Tell me about yourself

Very often the first question that an employer will ask in a job interview is “So, can tell me about yourself?” (or words to that effect). The way that this question is answered sets the tone for the entire interview. Unfortunately, many inexperienced interviewees answer in such a way that puts them immediately out of contention. They essentially just recite the information contained in their resumes, with which the interviewer is already familiar. That may suggest that they have some combination of timidness, lack of imagination, or cluelessness.

I coach my clients to respond by beginning with a little (I emphasize LITTLE) personal information: “I was born in Lima, Ohio and had a pretty typical childhood until I went out-of-state to George Washington here in DC, where I decided to major in finance, primarily due to an awesome professor I had freshman year. I was lucky enough to land a summer internship at Bank of America two years later, and that really hooked me.” Then I suggest that they pivot the conversation to what the interviewer really wants to know: “Is this a person we should hire?” The pivot can be accomplished smoothly by saying something along the lines of “But let me tell you what I think it’s most important for you to know about me.” And here’s where a version of the “elevator speech” comes in; stating the key talking points that align with the job specs. I say a version of the elevator speech because the pitch needs to be tailored to what the employer needs. This is where the concept of “personal branding” can cause trouble, because the interviewee may focus too much on repeating selling points that may be appropriate in a general networking situation but not sufficiently attuned to the job being sought.

The pivot suggests boldness, initiative, and efficiency: a no-nonsense approach that is pretty much universally valued. 

You will want to be sure that, to the degree possible you cite specific results. This may not necessarily involve numbers – though that would be ideal (e.g. “I landed $2.3 M worth of business) but should at least be somewhat detailed (e.g. “I was a key contributor to the decision to refine our target customer to CIOs of companies rather than COOs.”

Except in entry-level kinds of situations, don’t just talk about what you managed or were responsible for in your work history. Anyone, good or bad, who holds a particular position can claim with equal validity that they managed or were responsible for something(s)/someone(s). Talk about end results, achievements, accomplishments, demonstrating the value that you’ve created in previous jobs. And then make it clear how those past actions predict positive contributions to your prospective employer.

People who work in occupations where quantitatively measuring accomplishments is difficult or impossible (for example in the fields of art or psychology),  might consider highlighting some of the more relevant qualities below; some of these may also be relevant in almost any interviewing context, but again focusing your answers on what the employer is looking for.

Leadership – Inspiring and influencing others to accomplish a common goal. Efficiency – Able to create tangible results with limited resources

Honesty / Integrity!- Doing what is right, not simply expedient. Earning trust and maintaining confidences. Avoiding ethical shortcuts.

Organization and Planning – Defining and focusing on key priorities. Planning, organizing, scheduling, and budgeting in an efficient, productive manner.

Aggressiveness – Able to move quickly and take a forceful stand without unduly antagonizing others.

Intelligence – Learning quickly; demonstrating the ability to apply information from one context to another.

Analytical skills – Able to structure and process data and draw insightful conclusions from it. Exhibiting a probing mind which achieves penetrating insights.

Creativity – Generating new and innovative ways of looking at, and solving, problems.

Attention to detail – Not letting important details slip through the cracks and derail projects.

Persistence – Demonstrating tenacity and willingness to “go the distance” to get something done.

Initiative / Proactivity – Acting without being told what to do, bringing new ideas to the table.

Ability to hire/manage people – Able to identify and recruit “A” players; coaching people in their current roles to improve their performance so that they are able to become “A” players.

Calm under pressure – Maintaining stable performance when under heavy pressure or stress.

Flexibility / Adaptability – Adjusting comfortably to changing priorities and conditions. Coping effectively with complexity and change.

Strategic thinking/visioning – Able to see and communicate the “big picture” in an inspiring way. Identifying opportunities and threats through rigorous analysis of the environment and relevant trends.

Enthusiasm – Exhibiting passion and excitement about work; having a “can-do” attitude.

High standards – Expecting personal and team performance to be nothing less than superior.

Listening skills – Letting others speak; welcoming and seeking to understand their viewpoints.

Work ethic – Possessing a track record that demonstrates a strong willingness to work hard and sometimes devote long hours to getting the job done.

Openness to criticism and ideas – Willingness and openness to accept negative feedback. Open mindedness to considering alternative solutions to problems.

Teamwork – Reaching out to peers, smoothly cooperating with supervisors, and motivating subordinates.

Communication – Speaking and writing clearly, articulately, and concisely. Persuasion – Ability to convince others to pursue a course of action.

In addition to the primary issue of qualifications, a candidate’s likability is such a core component of a hiring decision that it is also important to try to inject an element that will ideally result in the interviewer connecting on a personal level. For example, after reciting your key qualifications it could be engaging to say something (with a sort of wink of the eye) like “Maybe not quite so important for you to know, but I’m a rabid Redskins fan,” something distinctive and therefore memorable.

                                                            What’s your greatest weakness?

An interview question that causes more consternation than just about any other is “What’s your greatest weakness?” Here are some suggestions that will help you give an outstanding answer:

A) Like all other aspects of a job search, tailor your response to the specific job you’re seeking.

Just like you shouldn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” resume, you shouldn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” weakness. If you’re interviewing for a job that’s heavily dependent on teamwork you probably don’t want to specify something like “I wish I were more comfortable asking for help.” If it’s a data-heavy job, “I sometimes rely too much on my gut” would be an inappropriate characteristic. And if the job involves supervising a number of people “difficulty in delegating” might not be the best choice to mention. Ideally, you should select a weakness whose antidote process speaks directly to the kind of strength that will be particularly valued by the employer. For example, if the job requires the processing of a large number of requests from multiple stakeholders you might mention “a difficulty with time management” while noting that the time management challenge has taught you a lot about setting priorities and establishing realistic deadlines.

B) Focus on a physical, rather than a personality or style, characteristic.

You might say “because I’m young-looking some people don’t take me as seriously as I deserve to be taken;” or “because I’m older some younger employees start off thinking that my ideas are dated;” or “because I have a somewhat high-pitched voice men tend to think I’m inexperienced.” The advantage of citing a physical characteristic and then describing steps you’ve taken to address it (e.g. if young-appearing “I dress a little more formally than I otherwise might,” if older “I pay particular attention to my dress and speech being contemporary”) shows you are able to make the most of the cards you’re dealt. That’s a quality all employers are going to value.

C) Cite a trait that is clearly able to be improved upon, vs. one that is more intractable.

“I’m not as comfortable with technology as I’d like to be” is obviously a weakness, but it’s also one that is easy to improve upon (e.g. “I’ve hired a tutor to teach me HTML; I’ve enrolled in a social media certification program”). Same with “I tend to get nervous when I need to speak in front of a group” (solution: “I’ve enrolled in Toastmasters and have already seen a difference in my confidence level). Contrast those weaknesses with ones related more to your basic personality, such as “I tend to be very impatient” or “I dislike confrontation” – weaknesses that would be a lot harder to convincingly improve upon.

A couple of additional points:

– Make sure you have an anecdote (an actual situation) that illustrates your weakness and the improvement that you claim to have made.

– Avoid the temptation to cite a weakness that is actually a strength in disguise. “I’m a perfectionist” can be easily flipped to the strength of turning out superior work, and “I sometimes sacrifice my personal life for my job” suggests an exceptional dedication to the employer,” but they’re clichéd responses that most interviewers will see right through.

Remember that the employer is probably looking less at which particular weakness you cite and more at your self-awareness and the process you’ve undertaken to address the weakness.


It’s the rare (and lucky) individual who will secure a job offer from the first interviews.  You may have to interview for many positions before you get the offer you want.  Use your unsuccessful interviewing experience to sharpen your presentation.  In particular, focus on whether you clearly and persuasively articulated your competencies AND whether you did a good job of explaining how they aligned with the specific challenges of the position.  There’s no more important task in selling yourself.


                                                                Don’t Get Lost in the Details

Almost invariably an interview will involve what is called behavioral questions, questions designed to learn how a potential employee will deal with challenging situations. Examples of these are : “Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with your boss and how you handled that;” “Tell me about a time you had to deliver a negative performance review to an employee;” “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client;” “Tell me about a time when you had to implement a decision unpopular with your team.”

You need to answer these kinds of questions with specific examples, but don’t neglect to articulate principles that you follow in addressing these situations. Your potential employer is less interested in how you handled a challenging situation in the past than in how you would handle it in the future, and that requires you to state your philosophy about the type of challenge if you will. For example, you might say “When I am involved in a situation that involves conflict I try to come at it with a few things in mind. First, I want to be a good listener and make sure I really understand where the other person is coming from. Second, I want to maintain a respectful, professional tone and demeanor. And third, I want to try to find a win-win solution. So here’s how I handled a situation like the one you just described……..”


Don’t bluff

If you can’t come up with a good answer to an interview question you’re better served by asking for a minute to think about the answer, or to ask if it’s OK to get back to them later with a response (“That’s a pretty challenging and complex question; would it be OK if I gave it some thought and got back to you with an answer later today?) rather than to come up with a poorly thought through response. There’s a good chance the interviewer will appreciate your honesty even if you’re unable to provide a smart answer.


Questions you should ask the interviewer:

When preparing for a job interview most of the effort goes into anticipating the questions that will be asked by the interviewer and preparing smart and persuasive answers. What is often neglected, however, is the importance of the questions that the interviewee should ask. The right questions will not only serve to impress the interviewer but will also enlighten the job seeker as to how good a fit the job might be for him/her. Here are six particularly good ones:

1) “Once I’m oriented to the basic responsibilities and people I will be working with, what will be the top two or three priorities for me, and how will my success in achieving them be measured?”

Most job descriptions list a wide variety of responsibilities for the prospective employee. This question seeks to narrow the list and identify what management will be most closely looking at in their new employee’s performance. You need to pay close attention to the answer to this question, as it will cut through the generalizations and clutter contained in most job descriptions. As for the measurements of success, they should ideally be as concrete and quantifiable as possible, rather than resting on the boss’  subjective evaluation.

2) “Relatedly, over the next year what ONE accomplishment would you be most impressed with?”

You should really understand the organization’s primary need as it relates to your performance. If your interviewer hesitates to pick one accomplishment, try phrasing the question in historical terms: “In years past, what kinds of accomplishments of people who’ve held this position have been most significant?”

3) “What are the most significant challenges I am likely to encounter in this position?”

The goal here is to try to uncover issues related to working relationships and/or organizational culture or resources. Pay very close attention to the way these questions are answered. It is unlikely that you are going to be told straight out that you will be working for a very difficult boss, or that Management doesn’t fully buy into the mission which the open position supports, or that there’s a “good old boy” culture that makes it tough for women to fit in, but tone-of-voice and body language can indicate whether the interviewer is feeling uncomfortable about answering this question. You should always seek corroboration from multiple sources (e.g. Glass Door reviews, talking with former employees) if you have concerns about the challenges you will face.

4) “What are the qualities that the most successful people in this position/organization possess?”

Here you are looking for more specificity than is generally indicated by such terms as “excellent interpersonal skills,” “exceptional organizational abilities,” “ability to multi-task,” etc. Try to find out what about the position or organization makes these qualities the ones that are especially valuable. For example, with proper questioning, you might learn that “excellent interpersonal skills” are required because of something like a historical rivalry between departments, or a troubled client relationship.

5) “How has this job evolved over the past few years? How do you see it evolving?”

I just like this question – I think it demonstrates to the interviewer that you are thinking beyond simply landing the job, and focusing as well on your longer-term prospects.

6) “Is there anything I’ve said, or that I haven’t said, in our talk today that leaves you with any significant doubts about my ability to succeed in this position / at this organization?” (Obviously, this is a question to be asked at the end of the interview).

This question has three aspects to recommend it. First, it expresses an interest in landing the job from a different stance than more standard passion-related or qualifications-related statements might (e.g. “I  would really love to work for your organization” or “I know I have what it takes to succeed here.”), so is a  potentially valuable supplement to those. Second, it demonstrates that you are open to hearing critical feedback. And third, it gives you an opportunity to address lingering doubts that the interviewer might have, but which might not be revealed if this question were not asked.

Panel Interviews

Often you’ll be interviewed by several people at once, a panel of interviewers. This can be particularly intimidating, but keep in mind that you are dealing first with individuals, rather than a group. Respond with good eye-to-eye contact, and try not to be rattled by bored or even disdainful looks by one of the panel members. It’s quite possible that they’re engaged in a “good cop/bad cop” scenario. If they are, it may be hard to decide on the proper tone of your responses: how lighthearted, for example. But always maintain a professional demeanor, even if the tone of the interview seems very informal. Another tip – if someone on the panel asks a question, try to refer to something another panel member said earlier, e.g. “As Marie said earlier, responsiveness is absolutely essential…..”