Interviews are all about questions, so the most important interviewing skill would seem to be answering questions. Many book titles play off this assumption, offering 100 or 200 best answers to interview questions. In coaching clients at all stages of their career, I’ve found that there is a skill that is much more important: listening.
A job interview is not a test. Companies evaluate potential employers based on a variety of factors. Interviews are usually the final evaluation, and they often get down to intuition about who will be the best fit. Employers offer positions to candidates who make them the most confident. Someone who is listening will speak more clearly to what an employer needs. Rather than spitting out scripted answers, someone who is listening will build a dialogue with the people who are interviewing her.
When we show that we are listening, we also demonstrate that we respect other people’s ideas and opinions. We also show an ability to understand other people and what they need from us. If a candidate doesn’t listen well during a job interview, how will that person perform after she has been hired?
To improve your odds of landing a good job, it is important to improve your listening skills. Practice interviewing with a friend, and have her occasionally ask you to repeat the question that was asked. Another good tactic is to repeat the resume or key word or phases in the question at the beginning of your answer. Listening is a skills, and it can be improved with practice.
Here’s one final benefit of focusing more on listening and less on having the perfect answer: You will be less nervous during interviews. People who script answers go into an interview with an anticipation that they know what questions will be asked. The problem is that interviews seldom follow the script. By listening, you will be engaged in a dialogue with the interviewer. You will be speaking to her questions and asking questions that will help you show what you can contribute as a new employee. You will also be more relaxed because you will not be focused on uttering the perfect answer. Listen first – that’s the key to a great interview.
I’m working with a client who wants to use a portfolio to demonstrate her skills at a job interview. Some employers ask for a portfolio, especially in fields such as graphic design and teaching. I’ve also had clients in sales use portfolios to supplement their resumes. A portfolio can be a great asset, or it can work against you.
A winning portfolio has two elements: limited content and flexibility. As a rule, a portfolio should 8-10 elements that can be present in crisp manner. It should be flexible in covering different aspects of what you have to offer an employer. For example, a teacher’s portfolio might touch on class projects, curriculum development, extracurricular activities, and professional development. A sales professional’s portfolio might display evidence of sales success, photos with customers at leading professional events, and examples of marketing materials.
Put yourself in the place of the interviewer. You want to present evidence, but you don’t want to hear the same kind of fact again and again. As an employer, you would also want the candidate to demonstrate good presentation skills through planning and organization. Keep your portfolio clear, tight, and interesting.
A client called me today to say that he landed a job. He and his wife were sitting at a restaurant bar and struck up a conversation with another couple. It turns out that one of my client’s new friends was in his industry. She passed his resume along to her boss. Two weeks later, he has a new job.
Was my client lucky? Of course, luck matters. However, he was also prepared. He had his resume ready to send, and he impressed the employer during the interview. Networking is like lighting: You never know when it’s going to strike. Be prepared when it does.
One of the questions you need to answer before going on any job interview is: “What do we do?” You must take the time to understand the company that is interviewing you, know its function, and how you will contribute to the company’s success. One of my clients told me that he had a bad interview experience when an interviewer asked him to describe the company. He gave her very general answers. Then she asked a specific question that he couldn’t answer. He tried to bluff that he must have missed that in his research. She then told him, “That’s hard to understand since it’s on the first page of our website.”
Set yourself up for success, not failure. Before going on any interview, devote at least one hour to research a prospective employer. Go beyond the company website to look at industry news and anything else you can find through a Google search. The better you can align your skill and experience to the company’s needs, the more likely it is that you will get a job offer. Don’t bluff or spew generalities. Take the time to know the company. A little effort in research can lead to an offer.
Godin identifies 7 questions that underlie every good job interview. Then he points out one question (not asked during the interview) that leads to a bad job, one where politics will be more important than creativity or productivity. I strongly recommend this short post for its practical wisdom.
Seth Godin is like the poet Billy Collins. His writing often sounds simple, especially on a first reading. When you feel that way, read it again. It’s deep. Start diving.
Every career expert claims to have the magic answer to writing a thank you note. As I’ve written before, I don’t claim to have all the answers. My strategy for writing a thank you note follows these principles:
- Keep it short
- Keep it positive
- Focus on what the interviewer cared most about during the interview
- End by saying you want the job
I’d recommend no more than 6-7 sentences for a thank you letter. First, thank the company and mention the position. Second, speak to the interviewer’s concern. Three, ask to move forward and say you want the job.
What about format? Handwritten or email? I think email works if you take the time to craft a good letter. Some people that I greatly respect insist that handwritten is the only way to go. If you want to take the time and make the effort to send a handwritten note, be sure you do so the same day you interview.
Here’s a good trick for learning what matters most to an interviewer. Most interviewers will let you ask questions. Your last question should be: “What is the most important quality you are looking for in a [sales manager]?” If the interviewer says someone who can build a team, briefly affirm why you are a team builder. If she says somebody who hits the number, talk about how you meet/exceed goals. Next, when you’re writing your thank you letter, come back to this point and again affirm that you can deliver the most important quality.
Don’t send generic thank you letters. They only say I don’t care. Speak to the person who interviewed you and show that you care about her biggest concern. That will be the best way to make an impression.
Glassdoor.com is a great website. It offers information about companies and careers as well as a job board. One of the site’s more interesting feature is a collection of interview questions. Some of the questions are truly odd. Whenever you are presented with such a question, don’t ask, “How is that question relevant?” or “What does that have to do with my employment?” Take the challenge and show that you are the kind of person who knows how to solve a problem.
Capital One has asked job seekers, “Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on how weird you are.” That question deserves a smile or a laugh as an initial response. But then it’s time to get serious. Some professions value weirdness. Others do not. The key to answering this question well is to define how you are “weird” and how that weirdness is relevant to the job you are seeking.
Google asks, “How many basketballs would fit in this room?” This question sounds crazy on its surface, but if a position requires spatial reasoning, it’s a great way to judge an applicant’s skill at assessing the size of a room.
If you are faced with a question like this or any other difficult question, your first move should be to stop and think through your answer before speaking. It’s good to tell your interviewers something like this: “That’s a great question. Please give me a few seconds to think before I answer it.”
Remember that – in most cases – no one question makes or breaks an interview. Think about interviews as evaluations and conversations, not tests. An employer wants to know what kind of person you are, so it’s more important to make a connection and build confidence than it is to show absolute technical proficiency. Skills and experience are very important, but it’s just as important to be the kind of person a manager wants on his team. Don’t forget that, especially when you’re facing a difficult question.
A client told me earlier today about going through 5 rounds of interviewing for one job. He did not get an offer. What made him angry was that he did not get a thank you note or any other kind of notification. This is not unusual. Few companies recognize the people they interview.
Don’t wait for a call or email that might not come. When you get home from any interview, try to send out two more job applications (or more if possible). Don’t stop your momentum by waiting. Stay active and focused in your job search.
In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Sandra Guy has written an interesting and useful article on strange interview questions, which include:
“If you could be any superhero, who would it be?” (asked by ATT)
“How many basketballs would fit in this room?” (asked by Google)
“What is the square root of 2,000?” (asked by UBS)
These questions challenge job seekers in several ways. First, they test a person’s ability to think about something that is unexpected. Second, they may reveal a candidate’s ability or inability to exercise a certain type of reasoning. For example, the initial reaction to the question about basketballs might be, “Who cares?” However, if a candidate is working in a field where spatial reasoning or visual estimates is important, this “odd” question helps employers see if you have a skill that is needed on the job. Finally, they reflect an ability to work with a problem, rather than dismissing it.
An expert from Glassdoor.com, the company that collects strange interview question, recommends that job seekers approach odd questions in a positive spirit and answer in a way that shows an ability to “thin on your feet” and “stand up to stress and pressure.” As with any difficult question, take a few seconds to think about your answer. Present your answer as clearly and calmly as possible. The way you answer might be more important than the answer itself.
Don’t let a weird question prevent you from getting a job offer. Be ready and give it your best shot.
Postscript: Check out Glassdoor.com. It is a great resource to learn more about industries, companies, and salaries.
Most of my clients express concern about their interviewing skills. Their worry makes sense since we practice the skill only when we’re looking for a job. Think about this: if you only bowled or played tennis/golf once every two or three years, would your skills at those sports be good? Interviewing is a skill, and it needs to be practiced.
One of the most important skills needed to interview well is listening. Too often, applicants ramble or give unfocused answers because they start to talk before fully comprehending what the interviewer has asked.
Try this strategy: Repeat the question as you listen and identify key words. Let’s say an interviewer asked this question: “Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision quickly.” While repeating the question, you should identify three key parts. First, “tell me about a time” indicates that your answer should be a narrative or story that covers one specific example. “Make a decision” tells you that the interviewer wants to know about your decision making skills. Finally, “quickly” means that you can be decisive when under pressure and strict deadlines.
How can you improve this aspect of interviewing skills? Practice. Rather than just going over commonly asked questions (which you still should do), try this routine: Have the person who is interviewing you ask: “What was the question?” Try to answer in the exact words. Then break out key terms and instructions.
An interview is not a test with right and wrong answers. Your goal should be to engage the interviewer and make that person confident in your ability to do the job. The first step in that process is listening and understanding the question, so you can engage in a professional dialogue. Practice good listening skills. They’re an important part of your next job search.