Interviewing: Defending Weaknesses

All artwork/posters are wholly-owned imagery made by Getty Images.  Images numbers are on property release.,People who “win” in the interviewing process almost invariably are effective at what I would call “defending perceived weaknesses.” For any desirable position, the competition will be fierce. The margin between the candidate who gets the offer and “1st runner up” will be slim. Eliminating concerns can be as or more important than proudly highlighting strengths.

I remain surprised at how unprepared many candidates are for what seem to be obvious questions that poke and prod around their metaphorical soft underbelly. Stated differently, “how could you NOT know I was going to ask about that?”

A weakness here typically means some obvious profile challenge relative to the job you are seeking. There are 3 types that come immediately to mind. Also keep in mind that if you got the interview, they presumably deem you hire-able. If you were too far off their target profile, they wouldn’t be wasting everyone’s time. So treat it as a challenge you can overcome rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

  1. Skill deficit: For example, if you haven’t overtly had a job selling and its sales we’re going to fully explore your persuasiveness, aptitude and drive. Another example would be entry level analyst jobs. Your resume or major may not fully reveal your abilities with software tools and math based analysis.
  2. Stereotypes: Are there widely held assumptions about someone with your background? Yes, probably. So if you’re an engineer, I want to know if you can manage ambiguity. If you were a humanities major I may want to know how analytical you are.
  3. Resume: If you have an employment gap, you can bet we’re going to chat about it. The same would be true of job-hopping. You get the idea.

So given that you likely have some mash-up of these gaps (note that we all do…no candidate is perfect), what can you do to improve the odds of anticipating lines of questioning and then responding effectively?

Identify Potential Perceived Weaknesses – This isn’t terribly complicated. You need to understand the mindset of the firm and group you are interviewing with. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Think – Some gaps are obvious.
  2. Do research – Explore relatively obvious outlets and forums to dig into the industry or company.
    • Company website. How do they talk about themselves?
    • Industry forums. What are the hot issues?
    • Job boards and listings. What skills are specifically sought?
  3. Network
    • Talk to humans. They know things. They can give you context.
    • Note what they ask you about. It indicates both their interests and concerns.
    • What do peoples’ backgrounds look like? Are you like them? If not, how different?

Common themes that are likely to pop up for many candidates: Career switching, a non traditional background, resume gaps and specific qualification or prerequisite challenges like GPA, test scores, certifications etc.

Note: If you determine you have fundamental profile gaps and can’t get interviews then your issues are deeper and require actual skill development, training or transitional experiences. Here I am talking about bridgeable gaps and how to deal with them in the context of an interview you have.

Addressing Them Effectively – Here are a few simple suggestions for addressing potential gaps.

  1. Build a coherent and logical story for each area of potential concern.
    • If you have a non-traditional background, then why are you seeking the role and what makes you qualified?
    • If you are switching careers, why?
    • If your GPA was a bit low (but hire-able), what’s the story?
  2. Be able to SHOW (rather than tell) that you are adept at whatever their concern area is.
    • Evidence based storytelling: The story you craft should have elements that demonstrate your commitment and drive. For example, you took a class to learn to code to be a more effective data analyst; you took a public speaking class to overcome anxiety; you have taken a pay cut to move into a different role or industry. A good story needs tangible evidence of the over-arching theme.
    • Visualize relevance: An interviewer may not understand your background or something you’ve accomplished. Be able to connect it directly to success in the desired role.
    • Demonstration in real time: Many jobs have the interview process meant to model their work. Case interviews in consulting are an example. The interviewer presents a tangible problem and asks the interviewee to walk through their solution to the problem. So understand what is likely coming and be adept at modeling the skills or features the job requires.
  3. Be natural and authentic in answering.
    • If you are able to do the above but have flop sweats, then I’m not buying it. Be yourself and have prepared to a level that allows you to perform. This is not to say “don’t be nervous”. It’s normal to be nervous in an interview. But it shouldn’t feel like you’ve either never thought about the question asked or that you’ve so prepared that you are reciting a scripted answer.
  4. Don’t leave what you think might be weaknesses alone.
    • Make sure to cover off on them. If you really want the job, make a strong case and don’t leave potential challenges laying there undiscussed. When you are gone, your prospective employers are going into a room to make a decision and you don’t want to leave out any part of your case for the job.

So knowing that you’ll get pushed, why wouldn’t you be well prepared?

I have seen people overcome some pretty long odds to win impressive roles. Invariably they took the entire search and interview process seriously, as it was a hard climb. In the end it was often how they dealt with these hard questions, or in my terms “how well they played defense” in the interview that was the difference maker.

Related posts:

A cycle on planning the interview process: http://www.phils-career-blog.com/2010/10/know-your-interviewer/

Some thoughts on networking: http://www.phils-career-blog.com/2010/07/business-networking-strategy-part-1/

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