June 13, 2019

The #1 Mistake Candidates Make In Job Interviews

I once interviewed candidates for the role of executive director of a major nonprofit organization. This nonprofit concerned itself with several key areas, among them the healthcare, arts and culture, and education, and it was seeking a leader who possessed exceptional listening and relationship-building skills. The executive director also had to manage a very close Board of Trustees, and influence change among individuals who had been doing things a certain way for many years. It was a big job.

The candidates who had emerged were all qualified on paper: They had demonstrated change management abilities, worked closely with boards, understood the financial operations, and each boasted strong initial references.

During the initial interview, one leading candidate was determined to tell me everything he had done for his previous employer that supported why he would be a good choice for the new employer. He was energetic, high energy, and very prepared—he knew a lot about the organization and what challenges were ahead for it. But it quickly became clear that he lacked the one great skill you need to bring to an interview: when to stop talking and listen.

He seemed to have no interest in hearing what I thought about the organization and the leadership, how I perceived the willingness of this organization to adapt to change, or, for that matter, what had been done already to try to effect change that was unsuccessful and how could it have been done differently. As a result, I didn’t feel connected to him. The candidate didn’t seem to care or understand that he was there not to boast, but to learn about the current state and discover if they were truly sure he could make a difference. I didn’t feel engaged. And it sent a message to me: that this was likely a pattern of behavior that would follow him to whatever role he would assume. This organization required someone with finesse and a strong ability to influence, not someone who would pound their chest and tell you all about his conquests.

I didn’t advance him.

There are a lot of ways in which candidates make mistakes during interviews. Arriving late, being unprepared, looking unprofessional, having low energy, and seeming disinterested are all de-railers. But from my 30-plus years of experience recruiting C-Suite talent, I can say, without a doubt, that one rises above all the rest: making it all about yourself.

In some ways that seems counter intuitive. Aren’t you supposed to go in there and, well, sell you? Sure. But you can accomplish this by turning the tables and asking the interviewer how they see the organization, what they think meets with success, how to work best on their team. For almost every position, you are being interviewed to see how well you would work within a group. If you’ve gotten to an in-person interview, they already know you have the skills to do the job. What they don’t know is what it would be like to see you every day. If you are a good cultural fit. If you are someone other people will want to follow.

So let the interviewer shine. Make them feel you want to be part of their team, not the reverse. Demonstrating that you like to hear what others think, and what insights and advice they can offer, will get you perceived as a team player. Remember what the famed philosopher Will Rogers once said: “Never miss a chance to shut up.”


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