That ‘tell me about yourself’ question

In my experience, one of the questions that unsettles interview candidates most is: ‘tell me about yourself’. I have no idea why this makes interviewees so uncomfortable: the way I look at it, this is an absolute gift of a question.

This question comes up frequently, so why do so many people feel caught out by it? Possibly because the British way of doing things means not boasting and not talking about oneself. That’s something that has to change if you’re going to do well in interview. So, here are some tips on how to prepare for and deal with this dreaded question.

How to view this question

Imagine all your ‘best’ bits – your skills, your experience, your particular talents and personality strengths – are contained in chapters in a book about you. You don’t have to use them all, but they are all potential ingredients for your answer. Which three or four chapters are you going to tell this particular employer about?

Re-story yourself

Interviews are great excuses to prepare a ’story of me’. We all have that thing we can do when we first meet new people socially where we give a potted version of ourselves during the process of getting to know each other. This is just the same thing, but for business.

If you’re trying to re-story yourself – for instance, if you want to change career direction or get back to something you really wanted to be doing – this is a really great question to get. You can choose where to begin your story, where to end, what to include and leave out, and what context or backdrop to set up.

Even if you’ve always been in this field of work, you can reorganise your experience and skills to best fit the role you’re being interviewed for. That doesn’t mean telling any untruths, just choosing to emphasise differently, bringing out the qualities you want the employer to focus on. You can do the same with your CV (resume).

For more on re-storying yourself, check out Herminia Ibarra’s very excellent book on the subject (see link below).

Don’t ramble on

On the flip side of the coin, just because you now have a whole story ready to tell doesn’t mean your interviewer hasn’t got other questions they want to ask! Keep your ’story’ to three or four main points. When you’ve worked out what you want to say, rehearse it until it sounds completely natural. Try to pitch it somewhere between two and three minutes.

Then work out what questions you might get based on what you’ve said.

I’d much rather have this question any day than most other questions, as it puts you right in control of the interview!

March 15th, 2010 | Posted in answers, career change, experience, interview, skills | No Comments

Pick up your cards on the way out…

When you leave a job, don’t forget to collect your cards. No, not those cards, I mean your now-redundant business cards.

One of the most inspirational sites I’ve come across recently is Cards of Change, where laid-off employees are encouraged to deface their old business cards with messages letting the recipients know what they’re doing now. Many of the messages are so inspirational you wonder what they were doing in those unsatisfying, energy-sapping, thankless jobs in the first place.

If you still have some cards left after defacing them try turning them over and writing on the backs. You can use the blank sides of business cards for a variety of career-planning activities. For instance, they can help you assess your life priorities.

Using a marker pen, write one life priority on the back of each card and lay them all out on a desk or table. If you’re like most of my clients, you’ll typically have about 40 – including cards for family, career, dreams, ambitions, qualifications, health, relationship, home, holidays, spirituality… I’ve even seen a designer wedding dress, a hotter sex life and a pink VW Beetle convertible among clients’ priorities.

Next, arrange your cards in ranking order. Be strict: don’t allow yourself any equals, don’t-knows or groupings. The strength of this exercise is in the fact you have to make difficult decisions. Reflecting on how you are reaching those decisions is a critical part of the process.

Think about what is important to you and why. What or who is influencing your ranking? Are you still holding on to priorities you formed a long time ago? Many people find they haven’t truly questioned their priorities since school, or since graduation, or since they married, or since they joined their employer. This exercise offers an opportunity to reassess.

Once you’ve got an initial prioritisation, leave it for a day or two and then revisit it. If you have the luxury of privacy, leave the cards out on the table and re-read them as you pass them during the day. Add to, or move the cards around as you think of different things. You’ll be surprised at how your priorities change over the course of a few days, simply because you’re giving yourself permission to question your existing patterns of thinking. You may also be amazed when you realise what you’ve duplicated or left out. The whole process can be a revelation.

You can use this same technique to identify where you’re spending your time, in order to help you sort out work-life balance. You can even use it to brainstorm and prioritise your experience, skills and abilities (extending the process to identify potential groupings and linkages) to help you work out new career options.

February 13th, 2010 | Posted in between jobs, career change, career changer, career goal, objective, priorities, work-life-balance | No Comments

Should my employment history be on the front page of my CV?

My recruitment consultant says the only thing employers are interested in is my work experience, and this should always be on the front page of my CV (resume). Is he right?

I see lots of CVs or resumes from people who are so terrified by this kind of advice that they tuck the chronological list of their employment right under their name and contact details, like a bib tucked under their chin! But this isn’t usually the best way to show off your talents to an employer.

Make it easy to choose you

If you’ve ever had the job of sifting CVs you’ll know that the CVs that get attention are the ones that convey their key facts quickly and easily.

Employers are only interested in gauging quickly what a candidate could bring to their company. Unless the candidate has really big names to drop, employers are less interested in where they used to work. (And if you do have big names to drop, there are ways of doing this to get more attention.)

Show off the real you

I advise candidates to think first and foremost about the reader when preparing their CV. The reader is looking for skills, and they are looking for team-fit. So, give them exactly that. Take time to say who you are and what role you are looking for in your personal or career goal. Let your key skills list sit comfortably spaced and well-signposted under that. These sections are the ‘real you’ – what you can bring to the table. They should be tailored to the job vacancy or employer challenge at hand by bringing out your most relevant skills and experience.

Your employment history then evidences and illustrates how you’ve gained and used your experience, skills and qualities.

Don’t make this mistake!

I did original research some years ago into how people read documentation, and we included CVs in that research. It showed that the skim reader flicks through only the top half of the first page before turning over the page. So, if you start your employment history half way down the first page, it’s likely the reader will miss your last job or two and start reading two or three jobs back.

For this reason, I always advise candidates to start their employment history on the top of the second page.

February 2nd, 2010 | Posted in CV, application, capability, experience, stand out | No Comments

Is the media dragging our workforce down?

My deep-thinking colleague, Brian Mullis asks: “To what extent do you feel the constant negative approach to the economy, taken by most of the media over the past 12 – 18 months, has reduced many workforces’ self-confidence? What can ‘good men and true’ do to counteract this effect?”

The primary purpose of the media is entertainment. It publishes what people want to read or watch because reader and viewer figures represent profit. Current affairs as we know them are heavily cherry-picked, so what we think of as ‘the news’ is only what’s considered dramatic, interesting, weird or having enough of a human interest to keep you reading. Things that are critically important rarely get exposure if they’re unsexy or difficult to explain.

It’s also an unfortunate human characteristic that we are fascinated by others’ misfortune, so (at least at first) we were happy to read our newspapers and tut at the news coverage as the terrible reality of the economic collapse sank in. Don’t we all compare notes and horror stories? Didn’t we do it about the Cumbrian floods? Aren’t we doing it now with Haiti or the latest rape or shooting in our town?

Backwards? Or forwards?

Here’s another truth. We lose interest quickly. Having absorbed the enormity of the crash, we now would like to move on, please, and get everything back to normal. A year and a bit after the collapse of the banks, we’re ready to get our next big mortgage and move house; return to a decent interest rate on our savings, and get that promotion or pay rise so we can go on holiday.

The problem is, the crash won’t stop. In fact, as you can read in Greg Pytel’s now-famous analysis, The Largest Heist in History, this economic crisis is only just beginning to unfold and has years to run yet.

So, we all need to get used to being a workforce in a very much changed market.

Is the media to blame?

Is the media responsible for this? Not really. Remember, they only tell us what we want to be told, and when we lose interest, they’ll move on. So, we must still be interested in all those stories about collapsing companies and how it’s affecting individual workers at Bosch and Borders.

If the media really printed how we got here, why the economic rescue is just a band-aid on a compound fracture and what’s really likely to happen in the next few years, we’d be even more depressed!

So what can ‘good men and true’ do? Well, I believe we make our own luck. Remember, the mass media only publish what they think a mass market want to read. Reading what the newspapers have to say is one choice. Finding and reading more inspirational and uplifting things is equally a choice. I’m not suggesting people should only read positive things, but it’s probably true that we could encourage a better balance. The mass media will change to accommodate any significant shift in reader habits, so, over time we can influence it just by doing this.

Leading social change

Something else that strikes me is the increasing shift in social attitudes. People are embracing ‘grow-your-own’. People are recycling more. They are beginning to rise up and say that it’s important for right and wrong to be properly recognised, and for people to be allowed to protect their families and homes from intruders. A chap called Gareth Malone has started a nationwide trend for community singing. People are beginning to set up knitting circles and sewing bees. Pubs may be closing as a result of unfair beer ties, but research suggests that a huge increase in the ‘off’ trade, especially at Christmas and New Year, is at least partly because people are having friends over and socialising at home.

A year ago, America elected a President less remarkable for his racial background than for his work record, which was dominated not by big business but by community organising. Under his influence, across America, people are following his example, voting out the old guard, protesting things that are important to them and joining town councils and school boards in order to make a difference.

I believe ‘good men and true’ are probably already making a difference. Increasingly I see unemployed clients who are refusing to sit on their bottoms and wait for the next job to come along. Once they’ve done all they can on their job search, they’re out there doing voluntary work, writing pantomimes for their local village, helping young people get through college or find a home, serving on parent-teacher associations, taking low-paid work so as not to be on benefits and generally putting more in.

I truly believe that this return to old fashioned – certainly pre-Thatcherite – values is how we will get through this time. I think we lost ourselves there for a while. And I think we are in the process of rediscovering what’s really important.

Have you read something inspiring and motivational that you’d like to share? Use the comment box to add your suggestion. Thank you.

January 20th, 2010 | Posted in Social change, between jobs, community organising, leadership, motivation, volunteering | No Comments

My benefit has run out and the Job Centre want me to be a cleaner!

I was an £80k a year professional, made redundant last summer. I’ve just had my six-month interview with the Job Centre and been told my jobseekers allowance (JSA) benefit is being ceased. That means no Government money unless I qualify for means-tested benefits. They also said I now have to apply for any job – I can no longer only apply only for managerial jobs. They have sent me for an interview as a cleaner. Can they do this?

Unfortunately, yes, they can. Contributions-based Job-Seekers Allowance (JSA) only lasts for 26 weeks. After this time, you will only receive benefits if you don’t have the means to support yourself. When you apply for means-tested benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions will take into account all income you receive from any source, including all savings and all assets (including rental property and shares).

They have the right to go through your bank accounts and to ask you for proof of things like household bills and expenses in calculating what benefit you are entitled to. It is a soul-destroying process and not one that I’d recommend anyone to go through unless there was absolutely no other option.

I have a suspicion that the Job Centre sometimes like to try and bring home the reality of your situation in less-than delicate ways, hence making a point in this case with the cleaner job, but the message they are trying to convey is a serious one. Unless you have private means, at some point you have to start working again, even if it’s not a job you want.

Beat the system – do something different

My strong advice is to create several new CV versions and approach interim and temp agencies for work while you continue your high-level job search. Temp work may not be very glorious and neither will it pay well, but it will pay a lot more, and be a lot less humiliating, than applying for means-tested benefits.

It will also get you out of the house, meeting new people and gaining valuable ground-level experience that could be very useful in your next major role. Who knows – you may meet a new spouse, new friends, a new mentee or even a new business partner.

Become an interim

For an interim position, most of your current CV can probably stay as-is, as interims are usually highly-qualified people who are simply brought in on a specific project or to cover between post-holders.

However, you may have to commit to a minimum contract period in order to secure the job. This is no different to giving notice from a high-level job, and should not put off any potential employers who might have to wait a few weeks for you.

Going contracting

When applying for temp or lower-level contract work, take time and care in preparing a suitable CV, tailoring it carefully to the content of the temp job. You are going to be a rare applicant for this kind of work, and you could easily scare off potential hirers who might be more comfortable with less experience and less potential threat. You have to prove that hiring you would be hiring someone who will really roll up their sleeves and get on with the job, and wouldn’t disrupt things by trying to pull rank.

Be honest about your situation in your profile section. Say that you are usually employed as a high-level professional in your field, and you are looking to use your experience and skills in contract work while you seek a new permanent post. Next, make yourself sound like an efficient joiner-in with no airs and graces. Make it clear you are not afraid to muck in, and say that, ideally, you’d like to work somewhere you could use your experience to make a real contribution.

When setting out your stall, put yourself into the shoes of the person you’d be being hired and managed by. You don’t want to steam-roller them with your experience and qualifications. Take out all the detail about the roles you’ve had, and consider reducing them down to a simple list of posts, employers and dates.

Instead, focus on creating a list of the skills you can bring, written in plain English rather than corporate-speak, and using the terminology from the temp job description wherever possible. Make sure you actually say you have the skills they are looking for (for instance, if they want someone who can do telephone interviews, say you can do telephone interviews, not just that you are skilled in recruitment).

Include something in your ‘about me’ section that makes you sound friendly and approachable. Be unthreatening. Focus on what could make you an asset to the hiring manager and a fit with their team, so that they feel attracted to you more than the other potential candidates.

Once you’ve secured some work, make a bee-line for the tax office for a more appropriate tax code that drops out expensive benefits-in-kind like a company car and health insurance.

Optimise the experience

On a personal level, try not to see this as a career low-point. You are still the same experienced professional with the same skills and capabilities as you were last week or six months ago. Sometimes life sends us unplanned experiences to test our mettle and add to our kit bag. This is one of those times – and it’s important to make the most of it, and be able to optimise it when you next go for interview.

January 17th, 2010 | Posted in CV, benefits, between jobs, temporary, unemployment | 3 Comments
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