In an exclusive excerpt from Strategize To Win (Hudson Steeet Press, $29.95), trailblazing Wall Street executive Carla A. Harris offers her signature pearls of wisdom on seizing the moment that often makes or breaks a potential career breakthrough: The job interview.
Whether you are just starting out or have been working for several years and making a change, typically, the first question asked in most interviews is "Tell me about yourself." In this question you have the perfect opportunity to sell the interviewer on those attributes that they're seeking to buy. Here you have the chance to lay the foundation and send the message that you are the best person for the job. Unfortunately though, I find this is the principal place where people torpedo the interview—before they've barely even gotten started.
IN TELLING YOUR STORY, YOU SHOULD BE PREPARED WITH THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS IN MIND:
1. What is the buyer really buying in trying to acquire a candidate? What are the key success factors for the job?
2. In telling my story, where am I going to start? Am I going back to childhood; is that relevant? Should I talk about where I am from? Should I start at college and move forward?
3. How am I going to integrate the key success factors into the messages that I communicate about who I am?
Now, let's continue on with how to position yourself for success by reviewing answers to some of the other basic questions you will be asked in those first interviews. As you progress toward getting the job, remember, you want to craft your answers to each question so that you sell that you have at least one of the important attributes for the job.
WHY ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THIS POSITION?
This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you understand what the position is, how it fits into the company, its strategy and why it makes sense for you to have this role at this stage of your career. This is also your chance to show that you have done your homework on the company and have a genuine interest in being a part of the team. Your answer should speak to how you became interested in the functional expertise required for the job (in the above case, how you became interested in sales).
WHY SHOULD WE HIRE YOU?
This question allows you to convince the interviewer that Your Fit with the company is right. If you've been able to convince the interviewer that Your CAN DO and Your WILL DO will be assets for the job, then you should answer this question by aligning your characteristics with the company attributes that you have uncovered in your research.
For example, if the company you are applying to prides itself on developing its people, emphasizes teamwork and is very focused on execution, your answer should focus on those attributes: "I believe you should hire me because I have the skills and experiences that will allow me to add value in a very short period of time and quickly become a very effective member of the sales team. In addition, I believe that I will easily fit in with the firm's culture of teamwork and excellence in execution, as I have historically been very successful in working in groups and integrating myself quickly, as evidenced by job offers following my internships. I also believe wholeheartedly in sharing information and developing others around me and welcome others' offers to invest in me."
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT A MISTAKE THAT YOU MADE?
Many people fail to prepare for this question before they begin an interview and therefore don't answer it properly. When an interviewer asks you this question, he or she is trying to:
1. assess your judgment (what story you will choose to tell);
2. understand what lessons you've learned; and 3. determine how you recovered from the mistake.
None of us is perfect. If you are alive, you have made mistakes. The answer you give for this question should send the message that you are thoughtful, reflective, have good judgment and are not prone to repeating mistakes.
For example, when I was interviewing for a job on Wall Street and was asked this question, I gave an example of a scenario from early in my career. One of my bosses asked me to complete an assignment. While I wasn't quite sure what he was asking me to do, I decided that I should not ask for further clarification because I thought he expected me to figure it out. I was afraid that asking a lot of questions about the assignment would show that I was not very smart.
The assignment was due in five days. Luckily for me, I turned it in in four days, only to find out that it was completely wrong! I had misunderstood his directive. The boss made a big, loud deal about my error. In his ranting and raving, I understood what he really wanted. I left the meeting and proceeded to stay up all night to remedy my mistake, and was able to turn in most of what he wanted the next day. Luckily, all was not completely lost.
The lesson that I learned? Don't ever walk away from someone giving you an assignment without a complete understanding of what they are asking you to do. It does not diminish your talents to ask questions. In fact, by asking questions you create a perception that you intend to deliver on the assignment because you want to make sure that you fully understand what is being asked of you. It's also a good habit to repeat back what you think you heard them say, so that both of you understand that YOU are clear on the assignment that is being asked of you.
WHAT ARE YOUR WEAKNESSES?
This question is fraught with opportunities to sink an interview. You should never answer this question with weaknesses that are consistent with the key success factors of the job that you are trying to obtain. When asked this question, I articulate some skill that I am currently working to improve that has nothing to do with the job I am interviewing for. For example, I am currently working to improve my golf game and I am currently working to free up extra time to write. The question is "What is your weakness?" which means any weakness is fair game to discuss. You don't have to point out a weakness that is related to work. If the interviewer really pushes you to give a work-related example, then you can say, "I tend to spend extra time at the margin, going over and over an assignment, when I have already determined that it is right."
DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS FOR ME?
When an interviewer asks you this question, it is very important that you have an answer. Many candidates make the mistake of saying that they have no questions at the end of an interview. What this does is communicate to the interviewer that you are so nervous that you just want to get it over with, you are unprepared for the question or you are not really interested in working for the company.
If you have done your homework on the company and prepared for the questions asked of you, here are two of my favorite questions to ask at the end of the meeting:
1. Can you please give me the profile of someone who does really well at the company? 2. Can you give me the profile of someone who does not do well at the company?
The answers to these questions will help you decide if you have the attributes, demeanor and skills to fit in and do well. The interviewer is likely to share adjectives that are associated with success for the job and in the company. This is important information for you. It will give you an idea of what you must do to create that same perception about you. Furthermore, the answer to the second question of someone who does not fit in will give you a good idea of the behaviors you should avoid so you don't set yourself up for failure.
OTHER QUESTIONS YOU MIGHT WANT TO ASK WHEN THE INTERVIEW CONCLUDES:
1. How did you make the decision to join this company?
2. What were the three most important questions that you asked of yourself when you made that decision, and how would those questions be different if you were asking them today?
3. What are the company's two biggest challenges over the next 12 to 24 months?
4. What is the biggest investment that the company will undertake in the next 12 months?
5. Who or what is the biggest competitive threat to the company?
This article was originally featured in the December 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.