The most important question to ask in an interview

Ah, the interview. The one hour or so that compacts years of experience, future years of ambition, and only your best qualities on show while hiding your quirks that the interviewers just aren’t ready for yet. 

It’s a big ask for such a short amount of time. You have one shot for a first impression, one shot to make the right impression, and one chance to articulate your suitability in a concise way that covers all the good bits of your career and personality.

You can understand why some companies opt for the multiple setting interview: half hour phone interview, two hour group activity, one hour hypothetical case study/role play (who to chuck out of a hot air balloon is a fav’), and one hour face to face interview.

Although this draws out the painful experience of an interview, it at least provides more time for you to be able to demonstrate a number of soft- and people-skills while knowing you have another chance or two to really shine.

But what if you only have the traditional format of a one hour interview?

You have a lot to cover in such a short time; how do you know you can cover everything while also begin to understand what the panel think about you?

Before I get to the one question you need to ask at an interview (y’know, just for a bit of suspense), there are the usual pointers that you need to cover throughout the interview:

“I’ve nothing to wear!” – something that fits well and is comfortable but formal. Interviews are worrying enough as they are without having to worry about how your stomach looks in a particular shirt, for example.

Arrival – arrive waaaay too early. It’ll settle your nerves knowing you’ve arrived with ample time.

Intro – just go in for the hand shake, without hesitation; no awkward ‘right hand in, right hand out’ scenario, just be the one to make that decision of shaking hands.

The job spec – learn it inside out and make sure you can answer each of their requirements, even if you don’t meet them 100%. Tell them that and what you can already do to balance this. Keep a copy of this in front of you during the interview.

Your CV – bring this with you and highlight the good bits as prompts.

Your responses (STAR) – that is: what was the Situation you want to talk about that demonstrates your answer; the Tasks you identified to address it; the Action you took; and the Results that followed. Might be worth adding the potential negative consequences had you not reacted in the way you did.

Your questions – lots of questions about the company (using the information you already found out about them online as an opener to a question), about the team you’d be working with, and my favourite, what the interviewers like the most and least about working there.

And of course, THE BIG QUESTION

Capital letters for this one, it’s that important.

Everyone I have shared this question with have fed back to me how well it served them and their interview. And for every time I have used it myself, I have slept better that night.

I thought of this question following a job rejection about 5 or 6 years ago, a devastating blow at the time. The job sounded really interesting and could’ve been the first step to a promising career.

A couple of days after the interview, the interviewer rang me up and told me the bad news – I didn’t get it. She kindly met up with me to provide more detailed feedback:

Interviewer: “You did really, really well…”

Me, to myself: Not helping

Interviewer: “…you have really good experience…”

Me, to myself: Not helping

Interviewer: “…and your CV is really well put together…”

Me: “Thanks, I followed this awesome advice!

Interviewer: “…In the end, it was down to you and one other person…”

Me, to myself: REALLY not helping

Interviewer: “…and we decided to go with the other candidate.”

On a personal note – I would like each and every one of you to go out and spread the word so that one day, all interviewers can know that telling rejected candidates that “it was between you and someone else” is the least helpful piece of feedback. Just stop. It comes across as eeny-meanie-miney-mo-esque.

Anyhoo, when I asked the interviewer what made her decide the other person over me, she said that as it was so close she had to look at what one of us could do that the other couldn’t, and as the other candidate knew how to make and use Excel macros, they picked him.

“….but I can do macros”, I said, “you never asked me, nor was it listed in the job spec”.

She apologised profusely but admitted the deed was done, the offer letter was out and that was that.

And it was at that point I promised myself that I would ask the one Big Question at the end of each interview that I want to share with you:

“At this point of the interview, are there any concerns you might have that I can address now?”

It’s as simple as that, but it’s an effective question that provides you the opportunity to iron out any niggles they might have, that could potentially be the make-or-break decision maker.

Had I have asked that question, they would have asked “Yes, as a matter of fact, you haven’t mentioned if you can do macros – can you?”

Of course retrospectively I’m glad I never got the job as I wouldn’t have got to a position I’m in now.

I used the question in an interview a year or so afterwards, and there was indeed a niggle the interviewer had that they weren’t going to bring up but decided to, seeing as I had given them some sort of permission. Their concern, left unaddressed, was potentially a deal breaker, but from asking this question, I was able to put their mind at rest with some reassurance.

I got the job – perhaps not solely from asking that question but I thought about how different it may have turned out if I didn’t ask that question, and if it would have been a close call between me and one other person.

Side note: it was that very job that introduced me to the world of HR and literally changed my working life. There you have it folks, not just The Big Question, a life changing question!

I thoroughly recommend asking this simple question at the end of the interview. Even if you feel uncomfortable asking it, make a joke out of asking such ‘a cheeky question’.

Asking this will also help you sleep better at night following the interview. It really is a dreadful time between interview and hearing the outcome so although it won’t remove 100% of the worry, it will take the edge off of it.

If you’re looking for more tips on interviews, have a look at the great advice Clear Cut Selection provide on their blog. They also offer one-to-one interview mock and coaching sessions tailored to your needs. Not an affiliate, just pointing readers to awesome content.

Good luck with your interview(s) and don’t forget to ask this question!

 

 

Creating a CV with impact

A friend mine recently asked me to have a look at her CV for an amazing role she had seen, one that could offer them a huge opportunity and better job stability. Having seen hundreds of CVs in my working life, and being part of recruitment campaigns, I was more than happy to give her CV a once-over; changing things, adding things, getting rid of things, making suggestions.

I was thrilled to bits to hear that not only did she get invited to an interview (the biggest hurdle for any job search), she also got the job! I absolutely can’t take any credit for this in any way as she had all the qualities and skills needed for the role but the importance of portraying these skills in a way that has impact to those tediously looking at one CV after another inspired me to share with you how to re-format your CV to get recruiters’ attention.

Before I crack on, just a note on composing your CV in general: the best CVs are put together with a specific role in mind. This can either be your ideal role that you’re focussing all of your efforts on going for but haven’t seen yet and applying for no other type of roles other than this, or, even better, for a specific job in response to an advert you have seen. The extra hard work and effort will increase your odds and will be recognised by the recruiter.

If you’re going for the same sort of roles in specific niches like L&D, recruitment or HR advice, the changes you will have to make each time will be extremely minimal.

Job spec

Before embarking on CV feng shui, you need to have a look at the job spec on the advert. Really get to understand the sort of candidate they’re looking for by the way they compose the priority of skills – the crux of the role will be listed as the first lot of skills, any after that are still essential but just not the things they’re keeping a watchful eye out for.

Don’t forget, if you’re not 100% sure what they’re looking for, get in contact with them and find out. When you are sure what they want, begin to list the key skills, abilities and experience they’re looking for. If the spec is written well, you might find that this is just as useful instead of a hand written list.

Your key skills section

Now you know what they’re looking for, you can start creating a ‘key skills’ section. This is such an underused part of the CV but proves incredibly helpful for arousing intrigue.

Placed at the beginning of the CV, this section acts like a synopsis of you and your career. Like how readers look at the back of the book before going through the book, the key skills section of your CV gives the recruiters a taster of what’s to come, and why they should read on. You don’t need to worry too much about proving or demonstrating your skills as these will all be detailed in the specifics of your CV, like employment history.

For now, you can put together your key skills by ‘responding’ to the advert’s blueprint of the perfect candidate. For example, if they’re looking for someone who has experience in rolling out a new payroll platform, and you have that experience, brag about it as an item in the ‘key skills’ section. Don’t leave it until they get to the nitty-gritty of your employment history that might not even get looked at if you’ve already lost the recruiter’s interest.

And if they need someone to speak to all people at all levels, brag about how you are a strong communicator to all levels, appropriate to various audiences. Use each skill they’re looking for as a question that your skills can answer.

Putting together about eight to ten bullet points should be enough and must ALL be relevant to the job you are applying for. To halve the space this will take up, format this section as a double column.

Employment history

Like you did with your key skills, go back to your job spec and respond to it through the experience and skills you picked up with each employer. I would recommend putting these into bullet points which makes it easier to read, and start off with the doozies that will really carry the recruiter’s interest after such an intriguing ‘key skills’ section. Make it look as though this CV and your experience have led you up to this point that will not only meet the needs of the role, but demonstrate you can carry it so much further.

When listing your experience, the usual mechanics are the same:

  • Lots of strong verbs that resolve issues you expect to come across in the advertised role
  • Demonstrate these verbs by explaining the results you were responsible for, as well as the bad consequences that were avoided
  • Key metrics – ‘reduced queries by 40%’, ‘improved productivity by 50%’ etc.
  • Any new skills, development and ways of working you learned while being in the role that you can now bring to this role
  • One or two relevant key achievements per role that you’re personally proud of (…but really to make you look like the bee’s knees to the recruiter)

Qualifications

You might have guessed by now what I’m going to say next. Have a look at the job spec and see what qualifications they are looking for, and if you have these (or currently studying for them) put these at the top if it’s chronologically appropriate. If the key qualifications they’re looking for aren’t the most recent you have earned, you might want to have a small blurb at the beginning of this section about how you are ‘an X-qualified professional’, or the like, before listing all of your qualifications and relevant training.

If you haven’t already, have a look at the post I wrote on undergoing training for which work hasn’t paid. In it, I talk about how you can use seemingly irrelevant qualifications and training to your advantage by listing the skills you learned from it and suggest how these can be transferred over. Just be sensible about this and avoid any far-fetched crossovers just for the sake of including these.

In the same post, I also talk about how good it looks for recruiters who see candidates fund their own training. It shows dedication, initiative and forward-thinking, as well as taking the profession seriously. You have identified where you wanted to be and went ahead and made sure you got there by paying for your own training.

Just think of how omitting this fact is such a wasted opportunity – spell it out on your CV, even with ‘self-funded’ in brackets after the qualification. I paid for most of my professional qualifications and by heck will I brag about it on my CV!

References

Just to touch briefly on the last section of any CV, I wouldn’t worry about adding referees’ details on your CV, unless you need to fill up space. A usual ‘references available upon request’ would be enough, and odds are you will have to provide this information on a separate form again if you’re successful anyway.

What about interests and hobbies?

If you do relevant volunteer work, or do any industry-related extracurricular activities in your own time, this is what you should add in this section, but rename it as ‘Volunteering’ or ‘Additional work of relevance’. This again shows initiative and dedication to working hard in an industry you’re passionate about, and your CV is the perfect opportunity to be proud of these achievements.

I personally never see the relevance or the impact listing your hobbies can have on your CV. Not only do they take up space on your CV, they’re just not necessary. They’re nice to know about a candidate but you honestly can’t expect a recruiter to give you a shot if you lack all the important skills because you so happen to love needle craft too, can you?

More devastatingly, what if you struck all the right chords with the recruiter and you end on a really flat list of your love of ‘puppies, and kittens, and baking, and holidays with my friends’. What positive impact can this provide? What if the recruiter hates all of these things, is there a risk their unconscious bias might hold them back from inviting you to an interview? Personally, I don’t think hobbies and interests end on a professional note and should be kept out, and maybe used as an ice breaker in the interview.

Format

One last thing – save and send your CV in no other format than PDF. I can’t stress how much more of a professional impact this will have on the recruiters. In one of my previous roles, the recruiter had told me that my PDF CV immediately stood me out amongst the other applicants who had sent theirs as a Word document (as well as my general awesomeness, obv’).

Word documents can easily be edited, the formatting can easily be skewed if the recruiter has a different version, and it can potentially suggest that you like to put a lot of effort into a piece of work without doing the final flourish that finishes it off. Just on the safe side though, save a Word version too. Not only is this so that you can edit it later (and then save as a new PDF), but frustratingly some recruiting software doesn’t accept PDF documents.

How you put together the components in your CV, and how they’re laid out is up to you, only I thoroughly recommend using the ‘key skills’ section at the very beginning. I’ve included a very basic infographic at the end of this post as an example of a simple layout, and is quite similar to my own. No need to complicate the structure with graphics or clever design.

As mentioned, structuring your skills and experience in response to specific roles can seem tedious but it dramatically increases your chances for invites to interviews. Odds are the changes are very minimal if you know what sort of roles you’re going for.

Good luck with your job hunting!

 

CV format

A secret to finding your perfect career

Are you frustrated with the unending struggle of figuring out what you should be doing with your career? Too many interests, too many options and no idea where to begin? Or you just don’t feel strongly enough about any particular field, subject or type of vocation that you feel like you’re moments away from going eeny meeny miny mo? 

Is there a way to finding out your perfect career?

No.

But is there at least a perfect career for each person!?

No.

….Does this give you relief? ‘At last the struggle is over!’ Or does this make you even more frustrated because time and time again you’ve been promised the contrary?

Allow me to expand a bit on this. By all means this is not a negative view on the hot topic of discovering what you should be doing with your career, on which there are thousands of books, blogs and so forth. I have read a large number of these but I did not discover my ‘true calling’ by doing so.

This is my own perspective on the topic and should hopefully bring a little relief that there is no one way for finding out what is your perfect career – you no longer have to frantically search for an answer as the answer does not exist. Indeed the question is superfluous.

Analogy time!

An analogy, if you will, for food for thought (pun intended…you’ll see in a bit). Imagine if you’re looking for the perfect weekend dinner (see). You want a go-to dish that you want to cook every Saturday that will need to meet a number of criteria:

  • It must be tasty (in job terms, it needs to scratch a vocational itch)
  • It must be easy to cook, or at least easy to learn how to cook (it uses previous experience. ‘Easy’ is relative to the amount of interest you have in it, for example a someone with a natural flare to be a doctor won’t necessarily find the medical exams easy, but it’s easy for them to be determined to study for them)
  • It needs to involve the utensils you have (the skills you have)
  • It shouldn’t take a long time to cook (not compromise your free time)
  • It mustn’t be too uninspiring so you won’t get bored of it (be stimulating over time)

Now, to discover this perfect dish, do you think a personality test will give you the one correct answer? Or if you spoke to a professional chef with 5 Michelin stars, they will give you the one correct answer? Or if you read dozens of recipe books to learn about all the dishes available and the first dish you choose, after careful and lengthy assessment, would without doubt the best dish for you? Or by choosing all of your favourite ingredients, combining these with your experience and utensils, you will reach a culinary ‘ikigai’, the centre of a perfect Venn diagram?

Is this really achievable? Hypothetically, lets humour that the answer is ‘yes’ and the perfect dish for you came out as chorizo, olive and mushroom pizza. You might think to yourself you’ve hit the jackpot and you have finally, yes finally, found your perfect Saturday dish. Nothing can beat this.

Until you travel to Italy and try their pizzas and it’s better than your perfect Saturday dish. What did all that time mean when you’ve researched, did the homework, spoke to the professionals – all the things you were told to do to find the best Saturday dish – only to have all the effort gone awry with this new Italian spanner in the works.

Would you apply this logic to find the perfect job? Personality tests, experts, books and assessments? Yet there’s so much out there saying this way is the only way to find the perfect job. In times of desperation, it’s easy and convenient to believe them. It’s a reflection of our avid doer spirit; it’s a problem that we want to solve and we’re more than willing to use as many methods and techniques to get the answer. But it feels that bit more frustrating when an answer is promised but not reached.

Personally, I found it satisfying knowing that there isn’t a perfect career for me.

But I love my job. I find it interesting, uses my experience and skills, with plenty of room for development and progression fueled by my own professional motivation. I feel I’m making a difference and scratches my vocational itch. The people I work with are the best and the working culture suits me and my personality. On paper, this is the perfect career for me. So why isn’t this the perfect career for me?

Because perfection is time-sensitive and specific to my current life circumstances right now which include the extra things I do in my free time, for example addressing my other interests in my leisure time (like blogging!) that my job doesn’t meet. I’m not saying that in time I will go off the job. But who’s to say a couple of years down the line I’m offered a promotion I hadn’t thought about, and that is way better than the job I’m in now but is in a slightly different direction or niche? That therefore doesn’t make my current role perfect as I would have found something better.

Do you have a preference to loving your job or having the best career specific for you? Does either one provide more satisfaction than the other?

In my opinion, I don’t think so, but the former is a lot more achievable, realistic and tangible than the latter. That’s why I think the question shouldn’t be ‘what is my perfect career?’ but should be ‘how can I love my job?’

So what do you do?

There are four types of people who get their job satisfaction right:

  1. They’ve known all along and literally made it their mission to be what they want based on their personal interests eg a musician might have picked up a guitar at the age of 5 and couldn’t put it down. Those who say they would love to play an instrument but have never given it a go are not musicians. They would have had an involuntary compulsion to pick up that instrument long ago.
  2. They’ve stumbled into their career by accident eg those who find themselves in less sexy roles than we’ve not normally been exposed to, or have eventually found it by a few attempts of trial and error
  3. Their job fits their lifestyle and therefore gives them satisfaction – this is not the actual role, or the nature of it per se, but it provides enough happiness and contentment for the life they want to live
  4. They encapsulate these three points into one whole, contented life that meets the needs of their interests, job satisfaction and lifestyle.

You see, focusing your efforts into finding the best job for you is, I believe, just one element to finding job satisfaction, or satisfaction in general. Would you be less satisfied with your work life if you could still pass the time with your interests when you’re not at work in the form of hobbies, or if you incorporate elements of your interests in your role, giving it your own unique angle? Would you be less satisfied if your job meant you couldn’t get home earlier than most people so you can spend more time with your family? Would you be less satisfied if the itches that aren’t scratched by a good job could be scratched by ways of a side hustle, either paid or for leisure?

You might put blame on a job that didn’t cater to your interests, for example, if you didn’t take the time to fulfill these interests outside of work.

As multi-faceted beings, we have many interests, and the concept that one career can satisfy multiple dimensions of a personality is inaccurate and unnecessarily leads to inevitable dissatisfaction.

In time I believe more and more job roles will take this concept into more consideration, allowing people’s unique set of skills and experience to ‘meat-out’ the role, bringing a competitive edge to the organisation, a workforce that isn’t identified by their job roles or by the job adverts to which they applied. Indeed, the concept of ‘intrapreneur’ is becoming a thing now, where organisations are harnessing employee’s entrepreneurial spirit by giving them free rein on certain aspects of projects and tasks, and reaping the benefits while providing more job satisfaction.

So it questions: is there is a need to find the perfect career if more organisations will adopt this spirit of intrapreneurship meaning that careers aren’t being shaped by a cookie cutter, but by the employee themselves?

In the meantime, I hope that if you agree with my perspective on achieving ‘the perfect career’ it hasn’t left you disheartened – instead I hope it has lessened the weight of the burden in trying to find the perfect career.

This is the first of a 5 part series of posts on discovering how to find job satisfaction. Next week, I will be talking about what to do if you have too many interests to decide on a career.

Getting out of a dead-end job

We’ve all been there; feeling stuck in a job that offers little or no prospects, no possibility of moving up the ladder, and with each day coming into work – the same smells, the same annoying sounds, the same entrance, the same, the same, the same – it feels progressively harder and tiresome. The excitement of Christmas seems like a distant memory, and while your choice of quinoa salad ‘for the new you’ will certainly not pick your spirits up, you feel nothing will.

Being in a dead end job can really take its toll on a person, especially for those who want to progress and just smash their career. Working in an organisation that can’t offer the career or job you want will make you start asking what you should do next, or you might have already considered your next move after planning your career in 2018.

To help you focus your thoughts, you could start by assessing your situation and ascertain:

  • Your wants: what you want to do – the type of job or career you want, the industry, the working culture, the lifestyle, your work/life balance
  • Your abilities: what you can do that can get you to where you want to be – the current skills you have, the attitude you possess, the experience you have developed, the ability to relocate, the flexibility in terms of working patterns, the budget to fund learning new career skills
  • Your limitations: what you can’t do that limits what you want – the skills you don’t have but would like or need, lack of flexibility to relocate due to, for example, childcare, the funds for new qualifications

This won’t be an overnight epiphany. You might find it will take a while before a clear picture forms in your head about your wants, abilities and limitations. More so if you can’t decide what career you want in the first place. It’s important to not keep these in your head either; it’s an agreed

But once you do have an understanding of this, you will consequently be presented with four options:

  1. Move on and find another job

You might come to the point where you feel that your current organisation can’t offer anything you want any more and that you should find another job. Although this option shouldn’t be taken too lightly, it might be the best solution for you if you want to develop and progress, either in your current or new field.

Looking for a new job in your current organisation should be your first port of call so to not to interrupt your years of service (you have full employee rights after 2 years’ service with your current employer), but if your employer is the problem, then your search should exclude them so you won’t be tempted to take a new job within the company and find yourself back to square one later. And if they are the problem, and it’s come to the point that it’s affecting your health, then this option could be the best one for you. No job is worth putting your health at risk.

  1. Stay put while studying

If it’s at all bearable, you could consider staying in your current role while studying a new skill or qualification, especially if the career you want requires these and you don’t have. I’m a big believer in studying on your own steam – that is studying in your own time, with your own money, under your own initiative. Studying on your own steam not only does this mean you get to study what you want to get where you need, but it demonstrates motivation to any new employers.

This option prepares you for your next career move without haste but it also justifies you staying where you are. It’s no longer a dead end job but a job that pays the bills while you study. Having chosen this option before, I can say that this does really change your attitude of the job you want to leave and makes the wait that bit more bearable.

  1. Stay put while working on a side hustle

When thinking about what you want to do, you might have concluded that you want to start your own business, either as an eventual full-time venture, or alongside your ‘bread-and-butter’ job. If it’s a full time thing you’re after, this option is similar to option 2, where you’re making the job more justified as it pays the bills while working on setting up your own business. It provides financial security while you get the business off the ground, and acts as stabilisers until the business is ready to generate sustainable income.

If you want the side hustle alongside the ‘bread-and-butter’ job then again it justifies you being in the dead end job. Some people find that being in a dead end job means they can reserve their energy to their side hustle, whether it’s for extra income, as a creative outlet, or just for fun and not-for-profit. Having a number of roles is what’s termed as a ‘portfolio career’ and it has been predicted that this way of working will become more and more popular as people find multiple avenues to use the full spectrum of their skills. Although the entrepreneurial route isn’t one I want to take, it is something I have explored in the past and continue to be fascinated with the idea and community, so I will write posts about entrepreneurialism and portfolio careers at a later date.

  1. Stay put and reassess your situation

If you’re not in the position to find a new role or take up new skills, whichever reasons these may be, you should speak with your line manager. Even if you have spoken to them before, by talking to them again and explaining how you have assessed your wants, abilities and limitations, it takes the conversation into a new and more productive direction.

Your line manager might not be in a position to offer many opportunities to you but it is their responsibility to talk to you about the options already available to you like reshaping your role, taking on more responsibility, or giving you new tasks – anything to adjust your routine.

Reassessing how your work is given to you or the tasks you do can help you find ways of coping with your job. Reassessing how you react to your job will also help, focussing your mind on the positives rather than just the negatives. I know of the least likely of people to get into positive mantras who have gone on to use them to cope with their dead end job with great success. Finding mantras that you like and storing these on your phone make a very handy pick-me-up when the day gets trying.

Speaking about your job in a way that puts you (and others around you!) down in the dumps doesn’t improve your situation – if anything it makes it a lot worse – and if by ascertaining that the best option for you at the moment is to stay where you are, then you can only control how you respond to this, be it using mantras, developing your emotional intelligence or becoming more resilient.

Easier said than done? Yes. But there is truth in it and worth giving it a go. You owe it to your mental and physical health to find ways of coping with a job you’re unhappy with if you genuinely feel there’s no way out. Just promise yourself that you won’t become complacent with the notion that there isn’t a way out – make a point of going through these steps again after a couple of months and you might find an idea that was hiding on you the first time round.

I hope this have provided you with some clarity on the options open to you. It’s important to really figure out what you want in a career before working through the four options. If you’re unfortunate enough to not know what you want to do, there will be a post or two about this in the coming weeks (Update: I’ve now written a post on a secret to finding your perfect career here). I use the term ‘unfortunate’ not in a derogatory way, but with total empathy as I was in this boat for far too long before learning what I wanted to do in my career.