Why You Didn’t Ace the Job Interview and Get an Offer, with Sarah Johnston

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 234:

Why You Didn’t Ace the Interview and Get an Offer, with Sarah Johnston

Air date: March 11, 2020

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

You leave an interview. It went well. And you think the job is yours. But next week, you learn someone else got the gig.

Why didn’t you ace that interview and get the offer?

Here to talk about this is Sarah Johnston. She’s a former corporate recruiter and the founder of The Briefcase Coach.

Sarah joins us today from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Sarah, here’s where I want to start, as a recruiter you saw candidates make the same mistakes again and again in job interviews and not get offers. Let’s talk about those errors.

The first one you mention is that candidates weren’t prepared with targeted answers. What do you mean by this?

Sarah Johnston:

Yes, that’s a great point. I’ve noticed that job seekers often use the same canned answers for every opportunity, and this starts at the very beginning of the interview process.

Starting with the, “Tell me about yourself” question. They often start with the beginning of time, you know, growing up on the farm and how that led to their work history. The person interviewing them doesn’t need to hear a five-minute monologue about their life.

They’re listening for information that is relevant to the work that you’re interviewing for, and so you really need to, at the very beginning, start spoon-feeding your listener information that’s relevant to them and that they would care about. And that starts with that, “Tell me about yourself.”

Mac Prichard:

Well, why is it important, Sarah, to focus on the employer’s needs at all in a job interview? Isn’t it about the candidate and what they want?

Sarah Johnston:

Well, the person interviewing you is sitting there listening and they’re evaluating your skillset: “Can you do the job?”

They’re also evaluating if you’re likable, if you’ll fit in with the team, and if there are red flags. And they’re evaluating you against other candidates and assessing if you’ve got the chops to do exactly what they’re asking for. So, if at the very start of the interview, you start focusing your responses around the work that they’re listening for, they’re going to start tuning in.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this stat, this was well published, monster.uk said that around 30% of all hiring managers, at all career levels, make decisions about a candidate in the first 5 minutes of the interview. And so, when you think about that, that’s the small talk, that, “Tell me, how’s it going? Did you find our office okay? Grab a seat.” And then the, “Tell me about yourself” question, so that question really is important.

One of my very favorite ways to start targeting that first 5 minutes is one of Kristin Sherry’s, she’s the author of the book series, “You Map,” she gave me this great tip and I use it a lot with my clients. But she says, “Lead with your strengths that pertain to the job, right off the get-go in the interview setting.” So, instead of starting with the family farm and using that experience and giving that 5-minute monologue, she says, “Ask yourself, ‘What are the pain-points of the job? What matters to the hiring manager?’ And lead with those strengths related to the pain-points.”

So the…

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so it’s not about you, it’s about the employer. How can a listener get clear about the pain-points before the interview, Sarah?

Sarah Johnston:

Doing targeted research is really important. Reading the job description, actually spending the time to read the job description and evaluating what they’re looking for is key.

I also recommend that job seekers take a look at the backgrounds of the people that have been in the role, or are in the role, and see what skillset those employees have or possess, and then if you can get intel from other people who are familiar with it. Opportunity…leveraging your network and asking them where they feel like the opportunity is can also be helpful in identifying the pain-points.

Mac Prichard:

What tips do you have for reading that job description when you’re looking for those pain-points?  Are there phrases that stand out or expressions that an employer might use that give you clues?

Sarah Johnston:

I think you can expect that any of the responsibilities on the job description could be turned into a question. So, if they’re looking for someone with experience taking and analyzing data, you could expect that they could ask you a question around your experience in analyzing data and the results that you’ve had from that. Take those questions and consider personal examples as part of your preparation for the interview.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned the importance of talking about the employer’s needs when responding to that opening, “Tell me about yourself” question. Can you give an example of how you’ve seen a candidate do that successfully? How they weaved that in and how much time they took to do that?

Sarah Johnston:

Sure. So, for example, if you realize that in the job description they’re looking for someone who has change management experience and can turn around a team, and you know that that’s a big pain-point of the job and one of your strengths, you can lead with that, in that, “Tell me about yourself” question and using the Kristin Sherry formula, you could say something along the lines of, “The best way to describe myself is by doing the things that I do best. I am a change agent.” And give a specific example of a time that you delivered results as a change agent and how it transformed your institution. And that right off the get-go will kind of alert or resonate with the hiring manager who could be listening for that.

Mac Prichard:

Another common mistake you saw, as a recruiter, that people made in interviews was showing up unprepared. Why is this a problem?

Sarah Johnston:

It shows that you don’t necessarily care about the job or that you’re not that motivated or interested. When candidates just wing the interview or they just thought that…they relied on their own personal experiences, it just didn’t seem as polished. They didn’t come across as strong as some other candidates.

The candidates that get hired are the ones that demonstrate that they can do the job, they are far above the rest of the pack, and when you just wing it, it’s hard to send that message.

Mac Prichard:

I’ve met candidates and I expect you have too, who might say, “I’m going to the interview to learn more about the job. It’s really part of my research.” Why…I don’t want to belabor this point, Sarah, but why isn’t that a good approach? Why shouldn’t you walk into the room with questions about the position?

Sarah Johnston:

I think that you can have questions about the position but you have to know that they’re judging you from the moment that you step foot on the campus. Even the receptionist could be evaluating you for the opportunity. And so, if you come in with a question mark of whether or not you want to do the job, it’s going to signal to the employer, to the hiring manager, that you might not be that interested or you might not be that motivated. And so, I think it can be great to have good questions and to be evaluating it, but to still take it seriously and to put your best foot forward. Because it could be the opportunity that you’ve really been looking for and you don’t want them to think that you’re not interested.

Mac Prichard:

You’ve talked about the importance of understanding employers’ pain-points and using the job description and other research to find those pain-points. What other kind of interview preparations do you recommend?

Sarah Johnston:

Research is really important. In terms of research that a candidate should do, I love looking at their company website. What are the press releases that they put out? That’s information that they want you to know. If you’re interviewing for a job, you should also get Google Alerts, so that you know what else is in the news, so that you can make an educated evaluation about the company and maybe ask better questions about what they’re not putting out there in their press releases.

I think beyond that, knowing the person who’s interviewing you and doing research on them, as well, is crucial. Where were they prior to their current role? Have they been on any podcasts lately? And if they have, what do they care about? Have they written any articles or shared anything on LinkedIn?

I’m all about a little bit of stalking before the interview because looking for commonalities between you and the person interviewing you, and anything that you can find beforehand can help you build that rapport and that relationship in the interview process.

Mac Prichard:

How do you recommend people talk about those personal connections? I’m assuming you’re thinking about a common interest in a sports team or perhaps attendance at the same University, but once you know those facts, how do you recommend a listener use them in the interview to build that rapport?

Sarah Johnston:

In today’s modern times, people make first impressions digitally before they do in person. So, it’s expected that you’re going to Google someone. It’s all about how you present that you know the information.

If you say, “Oh, I was stalking you before the interview,” that feels a little weird but if you say, “As I was preparing for our conversation today, I noticed that you attended the same University as me. I imagine that we were involved in some of the same groups or associations.” That feels a little bit more natural and can prompt a conversation.

Beyond that, I think that just evaluating their office setting and seeing if they have any diplomas that are presented, you could comment on that. Or if they have sports memorabilia in the office, mentioning the things that you see out in front of you can be helpful as well.

Mac Prichard:

Any tips for someone who does the research and looks for the diplomas on the wall, and still doesn’t see that common connection? Are there other ways, when you’re standing there talking to an interviewer, to build rapport?

Sarah Johnston:

You can comment on things that resonate with a lot of people. So, if you’re driving to the office and notice that your favorite Mexican or sushi restaurant is nearby the office, you could say something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t get to come to this part of town very often but when I do I really love going to Sushi Taco. Do you guys go there for lunch very often?” And that can start building rapport because that’s something that…people enjoy going out to lunch together and you can talk about if the team goes out to group meetings together.

Mac Prichard:

I love that suggestion, and also because it taps into something else that I think is very effective in building rapport, which is asking questions about others and drawing them out because many people love to talk about themselves and their interests, don’t they?

Sarah Johnston:

They do and I’m so glad that you brought that up. I think one of the very best books that a job seeker can read before they even start the interview process is the old, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” which brings up that principle.

People like to talk about themselves and as a former recruiter, it happens so rarely that a candidate just stopped me and said, “Hey, how’s your day going? How are you? Seems like you’ve been working really hard today.” And when somebody took the time to connect with me, it made a difference and it was really refreshing. So, I always appreciate thoughtful questions and appreciate when somebody asks how I’m doing or how things are going.

Mac Prichard:

I do as well and it’s not because people are narcissists, it’s because it also puts them at ease when they’re asked about themselves and their interests, and often, even the interviewer are uncomfortable in what can be a stressful situation for all the parties, aren’t they?

Sarah Johnston:

Yeah, exactly. Candidates don’t often realize this but hiring managers, when they’re interviewing candidates, often there’s a lot of pressure to fill the position quickly. As a corporate recruiter, we had time to fill deadlines where we typically had a clock that started and we had goals to try to fill a position within 45 days, 45 business days.

When you think about, that you often…consider what the job description is, finalize the job description, you post the job description and that’s a 3 week time period, and you’re reviewing applications, that’s another 2 weeks. Then you have 2 weeks of interviewing, and if you’re talking to 5 candidates, you might have a lot of time that’s spent interviewing candidates on top of all of the work that you’re doing already. And it can be a lot for an interviewer, and so having the candidate that realizes that this is a lot on the hiring manager, as well, is a really…demonstrates some emotional intelligence.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, this is terrific, Sarah. We’re going to take a quick break.

When we come back, Sarah Johnston will continue to share her advice about how you can ace an interview and get an offer. Stay with us.

I love Sarah’s point about the importance of understanding an employer’s problems. That’s also why hiring managers ask behavioral interview questions.

Do you know how to answer these questions?

We’ve got a free guide that can help. It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Get your free copy today. Go to macslist.org/questions.

In a behavioral interview, you need to give examples of how you’ve tackled the problems an employer faces today.

Our free guide gives you a four-part strategy to do this.

You’ll also get a list of the most common behavioral questions. So you can practice before you sit down in the hot seat.

Get your copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

A job interview is one of the most important business meetings you’ll have this year. Don’t walk into that room unprepared.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Sarah Johnston.

She’s a former corporate recruiter and the founder of The Briefcase Coach.

Sarah, before the break, we were talking about why people don’t ace interviews and get those job offers.

The third common mistake you’ve seen in your work is that people don’t get the offers because they didn’t close the interview. What do you mean by this?

Sarah Johnston:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a hiring manager come up to me and say, “You know, Sarah, he could clearly do the job, he’s got the skillset, but I just didn’t feel like he wanted the job.”

And what they meant by that is that the candidate didn’t ask questions at the end when they said, “Do you have any questions for us?” The candidate just said, “No, I think I’m good. I think I don’t have any questions.” Or the candidate didn’t close the interview. They didn’t explicitly say that they wanted the job, and so that’s really an opportunity for people listening to your podcasts today to reconsider how they end the interview process.

Mac Prichard:

What kind of questions do you recommend someone come into an interview room with?

Sarah Johnston:

I would say questions that inspire the hire. Power questions, questions that are thoughtful, that gets the hiring manager really thinking about the role. Not just questions like, “Where do you see this position in the next 30 days?”

But questions that show that you’ve really done your homework and that you’re thinking about how to creatively solve the problems of the team. For example, let’s say that you’re a senior nursing leader and you’re interviewing for a role in a hospital and you really wanted to get a good glimpse of what the challenges are in that department.

You could say, “What are some of the hospital initiatives, the clinical initiatives that have been led by your team here?” And that could give you a better idea of what the real challenges are in this department, if it’s a fit for you.

Mac Prichard:

What happens when you ask questions like this in an interview? How does it distinguish you from the other candidates?

Sarah Johnston:

It shows that you’re thoughtful, it demonstrates that you’re really considering the role, it shows a higher level of thinking, and gives a glimpse of how you work and how you process challenges, beyond just the basic challenges that you typically get asked in the interview setting.

Mac Prichard:

What are your suggestions for preparing questions like this? Does it come back to pain-points, again? Understanding what an employer’s challenges are or do you recommend a different approach?

Sarah Johnston:

Understanding the pain-points in the job description is a really great way to establish those questions, doing your target research, looking into what the company’s been doing over the last year and asking yourself, how does it affect this department and this role, will help you build out better questions.

Mac Prichard:

As you ask these questions and you get answers, how do you recommend a candidate build on those responses? What should they be listening for?

Sarah Johnston:

Well, first of all, a candidate should be taking notes. If you’re going to be asking really high-level, thoughtful questions, it does look nice if you’re taking notes, and show that you’re processing those questions, and not just nodding your head as you’re listening to them. I think a back and forth conversation can also be helpful in building rapport and really demonstrating that you’re interested.

Strong candidates will take the interview and have a conversation, and not just question, answer, question, answer. If you can take and process the question, or the feedback that the hiring manager’s giving you and ask a follow-up question, that’s going to be a stronger response.

Mac Prichard:

Do you have a suggestion about the number of questions to ask and how important is it, too, Sarah, to pay attention to the allotted time for an interview?

I can imagine it’s probably not a good idea to walk in with 2 or 3 dozen questions and try to get through them all. What have you seen that’s effective, both in managing time and in making that kind of conversation you were just talking about happen?

Sarah Johnston:

I think the recommendation that I give to job seekers is often 3 to 5 questions. Now, the hiring manager takes one of your questions and spends 30 minutes on it, you may not have time to get to all the questions on your list, and you can say, “You know what? I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. Do you mind if I email you a few follow-up questions?”

And that would be a great opportunity when you send a thank you email, you can include those other questions and continue the dialogue with that hiring manager.

Mac Prichard:

Are there questions that you recommend a candidate not ask in an interview, or perhaps in a first or second conversation?

Sarah Johnston:

I’m so glad you asked this. The question that I absolutely loathe, it is the worse question that a candidate can ask is, “How do you think I handled this interview?” Or, “Do you have any hesitations about my background that might prevent you from hiring me?”

I see this question a lot online and I know a lot of job seekers ask it but the problem with this question is that hiring managers and recruiters are trained to not give feedback because it potentially opens them up for liability and could open them up for a lawsuit. So, they’re not going to give you, in some cases, the real answer to the questions that you want. And so they may give you an answer about their hesitations, and you may meditate on that answer and you may think about that answer, but it might not be the actual real answer.

I don’t like the question because it really puts the hiring manager in the hot seat and you might not get accurate feedback.

Mac Prichard:

I know why people ask that question and I know that you do too. The purpose, of course, is to have a conversation about any concerns that a hiring manager might have that they just haven’t raised and get them on the table. Is there another way to get at that, Sarah, without asking that particular question? Or is it a subject that might just be off the table?

Sarah Johnston:

It may be hard to get at that particular answer. You could ask the question in a roundabout way. You could say something along the lines of, “When you look at your team, what are some opportunities…where do you feel that your team is lacking in terms of skill or development? Or what type of traits are you looking for in this position?”

And hope that they give you something good here that when you’re closing the interview and you’re giving closing language, you can borrow that language, if it’s something that you feel like you have a demonstrated competency in, and you can give that back to them at the end. But it may be that you don’t get an accurate answer here.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about closing the interview; this is a point that you made right up front, about the importance of asking for the job, or expressing interest in it. What’s the best way to do that, Sarah?

Sarah Johnston:

After you’ve asked the questions that you want and you’re thanking them for the opportunity to interview, that’s when you just state, “Thanks for your time today. I feel like I got a good sense of the position, and I feel like I got a sense of your leadership, and I’m excited about the opportunity, and I hope that we can move to the next step in the process.”

And that just lets them know right out of the gate that you see yourself in this role, that you’re interested, and it leaves no doubt on their mind that you’d want the job.

Mac Prichard:

Do you suggest that people directly ask for the job or should they just express interest and enthusiasm?

Sarah Johnston:

That’s a great question, Mac. It depends on your level of confidence. I’ve seen people do this awkwardly and it doesn’t come off well, and I’ve seen people do this really well and it stood out and it made a great impression. So, I think it depends on the person. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, I would just go back to the enthusiasm and stating that you hoped that they could move forward to the next step and that you really see yourself in a role like this.

Mac Prichard:

One way I’ve seen people do this, I learned this from an old sales coach, there’s a saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it too, that, “You’ve got to ask for the order.”

And I’ve seen people say…I’ve seen people say exactly that, “In sales, there’s a saying, ‘You’ve got to ask for the order.’ So I’m asking for the order. I would love to work for you and I hope we have the opportunity to work together.” Do you think that might be an effective approach, Sarah?

Sarah Johnston:

Oh, I love that approach. I think that that is a little bit softer than, “I hope that you’ll hire me.” But it still…it comes across as genuine and it demonstrates that you want the job.

Mac Prichard:

Closing the interview, showing interest, preparing these questions, and perhaps practicing that close, all this takes time, as well as the research that goes into understanding a company’s pain-points. How much time do you recommend a candidate spend on this kind of preparation, and research, and practice for a position, Sarah?

Sarah Johnston:

I’ve had clients interviewing for executive roles who’ve spent 40+ hours preparing for one particular job interview because it was an absolute dream job.

I think for the average person who’s interviewing for a job, who maybe is already employed and this is an interview that they’re doing in addition to all that they’re involved with in life, maybe 5 to 10 hours of preparation for the interview is reasonable. I think spending 2 to 4 hours researching the company and the person, and leveraging your connections to ask if anyone has any ties to the institution or knows anything about the person interviewing you, is a reasonable amount of time, and then maybe 4 to 6 hours preparing your responses.

Thinking of stories that you can tell that answer many of the common behavioral-based interview questions, and then practicing the questions that you know you’re going to get on the interview. The, “Tell me about yourself, strengths and weakness, why do you want to work here?” Those are questions that you should nail and know, right out of the gate.

Mac Prichard:

I know that there’s a listener out there who’s thinking, “That’s a lot of time.” But another way to think about this is, it’s one of the most important business meetings you’re going to have during the course of the year, perhaps a major presentation, and people who are effective at presentations and run good business meetings and important deals, they spend a lot of time preparing for those events, don’t they?

Sarah Johnston:

They do. I mean, this could be… I’ve had job seekers who worked with me who have made $40,000, $100,000, $60,000 more with a job change, and if you think about the 10 hours you prepare for an interview equalling that type of ROI, that’s absolutely worth your investment.

Mac Prichard:

How about follow-ups? We’ve talked about expressing interest, understanding pain-points, doing an effective close. What difference can a follow-up make in acing that interview and getting the offer?

Sarah Johnston:

Such a huge difference. As a career coach, we say this all the time, “Send a thank you email, send a follow-up email.”

But speaking as a recruiter, most job seekers don’t actually send the email out, they don’t send the follow-up email out and I want to tell you a really quick story. I had a new graduate who I worked with who ended up sending a thank you note after he did not get the job. And he thanked the manager for the opportunity to interview and told the manager what he learned. And 2 days later, the new graduate got a call and it was from the hiring manager and apparently, the person that they made the initial offer to did not pass the drug test but this job seeker made such an impression with their follow-up and their “thank you” process, that they ended up extending an offer to this particular new graduate because of the impression that they made in the follow-up.

Mac Prichard:

That’s a great story.

Well, this has been terrific advice, Sarah. Tell us, what’s next for you?

Sarah Johnston:

Thanks for asking. I just launched Job Search Secret Weapon with 4 other career coaches that I really respect and appreciate. This site is kind of like Netflix for your career. We offer 24-hour access to templates and resumes and articles for job seekers at a really low, affordable membership price point, along with an online community through FaceBook, so I’m really excited about that.

I’m also relaunching my website Briefcase Coach next month, and I’ve been working with a wonderful designer and I’m really excited about that as well.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know people can learn more about you, your company, and your services by visiting briefcasecoach.com.

Now, Sarah, thinking about all of the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want our listeners to remember about how to ace a job interview and get that offer?

Sarah Johnston:

You’ve got to know the pain-points of the organization and target your responses to the person interviewing you. What do they care about? What matters to them? Know your audience and target your answers.

Mac Prichard:

To get the job offers you want, you need to prepare for every interview. And that means you need to be ready to answer behavioral questions.

Get your free copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

On our next show, our guest will be Kathleen Everett. She’s the director of client and business relations at Boly:Welch.

Nonprofits aren’t the only employers in the social change business. Certified Benefit Corporations, or B Corps, are private companies working to make the world a better place.

Kathleen and I will talk about why you should work for a B Corp and how to do it. I hope you’ll join us.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

Are you scoring job interviews but no job offers? If so, it’s time to figure out what you need to do differently in order to move from candidate to new employee. It all begins with the first five minutes of the job interview, says Find Your Dream Job guest Sarah Johnston. How you answer the, “Tell me about yourself,” question gives the hiring manager the chance to evaluate many things about you. Sarah also points out the importance of knowing your audience and targeting your job interview answers to address the company’s pain points.

About Our Guest:

Sarah Johnston, the founder of The Briefcase Coach, is a former corporate recruiter and industry insider. Sarah is an executive resume writer, interview coach and LinkedIn profile writer for all career levels – from C-suite to new graduates.

Resources in This Episode:

  • Are you tired of not getting the job you want? Visit jobsearchsecretweapon.com for help in finding the solution.
  • For more help in nailing the first few minutes of any interview, check out “You Map,” by Kristin Sherry.