Why Your Career Story Matters Most in a Job Interview, with Melissa Magaña

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We all dread the question, tell me about a time you made a mistake in your job. But if we can address our mistakes as simply a piece of our entire career story, we can change the feeling of shame and uncertainty we may feel. Find Your Dream Job guest Melissa Magaña says our stories make us seem more personable and attractive to hiring managers. Melissa shares how to create a narrative arc of your career history that allows you to share specific stories- stories of successes and challenges. 

About Our Guest:

Melissa Magaña is the HR generalist at  Habitat for Humanity Portland Region

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 369:

Why Your Career Story Matters Most in a Job Interview, with Melissa Magaña

Airdate: October 12, 2022

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.

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Do you believe that in a job interview, you must always give the perfect answer? 

The problem with this, says today’s guest, is that employers, like the rest of us, know that nobody is perfect. 

Melissa Magaña is here to talk about why your career stories matter most in a job interview and how to share them.

She’s the HR generalist at Habitat for Humanity Portland Region. 

Her organization revitalizes neighborhoods, builds affordable homes, and empowers families through successful homeownership.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon. 

Well, let’s jump right into it, Melissa. What mistakes do you see candidates make when answering questions in a job interview? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, I think you talked about it. It’s that there’s this desire to have the perfect response. Right? To any question, to every question that could possibly arise during an interview, and unless, you know, you’ve got that magic crystal ball that tells you what somebody’s gonna ask, you know, you can always prepare for the common questions. But inevitably, there’s that one that comes out of left field that’s somewhat unexpected, and the candidates that I’ve seen often don’t have a way to respond, and they freeze, they fumble, they start sweating profusely. Some of them will clam up. They say, nope, nope, next question. I don’t know. I’m stuck. 

And it really throws off the flow of an interview, and it’s in those moments, at least from the interviewer’s side, where you start to see kind of the real person coming through. Right? And the question that I love to ask, and I know that so many of the hiring managers in my organization like to ask, is, tell me about a time that you made a mistake, or that you made an error, or that you did something you didn’t actually intend to do that maybe inconvenienced someone, caused harm. Right? Tell me about a time where you messed up. What did you do to resolve it? What did you learn from it? The unspoken follow-up questions. Right? And time and time again, I see folks freeze. 

Mac Prichard:

I can imagine some people hear that question- tell me about a time you made a mistake- and they might worry, Melissa, while the question is well-intentioned, that the interviewer is setting a trap for them. When you ask that question, you and your colleagues, what are you hoping to accomplish? What do you want to learn? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, so I want to see what I’m searching for when I’m interviewing someone and asking that question is, does someone have the capacity to learn, to adapt, to face a challenge? Even one that they’ve failed at and then fail forward. Right? To fail into something that’s gonna allow them to build upon their existing knowledge, to make a correction, to improve that for the next time. Right? It’s part of that continuous improvement mentality. It’s part of that philosophy of always learning, and that’s what I’m looking for. 

Mac Prichard:

You can’t prepare an answer for every question, but you can prepare an answer for a question about a time you made a mistake. How do you recommend someone get ready for that question, and what should they try to accomplish when they answer it? 

Melissa Magaña:

So I think this goes right back into the being able to tell your own story. Right? So, so many folks, at least the folks I’ve interacted with, they don’t like to talk about times where they don’t look the best. Right? They want to look perfect in the eyes of their potential future employer, and I think that there’s a lot of value, a lot of strength in being vulnerable and being able to say, hey, here’s how I royally messed up this thing, and I recognized it, and I sought help on it, and I documented it, and I worked to remedy whatever the situation was. And then here are the things I put in place, so that doesn’t happen again. 

And so, when folks are struggling to share that vulnerability during an interview or are struggling with allowing themselves to not be perfect, I would encourage them to sit back into their character. Right? And when I say that, I mean to view themselves as their main character in the story arc of their career, of their lifetime. Because when we think about stories about our favorite characters, we give a lot more grace to our favorite characters, to their moments of hardship, to their moments of learning, than we often give ourselves. And so that’s one thing that I would encourage folks to do. 

Mac Prichard:

I want to talk more about career storytelling and particularly thinking of yourself as the character. One last question about answering that question about tell me about a time you made a mistake; you’ve done the preparation. You’ve delivered your answer. How do you know it’s working, that it’s effective, and that you, by talking candidly about a mistake and the lessons you’ve learned, that you’ve made a favorable impression on the interviewer? 

Melissa Magaña:

That’s a wonderful question. I think that you can often observe the way that your response is being received by how engaged the interviewer is and what sort of follow-up questions they’re asking you. Right? If they sort of just nod and move on to the next thing, maybe you haven’t made as much of an impact with what your response was as you might’ve liked to have been able to do. 

But if they turn around and they’re like, you know, wow, it sounds like that was kind of a big snarl that, you know, happened there. What did you do? Or what did you learn? Or what would you do differently next time? Those types of follow-up questions, at least if I’m sitting in the interviewee’s seat, tell me that the interviewer is engaged, they are very present with what I’m sharing, and they’re invested. Right? On some level, they’re invested in the character in the story, me as the interviewee, and thus in me as a person and me as a candidate. 

And that’s what I look for. That’s what I like to see. And that’s what I try to reflect back to folks who I may be interviewing. 

Mac Prichard:

Terrific. We’re gonna take a break, Melissa. When we come back, I want to dig into career storytelling, as I know you’re a big fan of it, and talk about how to do it and why you should think about yourself as a character in your own career story. 

So stay with us. 

When we return, Melissa Magaña will continue to share her advice on why a career story matters most in a job interview. 

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Melissa Magaña.

She’s the HR generalist at Habitat for Humanity Portland Region. 

Her organization revitalizes neighborhoods, builds affordable homes, and empowers families through successful homeownership.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon. 

Melissa, before the break, we were talking about why your career story matters most in a job interview. I’m really intrigued by this, the idea of being a character in your own career story. 

If you want to do this, how do you get started, Melissa? What’s the first step if you’re a candidate, you’re getting ready for an interview, you want to take a career storytelling approach? You’re not gonna come up with perfect answers. You’re gonna be prepared for that question about a time you made a mistake, and think about the lessons you learned and how you fail forward and be ready for that. But how do you get ready to tell your career story? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, I think a lot of it is practice. But I would encourage folks to start with their resumes and start the furthest point back in their resume that’s available. Right? And often, we’re told not to put anything older than ten years on the resume or fifteen years, whatever it is. But go back as far as you’re comfortable going back because you’re looking for your origin point. Right? 

Most folks, especially if they’re professionals in their career, they’ve been in the work for a number of years, they’ve got some really incredible stories. Right? And there was something. There was a point, something that sparked their interest at the outset, that inspired them, that encouraged them to say yes, this is what I’m passionate about. This is the career path I want to take. 

And if there wasn’t that, then I encourage folks to at least identify some instances that may have informed that choice. Right? You’re looking for an origin point, and that helps build the full narrative that you’re gonna be able to share with anyone you’re interviewing with. 

Mac Prichard:

When you’re thinking about your origin story or what you call an origin point, you mentioned inspiration as being one element of that. 

What are some of the other elements of an origin story that you should address when you’re doing that work as you prepare to tell your career story in a job interview? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, I think, when I’m thinking about an origin story or origin point, there’s inspiration, motivation, desire. Right? What are folks hungry for? What’s the point, whether it’s at the top of the mountain or at the end of the road? What’s that point that they’re working towards? And that can change over time, but it’s a good idea to be able to identify that. 

So in someone’s career, it might be, hey, I want to be a director or a VP of such and such role in such and such industry. But, you know, I started out in the mail room and worked my way up to the front desk, and then I worked my way up from there to be a lead on a small team, and so now I’m chasing that next step, that’s maybe being the manager of a couple of teams. Right? It all fits into this journey that someone is taking as a part of their career narrative of their story. 

So, yeah, origin story. What is the desire? And then, along the road, what have been the challenges, and going back to our resumes. Right? Because those are often rich with detail, looking back and saying, okay, well, I worked here for three years, and then I worked at this other place for two years, and then there was that one stint where I only worked there for eight months, but I don’t really want to talk about that, and then, you know, folks look at their resume and they sort of just look at it in these little time blocks or the job title of the role that they had while they were there. 

But there’s so much more to it. Right? If each of those is a chapter in our story, a segment of our career narrative, then it almost becomes easier to tell that, to share that. When you’re sitting in your interview, you don’t have to be looking down at your sheet going, oh right, I worked at, you know, ABC corporation, from, you know, 2010 to 2013. Right? Like you don’t have to do that because it’s already a part of your storytelling. And the years become less important, but the lessons learned and the growth that came out of each of those experiences becomes the focal point. 

Mac Prichard:

Beyond the what, what did you do, but also focus on the why and what you learned from those experiences? Is there an exercise for getting clear about your origin story, Melissa, that you recommend listeners consider doing? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, I would encourage folks to take their resume and then get a journal or open a new document on their computer and write it out. And it doesn’t have to be in great detail, but with each role that someone has held, jot down a few things and say, you know, what motivated me to accept this role. What did I love about it? What did I not love about it? What was the biggest challenge? And what was the biggest takeaway? Right? What was the biggest lesson that I took from that? And how have I then incorporated that into my character and into my career? I think that folks will find a lot of really fruitful material there.  

Mac Prichard:

Once you’ve done this work, you’re getting ready for your job interview. How do you apply what you’ve learned about your career story, starting with your origin story and then experiences that followed, to a job interview? How do you make it happen once you’re in the interview seat? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, and that’s where I think a lot of it is practice. But once you’ve written it out and once you’ve sort of outlined your chapters, if you will, in your story or the sections of your career narrative, it becomes a little easier to tie back responses to questions to a specific chapter. Right? And I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me. I read a lot of books. I love literature. 

But when I’m sitting in the interview seat, and I receive a question, as I process my response for that question, I’m thinking back to wow, you know, there’s a lot in chapter three that speaks to this, or wow, there’s a lot in chapter five, and maybe in chapter six as well. 

And that allows me to pull that information forward in my mind and say, well, you know, here’s a time I worked on this really incredible project in chapter three or in this job, and I did a similar project in chapter five, but it was actually on a much larger scale, and let me tell you about that, because it was a really powerful experience for me and shifted my focus from, you know, being more broad to being something that I actually wanted to dig into a little bit more. 

Mac Prichard:

Many people, when they’re in that interview seat, and they’re answering questions, they respond with facts. They don’t tell stories about themselves and about their work; instead, they give either yes or no answers, or perhaps they focus on statistics that document an outcome that might be adventurous to an employer. 

Melissa, you obviously, have been both a candidate yourself, but now you hire people for your organization. Why do you recommend telling stories in a job interview? Why is that more effective for the candidate and more appealing for the employer? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, so I will say, Mac, that facts are also within these stories, and I understand where you’re coming from with folks responding with very clear cut, straightforward, statistical, sometimes, answers, and that’s great. That’s valid, too. I think that the value of the stories, though, is, and when I say stories, I don’t mean make-believe. I don’t mean that these are manufactured responses. I mean to take real experiences that folks have had and to distill them down into a narrative that they can then share. 

And I think it’s important because, so often, when hiring managers are reviewing resumes, they’re looking at a name and a list of knowledge, skills, and abilities or knowledge, skills, and experiences on a piece of paper. And then if that candidate is fortunate enough to be selected, then, you know, maybe they meet that hiring manager, or that hiring team face-to-face, and they’re still strangers, for the most part. Right? 

Strangers who will hopefully be colleagues, be coworkers in the near future. But in that moment, they’re still strangers, and if we think about us as humans, right, as whole beings, we crave connection, and one of the ways in which we have connected with one another, you know, across centuries, across cultures, is through stories and through storytelling, and I think that if a candidate can step into a space and share their story, they’re seen as more of a 3D person, as more of a whole person in the eyes of the hiring team as well, and there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of value there in that it allows it to be more memorable. 

It also allows the hiring team to see them more as, you know, well, how would this whole person contribute to our team? Slot in with, you know, the existing dynamics of our team. Or help it evolve into something more? 

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Melissa. Now, tell us, what’s next for you? 

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, so for me, I’m gonna keep continuing to support Habitat and to support our incredible growing team at Habitat For Humanity, Portland Region. 

You know, we believe that everyone deserves a decent place to call home, and so there’s a lot of work that goes into that. Everything from, you know, building and repairing homes to helping create new funding streams through fundraising through sales at our Restores, which are these home improvement outlets, and if you have not checked one out yet, please do. They’re incredible. 

And so, that’s what’s next for me, continuing to do what I do, and help grow our team, and hire really amazing people. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific. Well, I know listeners can learn more about your work by visiting the Habitat Portland Region website at habitatportlandregion.org.

Now, Melissa, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about why your career story matters most in a job interview and how to share it?  

Melissa Magaña:

Yeah, I hope that folks remember to treat themselves with kindness through that process, to treat themselves like their most beloved main character of their favorite novel, and then to share that character, to share those experiences and that story openly, vulnerably, and enthusiastically with the folks who they’re interviewing with. 

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Kimberly Brown. 

She’s a career and leadership expert, author of the new book, Next Move, Best Move, and host of the weekly podcast, Your Next Move.  

Kimberly’s mission is to empower women and people of color in the workplace. 

You not only want to get the job when you apply for a position. You also want to earn the most competitive pay possible. 

Join us next Wednesday when Kimberly Brown and I talk about how to position yourself to get the best salary offer.

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Our sound engineer is Matt Fiorillo.  Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.