Discussion: May 18, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks How to Say It:

Your book has been very helpful in preparing for my interviews. But I seem to lock up during the part where I am telling the hiring manager how I will do the job. I’m reading that section for the third time. What’s the best way to explain it? I mean, to say it?

Well, you just pick up the tools… and do the work. Does that sound a little bit odd? Maybe some other readers can explain it better…

A call-out to ATH regulars! What’s your rule of thumb for talking to a manager about how you will do the job? How can this reader wrap up the interview with a compelling explanation or presentation?


  1. Specific wording depends on the specifics of the job and what you would bring to it.

    But try to do show and tell, with an emphasis on “show.” Depending on the job, maybe you can bring in a free sample. For instance, when I applied for an editing job at a college newspaper, I included a copy of the newspaper that I had proofread.

    A free sample can be a conversation starter. You show it to the employer, he asks how and why you did it the way you did, etc. Or if he doesn’t ask, you take the initiative.

    You need to find out the employer’s priorities for the job — ideally, before a formal interview, so you also have an idea of whether the employer’s priorities match your priorities and your strengths.

  2. I’ve used this approach before, doing the job in the interview. It worked both times. The first time, I actually did write some code (I’m a programmer). It wasn’t very good, but it was enough to land me the position. The second time they actually declined my request to show them how I worked, but I found out later that my approach impressed them so much they just had to hire me. And I later became one of the star performers at that company.

    I’ve found this approach works well in either small companies, or when you’re talking directly to the people who will work with or supervise you. It won’t work in a bureaucratic monstrosity, when talking to the HR rep at a large company.

    For me, it’s really quite simple to say it, “Do you have a computer and a live problem I can look at? I’d like to show you how I’d solve it.” Works. And both times I’ve used it, I didn’t have the luxury of knowing their business ahead of time, I just had the balls to ask them to put me to work. After all, if I can’t solve an unknown problem for them (or at least give it a solid effort) during the interview, how am I going to handle an unknown problem during an emergency situation after they hire me? If I’d had the knowledge of their businesses ahead of time, I’d have shined even brighter. Like the commercial says, Just Do It!

  3. Maurreen & Jim offer good advise, both of which I’ve used with success. Don’t worry too much about being exacting because as Maurreen said you won’t have a lot of information an insider has and the interviewer/manager will understand that.
    What’s important and what I can assure you, if you take the initiative to put forth any semblemence of offering how you’ll approach the job, do the job you’ll differentiate
    Of course if you’ve prepared with research that gives you insights on their business and related issues you can make some good assumptions about what’s helpful to a particular manager’s mission.
    This works even with a lousy job description, as you can make a lot of assumptions and improvise. So what if you assume wrong, the point is you’ll demonstrate you have a brain.
    I was offered one job because the VP told me I was the only person he talked to who had any ideas about what the job was and how I’d do it
    I got another job via Maurreen’s advise of show and tell. I showed the potential boss a relevant graph I created in my current job that was hit home with the proposed job. One picture was worth a thousand words etc.
    I’m a believer in the value of stories; business stories that tell about real world accomplishments (yours). From your research, you can devine or assume the bosses mission. You can easily go into a path that starts with something like “I worked on a project that I think you’d find interesting and I expect much like you face day to day…then tell your story. Interviewing is instructive. You’ll not only show you relate to his/her mission, have experience that equip you to add value, but also the interviewer learns some neat stuff in the process. Most likely this fleshes out one of your resume bullets providing context you can see in the resume e.g. the project was a death march, underfunded, started late, delivered on time with bodies in its wake. There aren’t many managers who think they are sufficiently resourced and who have the luxury of a smooth schedule. So you will get their ear.
    You can also without prompting start into this segment of doing the job, by laying out (which you forethought) of how you on board and ramp up. e.g. “When I join you (be positive, not if but when) for the 1st 30 days I’ll so this, then my 2nd month I plan on doing this, and next month such and such. In reality it may turn out to be something different, but the mere fact that you have a game plan is the point, and reasonably impressive
    And all these suggestions will well serve to get the hiring manager to settle down and stop interviewing you and start talking and working with you which is what you’re trying to make happen

  4. I think the biggest challenge with doing the work is getting most companies to put challenges out there for you. If you ask for a problem or sample task to work on, most managers seem to balk at it. (This, BTW, is a good way to judge whether or not they are a) serious about interviewing and b) willing to openly address issues.)

    One way I’ve found around this is to ask a lot of questions about the job and current problems. Another good question is, “What one or two improvements/issues/problems have you had that you wish you could solve but haven’t had time to?” If you’ve done your research, you can even bring it up first as “So, how have you dealt with (x)?” That shows you’re paying attention and thinking about the company’s challenges.

    Once a manager mentions something, jump on it. You don’t have to be overly aggressive. I usually ease into it by asking if they’ve tried this solution or that solution. Even if they have, it shows how you solve problems. Plus, you can get more information; before they realize it, you’re and employee and a manager discussing how to a solve problem.

    I did this one time in an interview when the manager mentioned a problem another engineer had that I knew how to solve. I asked if she had tried a few solutions; she had, but they didn’t work. I then started talking about some similar situations I was in and what I had tried and what worked/failed. I had the manager scribbling furiously by the end of the meeting. (Don’t worry, Nick, I didn’t give him everything.)

  5. Grrr…you need a way to preview comments before posting. That should be:

    “before they realize it, you’re an employee and a manager discussing how to solve a problem.”

  6. Chris, good points & examples.
    I think there is a c) to your a & b as to why managers balk at laying real life situations on the table. c) is they aren’t prepared mentally to do so. Manager’s interviewing training never even addresses the approach, and/or they are pre-disposed to the regimented Q&A interviewing model by how they’ve always been interviewed. I think you mostly see a combination of b & c as if you’re not inclined there’s a natural hesitency to get that real fearing you’ll disclose something you shouldn’t be talking about
    Applicants are definitely pre-disposed not to go the route Nick advises, about doing the job, which is why he advocates it. job seekers are drilled to infinity on how to interview, anticipating a Q&A format. both sides caught in the same ritual.
    I’ve had the opportunity to structure a recruiting process and am building it with a lot of Nick’s advise in mind, starting with the executives. I’ve reviewed the “do the job” concept with my President and he’s OK structuring a meeting format where we turn the floor over to the applicant(s) with foreknowledge of the approach. I expected they’d eagerly run with it. But many don’t get it. They are pre-programmed and prepared for the typical Q&A sessions, and to run with that, but not prepared to “take charge”. They are easily aced out by others who do get it, even though on paper they appear to be less qualified.
    I believe Nick has made the point that much of the job hunting game has become an orchestrated ritual, a comfort zone so to speak. By and large both sides of this dance are off balance by a different approach.
    Rarely is a highing manager not serious about the interview, but not so rare are instances where they don’t know how, or can handle a candidate who moves outside the box

  7. This is powerful stuff. I talk about “doing the job in the interview,” but real examples like these drive home the point more powerfully. Managers can ask virtually anything they want in a job interview… why don’t they ask the cadidate to show how they’d do the work?

    Why doesn’t everyone on the planet see this as the crux of any job interview? Thanks for posting your stories and comments — I’d love to read more!

  8. @Chris: Re: previewing comments before posting. Drives me nuts, too. I’ve searched several times for WordPress plugins I might use to let folks preview what they wrote before clicking “Submit Comment.” Nothing doing. (Tho’ I haven’t looked in a while…)

    Do we have a WordPress guru out there who can help me out with this? A comment previewing plugin? Thanks for any help! (Please e-mail me: nick@asktheheadhunter.com)

  9. Don has a great point. Many hiring managers don’t venture into this format simply because they aren’t aware that it can be done. Interviewing takes up less than 10% of how they spend their time, so it is a minority skill, a neglected stepchild. Oftentimes in an interview, the hiring manager will be even more nervous and unsure than the applicant, because he/she feels his/her need equally intensely, but has even less an idea how to go about meeting it.

  10. We had a client recently who applied for an event planner position with an international trade association. The second ‘interview’ was actually an exercise. The three finalists were presented with the challenge of planning a meeting. They were given the city, the budget, a list of events, number of atttendees, etc. They had an internet connected computer and three hours to produce their plan complete with a spreadsheet itemizing the budget. Now that’s ‘doing the job in the interview’.

  11. *** Many thanks to Matt Krause for suggesting a good WordPress solution to the lack of a “Preview” button on the Comments section of this blog.

    Problem solved! Please try the new “Preview your comment” button. Hope you all like it – now you can check what you wrote before you post it. (And if you find any bugs or problems with it, please let me know!)

    Thanks again, Matt!

  12. Testing the new comment preview button.

  13. Two words for you: Written plan. If you are working toward a management role which will require you to set strategy and execute against business goals, I don’t think there is any substitute for a written proposed “action plan.”

    This needs to be teed up properly, though. Set the stage by explaining to the hiring manager that you are aware that finding the right candidate is challenging from resume and references alone. Point out to her that you would like to show her how you would approach the role by providing her with a written plan based upon your interviews with the managers involved.

    Admit that the plan will not be exhaustive given your limited time with her management team. But that the proposal will permit her to see how you would address her business pain points based upon a brief window into their company.

    Go into your round-robin interviews as though you were a consultant on a tactictal assignment. Take copious notes and ask pointed questions (This also helps mitigate the “so tell me about yourself” nonsense while the interviewer pecks at their Blackberry).

    Finish up your visit with a commitment to return a written plan within 7 days. You then go back to your office and perform any research necessary to come up with and actionable plan (with 3, 6, 12 month milestones) which you will deliver in hardcopy format to the receptionist FBO the hiring manager. If you are out of town, Fed Ex to the manager’s attention. Include a note of thanks and a commitment to follow up with her on the role in a week.

    Next take a portion of your research and hardcopy deliver (or mail) relevant articles or papers to each of the executive/managers you met along with a brief note of thanks and why the article is relevant to your discussion.

    Will the execs/managers read them? Probably not. But you have made an impression beyond the yada yada thank you note.

    Will the hiring manager read the plan? No telling. But you have shown your level of motivation and skill by providing a sample of your skills, while the rest of the pack has only spent time trying to impress with a doctored up resume. If the effort is ignored you have discovered a very valuable fact you should know prior to accepting a role.

    Is it time consuming? You bet. How bad do you want this gig? Not bad enough to spend 20-30 hours? Then you won’t be disappointed if you don’t get the job.

    Risk: The higher you go in the food chain the more this effort might seem “pedestrian” to the hiring manager. The counter to this line of thought is that the finer the pedigree of the applicant, the more risk to the manager that they are bloviators, not providers of results. You have to use your own judgment.

    However, it has been my observation that a significant portion of the hiring equation is reducing business risk. Thus, if you are not a shoe-in on the basis of a prior working relationship or trusted contacts who can vouch for your professional worth, then showing how you would “do the job” helps mitigate risk of hire.

  14. @S Kendall: Nice little how-to book you just wrote! My compliments on saying it so well!

  15. Sometimes you just get lucky. This is a story from over 20 years ago, long before I’d ever heard of ATH.
    I was applying to move to another city and I was flying in for this interview. I was met by the hiring manager and a senior engineer from his team. It was quickly obvious that the manager was a bit of a goof and that the engineer was totally unprepared for this interview and certainly thought he had better things to be doing.
    Five minutes into the interview, the manager just gets up and leaves! I thought I was sunk in five minutes, after having flown in from out of town. I don’t even remember what happened next, my head was reeling, but the engineer and I ended up at his desk working on whatever it was he was doing that day. A few hours later the manager wandered by and asked what we were doing. The engineer simply answered something like “Hire this guy, I need him to keep working with me on this”. I flew home with a job offer in hand.
    An accidental “do the work” interview.

  16. i like it jobs because it is a high paying job and you work in an air conditioned office .,.

  17. it is always a good idea to get event planners when you want a good outcome for your planned event ;~.