What’s your weakness?

This question has become a staple at interviews and most people feel they’ve crafted the perfect response to this question.

Your interviewer asks you for your weakness.  You tell him/her, “I’m a perfectionist.  I just  have this INNATE need to make sure my job is done PERFECTLY well.  I can’t leave until that has been achieved.”  You imagine your interviewer is pleased with your dedication to getting the job done and proceed to ask about benefits and vacation time.

Employers ask this question because they want to know if you can evaluate yourself and if you’re able to generate a plan towards improvement.  We’d all like to believe that we are rockstars at what we do but the reality is that there must be an area where we struggle and we should be able to recognize that area and figure out how to improve it.  The days of advising the positive trait disguised as a weakness are done.

Employers want to know that you’re working towards becoming a better employee.  Do you have difficulty delegating tasks?  What are you doing to correct that?  Do you take on too many tasks or are unable to say “no”?  How are you fixing that?  As an interviewer i’m not going to fault you for having a weakness, you’re human, we aren’t perfect.

I can’t speak for all organizations but I know that all of the orgs that I have worked for check references and we ask former supervisors about the candidate’s weakness.  This also lets us know if you are truly aware of your skill and performance.  If I ask you about your weakness and you tell me that you’re a perfectionist but I ask your supervisor and she says that you take on too much and have difficulty meeting deadlines, I’ll be concerned.  If you were to tell me that you take on too much but have learned to re-prioritize and communicate with your supervisor regarding  updating deadlines (citing a recent example), I’d be less concerned because you’re able to identify an area where you need improvement and it’s in line with what other people see when they evaluate you.

It might not seem like an important skill to have but being able to honestly reflect on your performance, recognize your weaknesses, and construct a plan towards improvement is the marker of a knowledgeable worker that will always strive to do better.  This is the person that gets an offer, not the “perfectionist.”

On a sidenote, the weakness conversation is not the time to be super candid about things that make you seem unprofessional, i.e.

“I can’t get to work on time.”  Yes, I actually heard that. Set multiple alarm clocks and get yourself to work on time.  Some places are more lenient than others but you can’t start off the job waltzing in 15 minutes late (or implying that you would).  

“I don’t like taking direction. I prefer to work independently.”  Yup, heard that too.  No one likes to be micro-managed but unless you’re working for yourself, at some point someone will be giving you some type of direction and you need to be able to deal with that.  

Also not a good time to mention weaknesses that are essential parts of the job, “I can’t juggle multiple projects (but i’m applying to a project manager position).”  If you find that essential parts of the job are areas within which you have significant deficiencies, perhaps you should look at a different position.

 

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Pre-Interview Prep

Congrats!  You’ve received a call back and are scheduled for an interview.  What should you do now?

1.Return their call/email right away to schedule your interview. Right away doesn’t mean immediately 2 seconds after they contacted you but it should be the same day if possible.  Confirm date, time, location, and person(s) you are meeting once you connect.

2. Start your research.  Research the organization/company, the person/people you’re meeting, and any current events that pertain to the organization/company.  My very first interview out of college my interviewer asked me if I had seen the organization in the news recently.  Before the interview I went over the website but blatantly missed the section on press releases.  When I said no, he made a face and told me about the story that featured the org that was all over the news.

3. Review the job posting and know what the job requires backwards and forwards. Sometimes they’ll ask you to tell them about the job to see if you have a good grasp of the position.  If you fully understand all aspects of the position you can better articulate why you’ll be a good fit.

4. Review your resume.  Make sure you know what you’ve written.  It seems silly but sometimes people don’t remember what they’ve listed on their resume.   In the midst of a job search, when was the last time you actually read not skimmed  your resume?  Going over your resume will also allow you to identify and develop answers for any red flags. Do you have gaps?  Why was the length of time at that last position so short? Did you take a pay cut/demotion?

5. Get directions to your interview location and figure out travel time.  If possible print up alternate directions because you never know what can happen the day of.  If the location is unfamiliar, don’t feel shy about asking the person who’s scheduling your interview for directions.   Decide what time you need to leave and leave about half an hour earlier than that.  Lateness can lead to no interview or an interview where the employer has already decided they won’t consider you.  If you get there early, walk around for a bit until you have about 15 mins before your interview time.   Too early isn’t good either because they’re not ready for you yet.  Use that extra time to calm yourself down.

6. Make sure your suit is ready to go.  Yes your suit. Every adult should own at least 1 full suit.  Business dress varies by sector but that’s after you have the job.  No one will fault you for wearing a suit to an interview but there’s a chance that someone will fault you for not wearing a suit.

7. Print out copies of your resume if possible on resume paper.  When you get to your interview someone might ask you if you have a copy of your resume.  Most of the time they have your resume already, they just want to know if you came prepared.  Other times you might meet with someone else that hasn’t had time to review your materials.

8. Think of some questions to ask.  These questions shouldn’t be general information that can be found on the website.  They should deal more with the culture of the org, the goals for that program, the goals for your prospective supervisor etc.    You want your interviewer to know that you are engaged and interested.  If you really can’t think of anything at least ask them what is their time-frame for hiring for the position  and what are the next steps.

9. Practice your pitch (tell me about yourself) and some basic interview questions.  What are your major strengths?  What are your weaknesses?  A weakness is something that you have trouble with but are working to improve. “I have difficulty waking up on time for work” is not a good weakness (Yes, someone actually said this to me).   I like to “interview” in front of the mirror so that I can see what I’m doing with my hands and  faces when i’m describing something.

10. Get some rest!  You’re nervous and excited but try to get some rest.  You’ll do much better fully rested than if you’re up all night trying to prepare.

Cocky vs. Confident

At some point during your job search (or life in general) someone has told you that you need to be confident.  If you’re confident in your abilities you can convince others that you’re a walking ball of skills and education fit for whatever position you choose. Unfortunately the line between cocky and confident has become muddled.  What should be an assertive pitch reaffirming why you’re a good fit has become a condescending brag-fest.

A few years ago I had a young client that used cocky and confident interchangeably.  Some of it had to do with the tone that he used when he talked about himself and his experience.  The bulk of it had to do with his inflated sense of self that could not be backed up with an achievement or tangible skill.  His pitch was that he should be able to command 60K per year because he was management material.  Not a past manager, his point was that he had the potential to be a manager.  He didn’t have a bachelor’s degree and didn’t have any management experience but wanted an “office job” where he would be a supervisor.  We tried to work with him and suggested starting off as an admin, learning the ropes, etc.  He declined because he felt he was management material and wouldn’t accept anything less.

I admire the gusto and focus on an end goal but it’s also important to be realistic.  If you have a condescending tone and start demanding a position or salary that you are not qualified for without any type of back up to prove why you should even be considered, you do not come off as confident.  That’s kind of like walking into college orientation the first day and saying, “I want my diploma now.  I know that I will do great here so let’s just cut out middle man and send me off to graduation with a diploma in hand.”

Your goal is to highlight your accomplishments and relate them back to what you can do for the company/organization.  You want your interviewer to be impressed with what you’ve achieved but also to think about what kind of contribution you can make to them. It isn’t just an opportunity to talk about all the awards you’ve won, or promotions you’ve received.  What do these accomplishments really say about you as a worker?  What do they say about your commitment to service and advancing the company’s/organization’s goal collectively?

Go over your elevator pitch and practice questions with an (honest) friend or spouse and ask them to rate you on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being cocky and 10 being confident.   People hire other people that they like.  Even in ultra-competitive fields where cockiness is seen as an attribute, no one is hiring you if they don’t like you initially.

Tell Me About Yourself…

Probably the most difficult question to answer.

Most interviews will begin with, “tell me about yourself and what brings you here today,” or some variation of that statement.  This is your opportunity to intrigue your interviewer with your personal elevator pitch.  It’s an opportunity to focus the interviewer on your strengths and successes and to make them think about what kind of impact you could possibly have within their organization.  It is not the time to discuss your favorite pastime or random hobby. (One person told me about their love of “hanging out” and dancing then asked what I wanted to know).  It’s a great time to highlight important information. The employer wants to know what you deem as important information.

Ideally your pitch should be about 30-60 seconds long. Too short – what did you really tell your interviewer, too long – did you lose them along the way?   It should effectively summarize the pertinent strengths that you possess and relevant accomplishment. You want to sound confident and composed so take time developing and practicing your pitch.

Where to start

Your pitch is specific to you and will sound the most authentic coming directly from you but here’s a roadmap to help get you started (feel free to tweak and adjust as necessary):

1. Most recent degree and college information (mention what you studied, how it relates to your professional interests, specific skills learned or licenses acquired, etc.)

2. Previous jobs and accomplishments (mention relevant accomplishments achieved or skills learned that would make you a good fit for the position that you’re interested in).

3. Segue into current interest (link your previous experience with what you want to do now).

Example:  I graduated from XYZ University in 2009 with a Masters Degree in Social Work and earned my LMSW in 2010. My concentration in community organization, planning and administration provided a solid background in necessary management and leadership principles, advocacy, and program development.  As director of workforce development for ABC Settlement, I put my educational skills to practice and effectively designed a standardized evaluation program that allowed all program directors and senior management staff to have a realistic view of program performance in real-time.  From this project I realized I wanted to work on a tool that allowed an agency with multiple departments to evaluate each program individually against contract demands and collectively against each other; the senior program officer position and DEF Global seemed like the right fit to transition into this role.  

You want to sound authentic, not rehearsed.  Draft your pitch and practice. Practice it in front of a mirror then practice in front of a friend.  Practice until you feel comfortable.

When you’re called for an interview, the employer is about 75% sure that they could offer you a position.  The actual interview is your time to alleviate any fears and affirm to them that you are most certainly the right candidate for the position.   The best way to do this is to start the interview with a confident, composed highlight reel of your past experience that will make them think of how great of a job you will do for their company if hired.