Welcome to the second installment of the How to Interview series! In the first installment, I discussed the right (and wrong!) mentalities to carry with you into the interview process. That’s good to read first because having the right mindset will help everything else make sense and make you feel more prepared and confident. In this installment, we’re going to dive into the meat of the interview process: the questions & answers (& questions, as you’ll see)!
Interview Questions & Answers…
An exhaustive list of every question you could possibly be asked would be impossible to create. Every interviewer has their own spin and style, and they’ll ask different things. Since that’s true, how can you possibly prepare?
Well, the first step is to recognize that even though there are a nearly infinite number of possible questions, there are a few universal ones that you’ll get in virtually every interview. Questions such as:
“Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I’m not sure there’s any question more dreaded in an interview process! As a hiring manager, I’ve asked this question thousands of times, and I dread the answers as much as you do, believe me. 99 out of 100 candidates answer this horribly. Regardless of industry, role, or career level, I get the same response:
First, that deer-in-the-headlights look of panic. Then, a seemingly random list of inconsequential trivia about the candidate, like what town they were born in, how many siblings they had, where they went to school, the fact that they love dogs, skiing, or travel, or that they played some sport fifteen years ago. They may or may not mention jobs they’ve had, but if they do it’ll just be a repeat or summary of their resume, which I already have. They’ll ramble until they fade away with an unenthusiastic wrap-up, or maybe a sheepish answer of “does that tell you what you want to know?”
Sound familiar? Every hiring manager I’ve ever spoken with tells me the same thing – despite how universal it is, people come into an interview totally unprepared to answer this question in a meaningful way.
Fortunately for you, there is a method that turns the most awkward question in the process into an awesome opportunity for you to sell yourself!
I once asked a candidate for a sales manager position to tell me a little about himself, and instead of the standard answer I’d come to dread, he gave me the best response I’d ever heard.
“I’ve always been defined by ambition. From the earliest days of my career I took on the most challenging and rewarding projects I could in order to prove myself. Right now that ambition and drive has made me the number one sales rep in my company, but there’s no path for leadership advancement there. That’s why I’m here – I want to join a company as ambitious as I am so we can grow together.”
I was absolutely blown away by his answer (and needless to say, he got the job)! After the interview, I spent some time breaking down exactly why his answer was so good, and created a formula so that anyone can duplicate it, regardless of who they are.
First, start with a theme.
His theme was “ambition,” and it clearly shone through his entire statement. He stated it early and often so I could easily connect him with that positive quality in my mind. It kept him laser-focused and eliminated irrelevant information. And it made him stand out in my memory.
Second, define your theme in terms of a journey with three steps – past, present and future.
After stating his theme (“I’ve always been defined by ambition”), he then gave me three concise sentences: one about where his journey began, one about what he’s doing now and why it needs to change, and one about his future – with my company. All three sentences served the central theme and created a cohesive story. It lead him from where he began all the way to the seat in front of me. It was compelling, and it made me want to see how the rest of the story turned out!
Third and last, he shut up!
He knew he’d delivered something powerful, and he didn’t dilute it by saying “so… yeah, that’s it” or anything like that. He put the ball in my court, and I had to respond. He was controlling the conversation right from the start of the interview, which is what knowing when to shut up allows you to do.
Practice this method! Pick a theme you’d like to define you. It could be Creativity, Dedication, Compassion, or anything else you feel is a reflection of your best self. Once you’re ready to declare your theme, create three (and only three!) sentences that reflect that. A sentence about your past that shows where your journey began and why your theme is reflected in that journey. A sentence about where you are now and how your theme contributed to that, but also why it needs to change. And then a sentence connecting that theme to your future with this company.
Write it down and practice it a few times. It’s a great elevator pitch and opening remark; if you nail this one thing, you’ll set the tone for a great interview!
“Why are you looking to leave your current job/why did you leave your last job?”
This will come up – there’s no avoiding it. If you’re not currently working, the interviewer wants to know why your last role ended. If you are working, they want to know why you want to leave.
First, I want to dispel a common myth. It’s not necessarily a good thing if you have a “valid excuse” for your last role ending. Sure, sometimes your role ends because of forces outside your control. Maybe a company shutting its doors or your position being moved overseas. Sometimes candidates seem relieved to be able to say that, because “at least I wasn’t fired.”
I’m going to pop that bubble: That answer doesn’t impress anyone.
Sure, it might not count against you. But your goal in an interview isn’t to just avoid “bad” answers – it’s to impress your interviewer! Whether your company shuttered, you were laid off, or even if you were fired, that’s not the important thing to focus on.
All of those reasons, whether “good” or “bad,” are what are called Push reasons.
Push reasons are called thus because they “pushed” you away from something. You were comfortable, and you would have stayed, except something made you leave. That’s not a great look.
Contrast that with what are called Pull reasons. Pull reasons are called that because they’re “pulling” you towards something! You were motivated to make your own changes, rather than simply being shoved out of the nest by fate. What are some great examples of Pull reasons?
- “I left my last role because I wanted to change industries; I’m incredibly motivated by what’s happening in this growing industry, and I wanted to learn everything I could about it. So I saved enough that I could take the time off to dedicate to self-educating and then apply to the best companies in the industry – so here I am.”
- “I’m leaving my role because I know I can contribute more than I’m able to at my current company. They’ve been very supportive, but they’re smaller and I want a broader market for my best ideas.”
- “I recently met someone who works for your company, and they had such amazing things to say about working here and the incredible culture that I had to learn more, and when I did I fell in love. Your mission matches mine, and I’d be so excited to work with this team.”
Those answers share one thing in common: they clearly state that you’re the driving force behind the change in role, not outside influences. That’s a much more impressive answer!
Find a reason you want to move forward, no matter what happened at your last role. Define yourself by what’s coming next, not what already happened.
“Tell me about a time when…”
More of a category of question, but the most common format today. You’ll be asked to talk about a time when (or a hypothetical situation where) you had to deal with some particular problem or struggle. Since there are so many possible situations, how can you prepare?
There’s an answer – you need some “Silver Bullet” stories!
What’s a “Silver Bullet” Story?
A “silver bullet” story is a good story about you in a professional context. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at a job – could be somewhere you volunteered or in the context of a club you belonged to, etc.. Silver bullet stories encompass multiple good qualities, and they are stories that you can tell well.
I guarantee you that you have one. You might have trouble thinking of it now, but take some time and ask some coworkers, contacts, and colleagues if they can remember a particularly good story about you in a professional context. Chances are they can think of at least one!
Here’s an example for someone early in their career:
“I was a retail sales associate in a sporting goods store. A woman came in, and since I made it a point to greet every customer that came into the store (above and beyond store policy), she told me she was looking for a specific low-cost item.
We didn’t carry it, but I found a different brand’s equivalent product for her. I didn’t just hand it over and end my conversation; I politely asked her what she needed it for, and from there started a conversation about other things she might need. She didn’t realize how many other things on her list were available at my store, and was thrilled to get all her shopping done in one place. I was thrilled to have both a happy customer and a sale ten times larger than just the initial item she came in for.”
Think about all the different skills that one simple story showcases:
Salesmanship, great customer service, initiative, work ethic, problem-solving, creativity. That’s what makes it a silver bullet – the fact that it shows so many different skills means it can be used to answer a variety of different questions!
If you get asked “Tell me about at time you went above and beyond the call of duty at work,” could you tell that story? Yup!
If you get asked “Give me an example of your sales ability,” you could definitely tell that story!
How about if you get asked, “Can you tell me about a time you had to turn a problem into an opportunity?” You bet!
By practicing and getting good at telling just 2-3 of these stories, you can crush dozens of different interview questions.
How To Interview Questions…
Now you’ve got a framework for how to navigate the questions you’ll be asked and the answers you’ll give. But what about the questions you’ll ask?
An interview that’s completely one-sided isn’t a good interview. You want to be asking plenty of questions of your own! The reasons are twofold: One, you’re there to evaluate them as much as to be evaluated, and you don’t want to come away not knowing any more about them than you did when you walked in. And two, because smart questions will show your value far better than any answers you give!
Whenever you’re asked a basic question in the interview, aim to incorporate a question of your own into your answer. If you’re asked “do you have any experience with using Google AdWords,” then instead of just saying that you do and explaining a little, turn it back on them. “Absolutely. I’ve used it extensively for the past two years in my current role. We also found we had a lot of success with targeting Yelp as a marketing platform; what other marketing channels have you seen success with?”
In this way, you take control of the conversation and establish that it’s a conversation, not an interrogation.
You’ll get the interviewer talking back with you, and that’s always better than a one-sided experience.
And of course, you want to have some complete questions to ask your interviewer! Most interviewers will give you the opportunity to ask them some questions at the end of the interview. Let me confirm, we absolutely hate it when you don’t have any. It’s such a lackluster way to end even a good interview, so you should definitely come prepared with 3-5. Here are some questions NOT to ask:
- “What are the minimum performance evaluations I need to meet?” (Don’t establish yourself as someone just barely doing the minimum!)
- “What are the hours and dress code like?” (Basic rote questions that will be part of the onboarding process aren’t really giving a good impression of you.)
Instead, ask questions like:
- “What do the top 10% of performers in this role do differently to prepare and in their first 30 days that sets them apart?”
- “What’s the process like for learning from other teammates and sharing our skills and best practices?”
- “What is the biggest single goal for this team in the next 6-12 months?”
- “Can you tell me about your own career journey, and why this company has been the best fit for you personally?”
You want open-ended, positive-facing questions that start conversations. One of the ideal scenarios is to start a conversation that your interviewer gets really invested in just before the time runs out on your interview session! Either the interviewer will be willing to run the interview long (and that’s a great sign!), or they’ll have to call it for time and be very invested in your next meeting so they can continue. Either way, you’ve given them a great reason to get back in touch with you soon!
With these techniques, you should feel confidently prepared to talk about your skills and experiences in a way that sells yourself and creates a conversation between you and the hiring manager.
When you get to the end of that conversation, finish strong!
Due to people’s natural tendency to evaluate experiences based on how they ended, the closing few moments of the interview can be crucial. Even if you don’t feel like you delivered your best performance, giving a really great handshake and enthusiastic “thank you for taking the time to speak with me – I look forward to our next meeting!” can make all the difference in the world. Don’t be afraid to really emphasize the great attitude on that final exchange. If you need a good mnemonic device, remember to “SEE” your hiring manager: Smile, Eye contact, Enthusiasm!
Then walk out with your head high – you crushed it!
In our next installment, we’ll cover how to effectively follow up to really seal the deal – so stay tuned!