native language’, place of birth, and origins, they are straying into dangerous territory which could easily lead to racial discrimination. The only issues are (a) whether you can do the job and (b) whether you are legally entitled to work in the UK. It’s best to answer simply, but make it clear that you are uncomfortable with the question. ‘I was brought up in Manchester.’
Questions that mess with your head 215
Q210 Which country did you qualify in? For most jobs it’s a form of indirect discrimination in the UK to demand that the post holder holds only qualifications achieved in the UK, so this question is unacceptable. However, an interviewer may well ask for detailed information about how you studied, and this will inevitably mean disclosing where you studied. If you have any sense that your qualifications may be viewed as being of lower value or not quite equivalent to those obtained in the UK or EU, spend time explaining to an interviewer exactly what your course covered and, if in doubt, providing any information you are aware of about how far your qualifications are accepted as having currency in the UK. Some professions have detailed rules about the equivalence and acceptability of qualifications gained in other countries. Make enquiries of the appropriate professional bodies if this is an issue. ‘Perhaps it would be helpful if I outlined the work I did for my final dissertation …’ Q211 Have you ever been in trouble with the law? An employer is entitled to ask this question, and there are circumstances when you are obliged to answer completely, and times when you are not. If your convictions are ‘spent’ under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, you can legally say ‘no’ – unless the job is specifically exempted. This is a complicated area of law. If you have been convicted of an offence (not including routine motoring offences) take advice about what information you should provide on an application form or at interview.
216 Wildcard questions
Q212 Can you do this job with your health problem? It is perfectly legal for an employer to ask if you have some form of disability. In fact, in law it is up to the job-seeker to declare this (a ‘disability’ as far as employment law is concerned is a significant long-term health condition that limits your working capacity). It is illegal to make a selection decision that discriminates against those with some recognized form of disability, and employers are obliged to make adjustments to the recruitment and selection processes in order to allow access to disabled candidates (for example, special facilities for visually impaired candidates taking tests or wheelchair access to interview rooms). Employers can receive government funding to make adjustments to the workplace to allow and encourage disabled job-seekers to find and keep work. The law in this area is complex, and operates around what is ‘reasonable’ for an employer. If you are a disabled jobseeker, take specialist advice and keep abreast of updates by reading materials published by the Disability Alliance (www. disabilityalliance.org).
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Dealing with illegal and unacceptable questions n Interviewers should not ask them and you do not have to answer.
n If you don’t want to answer, say so politely. Even though it is disappointing and frustrating to be asked illegal and inappropriate questions, do not allow your professionalism to slip. n Try to reframe the question rather than challenging the questioner. n If you have a concern about a question, make a note of the exact words used. n Interviewers and organizations that insist on asking illegal questions may be doing you a favour in revealing characteristics of the workplace you’d rather know about before you join. n Questions on factors such as age, gender, race, health, and ethnic origin can be found in application documentation; this is a valid and legal diversity process. This information is designed to be collected separately and not used in the selection decision. n If you feel you need to make a claim of discrimination against an organization that asks illegal questions, check www.direct.gov.uk for advice on your rights as a job-seeker or contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau. n Remember that you have legal obligations too. Any information you include in an application form must be honest. If it isn’t, your employer may have grounds to dismiss you without notice.
Towards the finishing line YOUR QUESTIONS AN D CL OSING STATEMENTS
Q213 Is there anything you’d like to add? Professional interviewers frequently ensure that candidates get a chance at the end of the interview to add important information that hasn’t already come up. This could be a good opportunity to clarify a range of factors: n an
earlier question which you now feel you didn’t answer completely n anything you feel your answers didn’t cover in sufficient depth n a reiteration of your strongest points n key evidence which needs to be introduced. The final point is the most important. The most powerful and yet simplest tool at your fingertips is about analysing the employer’s top five or six requirements, and matching them to your strengths. So, at this final stage of the interview, you should be keeping score. If you haven’t yet got your top five or six major points across, now is the time to do it – whether this question is asked or not. This question is a gift opportunity, but if it isn’t asked, create an opportunity to get your answer across anyway. For example, you can thread in a short statement if you’re asked if you have any questions for the interviewer:
Your questions and closing statements 219
‘Yes, just one point. I believe you’re looking for developed negotiation skills, so perhaps I could just say a bit about my training as a mediator …’ An interviewer’s job is to conclude the interview on time, having covered the key areas. Your job is to make sure you don’t leave the interview room without getting across your key messages. If you’ve done your preparation, you shouldn’t be in any doubt about your key points (see Chapter 6). They should match the shortest version of the employer’s shopping list. Even if you decided to get just three points across, don’t leave the room until you have.
Why it’s vital that you ask questions An interview is a two-way conversation, at least in theory. In practice an interviewing employer controls the structure, provides a great deal of information as an introduction to the event, and then fires questions at you. However, there usually comes a point where the conversation is genuinely two way, and you get to ask some important questions.
★Q214 Do you have any questions for us? At this point in the interview too many candidates politely say, ‘No, you’ve covered everything in great detail, thank you.’ Wrong answer! Say this, and interviewers feel that your main motivation is getting out of the interview room. A great deal of interview advice stresses the idea that an interview is a two-way conversation – the interviewer decides if you fit the role, and you decide whether the organization is right for you. This is a misinterpretation of what interviews are about. First, the people interviewing you may not be
220 Towards the finishing line
people you will actually work with, and they may present a biased or incomplete picture of the organization. Second, you waste interview time asking questions that help you with the question ‘should I take this job?’; do that thinking outside the interview room. The purpose of candidate questions in an interview is simple. To get you remembered. Interviewers pay particular attention to your questions at the end of an interview. They are difficult to predict so the interviewer needs to pay more attention. Smart, intelligent questions show you really understand the job and the organization. Finally, the biggest reason for having good questions at the end of the interview is that they are the last event of the interview so they stick in an interviewer’s memory more efficiently than things you said earlier. Prepare three or four great questions for this moment. You will probably only use two at the end, but it pays to have reserve questions in case topics come up naturally during the interview itself. Write your questions down before the meeting. Practise saying the actual words out loud. Keep your questions short and simple – a long and complicated question stalls the conversation. If you don’t trust your memory, write key words or small symbols on your interview folder to remind you of the topic areas. Don’t read the question aloud from notes, this sounds stilted and also gives the impression you are not responding to what you have heard in the room. Link back to issues that have come up earlier: ‘Earlier you mentioned your plans for expansion into Eastern Europe. Can you tell me how these plans might impact on this job?’
Questions you can ask at interview There are three kinds of questions that have a strong impact at the end of the interview:
Your questions and closing statements 221
(1) Q uestions seeking facts not in the public domain, for example, with a small or new organization: n ‘When did you move into direct marketing?’ n ‘What platform do you use for your IT?’
(2) Q uestions that ask about the future of the job, for example: n ‘How is the job likely to change in the next couple of years?’ n ‘What learning opportunities is this job likely to offer?’ n ‘What kinds of clients would I be working with?’
(3) Q uestions that focus on the challenge of the job, for example: n ‘What
kind of results would you expect me to achieve in the first six months?’ n ‘When would I be able to go on my first client visit?’ n ‘Can you tell me more about the training I would undertake?’ These questions have several effects. They communicate your serious interest in the job, and provide you with some vital insights into the role. However, what they also do is to create a strong mental picture in the interviewer’s mind, a picture of you doing the job. This could make the difference between being number two and number one on the short-list. Once the interviewer has a strong mental image of you actually in the post, it’s difficult to shake it off.
Asking questions to learn more about the job and look good Some organizations consciously ‘sell’ themselves to candidates, others tell you the barest facts. So you may be tempted to follow one school of interview advice and ask a lot of ques-
222 Towards the finishing line
tions to confirm whether the job is exactly what you think it is. This is tempting, but a waste of time in the interview, because a great deal of this information can be found out later. The interview is definitely not the moment to check minor details, such as the organization’s mileage rate or the terms of the pension scheme. Furthermore, are these questions what you want to be remembered for after you’ve left the room? The interview may be the only face-to-face meeting you’ll get with one of the key decision-makers in the organization, so it’s best to ask only those questions which reveal you in the best light. So, for example, ask about how the job may change: n ‘How far would I be responsible for bringing in new business?’ n ‘What training and learning opportunities are available?’ n ‘When would I be able to start writing my own reports?’
You might, particularly for a senior job, probe the job content to some extent. Don’t confuse this with negotiating an adjustment to job content; if that matters to you, do it after the job is offered. Questions about the role balance now are really used to show that you understand what is required for the job holder to be successful, for example: n ‘When do you plan to switch to centralized accounting?’ n ‘Do you anticipate further acquisitions in the next 12 months?’ n ‘I note that you will be appointing two new directors soon.
When those roles are filled, what will be the reporting mechanism?’ n ‘Do you expect your sales boom to continue into the next quarter?’ n ‘Who exactly controls the marketing budget?’ n ‘When is this project likely to come on line, and what happens if it doesn’t?’ n ‘Given time, I’d be really interested in helping out with planning the annual conference. Do you think I might be able to have some role in that?’
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Whether or not you ask these questions in the room may depend on how many buying signals the interviewer is giving you and how easy it will be to gain access to this decisionmaker again after the interview is over. If you feel that the job is almost a perfect fit but needs a little tailoring, you may get a chance to raise one question about job content during the interview, particularly if it is a second interview and you feel you are a strong candidate: ‘How open would you be to me delegating some of the process parts of this job and initiating some new projects to add to the income stream?’
Further questions to make you shine The questions you ask at the end of the interview therefore have one purpose only: to give you a final opportunity to shine. We looked at the effect of first impressions in Chapter 3. The final things you say will also have a lasting impact, particularly if you are the last candidate of the day. Before you ask any questions at the end of the interview, say something positive about the role. That’s because there’s a chance that the overall message behind your question is that you are not sure whether you want the job or not. At this stage, this could be a reason to exclude you. Ask your questions, but preface them with a positive comment: ‘First of all I’d like to say how interesting this job sounds. I just want to clarify one or two things …’ ‘I’ve got some ideas about developing this department, but before pitching them in I’d just like to ask you how you see its future …’ ‘I’ve a number of useful contacts in the publishing business. How would you feel about extending our consultancy services to that sector?’
224 Towards the finishing line
‘One thing I’d really like to add to this role is the prospect of building up a formal mentoring programme. How would you feel about that?’ In summary, you won’t get the chance to ask more than a couple of questions at the end of an interview. If one or two pop up during the meeting, take your cue from the interviewer as to the topic. Your main chance is however at the end, and the main purpose of your questions is message reinforcement not information gathering.
Questions to check next steps You have reached the end of the interview. If it has gone well you have communicated a clear series of points about the way your strengths match the requirements of the job. You have thanked the interviewer for his or her time, and you are being walked back to the reception area to pick up your coat. You may be wondering what happens next. If the interview was set up by a recruitment agency, don’t worry – it’s the recruitment consultant’s job to keep a handle on the process. They should encourage an employer to come to a decision, so all you have to do is to say how the interview went and ask the consultant any questions that still remain for you about the job offer process. If the employer is filling the job directly, try to get clarity about the next steps in the process before you leave the building. When will the interviews finish? Is there a second round of interviews? When will the final decision be taken? When are you likely to hear? Who will be in touch? How? Usually this becomes clear when you ask, ‘Can you just let me know what the next stage is, and when the decision will be made?’ If you don’t hear within the promised time period, allow a day’s grace, and then ring up to ask where things are up to. Try to sound friendly and curious, like a fellow professional
Your questions and closing statements 225
wondering if a colleague has solved a problem yet, rather than a disgruntled customer who hasn’t received a letter.
Pitfalls when asking questions There can be a risk in asking questions, which is why you prepare them carefully rather than trying to improvise in the room. Making things up on the spur of the moment leads to inane or predictable questions (‘What’s the salary?’ ) or difficult questions which grind the interview to a halt. Failing to have any questions declares one message, ‘I have very little interest in the job, please allow me to go home.’ A couple of really strong, well-prepared questions for the final moments of the interview get you a large tick on the interviewer’s checklist. These closing seconds of the interview have almost as great an impact as first impressions, and will certainly be remembered. So, think of the invitation for your questions as your sound-bite moment: the short audio clip that will still be running through the interviewer’s head when you are driving home.
226 Towards the finishing line
Questions at the end of the interview to avoid n Don’t ask questions that show that you have little idea what the job is about.
n Don’t ask questions that could have been answered by five minutes spent looking at the company website: for example, ‘What is your most successful product?’, ‘How many people work here?’, ‘How many offices do you have?’. n Don’t ask about how flexible the company may be on pay. This is the wrong moment, and could provide a reason to exclude you. Deal with this if and when you’re offered the job. n Don’t ask a complicated question that the interviewer will find difficult to answer fairly quickly. n Don’t push things too far on job content or flexibility. Ask about that when the employer has decided they can’t live without you. n Don’t ask questions which raise new problems, for example, ‘How would you feel about me working on a job share basis?’ n Don’t be smart, ironic, or try to get your own back for all the probing, difficult, fantasy, or unethical questions early on. n Don’t ask for special consideration, apologize, or beg …
The decision LAST QUESTIONS, OFFERS, AND REJECTIONS
Handling second interviews Much of the material included in this book will assist you when it comes to second or third interviews. In a recruitment process involving more than one interview, the function of the first interview is generally to establish whether you have the skills and knowledge to do the job. Subsequent interviews usually probe your experience, your achievements, and your weak points in far more depth, but their main function is to find out whether you are a good organizational ‘fit’. Therefore, you find more questions about personality, working under pressure, and how you will quickly make an impact. These are all topics covered in depth in this book. If you are invited back for a second interview, review the topics that came up in the first meeting. Think about the responses you gave. Were there any questions you didn’t answer so well? Were there any topics not covered at all? Notes may have been taken. Assuming they were, which of your answers will be picked up and probed? Don’t be surprised, however, if the person conducting a second interview has only partial information about what has already been said. Be prepared to repeat your evidence and your presentation statements if necessary.
228 The decision
Edging your way towards the job offer You’ve undertaken an effective job search and conducted yourself well in the interview. You’ve managed not to talk yourself out of the job. You’ve probably received a number of strong ‘buying signals’ from the decision-maker (talking about the future, picturing you in the role, telling you why you are a good match, asking when you can start, and so on). Now you’re close to a job-offer conversation, which may happen in the room or, more likely, by telephone shortly afterwards. Q215 What other job offers do you expect to come in soon? This question does at least acknowledge the fact that you have things to offer a range of employers, and clear market value. If you say that you have no other irons in the fire it can sound as if you are over-dependent on this job. If the interview is with an employer of choice you might get away with: ‘Nothing at the moment, because I have given my entire focus to getting an interview here.’ In other situations it is smart to indicate that you have some lines of enquiry rather than job offers. Remember, the employer is sensitive to problems, so if you plant the idea that you’re considering another offer, you communicate indifference or even a roulette strategy: you’ll take the first job that comes up. Go for an answer that shows you are have possibilities up your sleeve, but none as interesting as this one: ‘I’m in conversation with a couple of organizations at the moment but we’re still some way off a decision. Which suits me, because this is the role I am really interested in …’
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Q216 Which other organizations are interested in you? Handle this with care. Employers like job applicants who are marketable, but also want to feel that they are unequivocally your first choice. Generally it’s best not to mention specific employers; you may mention the wrong kind of organization (too small, too traditional …). However, it does no harm to say that you’re having some interesting conversations with other companies, but nothing is ‘official’ yet. Being specific about other roles or organizations may make it sound as if you are balancing competing offers. So avoid naming names: ‘I’m having early stage conversations about roles which are not openly advertised so it would be a breach of trust to say more at this stage.’ ‘You’ll understand that it would be unprofessional of me to name the specific organizations involved but I can assure you that they are in a different sector.’ Q217 How does this job compare with others you are applying for? It’s easy to fall into the trap of hinting that there are other jobs out there that are more attractive. On the other hand, giving the impression that this is the only job on your radar smacks of desperation. The unasked questions here are ‘how marketable are you?’ and ‘how committed are you to getting this job?’. There is a simple rule here. Leave the interviewer in no doubt that this job is your number one choice. A broad comparison here will easily pitch things in your favour: ‘For me this position is much more interesting than others I’ve looked at because …’. Then go on to say why this job and this company appeal to you and why the role is a great match for your skill set.
230 The decision
Q218 Is there any reason why you couldn’t accept this job if we offered it to you? (See also Q182.) This question or variations such as ‘do you still consider yourself a firm candidate?’ are often asked at the final stage. There is really only one response, no matter how you are feeling about the job: ‘I’d be delighted to be offered the job’. Q219 How quickly can you come on board? Now we really are close to an offer, a clear signal that the employer is starting to imagine you in the job. If you haven’t discussed notice periods, do so now, but demonstrate as much flexibility as possible: ‘When would you like the new post holder to start?’ ‘Like most people at my level I’m on three months’ notice, but I would do what I can to persuade my present employer to release me early once I’d done a good handover.’ Q220 Do you have any problem with us taking up references? (See also Q55.) The exact stage when employers take up references varies considerably. Sometimes it’s before short-listing, sometimes it’s after the interview. Be clear about timing, and only provide the names of referees when asked (don’t print their names on your CV because you need to know when references will be taken, so you can re-establish contact with referees to tell them why the role is of interest to you). If you have already supplied the names of referees, the employer may be announcing that contact will now be made. Your response should be simple and uncomplicated, not an apology or an explanation: ‘No problem’. When you get home you may want to call referees to encourage them to respond swiftly.
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Q221 We have some concerns we’d like to go through with you … An interview which ends with a bland ‘thank you for coming to see us’ tells you little, but a comment like this reveals very useful information. You’re close to a job offer, but something stands in the way. Pause, ask for clarification, and listen carefully without interrupting before setting out your lines of defence. Handle the moment carefully, because you could be one piece of information away from clinching the deal. ‘I am happy to talk to you about areas of my experience which will hopefully reassure you on these important points.’ Q222 We’d like to offer you the job, but … This is rather similar to Q221 but now the employer doesn’t just see concerns but a major road block. Listen to these reasons carefully. If you can overcome the objection with new or better information, do so. If it’s an issue you can’t get round, for example, a qualification you don’t hold, this should be something you covered in your preparation. Keep showing enthusiasm. If all else fails, re-iterate your top strengths and throw in a sweetener: ‘So I believe I have most of the things you’re looking for, and as far as the other elements are concerned, I’m a quick learner.’
Negotiating on pay and other elements in the deal Q223 The job is yours. I assume you’re OK with the standard package. When can you start? Some employers like to close the deal in the room with a verbal job offer. Don’t be so overcome that you accept the job
232 The decision
on the spot without absorbing the offer terms. The danger here is that you are so overwhelmed by good news, your judgement goes out of the window, and you blurt out a quick ‘yes’ to this loaded question. The tone of how you handle this really matters. The last thing you should do is to sound suspicious or under-committed, but you do want to buy some time to think carefully about the offer and decide on a negotiation strategy. Top and tail your comments with positive remarks. If the job is offered in the room, your response is simple: ‘I’m delighted with your offer. I really enjoyed our discussion and I know I am really going to enjoy this job. Can you give me a day or so to have a look through the details of your written offer? As for a start date – I’m on three months’ notice, but I will see what I can do. I really want to get on with it!’
★Q224 Would you take the job at a lower salary?
The question might be about taking a lower salary than advertised, or a lower salary than you’re expecting. This is a difficult question for any candidate. You’ve got the job, but the cash-strapped employer is changing the terms. Be careful that you don’t give too much away too soon. Start by saying how pleased you are at the job offer: ‘I’m delighted you’re offering me the job. However, a salary below the advertised range won’t work for me. I hope I’ve demonstrated that I will be a good return on investment, and if we can just get the pay level right we can close the deal very quickly, I’m sure.’ Buying time allows you to think about a negotiation strategy, and also how much you want the job. If the employer is entirely inflexible on salary, ask for a day to consider and come back with alternatives such as an earlier-than-normal review date, or perhaps other elements that you might negotiate in the job, see Q225 below.
Last questions, offers, and rejections 233
★Q225 What sort of pay figure did you have in mind?
(a) A nswering this question during the interview process This question can of course come up at any stage in the interview process. Have one aim from the start: keep off the topic of pay until you have been given a job offer. Once you have a job offer on the table, you have far more negotiating power. If you state a figure you are prepared to accept, you have lost all room for manoeuvre. So if the question is raised early in the process, always try to get the employer to shoot first: ‘What sort of pay range is available for this position?’ ‘I really don’t know enough about the job yet to work out what it would pay in the marketplace. What salary range is on offer?’ Do your homework: research the likely salary range for the role from job advertisements, recruitment agencies, ‘inside’ information from other employees, information garnered in other interviews, or industry research. Work out what the top 20% of earners in this kind of role are earning, and try to get a feel for what a ‘top 20%’ candidate would look like. What evidence and image do you need to offer to get an offer in that pay range? If you are pressed at this early stage on what pay level would be acceptable, don’t talk about the figure you would ‘settle’ for, and definitely do not say you expect to receive a lower salary. If the employer believes you can do the job, they should believe you will be good value at some point above the middle of the employer’s pay range. Having decided on you, an employer doesn’t want to go to the trouble of rethinking the selection process. A tried and tested way is to pitch yourself towards the top half of the anticipated pay range and say: ‘I’m being interviewed for jobs paying in the range …’
234 The decision
(b) A nswering this question at the job-offer stage You’re in a much better position answering this question when a job offer is already in your possession – ideally one in writing because then the employer is firmly committed. Now you have some power; in fact you have more negotiating power at this stage than you will have for another two years or so in the role, because an employer now wants to reel you in. This doesn’t, of course, mean that you will necessarily get anything you ask for, or you should be over the top in your requests. However, it is fairly common for candidates to negotiate something at this stage, and employers respect this. What will you negotiate? Avoid saying ‘yes’ too early. Work out what matters to you most from the long list of things that candidates regularly include in the deal at this stage: money, flexible working, leave, relocation or travel packages, start date, location, pension, health benefits, car, even job content (see the job offer checklist, page 236). The important thing to realize is that you can only ask for leverage on a maximum of one or two points, otherwise it sounds as if you are being difficult. Second, never try to renegotiate something you have previously agreed as this is seen as unprofessional and can cause the whole deal to collapse. Use softening-up questions: ‘Is there any flexibility at the top end of the range?’ ‘Bearing in mind that I’m being interviewed for positions paying more than your offer, what flexibility is there?’ ‘Taking account of bonuses and other payments my current salary is only just a margin below what you’re offering. It would be good to feel that this was a real step forward …’ Or use negotiation tactics: ‘From what I know of the marketplace, I believe good people in this field are earning rather more than your offer. I think I’m
Last questions, offers, and rejections 235
worth a higher salary because of what I’d bring to your business …’ ‘I realize you need to keep costs under control, but do bear in mind that I’ll make a significant difference to your overall income. We’re discussing a salary difference of £5000 a year, and I could easily be bringing in that much extra income on a monthly basis.’ ‘In your shoes I’d be watching my staffing costs too. However, I intend to provide you cost savings 20 times higher than my salary …’ ‘We’re just £2000 apart. That’s about £40 a week. You spend that kind of money on refills for the water cooler …’ When you ask for something different or something to be added to the deal, remember how important it is to keep on sounding enthusiastic. Use the happy sandwich technique: your request begins and ends with really strong messages that confirm that you are on board: ‘I really enjoyed the interview and I’m thrilled to be your first choice. Naturally there are a couple of things I’d like to look at while the paperwork is being drawn up … It would be good to be clear about how many days a week I would need to be in London. I also wonder if you can move the salary up just a little, in line with other roles I’ve been looking at? If you could squeeze an extra £2000 out of the budget that would work for me. I’ll leave that with you, but can I say I am over the moon to be offered the job …’
Other aspects of the job offer to evaluate Look at the job offer in the light of these general questions: n Will
this job enhance your CV? How will it help or hinder the way you present yourself to a recruiter in five years’ time?
236 The decision n Have
you done this kind of job before? If so, what’s new about it? n What will you learn in this job? How long will you keep learning? n How much of the job is routine? How long will the job keep you interested? n Can you work with your boss – and your boss’s boss? n How far might you be able to adjust the job content so that it is a better match to your preferred skills? You’re not after the perfect job, and you can, of course, negotiate only a few points, not the whole package. If you have already pushed hard on money, for example, you are unlikely to win on other points as well. However, if you have asked for a better pay deal and this has not been accepted, an employer may then be flexible on other factors which cost little to provide. This process is a matter of comparing two wish lists: what you want in your next career move and what an employer is looking for. A good match means success for both parties. A poor match means an underperforming employee, another career transition, and an unhappy employer. Use the job offer checklist below to check out what the deal includes, and which parts you find most acceptable. Job offer checklist Give each factor a score as follows: N Not relevant to me 1 Poor match to my wish list 2 Fair match to my wish list 3 Good match to my wish list
Last questions, offers, and rejections 237
Relationship with peers
Cost of travel to work
Relationship with boss
Public transport route
Pleasant building/ working conditions
Period of review
Travel opportunities/ restrictions
Private health scheme
Impact on my CV
Status, responsibility, authority
Profit sharing or share options
Sports or social f acilities
Learning and development
Contact with interesting people
Extending my network
Size of organization
Other (define your own)
238 The decision
One of the advantages of the job offer checklist (page 236) is that it often reveals what you don’t yet know about the job. It also makes it easier for you to tell the difference between things that are deal-breakers for you, and the things you can live with. Don’t expect everything to have a score of two or three – some elements may not be absolutely right for you. What matters is the overall balance: are you getting higher scores on the things that matter?
Continuing to research after a job offer You will inevitably have further questions about the job and the organization which need to be resolved before you come to a final decision. The interview should not be the last opportunity you will have to gather critical information. Too many candidates feel that the only time they are allowed to ask questions about the job is during the selection process. Far from it. If you get a job offer, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask to go back for a second visit while the written job offer is being drafted (this can take more than a week, as there are often key elements to be signed off). Ask to spend a couple of hours with the team you will be joining. This request confirms your strong interest in the job, but also helps you to be sure about accepting the job offer. If this is not convenient (perhaps the team rarely comes together in one place), consider asking for a meeting with your boss. When you make the request make sure it doesn’t sound as if you are at all unsure about the role, or getting cold feet: ‘I’m really thrilled about the job offer. I look forward to receiving the paperwork. While it’s being sorted out I’d really like the opportunity to meet up with the actual team to get to know people. Next week would be good for me …’
Last questions, offers, and rejections 239
If the company is unsure about your request, explain that you’re really interested in the role and want to find out more about the challenges ahead. Your suggested visit may not be possible for reasons of security or confidentiality of information, but if the organization turns down your suggestion for any other reason, you might wonder what is being hidden from sight.
If a job offer isn’t forthcoming If you don’t get a job offer, you may feel disheartened. Rejection isn’t an easy thing to deal with in the job-hunting process. Take some time out doing things which have nothing to do with applying for jobs, and then look at the situation objectively. If you have got to the short-list stage this is pretty good evidence that you can do the job. If someone was appointed who has slightly better skills or experience, that means the selection process was undertaken properly. Final decisions beyond the short-list are often made on the basis of personality and cultural fit, and as long as you came across as confident, open, and friendly, there is not much more you can do. Remember that you can’t control all the factors in the process. Don’t give up. Job interviews are like sales outings: a number of people have to say ‘no’ before somebody says ‘yes’. Do try, however, to get some feedback on how you did. Ask for verbal feedback as it is likely to be more open, and don’t make your request sound as if you are querying the selection decision. So, don’t ask ‘Why didn’t I get the job?’ but for constructive advice: ‘Can you do me a favour and tell me something about the strengths and weaknesses of my interview technique?’ This may make all the difference to your next interview.
240 The decision
If you find that you repeatedly don’t get beyond first interviews and you only receive bland feedback, then it’s probably time to consider making adjustments to your interview behaviours. Work hard on the opening moments, looking again at Chapter 3 in this book. Get someone to review the way you dress, sound and act in the opening moments when you start to talk about yourself. Practise your presentation statements, your answers to tough questions, and getting across your most important messages. And if you find yourself knocked back, focus on what went well, find someone to encourage you, and keep knocking on doors.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T GET AN OFFER A 10-step guide to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps 1. Learn from your interview experience. Ask for feedback by telephone (the company is very unlikely to spell out their recruitment decision-making process in writing). 2. Focus on what went well in the interview, and build on it. 3. Work out what you would do differently if you have a similar interview next time. 4. If you intend to go for other jobs in the same industry, get some more practice. 5. Practise answers to difficult questions which leave you floundering. 6. Work hard on pre-packaging your evidence. 7. Compose your presentation statements. Write them down. 8. Revisit your work history for better and clearer evidence of your competencies. 9. Are you still interested in the job? If so, write a warm thank-you note. It’s not too rare that the top candidate drops out after the job offer stage. You could still be in the frame. 10. Work on your technique. An interview is a performance. Most good performances need practice to become great.
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