I was working with a coaching client recently who, fresh from an interview, explained that she was pleased with the way she’d answered the competency-based questions about her skills and experience. However she had come unstuck when faced with what she’d assumed would be the “simpler” questions: “Why do you want this role?, “Tell me a bit about yourself”, “What would you bring to this role?”. Because she’d spent most of her preparation time building up a bank of detailed examples and stories to demonstrate her skills and expertise, she realised she’d neglected to fully prepare and rehearse her answers to some of the questions which, on the surface at least, seemed more obvious.
What appear to be the simpler, more obvious questions are often the hardest to answer and yet, arguably, the most important ones to get right. Simple in form only, they leave you wondering where to start or what to include. In a world of information overload, being able to get your message across concisely is a real skill that requires a good deal of reflection, editing and rehearsal.
Another of my returner clients described the bitter-sweet experience of the time she couriered a letter to the founder of a high profile online retailer. As an enthusiastic customer of the site, and an experienced PR professional, she wrote to say how much she admired the brand and offered some suggestions as to how she believed the customer’s experience could be even better. Within half an hour, the founder called my client and invited her in to talk further. The meeting seemed to be going well and, as they walked through the offices, the founder said that she liked her ideas but was “wondering how she might fit her in to the company.” My client recounted how, in the moment, she had no answer to this and, at that point, felt any potential opportunity slipping away. With the benefit of hindsight, she wished she had prepared a range of options as to how she might fit in. A painful learning opportunity and one that many of us can no doubt relate to.
Sometimes, it’s the more informal or unplanned situations that catch us out. I’ve kicked myself a few times over the years for missing opportunities in an informal situation and giving weak, off-the-cuff answers. On the flip side, shortly after I started working for myself, I bumped into a parent from my children’s old school and he asked me what I was doing. Thankfully, on that occasion, I was ready with a good answer and he became one of my first clients.
Six tips to be ready for the not-so-simple questions
- Make a list of all the questions that might come up in formal or informal settings to gauge your motivation, strengths, interests, what you’re looking for, what you’re offering, etc. Prepare and rehearse until you have a well-crafted, brief, confident answer for each, packed with relevant and interesting content.
- Rather than answering with vague generalities, weave in specific examples that show how your values overlap with their organisation and how your skills, experience and strengths would make you a good fit.
- Do your research so you can use relevant language that shows a contemporary grasp of their business issues.
- One of the most common openers in informal meetings is “How can I help?”, so be clear in advance on what it is you’re asking for: insights into the business/industry; an introduction to someone else; advice; consideration for any relevant opportunities, etc. Think also about what you might offer in return.
- Your CV and LinkedIn profile are important and it’s tempting to put this at the start of your search. However, prioritising time to figure out your answers to these questions will make it easier for you to create a CV that paints a coherent picture of who you are and what you’re offering/looking for.
- Treat all encounters as a chance to sell yourself. Anyone in your network could play a role in helping you to secure your return-to-work role or opportunity. Even if they’re not in a position to help, they may well tell someone else who will be.
Clearly you don’t want to sound like an automaton reading a rehearsed script, but if you have prepared the key ideas and messages that you want to get across, you can keep it natural and be ready for any encounter, chance or otherwise.
Coach, Women Returners