October 18, 2017

You Have to Want the Question

One of my clients is interviewing for a bigger job and he asked me to help him prepare for his interviews. As an aside, it’s gratifying for me to see someone I have been working with be recognized for her/his expertise and accomplishments and get considered for a bigger role.

I gave him a long list of typical interview questions and asked him to find the 5-7 questions that he would sell his first born child to not have to answer. The first question he picked was about a past position that he only held for 7 months. Truth is, he got fired.

I role-played the interviewer and asked him why he was only at XYZ company for seven months. If he could have crawled out of his skin he would have. As he tried to answer, his eyes…not metaphorically, actually…rolled around in a circle looking all around me but not at me…like he was trying to read my aura. Even though my client had a reasonable story, he was all over the place trying to obnubilate a less than shiny event from his past. .

For better or worse, I have never been one of those coaches that asks a lot of questions and tries to gently lead his clients to their own insights. I looked right at him and said, “Your answer sucked and it is going to continue to suck until you want the question.”

“Your answer sucked and it is going to continue to suck until you want the question.”

My bedside manner aside, how could you possibly want a question about a significant blemish in your track record? Or how could you want other tough questions about gaps in your experience given the requirements of the job? Or about leaving a plum job at a prestigious company because you decided you wanted to follow Phish around the country for a few years? I’ll address how you can get to a point where you want questions like this in just a moment.

First, the why: why do you need to want the question? If you walk into an interview with questions you hope you don’t get asked, your trepidation is going to keep you from projecting confidence. A good interviewer will smell it and poke around to try to figure out where the rot is. If s/he does ask one of the dreaded questions, you are likely to start “double signaling” which means your words and your tone and body language are sending different messages…just as they were during the role play with my client. Even with great answers to the other questions, your diffidence will be palpable, which will dramatically reduce your chances of getting the job. Most companies I know are looking for confident leaders who others want to follow.

It is like the image at the top of this article. If you play baseball, hate curve balls, and struggle to hit them, all the scouting reports will show that. You can count on seeing a steady diet of curve balls until you prove you can hit them. The only way that is going to happen is to force yourself to hit a disproportionate share of curve balls in practice until you not only don’t fear them, you hope they pitch one to you because you know you will crush it.

There are two big reasons why questions about a “less than perfect” track record cause someone discomfort in an interview. Sure there are nuances for each person and situation, but it basically boils down to this: 1) you have some mental model that says all the other candidates and everyone already working for this company are perfect and bullet-proof and that is all they will hire, and 2) you have not sufficiently processed the disappointing experience, figured out what you learned from it, and consciously applied those lessons in subsequent positions.

I am not going to spend too much time on the first one. They could be out there, but I have never seen interviewers or companies looking for perfection. What they are looking for are relevant experiences and diverse problem solving backgrounds. They are also looking for candidates that can “take a punch,” people with resiliency who can get up, apply the lessons learned, and come back stronger.

I would suggest that this “having to be perfect” is your mental model and in my view, the sooner you can switch what you think companies want from perfection to learning, growing, and applying the lessons of experience, the better off you will be.

But the biggest reason I find that candidates are afraid of certain interview questions is that they have not fully processed the disappointing outcome. “Processing” is a popular word with psychologists and coaches, but it means something very specific here. You have processed the event you are less than proud of when 1) you have owned your part of the problem, 2) you have a written list of lessons learned…not a set of lessons you have thought about, but an actual written list, and 3) you have to have altered your leadership approach to integrate those lessons.

Own your Part. When things go sideways, there are dozens of causal arrows that are simply impossible to fully untangle. Yes your boss wasn’t giving you the air cover you needed; yes there were problems with the suppliers; yes the economy changed, and on and on. Those are all true, but completely irrelevant to fully integrating the event.

You have to own your part. Go back to the beginning and look at the choices you made. What you did and didn’t do. Where you invested your time and where you didn’t. Relationship deposits you made and didn’t make. Candid conversations you had and didn’t have. Take 100% responsibility and own your part: your actions and inaction. No excuses.

Make a List of Lessons Learned. Write down what you learned. What could you have done differently that might have produced a different outcome? What would you do differently if you found yourself in similar situation?

First, it has to be written down. You can’t think about it while you are on the tarmac or on a walk and say, “Ya, probably should have taken a right there instead of that left.” You have to write down what you leaned and what adjustments to your leadership approach could have resulted in different outcomes.

One caution here, however: be careful about being too hard on your decision making. This is a probably a whole article unto itself, but you have to separate your decision process and how you made it, from the outcome of the decision. You can make a perfectly fine decision based on the data at hand and post-decision events can still take everything south.

The poor outcome does not mean you should make a different decision when you face the same circumstances with the same set of data in the future. The decision could have been the right choice given what you knew, but there are lots of forces, visible and invisible, that affect outcomes. By all means examine the choices you made with the data you had, but be careful about deciding you need to do something completely differently in the future.

Let Your Lessons Learned List Change How You Lead. Based on what you learned, how are you going to lead differently? Are you going to prepare differently? Will you debrief events differently? Will you manage your team differently? Motivate differently? Set different standards? Follow-up in different ways? Until you are a different leader as a direct result of that experience, you have not fully processed and integrated the setback.

Until you are a different leader as a direct result of that experience, you have not fully processed and integrated the setback.

Once you fully process the event, here is where you will be: The results from something you were working on did not measure up, you drew lessons from the experience and adjusted your leadership approach, and you are a demonstrably better leader as a result.

How could you not want the question? The question went from something to recoil from to a fat pitch over the middle of the plate.

With those three steps, you not only have a way to process the disappointing experience, you also have a way of answering the interviewer’s question. For example, without mincing words, tell the interviewer you got fired. Then say there were a lot of factors that lead to that, but here are three or four areas where I needed to be better and handle things differently. Finally, tell the interviewer how you are now leading differently and the different results you are achieving.

Whatever the outcome of the interview is, you will leave a strong impression. In my experience, only big leaders can own their mistakes and talk clearly and succinctly about their learning and insights.

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