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The Best Answers to 3 Very Common Interview Questions

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This post is a follow-up to an earlier post titled, How to Ace Any Interview. If you have not yet read this post, I suggest you read it now. Whereas the earlier post provided solid, actionable advice on how to ace any  interview, I am now going to go deeper and provide advice on how to answer common interview questions. I have literally interviewed hundreds of candidates for dozens of jobs across multiple functions and companies. In fact, I conducted three interviews today. All three of the interviewees answered these common questions in the same (mediocre) way which was the inspiration for this post. Do you want to have a mediocre interview? Of course not. You want to OWN your interview. As such, you need to convince the interviewer, in the limited time you have, that you were BORN for the role you are applying for.  If you follow the advice below, you will be prepared to answer these common questions and will have a major advantage over other candidates.

Let’s begin.

Common Interview Question 1:
“Tell me a bit about yourself/Walk me through your resume.”

What the interviewer is looking for is a succinct summary of the candidate’s skills and interests as they relate to the position.

A common (mediocre) response: “Well let me see… I am from Chicago, Illinois and studied finance at the University of Wisconsin. After school I took a job as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley in Indianapolis and was promoted to Senior Analyst after three years. I then left work to get an MBA in finance from the University of Minnesota and took a job as a finance manager at JP Morgan where I work today.”

I get a response like this 85% of the time. Why is this only a mediocre answer? For a number of reasons:

  1. All of this information can be found on your resume. You have told the interviewer nothing new. You are literally wasting your (invaluable) interview time.
  2. This is a list of roles, not accomplishments. There is no insight into your contributions, skills, or results.
  3. This response does not tie back to the position for which you are interviewing. Remember, the goal of the interview is to convince the interviewer that you are exactly what they are looking for, so you always need to steer your response back to the role at hand.

So, how should you answer this question?

Corporate Wise Man response: “I am a highly motivated financial professional with over 15 years of experience in a variety of roles with increasing responsibility at major financial services institutions. I have particular experience in pre-acquisition financial due diligence as I have supported six separate acquisitions in the automotive industry. These acquisitions have resulted in over $3.2B of market capitalization increase in the companies acquired. I am looking to leverage these experiences into a broader level role within a major auto manufacturer. As such, I am confident these skills make me a great fit for the Corporate Development Director role at Ford.”

I get a response like this less than 5% of the time, and this is a standout answer. Why?

  1. This is the candidate’s “elevator speech.” This response gives the interviewer a clear and concise understanding of the candidate’s unique skills. It shows drive, clear career progression and a sense of purpose and drive to their career development.
  2. This response focuses on skills and (more importantly) quantified results.
  3. Finally, this response ties directly to the role. By explaining skills, results, intent and fit, you are making a powerful argument as to why you are interested in the position and what you can bring to the role.

Common Interview Question 2:
“What are your greatest strengths/What are your greatest accomplishments?”

What the interviewer is looking for is self-awareness, humility, quantified results, and how you can leverage this strength to benefit their team.

A common (mediocre) response: “Oh, this one is easy. I am really highly detailed. Whereas many of my employees tend to be more high-level, I always go the extra mile and provide much deeper analysis.” Or “I am a natural-born leader. I am really interested in leadership and read a lot of books on leadership so I am aware of all of the latest leadership concepts.”

I get a response like this probably 95% of the time. Why is this a weak answer?

  1. There is no evidence this is anything more than an opinion. What would your team say? What would your boss or employees say?
  2. There is no quantification. How do you know you are any more analytical than average?  Claims without quantification or evidence easily comes across as arrogance.
  3. There is no concept of how this would benefit the interviewer’s team or the role for which they are hiring.

So, how should you answer this question?

Corporate Wise Man response: “During my last 360 degree review, I received consistent feedback from my manager, peers, and direct reports that I have above average analytical skills. These analytical skills helped me identify a pricing issue with a major vendor that had been occurring for the last 11 months. After I identified the issue, we used my analysis to go back to the vendor and recover $47,000 that was due to us because of the pricing issue. I am confident these analytical skills will be of benefit to your pricing analytics team.”

Why is this a great answer?

  1. There is an external data source (the 360 degree review) instead of an opinion. This shows you are data driven and objective.
  2. The focus is on the value of this skill-set and how it led to quantified results for your current employer.
  3. Again, this response ties directly back to the role for which the candidate is applying.

Common Interview Question 3:
“What is your greatest weakness/Tell me about a time you failed.”

What the interviewer is looking for is self-awareness, honesty, objectivity, the ability to learn/maintains a continuous improvement mindset, and how you are addressing your weakness.

A common (mediocre) response: “Ummm….Uhhh….Can I have a moment to think about this? (pause) Well, I guess sometimes I don’t handle pressure and timelines well.” Or “I can be overly committed to my work because I care so much about customers and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to get the job done.” Or “[candidate looks really confused] I don’t really know. I haven’t really thought about it. I had a manager who once told me I wasn’t detailed enough, but he was a jerk and had it out for me.”

I get a response like this probably 95% of the time. This is surprising to me as this is such a common question and yet interviewees never really seem to know how to answer it. Why are these bad responses?

  1. The first and third responses show a clear lack of preparation and self-awareness. (Please note that pausing to think of an answer is absolutely encouraged, but not necessarily on such a common interview question.) Good candidates should be focused on development and should have a good sense of how the role they are applying for will feed into their development. If you don’t have a sense of your weaknesses, how will you know how to address them?
  2. There is no sense of how these weaknesses are being addressed. These responses give a sense of “this is how I am…so deal with it.”
  3. There is no quantification. As such, it comes across as subjective.

What does a great response look like?

Corporate Wise Man response: “During my last annual review, my manager provided me with an opportunity for improvement around being more data-driven and analytic to drive results as although I hit my revenue target for the year, I missed the income target by 10%. In order to address this issue, I have taken an internal course on financial statement analysis which has increased my ability to understand the financial impact of my decisions. I have also set up a daily financial dashboard so I can respond more quickly to issues as they arise. Finally, I have asked my division’s financial director to be my unofficial mentor to review my dashboard with me every other week to provide advice. I am happy to report that these actions have resulted in a revenue increase of 7% and an income increase of 15%, both of which are above plan.”

What makes this a great answer?

  1. It is not opinion as it is based on an external data source (your manager). It is also an honest response and not defensive.
  2. The answer focuses less on the weakness (weak analytical skills) and more on what you are doing to address the weakness. This will impress the interviewer as it shows you are proactively working to address your weaknesses with a plan and structure. This shows discipline and focus.
  3. This response shows progress in dealing with the weakness and shows how addressing the weakness is driving meaningful results in the business. There is no point in addressing a weakness if it doesn’t improve results.

Some final thoughts: Now that you are aware of these common interview questions and you know what good and bad responses look like, make sure you PREPARE appropriately for your interview. It’s also worth reviewing some basic interview best practices:

  • Practice makes perfect! Have an elevator pitch. Practice it. Memorize it.
  • Make an (honest) list of your strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t know, ask your manager, coworkers, employees, etc. Ask for a 360 review, and take the feedback seriously. Remember, nobody is perfect. If you don’t know your weaknesses, you cannot become better, so always ask for feedback fearlessly.
  • Quantify everything! Hiring managers want objective, data-driven and analytical employees. Bring data and objectivity. Avoid opinions.
  • Tailor all of your answers to the specific needs of the position for which you are applying. Remember you have a limited amount of time to convince the interviewer that you are exactly what they are looking for.
  • Ask for the job! 98% of candidates do not ask for the job. If you don’t want the job, why would they want to hire you? For advice on how to ask for the job and include the essential “widow-maker,” read my post titled, How to Ace Any Interview.

Follow the tips above and I promise you will impress any interviewer and increase your odds of landing your dream job.

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