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?” Continue reading

Curiosity: Your Most Valuable Interviewing Asset

Rubiks CatNote: The following post is by a friend and former colleague of mine, Jon Matejcek.  Jon is President of Dashe & Thomson, a Minneapolis-based firm that provides training and communication services for Fortune 1000 firms.  He is unusually wise…

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to interview dozens of smart and experienced job candidates.  It seems to me that college graduates and early-career job candidates  get better every year at rounding-out their limited experience with relevant internships, volunteer positions, and coursework.

One thing that never seems to change, however, and that I continually find surprising and disappointing:  most people are tremendously bad at interviewing.

It’s not because they aren’t good at selling their qualifications; it’s fairly easy – and common – to list one’s strengths and experience. And, most interviewees do a serviceable job of it. Continue reading

Finding Opportunity: Don’t Get Lost in Translation

It frustrates me how much opportunity is lost in failing to really understand what’s being said.  Failing to listen actively and/or clearly message about yourself can leave opportunities on the table. It’s largely because people focus on labels and don’t always listen carefully or probe to understand the meaning of what’s being said.

Look at the bottles to the right. Are you sure you know what’s in them? Probably wine (but maybe not). But even if it’s wine, what kind? From where? You get the idea.

This phenomenon works in two directions, both you misreading and others misunderstanding you. I’m focusing on a job/career search context to make the point, but it happens all over. Continue reading



Step 1 – Know Your Interviewer

Step 2 – Planning for Success

Step 3 – Performing to Win

Digging Deeper to Explain What You Did (STAR Technique)

Answering “so tell me about yourself…”

What Makes You Special?

“Case” Interviewing / Case Interviewing Feedback

Networking & Job Search

Business Networking Strategy: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3

Student Job Searches

Networking “with Content”

Resume Basics

Job Searches in Tough Times

Job Search Stall Points

Summer Internships

Career Planning & Management

Figuring Out What You Want Part 1 / Part 2

Start Your New Job Strong

Getting Your Raise

Negotiating: Your Offer Out of School

It’s that season at school. People have offers in their hands and feel compelled to negotiate the terms of their service.

This is a sensitive time and process. You want to make sure to get the best situation you can while not putting too much value at risk.

First, a few caveats:

  • I’m NOT talking about experienced professionals debating a job switch. Many of the same considerations apply, but the alternatives and your leverage are very different.
  • I’m assuming you are seriously considering an offer in question. If not, why negotiate?

So how do I approach thinking about potentially negotiating my offer? Let’s lay out a few principles to guide your thinking and preparation:  Continue reading

Interviewing: Step 3 – Performing to Win

At this point, we’ve discussed knowing your interviewer and planning for the event. Well now it’s game time!

This is where you have to close the deal. I see many people fail because they underestimate the importance of a really outstanding performance.

Let me be clear. Once you walk in the room to interview, the ONLY goal you have is getting an offer (or making the next round). This IS NOT the time to show any ambivalence or uncertainty. You can be ambivalent if and when you get an offer. Until you have it, you are unemployed. Choices are for those who make options.

“But Phil, I networked and talked to everyone. I did all the right things…how could I not get it???” (Perplexed)

Because there was only one offer, and somebody else was also working hard, and also networked…and they rocked their interview. All things being equal, this is a very competitive process – particularly in a tough economy. Continue reading

Interviewing: Step 2 – Plan for Success

To deliver a killer interview, you have to know what you are trying to say.

Like in my “know your audience” post, I want to make the point that you need to take some measure of control over the interview. Being interviewed is not simply a “call and response” pattern like in choral singing. If you let the interviewer assert complete control, then your odds of fully delivering your message go down.

So how do you plan effectively to maximize your chances of delivering?

Step 2 – Plan your message

Know what you are trying to communicate to the interviewer.

Remember that in any communication you are trying to convince me of one thing. There may be a lot of detail, but in any well structured communication there is a main point. Continue reading

Interviewing: Step 1 – Know Your Audience to Win the Job

This is the second of a multi-part interviewing series. As usual it’s going to run longer than I thought! As a friend and mentor taught me; everything takes pi times longer than you think.

Too many people I have interviewed and coach see the interview as something dictated by the interviewer – to whom they simply respond when prompted with a question like Pavlov’s dog; question stimulus, scripted answer response (hopefully you don’t drool).

I completely disagree with this perspective. You are looking to make an impression and cut through the clutter – to be memorable (in a good way). You need to assert a degree of control to make sure you deliver your message.

So how do you be Goldilocks and assert just the right amount of control to impress and communicate your message without seeming to try and take over?

Step 1: Know your interviewer (or at least make some smart assumptions)

I don’t care what the context; the first step in planning any communication is to know your audience. Who are they? What are their motivations and interests? How will I look to them on paper? Continue reading

Interviewing: Digging Deeper to Explain What You Did

In an earlier post I wrote about interviewing basics. I emphasized a high level approach that generally leads to success.  I’m going to dig into some specific areas in the coming weeks.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews as a hiring manager at several firms and a mentor at the Carlson School. One of the consistent differentiators in “behavioral interviews” (Those are the ones that ask questions like; “Tell me about a time when you had to…”) is a candidate’s ability to not just get through the facts of their resume, but to show depth of knowledge, judgment and professional maturity.

I’m looking for you to consistently show that you: 

1) Understand what you did – What actions did you take? Why? What was your rationale?

2) Get what did or didn’t work – What happened? This will vary widely by question and example. What went well or poorly? Why?

3) Have continued good practices or improved weaknesses (if necessary) – What have you changed since? What have you continued that worked? I don’t expect you to have succeeded at everything, but I do expect you to learn.

I often come back to two examples in my career that stick out. The first is the person who couldn’t articulate what must have been deep experience and the second spun gold from thin experience. Continue reading

Job Search “Stall Points”

Searches are difficult things. It’s rare for your first opportunity to be exciting and the target to fall in love with you. If your search persists and things aren’t going as you might have hoped, it’s time to assess where you really are in your search. It’s important to be brutally honest with yourself.

My advice is to treat this like a consulting/performance improvement project. If the goal is “satisfying employment” then:

0 – Be honest with yourself and get feedback

More specific advice to follow, but if you don’t really want to improve, don’t waste everyone else’s time. Also – don’t delude yourself about how much effort this takes.

Example – I’ll have students say they’re networking and then tell me they talked to 2 people this week and sent 3 emails. That’s not really “putting your shoulder into it” in my opinion.

It’s hard and emotionally draining. But you have to do it if you want to get better and break through.

1 – Break down the process into its phases

It will resemble a sales funnel or pipeline:

For sales it looks like:

Leads > Opportunities/Qualified Leads > Quotes/Proposals > Deals

Adapted for job search we can think of it as:

Connections > Opportunities & Support > Interviews > Offers

Connections can be defined as “how many people have you reached out to or had preliminary contact with?” This is the front end of your pipeline. You need to have a reasonable amount of activity here or the rest won’t matter.

Opportunities & Support is “how many people are you actually getting meetings, calls or tangible support from?” I am being intentionally vague. I’ll count an email, phone call, cup of coffee. Anything that represents meaningful contact from your end qualifies.

You could break this into two categories if you wanted to: “how many met with me?” vs. “how many took action on my behalf?”

I just had someone observe how differently people have treated them during their search process. Someone that week had offered lots of advice, but almost shut down when asked for introductions to others in their network. Other have been incredibly gracious at opening doors.

Interviews seem self-explanatory. Usually you’ll know them when you see them. There may be times when “informational interviews” turn into job interviews. Good for you. Count it. It means they were impressed and moved you through several phases in a few minutes.

Offers are exciting. You’ll know when you get one. 🙂

Take the time to quantify and qualify how much activity you’re having at each gate. How formal you want to be is up to you, but the better data you bother to collect the more potential insight you may have into challenges.

2 – Assess where your biggest challenge is

2a. This comes down to prioritizing issues. You can’t solve too many things at once, so how do you knock off your most important obstacle(s)? Well, it’s important to know what they are.

Focus on what matters. I have a lot of people ask me for resume feedback. I usually ask “are you getting meetings and interviews?” If yes, your resume is good enough. It’s a piece of marketing communication about yourself. If you’re cutting through the clutter and getting access to people, it may not be the best place to invest time.

(Personal opinion – some folks obsess waayyy too much about resumes. Beyond where it’s useful. I always wonder is their thought process “I can’t break through it must be my resume!” Well maybe…)

Let’s look at a sampling of potential issues you face at each gate.

Gate Connections Opportunities & Support Interviews Offers
Issues Existing network


Cover Letter




Telling your story

Ability to gain and leverage support

Existing network




Telling your story

 Internal Support/ Connections

Being the best candidate

Being the least risky candidate

Demonstrating “fit”

Willingness to move


Based on how far you’re getting in the pipeline, you have a rough diagnosis of where to spend your time.

2b. You’ll need to dig into specifics at this point.

I won’t go into too much depth here, as this could be a book topic, but below are a few examples of how you might assess yourself.

Connections Phase problems are often about lack or effort (too few connections) or poor handling of potential connections (resume, cover letter, positioning, relevance).

Failing to turn connections into potential opportunities for either interviews or tangible support can result from bad technique on informational interviews, genuine poor fit in an industry or role you are targeting, lack of professionalism and a host of other causes.

Stalling out in the interview phase for example could be the result of a number of things. Are you making a good impression? Are you prepared with a good sense of the organization and their needs? What kind of interviews are you getting – are they ones where you’re likely to shine?

Not breaking through to offers could be a problem with your positioning, your story, lack of conviction in interest, inability to demonstrate what people saw on paper, not convincing them that you’ll move, seeming a poor “fit”. Any of these could be the issue.

Example 1: I have interviewed hundreds of people for a variety of jobs in consulting, general management, non-profit and public sector organizations. I was recently on a committee where, after a long interview, we all looked at each other and wondered if that was the same person we saw on paper. The candidate was nice enough, but was unable to articulate much of what had been committed to print in resume and cover letter.  Needless to say, they didn’t get an offer.

Takeaway: Project the professional presence and appropriate level of managerial thinking.

Example 2: When I led recruiting for a corporate staff group at 3M, I would ask candidates where else they were looking. When they told me strategy consulting firms, I dropped them as poor “fit”. We were really different and they would have either A) not taken our offer if they got the other or B) taken ours if they didn’t get the other. Either way, my firm was on the short end so we were pretty clear about our hiring targets.

Take-away: Understand what your target organizations are looking for.

So get feedback where you can and be honest with yourself where you can’t.

3 – Attack it!

Not to oversimplify, but get after the issue. If it’s interviewing, find friends who can give good feedback based on relevant experience. Hire a coach if you need to. (I’d be careful here, as feedback is very often non-specific or overly formulaic. Get a good recommendation from someone you respect.)

For example – On resume’s I have different feedback than lots of folks, but I’ve also been a hiring manager in several organizations. I can give you a pretty good idea what a University, F500 Manufacturer or Management Consulting firm is looking for. When we get into Banking, I’m “ok”, but I direct people to colleagues with far more direct expertise.  

Build a measureable plan and timeline with specific steps to track. Without this, most of us flounder. Find a friend or colleague you trust to bring into your process and get them to help you commit be holding you accountable.

4 – Reassess after a period

Based on progress, determine if you’ve really knocked down the issue and can move on or need to keep grinding.

The upside is that once you get better, you can put it into maintenance mode. You don’t forget things you’ve learned. You may need a little sharpening at times, but once learned many of these skills are long-term assets.

None of this is easy, by the way. But you have to keep at it if you want to be happy with your career.