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The Single Most Incorrectly Answered Interview Question

Every career professional has an opinion about the do’s and don’ts of interviewing and how to interview effectively. I frequently see terrible advice from people giving job and interview coaching and have to wonder where, or even if, these people had any training in this subject matter.

I saw a video in 2016 that was linked to a group I belong to that gave some of, what I believe is, the worst advice to the most misused and misunderstood question asked in an interview. Throughout the 30 years I’ve been coaching professionals on interviewing one thing has remained constant. When I ask how they answer the question, “Tell me a little bit about yourself”, 95% of my candidates/clients launch into a prepared answer similar to what was said in the video I referred to above. The people I’ve worked with over the years range from young salespeople earning 125K/yr to executives earning in excess of 1M/year. I find this issue very interesting. Many people I coach have spent time in some professional sales capacity and should know exactly how to answer this interview question. This troubled me for a long time until I realized that these pros are so good that they often go on automatic pilot in an interview and forget their “Sales 101 Basics”.

So let’s review the most basic tenet of “Sales 101”. When asked an “open-ended” question how should it always (I don’t use “always” lightly) be answered? With another question that qualifies the first question. For example, in the case of “Tell me a bit about yourself”, the only correct and safe response is “I’d love to. Where would you like me to begin?”, or something similar. Answering this trip up question in any other way has the candidate assuming what the interviewer wants to hear. Do I even need to talk about the word “assume” and its dangers? I hope not, but would be happy to if someone wants further clarification.

In the video I mention the author says, “They don’t want to hear about (he goes into a litany of personal items). They want to get a feel about your skills, your experience…”. Additionally, he says “You can be pretty sure they want to hear about…”. Is this guy omniscient? I doubt it. How can he profess to “know” what’s in someone else’s head? If I’m in an interview I don’t want to be “pretty sure” about what the interviewer wants to hear. I want to be completely clear about what the interviewer wants and needs to hear such that I rise above all the other candidates. You may be better served by asking a second qualifier like:

“How far would you like me to go back?”
“Would you like me to cover my professional progression?”, or
“Are there any specific topics regarding this position that I may focus on to better answer your question?”
Of course, if the interviewer wants to hear about your professional background then you can launch into your 90-second prepared speech. I would caution however that even your prepared speech may not be what the interviewer is looking for, so make sure you qualify until you can provide the interviewer with an answer to the question he/she is really asking. An example of this might be the interviewer responding to your question by saying, “Tell me about your professional job history.” We teach our clients to thoroughly research each company prior to the interview so that when an employer asks you about your professional job history your past experience will align with the potential employer’s corporate culture and goals.

One final note that I’ll cover in-depth in another post is how a company’s interview strategy would further debunk the author’s advice. When we take on a client for Visibility, Talent-Centric Organization offering, I put together a list of Behavioral Based questions that specifically address the skill and culture fit of the candidates we’ve determined they need to hire to be successful within each type of role. It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify in advance what’s important to the employer if they are interviewing using this tried and true technique to predict the future performance of the candidate in which they hire.

Some of the dialogue from this post is on LinkedIn. The following is a list of responses from these groups not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but to illustrate what other hiring managers think:

Carol, you are right on with your assessment! I believe two elements of consultative selling are applicable to the interview question you wrote about in your blog: 1. Seek first to understand before being understood.
2. Prescription without diagnosis equals malpractice.
Posted by Tom Mangini

Well done, Carol. Earlier in my career, I worked for a large outplacement firm that was always right. I was caught giving the same advice as you; answer the open probe with a question. My manager set me straight immediately.
Posted by Dennis Tarrant

Yes Carol, as the interviewer I hear the blah blah blah coming. If I am hiring salespeople I would expect a conversation and probing from them, not information dumping. If they do, what are they going to do with the potential customers? The answer on the video would send up red flags for me hiring sales professionals and would create concern about communications ability in other positions.
Posted by Harlan Goerger

I could not agree more. I often ask this question and I am actually looking for the candidate’s approach to handling the question. When I interview, I often care more about the way he/she handles questions than I do the content. Another question I ask is: Tell me about a major challenge you faced in your life and how you responded. The most important thing I am actually looking for is what they view as a major challenge. Secondly, I want to understand how they responded. The really good candidates will, of course, ask me to qualify before answering. They will ask if I am interested in a professional or personal challenge. Asking these qualifying questions is a strength, not a weakness!

Posted by Kevin Lynch

Hello Carol,
Very good article and well-placed comments from all of you. Tom your comments are very essential and to the point!
Posted by stamatis alamaniotis

I like the idea of clarifying the question so you know you are providing the answer they are interested in. Another tip that I once read was as early as possible in the interview ask about the qualities and skills required to do well in a position. That allows you to highlight your fit for the position.
Posted by Michael Black

This was a great article. Thanks for the link.
When recruiting professionals in the past I’ve found that by asking something along the lines of “What do you know about our company?” you get a good idea of how much (or little) effort the candidate has put into their preparation and research for the interview.

I stopped being surprised at the sheer volume of people whose main response was “I had a look at your website” and left it at that.

While the website is a resource, it will not give the whole story. Current relevant items in the news and major recent activity of the organization are also important.

If the website is the candidate’s only research, then that gives an indication as to how well they might be prepared for actually working within that organization. And these days you need professionals who are willing to dig deeper than a 2-minute flick through the company’s own PR.

Posted by Hala Thompson

Every company I’ve ever had a face-to-face with has asked “What do you know about our company”. To me, this is a given as to how interested you are in the company. I’ve also interviewed with people who probably couldn’t tell you much.

I think bottom line is that your knowledge of the company and what you can bring to them to benefit their bottom line as well as your enthusiasm, skill base, and education is what gets you in the door. If you interview face to face or by phone then include a personality fit as well.

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