Putting It All Together


On the Day of the Interview

Bring your notes! Look back to what you did in “preparing for any interview”. Tailor your lists for this specific job. Use keywords and shorten the language. You want a clean sheet that you can glance at quickly to find a new example. Practice with the sheet by pretending to answer some generic questions. Don’t hesitate to refer back to your notes during the interview. A good interviewer wants a good answer, even if you need a little cheat sheet to help.

Tell stories. As you practice, remember that you are telling a story. You want to give enough information to answer their question but not so much that they lose interest. You want them to remember the story and be able to retell it when they are talking to others about you. If your story is more than 3-5 minutes, it’s too long. If it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end, it’s not a story.

Focus on the questions they’re asking. Too many candidates look for a place to throw in a story and don’t actually answer the questions they’re asked. If you can’t answer the question I’ve asked, I don’t believe that you’ll listen to anyone else. That will remove you quickly from all consideration.

Show your experience. Give concise answers that show you understand their question and that you’ve done something in your past that directly relates to the topic. Make sure you explain what the situation was, what you did (you – not “we”, not the team), and what results you achieved. If they aren’t nodding as you wrap up your answer, try “did I answer your question?”. That’s a key listening skill that shows you will work well in a team environment.

Do I Really Want To Work For You?

Don’t forget that at least one of these interviewers is potentially your future boss. Look back to “types of interviewers” and think about what it might be like to actually work for this person. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like “can you share with me the person who’s worked for you that’s been the most successful”. Make sure you can see yourself working like that on a daily basis.

  1. “I’ve got this” interviewers are more likely to be focused on you, making sure you succeed. They are effective listeners and leaders. You will probably learn and grow working for this person.
  2. “It’s all about me” interviewers are just as selfish outside the interview. If you can work completely on your own with little praise or direction, you can be successful under this person. Be very careful to make yourself known to others in the organization. These are the managers most likely to take credit for your ideas and successes.
  3. “I just do what HR tells me”. You either have a green manager or a policy-follower. If you are green or compliant yourself, this could be a match made in heaven. If you think of yourself as a bit of a rule-breaker or maverick, you’ll likely be fighting an uphill battle.
  4. “Why don’t you run the interview” people are usually so busy running from thing to thing that you won’t get much attention from them outside the interview either, at least not without initiating it yourself. It is possible that you really caught them on a bad day and this isn’t their normal behavior. If they show great listening skills during the interview and you connect with them, they’re likely going to be good to work with if you are comfortable asking for help and doing a bit of managing up. But, if they continue to be distracted during the interview or you feel like you are wasting their time, they will likely be more focused on their own success and have little patience for you outside the interview.

Look for the replacement manager too. If the person currently interviewing for this position leaves, is the likely replacement or next level manager on the interview team? If you can’t see yourself working for your new boss’s boss, you are not only risking stability if the boss leaves but you are also limiting your potential to move up. Your next promotion starts with this interview.

What Questions Do You Have For Me?

Please don’t use the Internet to generate generic questions to ask at the end of the interview. Every candidate asks “where do you see the company over the next 3-5 years”, or “what are the most important things this role needs to accomplish over the next year”. The last thing you want to leave the interviewer with is the idea that you are boring or uninterested. Instead, find things in the interview that show you are really listening and interested in this specific person’s viewpoint.

  • Things they seemed concerned about – “You asked a lot of questions about this skill, which is something I’m particularly strong in. Is that a skill you think is missing from the organization today?”
  • Things they really liked about your background – “You seemed very interested that I’d done this particular thing before. Is that something the department is struggling with today?”
  • Things they mentioned in their description of the job that really interested you. Especially impactful if you can match it with other conversations or the prework you did on the company. “You mentioned that the company was trying to accomplish this particular thing. I read about that in the annual report too. Can you tell me more about how that’s going and why it’s so important?”

Asking a particularly insightful and well-crafted question at the end leaves the interviewer wanting more, a sure way to get a call back.

Types of Interviewers

To the chagrin of management consultants and HR departments everywhere, most managers are woefully unprepared to interview you. They are running into your interview without having looked at your resume or having even really considered what it is that they’re looking for. Sometimes, they really are that busy. Sometimes, they are interviewing you for someone else and aren’t too concerned about getting the right fit. Sometimes, they are just unprepared or unskilled. If you want to make a real impression, be prepared to lead the interview yourself by understanding these four types of interviewers.

I’ve got this!

These managers are prepared. They know what they want for the position. They’ve read your resume and crafted specific questions about how your experience relates to the job. They work to put you at ease so that you can give them the best possible answers. They start by giving you a very clear description of the job and key skills. They may even ask if you have questions to start.

If you are lucky enough to find one of these people, take advantage of the opportunity by listening as well as you speak. Make sure you understand their questions. Restate the question if necessary, or ask how the question relates to the job. Check that you answered effectively. Ask “did I answer your question” or “is this what you’re looking for”. When they ask for your questions at the end of the interview, ask for real feedback. “Where do you think my skills line up with the needs of this position? Where do you have concerns?” Make sure you address concerns. Reiterate and clarify your strengths in your post-interview thank-you note.

It’s all about me

This type of interviewer will talk more than they listen, mostly about their own background. Try to stay interested (and awake) but don’t expect to impress them. The only way to prepare for this one is to look them up online in advance or find someone who knows them. Find some common ground to connect with them on, a hobby or school that you share, questions about one of the pictures in their office of them on vacation.

Eventually, they will likely say something that hints at what they think the job is about. Grab that chance to say “great observation! Here’s something similar from my background and what I did about it”. Don’t over-explain though. The faster you get back to talking about them and being impressed with them, the better impression you’ll make.

If you can’t find common ground and connect with them personally, you really don’t have any chance with this kind of person. Just listen attentively, try to remain interested in whatever they want to talk about. Your questions for them should focus on advice type inquiries: “what would you think I should accomplish in the first few weeks” or “how would you handle learning this organization as a new employee”. These managers like to be seen as important and intelligent. Try to play to their need for importance without obviously pandering.

I just do what HR tells me

Unfortunately, well-meaning HR departments are sometimes an interviewee’s worst nightmare. They’ve successfully convinced the organization that finding the right person means following the script. Based on limited understanding of the job, they prepare big packets of questions that sound like “tell me about a time when you…”. They provide a few days of training to managers who won’t use the skills for months, managers who don’t interview people often enough to learn any better, and generally create an environment where the manager feels less accountable for the hiring process than they should.

Now, I do believe that there’s a place for this kind of behavioral interviewing. Knowing how to ask these questions can help an interviewer get good examples and understand what it will be like to work with you. Especially for inexperienced managers, the process can be comforting and a great place to start. But too many managers get complacent and a little lazy. They literally read the question and take copious notes. They are more interested in grading how you answered the question (did you provide a situation, action, and result) than in deciding if your answer applies well to the job (did that answer exhibit the skill we need).

Your best option here is to carefully list each part of your answer. Label it for them so they, and you, know you hit all the points. You should sound like “I had this situation…, I did this thing about it…, and I got this result…”. If you get stuck, ask what skill they are looking for and tailor your answer to that skill instead of the specific question.

Why don’t you just run the interview

Surprisingly, many managers are perfectly happy to let you run the interview. While many interviewers will start with the “tell me about yourself” question, these interviewers stop there. They take enough notes that they can spend the rest of the interview digging into the comments you give in that initial answer. Or they may not listen to your answer at all, using that question only to buy time to read your resume so they can dig into areas they’re skeptical or curious about. Then they’ll ask if there’s anything else you think is important for them to know, they’ll answer your questions, and the interview will be over.

This interviewing type is the hardest because you’re doing all the work, but also the biggest opportunity because you get to control the conversation. The process for the “tell me about yourself” question is the same regardless of the interviewer type. Done right, you should have a 3-5 minute synopsis of your career, with the most important skills and examples highlighted. Try to focus on no more than 3 key skills, the ones you believe will be most critical in this position. Try to get the interviewer to highlight the key skills for you and tailor the story to use their verbiage.

  1. Before the interview, find out everything you can about the company and position. (You did this anyway, right?)
  2. Look for experiences and projects in your past that directly show why you are capable of the job.
  3. Now build your story and practice it until you can say it easily. Go chronologically through your career, building up the proof of why you are the best one for this job. The story will probably sound something like:  “I started at Company Alpha. That was a great experience where I got to do ___ project. That project really taught me how to ___. Then I moved to Company Beta where I accomplished ___ and learned to ___.”

Be Prepared For Any Interview

Plenty of websites have lists of questions you may be asked. This isn’t one of them. If that’s what you want, just search on “job interview questions” and look through any of them. They are all fairly accurate and will give you a good example of the questions you are likely to encounter. They may even give you some great tips on answering some of the more delicate issues. But they won’t prepare you to interview.

Unless you can memorize every single question and it’s appropriate answer, focusing on the questions is the wrong place to start. You aren’t trying to guess the specific questions you’ll be asked. You are preparing to sell yourself and your skills as the best fit for a specific job and company. I’ve seen experienced and solid candidates completely blank out from the stress of interviewing. When asked a simple “have you ever done x” question, they stare blankly and struggle to give the most basic answer. When you read a sentence to them taken directly from their resume, they stumble as if the concept were completely foreign to them.

Don’t waste your prep time trying to guess the questions. Spend your time on understanding what you really bring to the table. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What projects or achievements show off each of your strengths? What’s really on your resume? Use these three exercises and you’ll be prepared for any type of interviewer.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Start by listing out your strengths. If you don’t know them, ask someone you trust, a coworker, friend, mentor. Skill assessments are helpful too. Think of the tasks and projects you really enjoy. What is it about those that you enjoy most? List as many as you can think of and put them in order, strongest to weakest. Then for each strength, list 2-3 specific examples of things you’ve done that exhibit that strength.

For weaknesses, what are the tasks you hate doing and why. For each of these, list how you’ve overcome or mitigated that weakness. For example, I hate doing administrative work, so I always make sure to have someone on the team who loves the organizational aspects of keeping everything up to date. Or if you get very passionate about achieving results, do you exercise regularly to keep the stress down?

When you’re preparing for a specific job, check your strengths list to make sure nothing’s missing and your weakness list to make sure there’s no real disconnects. Take both lists to the interview with you. Even if you aren’t asked specifically about strengths or weaknesses, this also prepares you for questions like “tell me about a time when you …”. By preparing examples, you’ll be able to quickly identify the example that answers the question and be able to link it back to what that example really shows about you. If your answer sounds something like this, then you’ve not only answered the question effectively, but ended naturally with the sales pitch on why you are the best person for the job: “I had this project… I’m really proud of how effectively I managed all the resources on that project”.

What’s On Your Resume?

I hate that blank look from a candidate when I say “I see on your resume that you xxx. Tell me about that.” Read your resume! For each bullet point or achievement that you have listed, practice telling the story about who found that problem and how you got involved, what that problem was, what you did about it, and what the outcome was. Nothing kills an interview faster than, “is that on my resume?”, or “I don’t really remember that”.

Don’t forget the sections other than jobs too. Why did you take that course or degree? What did you learn? What did you like about that experience? Remember to review all the transitions. Why did you leave that job to go to the next job? Why are you looking at this job?

This one’s so easy to do and so harmful if you mess it up. Don’t skip it.

Successes and Failures

Behavioral interviews are the simplest types of interviews to prepare. These are the “tell me about a time…” interviews. The problem though is that when you are interviewing with multiple people, it’s easy to get stuck on a single example. To prepare, split a sheet of paper in half lengthwise. On the left, list projects you enjoyed and that were successful. On the left, list projects that failed or didn’t achieve the right results. Then make sure you can tell the story of each project. Having this simple list with you will make sure you provide multiple examples. Your interviewers will compare notes when you’re gone. You want them retelling as many of your stories as possible to each other, not concluding that you’ve only done one thing for the last several years.

And yes, failures are okay to talk about. When interviewers ask about failures, they are usually looking for (1) your ability to learn from your mistakes, so know what you learned from each failure, and (2) whether you accept responsibility for your own mistakes or blame everyone and everything else. No one wants someone on their team who never takes responsibility for their contribution to the problem. To end the story on a positive note, show what you learned by referencing another project where you did better. Use language like “I was disappointed that we didn’t accomplish what we wanted, but it was a great experience for me. I learned to do xxx better, and that’s why the xxx project we talked about before was so much better.”


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