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Career Coach: Tell Me About Yourself

Being ill prepared to answer the “dreaded” interview question makes you an unmemorable candidate.

Pamela KleibrinkRecently my niece Erika Kleibrink had a job interview for a landscape architect position in San Jose. I was able to coach her in person and asked her the dreaded, timeless question that seems to be a favorite of interviewers everywhere, “Tell me about yourself.”  I was ill prepared when I was asked this question years ago by Peter Schneider at Disney, followed by the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I wanted Erika to be ready to field these questions and I want you to be ready too.

Here was my number one piece of advice to Erika regarding telling the interviewer about yourself.  Talk about your passions - why you are interested in that job and how you got interested in that career.

I asked Erika the question, “Tell me about yourself” and her first response sounded flat and rehearsed.  She was trying to guess what the interviewer wanted to hear.  It was a generic, unmemorable response.  (Probably similar to mine during my interview at Disney). 

When I coached Erika to talk about why she was interested in the career and how she found out about landscape architecture, her whole posture changed.  She transformed into a vivacious, engaging person as she related how she learned about landscape architecture through her grandmother and how it tied all her passions together (her painting, love of color, ability to illustrate) and how she developed her sense of landscape architecture through her volunteer projects throughout high school and college, and her concerns about the environment and her ideas about sustainability.  She looked and sounded like a different person.  There was a visible change because she spoke about her passions, she spoke from her heart and she couldn’t help but be enthusiastic.  She glowed.

An employer wants to hire someone who is passionate.  You don’t have to be a cheerleader, but you have to be willing to share your why.  Why is what drives you.  Why are the things you love about what you do. When people talk about what they love doing they exude energy and a sense of purpose.

Because an interview is also a sales call, I told Erika it’s also vital to focus on the employer’s needs.  Talk about your passion as it relates to what they are looking for.  In Erika’s case it was easy because the agency she was interviewing with needed a landscape architect.  Sometimes it is not as obvious.  That is why it is essential to prepare before your interview which means doing your homework and research. 

Sometimes you have to be proactive to land an interview.  I advised my niece to target a company she wants to work for and research it.  Study the company website–not just the careers or jobs section, but also their press releases, their projects and products, the bios of the founders or any other bios they post. Find out what the company’s upcoming projects are, what they are known for, what their history is, essentially everything you can.  If it’s a public company, read their annual reports.  What is their focus?  What are their forecasts for future projects? Companies and businesses must grow and expand.  How can you help them do that?  What do you offer that they need?  That is what you will stress in the interview.  Relate your passions to their needs. 

Interviews are all about getting to know someone. I explained to my niece it is a conversation and an exchange of information.  It is not just about you.  Find out as much as you can about the people who interview you.  There may be clues in their office–a family photo, pictures on the walls, diplomas, or awards.  Think about starting a relationship with the people you interview with.  What do they like most about working at the company?  How long have they worked there?  Where are they from?  You might be able to get some of this information from professional networking sites like Linkedin. 

Erika asked why it is so important to send a handwritten thank you note after an interview.  It is not only a good practice of etiquette to thank someone for the time they spent with you, but it is a good follow up because you will stand out and be remembered.  When was the last time you received a handwritten note via snail mail?

One of the reasons to network with people and stay in touch with them is because people are more apt to want to hire or work with people they know. 

Go to industry related events and meet people in your industry.  You can also do research while you network at an event, via social media or through other methods. Ask your friends and associates questions about the company you want to work for. 

Getting involved in networking events or in groups on social media sites like Linkedin will help Erika build relationships with people at the company she wants to work for and gain insider info on what the company is really like.  She can learn what they really need, which will give her a chance to prepare and know how to answer those tough interview questions-- especially “Where do you see yourself in five years?”  Will the company she wants to work for now have enough growth opportunities for her to stay for five years, if that is her desire?  A company with a narrower focus may not be able to offer her what she desires.  Her research should help her  determine what company is right for her.  When she finds the right fit, she should be prepared to answer the interview questions with passion and help the interviewer get to know her.  The interviewer is looking for someone who can do the job (her skills), who is willing (her enthusiasm), and who is the right fit (her personality and knowledge of the company).

After her coaching session, Erika was ready to answer that question “Tell me about yourself” by sharing her passions and enthusiasm for the job and the company and think about where she wants to be in five years.  Whether it is with the company she is interviewing with or for someone else, it’s good to have a long range plan so she knows whether the job she is applying for will help her reach those goals.

By the way, Erika called me today to tell me she got a job in Waupaca, Wisconsin, working as a landscape architect for a small design firm. 

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Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a career coach specializing in helping creative people succeed.  She also recruits for companies in visual effects, animation, games and design.  She speaks at schools and conferences about how to create a career you love.  To reach her for private consultations, recruiting or speaking engagements, email PamRecruit@q.com.

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