In episode 59 of the Graduate Job Podcast, I am re-joined on the show by John Lees, best-selling author, career coach and all-round career expert as we delve into his new book Knockout Interview, and explore how you can succeed in your graduate job interview. In this half hour we explore everything you need to know to succeed in a graduate job interview. We cover why you need to think about your goals of a job interview, and why focussing on the 4 key pieces of information that you want to get across could set you apart from everyone else. We delve into how to answer the classic job interview questions you will face, top tips for answering graduate competency questions, and the different frameworks you can use to answer them. If you have a telephone, face to face or panel interview coming up, then this is an episode which you aren’t going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss and a full transcript are available right this very moment in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/knockoutinterview. Before we start a quick request from me, your feedback helps me to create the episodes you want to hear, so I’ve set up a super simple and very quick survey, as I want the show to best serve your needs. It’s got 5 questions and will take you a minute, so please check it out at http://www.graduatejobpodcast.com/survey. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. But in the meantime, let’s crack on with the show.
MORE SPECIFICALLY IN THIS EPISODE YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- How to answer the key questions you will face in a graduate job interview
- Top tips for answering graduate competency questions
- Why you need to focus on the 4 key pieces of information you want to get across in the interview
- The psychological contract you are making in a job interview
- Why you need to think about the goals of a graduate job interviews
- How to answer the classic question about your biggest weakness
- The preparation needed to succeed in your job interview
SELECTED LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE:
- Knockout Interview – John’s knew book which we cover in this episode. Click on the image below to buy now on Amazon!
- How to Get a Job You Love – John’s classic book on how to find your perfect job. Click on the image below to buy now on Amazon!
- The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins – John’s book recommendation. Click on the image below to buy now on Amazon!
- Check out John’s website here for more information about his books and work
IF YOU LIKED THIS CHECK OUT THESE OTHER EPISODES:
- John discussing his book How to Get a Job You Love in episode 16.
- John discussing what you need to do to be successful in your graduate job search in episode 44
- My interview with Jon Gregory on job interviews back in episode 1
Episode 59 – Knockout Graduate Job Interviews with John Lees
Announcer: Welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast, your home for weekly information and inspiration to help you get the graduate job of your dreams.
James: Welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast, with your host James Curran. The Graduate Job Podcast is your weekly home for all things related to helping you on your journey to finding that amazing job. Each week I bring together the best minds in the industry, speaking to leading authors, entrepreneurs, coaches and bloggers who bring decades of experience into a byte size weekly 30 minute show. Put simply, this is the show I wish I had a decade ago when I graduated.
James: And today for episode 59 of the Graduate Job Podcast, I am re-joined on the show by John Lees, bestselling author, career coach and all-round career expert as we delve into his new book Knockout Interview, and explore how you can succeed in your graduate job interview.
In this half hour we explore everything you need to know to succeed in a graduate job interview. We cover why you need to think about your goals of a job interview, and why focussing on the 4 key pieces of information that you want to get across could set you apart from everyone else. We delve into how to answer the classic job interview questions you will face, top tips for answering graduate competency questions, and the different frameworks you can use to answer them. If you have a telephone, face to face or panel interview coming up, then this is an episode which you aren’t going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss and a full transcript are available right this very moment in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/knockoutinterview. Before we start a quick request from me, your feedback helps me to create the episodes you want to hear, so I’ve set up a super simple and very quick survey, as I want the show to best serve your needs. It’s got 5 questions and will take you a minute, so please check it out at http://www.graduatejobpodcast.com/survey. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. But in the meantime, let’s crack on with the show.
James: Before we start though, I want to welcome today’s sponsor which is http://www.CareerGym.com. Career Gym is the number one place for you to undertake all of your psychometric tests which you will face when you apply for a graduate job. You can practice verbal, numerical, and abstract reasoning tests all produced by experts, and exactly the same as the ones you will see in the real tests. You can just practice them or you can do them in exam mode, under time pressure, and they come all with detailed explanations and solutions, and you can track your progress and see how you compare against your peers.
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James: A very warm welcome back to the show, a man who needs no introduction as he’s been on this show twice before, the author of the brilliant ‘How To Get A Job You Love’ and ‘Knockout Interview’, to name but a few career coach and general career expert John Lees, welcome to the show.
John: Thank you very much, great to be with you.
James: And it’s been about six months since you were on the show last, what have you been up to over the last six months?
John: Well one or two things but I suppose the main thing we will focus on today is my new book which is called ‘Knockout Interview’ which was published just at the end of January this year.
James: We are going to go into detail about it today but I’m really enjoying it. It’s a cracking book and I know there is a lot of great content in there that graduates are going to really enjoy and hopefully we will bring some of that to the surface today. So John before we delve into the book, let’s think about interviews generally and what they are. I really like at the beginning of the book how you say the questions that you face in interviews are predictable, many people when I’m interviewing them just look flummoxed straight from the off that you’d ask them that question. Maybe we should start with why you think questions are predictable?
John: Why questions are predictable? Essentially because an interview is very time intensive and an employer is reliant on, they are reliant on them because they want to check out the chemistry and they want to see what you are like in the room. So, in that sense an interview is like an audition or a screen test, they want to see what you look like and sound like. So in other words they are going to happen but there is time for only a limited exchange of information and so even a half smart interviewer knows is that they will need to focus on questions which are likely to get to information which is going to predict your job performance. So if you know that, you know the majority of questions are likely, I’d say about 80% of questions will be about trying to work out what questions in the short period of time when you are in the room if you can actually do that job. And that’s not everything in the job, that’s probably the top six or eight skills, bits of experience, competence that you are going to have to deliver.
James: That’s entirely true and we are going to talk about interview preparation in a bit, but it’s definitely something that if you do put the work in, in the front end then you really do get the benefits of it later on. So maybe starting with, what I liked was you discussed the three goals of interviewing and this is something I’ve not heard before but it really resonated with me. Can you talk us through what those three goals of interviewing are and why they are important?
John: So the three goals, I mean there are lots of goals for an interview but I think the three goals a candidate wants to achieve are thinking about what are the major boxes you want to get ticked early on in the process. The first goal is that you want to show that you are easy to talk to because then the interviewer can then relax and it’s going to be a pleasant experience but also subconsciously thinking this is going to be an easy person to work with. The second thing is, you’ve got to cover the ground as I’d say, you’ve got to make sure you are hitting all of the boxes on somebody’s checklist and there are different ways to do that but one of them is to think about the length of your answers; we will get a chance to talk about that this morning. And the third one is to show that you fit, as I said before it’s to think of a job interview much more like a screen test more than anything else, that what somebody is doing is they are not actually paying a huge amount of interest to the content of the questions but they’re thinking does this person look right, sound right, will I be embarrassed when I introduce this person as a member of the team, can I take this person along on a customer visit, so that’s the things that are really going on. Those three things are really good starting points because we all try and hold a thousand and one pieces of information in our heads when going to a job interview but if you’re asking yourself, well, can I make this an easy experience for the interviewer? Can I make sure that my evidence covers the ground as far as the job content is concerned? Thirdly, can I make sure that I look and sound the part? Then that is already an above average interview performance and that’s one of the things I really want to say, you don’t have to put thousands of hours into this, a small amount of focused effort already takes the interview performance into the above average category.
James: When I was doing interviews the questions I always had in the back of my mind was, as you mentioned, can I see myself working with this person? At the time I was working with a consultancy and we would often spend months living away from home, living in hotels with these people, you’d wake up with them every day, same hotel of an evening, probably eat together, have meals of an evening so you need to be able to get on with people. The questions ‘would I be able to spend that much time with this person?’ was always in the back of my head. The first point you talked about there was the goal to be easy to talk to, you talk in the book about why informal chat is important, small talk is a skill and it’s often seen as one of the early questions such as ‘did you have any problems finding us today?’ Why is informal chat so important and how can people begin to demonstrate it in early questions like ‘how did you find us today?’
John: There is a misunderstanding and I think you will hear a lot of people say an interviewer makes up his/her mind about you in the first 30 seconds and that isn’t entirely true as they don’t have any substantial information to get a hold of, they probably don’t know about your skills or your experience at that point but what they have judged in them first few seconds are is this person easy to talk to, can I see them as a potential colleague? Do they look and sound the part as well, it is sort of an audition going on? So small talk is part of that and I think the mistake people make is to believe that is it purely about instinct behaviours so either you are a naturally relaxed and chatty person or you are not and like many of these things they are learnt behaviours, so it is actually something you can practise if you don’t find small talk easy or even more commonly some people find it pointless, they don’t actually see that it leads to anything. So just practice it in the supermarket, practice it when you go to buy your newspaper in the shop, there are just lots of contexts were you could spend 30 seconds talking to somebody about the day or traffic or any of those things; it just gets you into that gear so that you sound relatively confident and relaxed and you’re not really talking about anything important.
James: Taxi drivers are always a good one to practice on. They love a good chat, next time you go to get in an Uber ask the driver how his day is going or how long he has been working and you can go from there.
John: Well you make a good point there, ask questions that suit. People often think that small talk is what you say in reply but sometimes asking questions like how long has this building been built? Or this looks great, how long have you been doing this? Small talk is also about the questions you throw in and the curiosity that you demonstrate.
James: Going back to the original question you might get such as did you have any problems finding us? Or how is your day going? Or something like that, what advice would you give people as to how to answer that in a positive way?
John: Well these fall into the category of the 80% of questions that are going to come up, so think about opportunities to try out answers for that, than sometimes means getting a friend to give you a dummy interview because in a sense it doesn’t really matter what you say. It’s like the last question on Question Time on television when the politicians have had a good hour of hurrahing each other and the final question of the evening is a much more lightweight one and the people who respond best to that, what they are doing is demonstrating a light touch in terms of humour and the human side to them. So what you say there is far less important than the way you say it.
James: I often found this would be a really good indicator of how the interview would go because if people talk in a positive upbeat way then you might have a good interview compared to people when you asked them how they got there they start moaning about the traffic or the tube was late or the train was late and to a certain extent I don’t really care, it’s your job to be here on time so just answer it in an upbeat way to get it going.
John: It really matters, so two mistakes. One is being negative and the other is not saying very much because if somebody says to you ‘what was the traffic like this morning?’ that is an invitation, a warm invitation to say let’s begin a conversation, you’re a guest here but we would really like to get to know you a little bit better so what have you got to say for yourself. So, nobody should be surprised by that moment just as nobody should be surprised by the standard questions I have in my book because interviewers don’t sit down at the beginning of the day and think how can I invent a totally new question, or a totally new approach? They’re going to real out the standard questions and standard interview structures. So you should be prepared for the predictable.
James: So thinking there about the preparation, how should people think about the prep for an interview? I’m guessing ideally it shouldn’t be the day before, you’re talking weeks before or even before you know you’ve got the interview lined up to start thinking about what it is you want to talk about
John: Sure, well obviously you’ve got to do a fair amount of preparation just to get shortlisted and that could be about filling in online forms or just your CV. If you are called for interview that’s a fantastic buying signal because that means you’ve been selected out of a larger pack to a small body of people who look like they may be able to do the job. The preparation that people do there really focuses on a few key areas, one is learning as much about the organisation as you think might be relevant in the process and I say it that way rather than find out everything you can because everything you can might take you months but focusing on the matter for the process. When employers talk about graduate interviews, one of the things they say is the people they interview have looked at our website and then all they do is parrot phrase what they’ve seen on the website and that’s a rather poor signal as it says they’ve spent maybe ten minutes and they’ve absorbed some key phrases without really understanding them so you’ve got to do more than that, you’ve got to look around for a broader range of research tools or other kinds of websites. The ideal tool, obviously, is to talk to somebody who already works at the organisation or has worked there or has done consultancy there or an internship or anything like that and this is where associations are really helpful because all you are doing is gathering extra information. You are not saying you want extra leverage or to trick my way through the process or get special consideration as those things really don’t work but you can say I am talking to this organisation, I’m really excited about it, I’d love to know more about what their current areas of focus are, how they are changing, where are they heading, what kind of people do well in the organisation. But even having one conversation which somebody from a human perspective it provides a fantastic shortcut because essentially rather than trying to absorb 15000 words what you are really need to know is this is where this organisation is going at the moment and this is what they find valuable in terms of candidates.
James: Yes, I echo that and through LinkedIn it is so easy to do it now through alumni finder where you can find people who used to go to your university who work there or your career service normally have a list of students and where they are working so tap into those through the career service. So if you can speak to people it’s so useful when they ask you the question of why want to work there and you can say I spoke with Bob who is on your graduate scheme at the moment and he said it was really exciting and just to be able to say that gives you such a tick in the box over people who haven’t done their research and are just regurgitating the information off the website as you said.
John: I agree.
James: Actually listeners, check out my four minute interviews with John were we go into more detail about how to utilise the alumni service which is at graduatejobpodcast.com/success. So John, moving on to maybe some of the areas were people maybe underprepare and also what stops them from preparing properly. Where do people tend to let themselves down in terms of the preparation?
John: It’s a great question because a big puzzle to somebody like me, I have been working with people going for job interviews, people in their 20s and 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s, and I can tell you people in every one of those generations fails to prepare. So it’s not to do with lack of experience or naivety or laziness I think genuinely, it’s either because people really don’t have the tools to decode what the experience is about or they don’t want to and we have to respect that because visualising the experience is something that is a little bit terrifying but if you can get over that a little bit and think actually it is potentially an hour in front of people and that hour is going to have a huge impact on my career if I am offered the job and if I’m not offered the job it’s still going to have a huge impact in terms of my confidence and performance levels. So surely, logically, any amount of preparation to make that one hour experience work it has got to be mindful and I think the strategy that people make it up when they get there is not a strategy at all, it’s a recipe for failure because as soon as you are doing that your focus is internal; you are trying to think of good examples, you are worrying about what you say, but if you are well prepared then your focus is on the relationship with the people in the room.
James: So one example I have John, when I was underprepared for an interview was I applied for a graduate job and they got back in touch with me and said that the specific role I had applied for was full but they had some spaces in a difference scheme so I had applied for a consulting role and they had one in the technology consulting so it was very IT focused and wasn’t sort of my area of interest but they had an opportunity for an interview in two days time in London so I popped down for it and I was underprepared for it and was frantically looking on Wikipedia for the lowdown and trying to get my head around some of the terms and in the interview, the problem I had was it started to go badly but then of course when you know you have answered some of the questions badly in the back of your head you are just thinking ‘oh no I didn’t answer that well’ and the other questions are spent with you half just thinking how badly the interview is going and it just spirals out of control from there and it’s difficult to regain control sometimes when you lose it.
John: Yes it is but again it is something that can be coached, because one of the things you can do with people is you can have more control of the process. So two examples I can give you. One is to say don’t worry about the question you have just answered, other than to think is there a piece of information I haven’t communicated; if there is then come back to that at the end of the interview. But if you are constantly thinking I didn’t answer that well, your attention is on what you were doing two minutes ago. Formula One drivers don’t think about the last bend, they are constantly thinking where am I now and what do I need to focus on right now? It is a discipline you can give to people fairly quickly. The other thing about control is to go into an interview with a short list of the pieces of information you do want to get across. I’m not talking about 18 or 20, I’m talking about three or four key messages about your experience and just make sure you get them across even if it is right at the end when they say ‘is there anything you would like to add?’
James: That’s a really good point and again going back to the goals we talked about earlier, is to think before the interview about what the goals you really want to get out are and the key things you want to get across. So maybe if we move on to the specific questions that graduates are likely to face in the search for a job, so one of the early ones that pretty much comes up in every interview in one form or another and is one you really shouldn’t fail on is ‘how much do you know about us?’
John: Yes, that’s right and the reason that employers ask that, by the way is that even during the depths of the recession, employers were still saying we are seeing an awful lot of candidates who still don’t really understand what we do and don’t have anything to say about how they can match what we need. Now those are two major flaws because if you present like that candidate on The Apprentice when Alan Sugar said ‘what do you know about the organisation?’ and he said ‘very little indeed’. That just demonstrates a complete lack of interest and motivation and there are much smarter switched on candidates out there. So, it’s part of the psychological contract of an interview that you need to present that this organisation is your number one objective, it doesn’t have to be in reality but that’s not the point. It’s rather like saying whilst I’m here with you in the room today it’s the one thing that really interests me. How do you do that? Well, don’t just look at the graduate recruitment pages of the website, look at the media section, look at the press releases that the organisation has been putting out from the last couple of months because that’s the sort of thing you would do if you were really interested. If it was the kind of organisation were you were going to invest your own savings that’s the sort of research you would be doing, so that’s what I would recommend to job candidates.
James: That’s really good advice and going back to the point we made earlier about if you can speak to people who work there or have worked there it allows you to add some more depth to what you do know about the company. So moving on John, specifically something graduates might face is the question ‘why did you study that subject?’ How can be people handle this?
John: Well if you think about it, first of all it’s the primary piece of information that you are telling an employer, if it’s the average graduate CV then the big focus is this is what I am studying right now or this is what I have just finished studying. There is a tip in there, by the way, if you have got work experience or you have got skills put those on the first page of your CV before you go into details about your studies, because employers are generally more interested in that. Once they understand that you have got a degree and they know roughly what subject area it is, then they quickly want to move on to, what can you do? So bearing in mind, that that’s kind of your opening sell though to say I have a degree in this subject then an employer has very little else to get hold of and we’ll move on later on to talk in more detail about it but, you are trying to help them solve a puzzle which is, how can I make any sort of useful connection between this quite possible abstract area of work of study to the world of work, because very few degrees translate easily and absolutely to the workplace. Some translate much more easily than others, I get that and we all get that, but those are the ones that are much easier if you’ve got a, if you’ve studied a very particular technical thing and that’s the thing the employer wants and then that’s a very easy conversation. But for 90-odd% of graduates they have to do some explaining/translating and I’d like to say James, it’s not just about information or unpacking the course it’s about communicating motivation because a lot of graduate employers tell me once students sound like they are saying ‘I studied this because I couldn’t decide on anything else’ or ‘it was recommended to me but I never got excited about it’. If you think of this as an audition, that’s how you come across, that seems to predict how you will be when faced with the ideas and disciplines in work.
James: How would you handle, so some people have got in touch recently, and are wanting to move to a completely different area of focus from their degree subject. So for example from chemistry to law or to something that is a complete 180 degree turn. How can you nicely link what you have studied to something completely random?
John: Probably worth saying to start with that, that applies to a considerable number of people. If you think about it, there are a wide range of degree subject available and an even wider range of job types available. So every week of the year people are having that conversation that says my qualifications might look a little strange to you, so the skill we learn is the skill of translation. Which is not apologising, it’s not saying I’ve done something a bit different and I’m sorry about that but I’ve got potential which is a very weak signal. The stronger signal says I have an unusual background or experience or I’ve done some things that maybe some of your other applicants haven’t done or let me tell you why what I have studied could be quite useful or helpful to you. So it’s always thinking about where is the positive in this, what you can you do to communicate value through an organisation. It even works quite well to say ‘I expect you think my degree I nothing to do with this job, or there is no possible connection but let me tell you why I think there is’ and you can even turn it into an advantage. So, if you were somebody with a chemistry background trying to retrain in law then you will be talking about specific skills and areas of knowledge that the average law student wouldn’t have.
James: That’s a really good example and there are so many transferable skills from any degree, from the research to being able to present ideas to your writing and being able to work in teams, depending on the course you did. There are always skills you can take from one situation to another if you just look hard enough and put the thought and attention in there.
John: I agree
James: So maybe another question graduates might face, specifically if they’ve maybe done some traveling, ‘there appears to be a gap in your CV, what were you doing?’ What would be a good approach for answering this?
John: This must fall into the category of so highly predicable, you really should not be in any sense surprised if it comes up. Just in the same way as if you switched subjects halfway through a degree course or if you came to study late or if you didn’t finish your qualification or as we have just been saying you’ve got a qualification that is outside the normal range of what candidates have. Preparing information around these difficult areas is one of the most important bits of preparation that you can do, it is energy well spent because if you can prepare a short, upbeat and clear answer that covers a particular CV moment, then you are putting in an above average performance. So a gap year, or a gap in a CV then you’ve got to be really careful about that, you shouldn’t sound like you are inventing the answer in the room as that can show you haven’t thought about your career story, you haven’t thought about where you career is heading. If you have taken a gap year, for example, do talk about how you planned it and why you planned it and what you got out of it and what you learnt from it and then talk about how you are really interested in using those skills in the world of work because it can sound like all you are doing is going to work for another six months and save some money and go off traveling again. So employers are really tuned into what can we get out of this and what should we be worried about here?
James: That’s great advice. Moving on then John, another perennial question, what are your strengths? How can you handle this one without sounding arrogant?
John: I think it really depends on your style, and so rather like talking about yourself in a networking context the way we would coach candidates on this is to say you’ve got to find a language which is authentic for you and some people can get away with phrases that in other people’s mouths would sound like a complete ego trip but if you have got a kind of jokey confidence then you can say well I think I’m really good at this and my strengths are this and people tell me I’m really good at this. Now quieter candidates find that sort of language really difficult and if they use it, it comes out wrong. It comes out shallow and empty and unconvincing. So the thing not to do is think I can’t put in this bravado egotistical performance so I won’t prepare anything. It’s much better to think about how
are you going to present that evidence in a way that you find comfortable but the employer also hears the evidence. So one of the phrases is sometimes people tell me this, or I’ve had feedback. A great way into this is to start the sentence by using the phrase ‘I really enjoy’ or ‘I get a buzz out of’. So rather than saying I’m brilliant at this, what you are saying is this stuff really motivates me and interests me so a much easier way in, when somebody asks you about your strengths you can talk about the activities at work that you really get a buzz out of and you feel you get some good results.
James: That’s a really nice way to do it, and conversely if you get asked about your strengths, you are going to be asked about your weaknesses, so this is a difficult one. I remember coming up with some pat answers when I was doing this one about trying to make up some things that weren’t really a weakness but I’d make them sound like a weakness. How would you recommend doing this one?
John: I must admit I have been thinking about this and I have come up with different approaches over the years and there is a school of thought that says what you do is present a weakness that is in fact a strength. So you say my weakness is, I have a low tolerance of people that have low work attendance or who are unreliable. That’s just a bit too textbook, it’s a bit too cliché, obviously what you are not going to do is expose actual areas of vulnerability by saying I’m not very good at this or I was reprimanded for this or I always get this wrong. The safest way to do it, I’ll give you two ways. One way is to recognise areas for development. So you say that I know that I am pretty good at communicating with my team but one thing I haven’t done too well in the past is to follow up with written communication, but I am learning to do that and I made that a discipline and I’m pretty focused on it. Or you could even talk about something were you are currently training which is an area of skill development which is a very different development. Rather than saying I’m rubbish with excel and I’ve realised that this is something important that I need to learn so I have been adding that to my list of learning objectives. The other one is a bit cheekier and is to say ‘well I’ve looked at the things you are looking for here and I think I can cover everything and if there are any areas were I don’t cover so well, then I’m a very fast learner’, that takes a little bit more confidence but it’s the kind of things employers find realistic to hear because nobody comes completely pre-packaged, certainly not at graduate level, they need to be people who are going to learn fast and get on with the job and have the confidence to say where they need support and were they need to focus on their own learning.
James: I think the one I settled on was, I went for the area of development route. So this was after I came back from my year in China when I was applying for graduate jobs and I was learning Chinese at the time, I think I phrased it as ‘I wasn’t very good at languages but was looking to and remedy this by actively learning Chinese’ so that I could slot in one of my goals which was to bring in about my trip to China, so it was two dual roles.
John: It’s a good point though, about how do you present this. If you start something with ‘I’m not very good at’ or ‘I have a problem with’ then that’s very different than the route ‘I recognise an area where I need to improve’ because one is a much more negative message because beating yourself up doesn’t work very well, because we are all highly tuned to listen to negative information so if you say something very negative about yourself or your last organisation or the course you have just finished then that sticks in the mind of the interviewer when you are talking about something completely different.
James: Moving on then other types of questions which are very common for graduates are the old competency questions. So looking at one specific one, how do you recommend people approaching competency questions generally but also specific examples such as ‘can you take us through a time when you had a complex problem to handle? And how did you do it?’
John: Yes, so graduates often think competency based questions are very easy because there is such a clear cue in. You have got the competency written out, probably in the job description, the interviewer clearly has to give you massive clues to show this is the competency we are now discussing and the kind of lead in question which you just outlined which usually starts ‘tell me about a time you demonstrated this particular competence?’ An old school interviewer would probably say talk me through that problem and let you flounder a bit and draw out the competence from that but it is only superficially easy because sometimes the rules of the game are that you only have one shot of the answer, particularly if it’s a panel interview. So that means that your answer has to convey a story that shows the competence used at the right level, that it’s related to the context of the job that you are going for and covers all parts of the competence and that’s the part that graduates often miss when you look at a statement of a competence. It’s usually quite wordy and has lots of different elements to it, and that’s where preparation comes in, because if you only really have one shot in a four minute answer to cover all the bits of evidence that you need to communicate then I’m afraid it is your responsibility to cover all parts of the competence. In other contexts an interviewer will come back to, so they’ll say tell me about this or give me more information about this, but in highly structured interviews you may not get that opportunity at all. So it takes a lot more rehearsing and planning than most people think.
James: The common frameworks people use, such as a Star Technique or a Situation Task Action and Result …especially as you said, these competencies are flagged in advance, they’ll probably have them list on the website, the five competencies they are looking at or the five values they are looking at, so you know if you have done the preparation and you know that these questions are coming and then it’s easy to think about a couple of answers for these questions and to plot them into a framework as how to answer them.
John: Yes, but again a mistake is to answer in the same boring fashion that the question is posed. Competencies really do constrain interviewers, they have to use something close to a script, but that doesn’t mean the candidates need to. You can start your answer with ‘let me tell you about a time when’ or ‘that brings back an experience when’, you can have a much more chatty approach to it saying a little bit about the story and pointing much more to the context and the problems you were trying to solve and getting to the meat of what you actually did and that’s why constructs like star are quite helpful as they give you a kind of internal structure to help you remember to talk about your contribution. But you learn that very very fast and the main thing is to prepare these pieces of narrative very very carefully, try them out on other people, rehearse them, speak them out loud two or three times so you know where the story ends and the right sort of phrases you will be introducing. Somebody once said that being interviewed is like stand-up comedy and somebody was interviewed recently on the radio saying ‘why are you so good at this?’ and he said ‘basically it’s delivering this for a thousand hours’, it’s basically delivering stand-up for a thousand hours. You learn how to get the timing right. I’m not saying do a thousand hours of preparation but what we are recognising is that you’ve got to imprint in your brain some of the material you hope to be using successfully in the interview room.
James: Yes, that’s right and just to bear in mind the common bug bare I had with competency questions, especially when it’s relating to a team, is to make sure you talk about what you did as opposed to talking about what the team did, remember they are hiring you, they’re not hiring the team. So don’t be shy about talking about the skills specifically you brought and what you contributed.
John: I agree.
James: So just a couple more questions then John. So, one more random question. The random question that occasionally thrown in there. The ‘if you were a biscuit what sore of biscuit would you be?’ or ‘animal in the jungle, what would you be?’ How would you deal with these type of ones?
John: Some of these questions are job related and some of them really aren’t. So, a job related question might require you to come up with an instant calculation, so, how many lightbulbs do you think are in this building? That’s a bit of rapid estimation based on common sense and knowledge. Wilder questions, all they are doing is trying to see how you would react when you are pushed slightly off balance. Now in some contexts that’s highly appropriate, think about someone is going to go into a sales role or a customer interactions role you want to know how people are going to operate when the rule book isn’t working and a customer acts in a slightly different way, or makes fun of you or makes a joke or involves you in a slightly wacky bit of conversation and so the key thing there is maintaining a sense of humour. So even if you can’t think of an answer, if you sit there saying ‘I don’t have an answer to that question’ what you have done is closed down the relationships. It’s much better to have said ‘that’s a brilliant question and you must get some fantastic answers, what’s the best one you’ve ever had?’ because people understand that not everybody has an internal script that responds well to that kind of wacky stuff but you can have a go. So the likes of ‘if you go to Mars, what three things would you take with you?’, that is strangely enough a kind of predicable question because it starts to say how do you think both logically and creatively and given an unexpected problem, which is actually a very useful skillset.
James: I completely agree and I like the idea too, if you do get one of those wacky ones, to ask them what’s the wackiest answer they’ve ever had, just to have that interaction.
John: It’s a bit cheeky but it buys you some time at least.
James: So, we’ve had the interview, it’s gone well, we’ve done the prep, aced all the questions moving on to the important closing piece. So, the piece that is going to stick in the interviewer’s mind as you walk away. Couple of standard questions, so firstly at the end of the interview when they ask you ‘do you have any questions for us?’. I know, again going back to my previous experience, I know when I had some questions but they weren’t very good so I had to…’have you got any questions for us?’ ‘oh no, I think you’ve answered everything’, it just doesn’t finish on a very forceful note. What do you recommend using here?
John: Well we know that interviewers remember what you did at the beginning and what you did at the end of the interview more clearly than anything else, so clearly this moment matters and there is a great misunderstanding that is repeated in a lot of advice to candidates that this is a two-way process and you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you, that is entirely incorrect. All you are doing in the process of an interview is doing your absolute best to be taken to the next level, whether that is second round or going to a job offer. If you have serious questions about the organisation, pay structures or learning possibilities, most of them are not appropriate in an interview room as they will easily sound like I am not sure, I’ve got doubts and that’s a really poor final message. A stronger message creates the idea that you are highly interested in the job and in fact you are helping the interview visualise yourself in the role. So if you talk about your future role in the job, about if the job will change, what learning opportunities you will have in role, how quickly you will be given responsibility then this is going back to the screen play idea that people are visualising you actually doing the job and once they have a strong visual picture of you holding the post that’s quite difficult to shake. So, most candidates what they need is two or three questions like that, now you need two or three as one of the questions might have already come up, you might have been given the information in the interview itself, so what it boils down to is two questions again how the job will change, how it will grow, what you will do, what you will be learning and that really does have a much more positive impact.
James: That’s brilliant advice and I’ve not thought if it like that before but it makes perfect sense. So listeners some nuggets of gold for you there. So John, I know we’ve run slightly over time but maybe just one final question before we go to the weekly staple questions. If you are asked if there is anything you would like to add what would you recommend here? Is this a chance for candidates to go back over something they think they didn’t answer very well in the first place?
John: That’s a real judgement call, if a question went not too well and you bring the interviewers attention back to it and add something that is fairly low key or not a terribly good additional piece of information then all you’ve done is draw the interviewers attention back to the question that’s not well answered. So, if you have in the back of your mind these are the key three or four messages I want to get across or thinking back to an earlier question there was really crucial piece of information that I could have added, then you can bring that into the room. Interestingly enough, if it’s that important you can also throw it in after the interview when they say ‘thank you for the interview’ you could probably add a one liner of really important really helpful piece of information. I think if you’ve put the focus on the good questions that you have you made sure you’ve got your hit list of key pieces of information across, the three of four key messages, then that’s the point that you can say I really enjoyed this, thank you very much, I have nothing else to add at the moment.
James: Ah, excellent and once again that’s brilliant advice and as you mentioned earlier they remember the first and the last thing so you need to make sure that you end on a positive note.
John: Quite right.
James: So John there’s been a ton of brilliant information in there, so let’s move on to our weekly staple questions before we finish. So, it’s going to be a challenge now considering this is the third time we are getting your answers, so I’m looking for three piece of new information. So, what book would you recommend listeners should read?
John: Ok James, so one book I dip into from time to time and it may sound as if it’s not particularly useful for graduates, but actually that’s a real misunderstanding is the book by Michael Watkins called ‘The first 90 days’ and its published by Hartford Business School press. It’s a very readable book and what it says is that people make their most valuable contribution, not just to an organisation but to their own careers in the first 90 days, and that’s true for all levels. People tend to make a fairly swift judgement about whether you are a long term high performer, whether you are a star likely to go well, so if you think about whether a graduate is likely to move within the first few months of a role, that is the moment where their contribution is most noticed where key decision makers are thinking ‘yes, this is the kind of person we can see rising up the ladder, the kind of person we would like to have with us in 10 years time.’ So this isn’t just about leaders and how they make an impact, this is also about staff at every level and what you do to make yourself visible in the first 90 days of any new job.
James: That’s brilliant, especially if the listeners have listened to the advice of the interview here and so they’ve aced the interview and they are going to get the job offer and so it’s important to them to make sure you do make an impression in the first 90 days. So, that’s a good one, I’ve not come across that one myself so it’s one I will add to my reading list and listeners you can listen to everything we have discussed today and a full transcript will be available in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/knockoutinterview. And finally John, what one tip can you give our listeners that they can implement today to help on their job search?
John: A core tip which is not only at the heart of interviews but at the heart of career success generally, is to learn how to talk about yourself in a way that feels authentic and comfortable. That applies in the opening moments of an interview when somebody says ‘tell us about yourself’, it applies when you are talking about your skills and achievements but it applies equally when you are having a conversation with somebody at an event or a member of the same alumni association and somebody gives you that opening that says ‘tell us what you are looking for’ or ‘tell me a little bit about yourself’. A bit of rehearsal, a bit of practise that allows you to get your piece of information across quietly, carefully but authentically and effectively as well. That’s the stuff that really matters. It’s not the same as an elevator pitch because that can be very high octane and pushy, it’s just learning to talk quietly but effectively about yourself and practising it before you get in front of decision makers.
James: John that’s great advice and if you can talk about yourself then it will serve you well throughout your whole career. John it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you back on the show, what’s the best way for listeners to get in touch with you and all of your books?
John: As always just land on our website which is www.johnleescareers.com.
James: Superb, thanks John for appearing on the Graduate Job Podcast.
John: My pleasure, thank you.
James: Many thanks again to John Lees, third time back on the show and you can understand why. So many nuggets of brilliant information there for you to take in to put to good use as you have your graduate job interviews. Make sure you check out the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/knockoutinterview which has a full transcript and links to Johns brilliant book of the same name, Knockout Interview, which you need to read. So there you go, another episode completed. If you have enjoyed the episode or any of the other 57 you can thank me by completing my super short survey at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/survey, it will take you 2 minutes but helps me to create the shows that you want to hear. So get yourself over there now! Make sure you listen next week when I have a super episode with Sophie Milliken, former graduate recruiter at John Lewis who shares some top tips which will help you get that graduate job. Don’t miss it. All that is left to say is I hope you enjoyed the episode today, but more importantly, I hope you use it, and apply it. See you next week.