Don't Give it All Away in the Job Interview

By: Liz Ryan

When I first started advising job-seekers to stop groveling on a job search, people were skeptical. I'd write a story about putting a human voice in your resume, circumventing the Black Hole with a Pain Letter or walking away from a horrible job opportunity, and I'd get 1000 messages in my email inbox saying "That's the worst job search advice ever!"

I didn't put my email address in those stories. People sought me out to write and tell me how much they hated my advice.

I was SVP of HR for a Fortune 500 company. I hired thousands of people. It wasn't the applicants who fawned and flattered us who ended up getting hired.

Who needs flattery, when all hell is breaking loose and you've got products to ship? You hire the person you trust the most to run with the ball, as my sporty friends would say.

I would tell job-seekers "The person who gets hired is not the person who begs for the job, or the most docile candidate. The people we worked the hardest to snag were the candidates who knew their own value."

Job-hunting is like dating. Which guy or woman are you more attracted to: the one who keeps telling you what an honor it would be to date you, or the one who's almost out of your league? It's no different in the world of employment.

My advice fell on deaf ears -- millions of deaf ears, in fact - for ages, and then the tide began to turn. About five years ago people started to say "I think I get it now. Employers value me more when I value myself. Aha!"

Job-seekers have finally come around to the idea that they can and should bring themselves to a job search, not only for their mojo's sake but in order to get the job in the first place.

Job-seekers are realizing that the old, tired job-search rules not only squash their flame and reduce them to supplicants in the recruiting process, but they also don't work.

One day, a job-hunter makes the decision to try something new, and the results are dramatic.

"Wow, I was afraid to send a Pain Letter and humanize my resume, but I got my first interview in six months when I finally tried it."

You can use the same principles in a job interview.

Most job-seekers make the mistake of throwing up all over the hiring manager on a job interview. They share every good idea they've ever had in hopes of impressing their future boss. They don't realize that your value as a candidate doesn't increase when you spill the contents of your brain across the conference room table. Your value decreases.

Consultants know better than to show up at a prospect's office with great ideas to peddle. Once the client hears your ideas, why should s/he hire you? In the throes of delusion, the client believes s/he can implement your ideas without you.

Consultants hold back their ideas. They know that it wouldn't be appropriate to share ideas on a first meeting, even if they already had the contract.

Consulting is less about offering whiz-bang solutions than it is about digging in to understand what's not working and why. The consultant and the client will arrive at the best solution together. '

No experienced consultant would dream of showing up at a first meeting with ideas to share. They're not going to offer solutions until they've met with the people involved and asked a lot of questions. They're also well aware that their solutions are reserved for paying clients, not tire-kickers.

If you haven't had the unforgettable experience of offering a great idea at a job interview only to hear that the interviewer stole your idea without hiring you, I promise you that it's not a feeling you want to have twice. It stings.

At first, you're mad at the manager who stole your idea. A minute later you're mad at yourself for giving him or her the false impression that anyone could have your golden eggs without buying the goose.

The chart at left shows why it's never, ever a good idea to give away the store at a job interview.

Let's say you're interviewing for a Trade Show Manager job. Your manager, Sam, asks the question "What would you do to get booth traffic up at our trade shows?"

You know tons about trade shows and have clever ideas to bring visitors into a booth. You're dying to share them, because it's fun to talk about solutions and because you're proud of your success.

Don't do it! You cannot win. Here's why.

Start at the top left of the chart. You share your best trade-show-booth-traffic-improvement ideas. Either Sam and his team have already thought of your ideas, or they haven't.

Say they've thought of your ideas before. Did they try them? If not, they rejected the ideas. Rightly or wrongly, they think the ideas suck. You suggested ideas that Sam and his team hate. By extension, you suck.

You're thinking "But that's not fair!" So what? You can't take that chance. Even if Sam foolishly overlooked solutions that could work magnificently for him, you've lost your place on the leading-candidate roster by suggesting something he had already nixed.

Let's say Sam has already tried the ideas you suggested. Did they work? Evidently not, or Sam wouldn't be talking about booth traffic now. Maybe Sam's team's implemented the ideas horribly, but so what?

Sam isn't going to hire the person who suggests the things he's already tried without success.

Now, let's say that Sam hasn't heard your ideas before, hasn't thought of them and hasn't tried them. Let's say Sam loves your ideas! His eyes light up as you speak. He's enraptured. He gets out a pen and starts scribbling.

Does Sam love you because of your great ideas? No way. He's getting ready to steal them.

I'm not calling Sam a rascal and a lowlife. He may be those things or he may not. He's a human being, and there's no way he isn't going to try out some of the golden-egg ideas you're giving him for free. After all, it's your choice to offer them -- at least that's what Sam is telling himself.

I volunteered for a not-for-profit agency. One day the executive director said happily "I interviewed three job candidates and got the best ideas from them!"

"Oh, is there a job opening?" we asked her. "No," she said. "I like to interview candidates from time to time to get new ideas."

You cannot hand over your ideas at a job interview, not if you want to stay high on the candidate list or stay in the running at all. There is no box on our flow chart labeled "You're Hired!"

At the same time, when a manager asks you "How would you increase foot traffic to our trade show booth?" you have to say something. You can't say "Liz Ryan told me not to answer that." Here's what to do instead of giving your best ideas away before you've got the job.

First, ask the interviewer "Can I ask you some questions about that?"

Don't assume that the short description (traffic to the trade show booth is below par) is the whole story. Dig in, consultant-style, to understand more about the situation. When you've mined that vein as well as you can, tell the manager how you'd proceed.

"Okay, Sam, I think I understand that you used to get a lot better traffic at trade shows than you've gotten this year. You're in the same booth location so that's probably not a factor. You're going to the same shows, and overall attendance isn't down, so there's something about your booth that isn't making the grade, or something a competitor is doing that's sucking your usual visitors away."

"Okay," says Sam. "Go on. What would you do to fix it?"

Answer the way a consultant would. Let Sam see your brain working - that's all he's entitled to without hiring you, and all he needs to decide whether you can run the ball down the field.

"I'd begin by talking with your salespeople, the ones who've been around for awhile," you'll say. "I'd talk to them, and get on the phone with some long-term customers, especially people you didn't see in the booth this year."

"What would you do with the information you gained?" Sam asks, eagerly.

"That depends on what they tell me!" you'll say with a twinkle in your eye. "Look, Sam, you and your team are brilliant marketers. I'm not going to sit here and tell you to do X or Y as though there's a simple solution to a contextual issue like that. I don't presume that I can answer in two seconds what you guys have been struggling with all year."

The impatient child inside Sam wanted a Grade A golden-egg answer to pop out of your lips and when he doesn't get it, you may see a momentary flash of annoyance on his face. Don't worry about it. Sam's rational brain will return to him by the time he goes to bed tonight, when he realizes that your wise, patient consulting approach will do him more good in the end than a blurted-out "Try cupcakes!" answer from another candidate would.

Remember that your goal on a job interview is to learn about the job, the manager and the culture in the organization and to show your brain working. Your job is not to provide spur-of-the-moment solutions that can only hurt you, as our flow chart makes clear.

Stay in your body and tell the interviewer how you'd work through the process of arriving at the right answer, one that can only emerge when you and the rest of your teammates have had time to talk, imagine, explore, ruminate and share ideas together. Trust the thoughtful, rational Sam to triumph over the impatient toddler side and do the right thing. After all, if Sam doesn't get you, he doesn't deserve you, right?

Our company is called Human Workplace. We are reinventing work for people by designing and delivering job-search, branding, HR and leadership curriculum that builds new-millennium Muscles & Mojo.

If you're job-hunting, at a crossroads or in need of a professional mojo boost, join us in a 12-week virtual coaching group beginning Saturday, April 26! Our 12-week virtual coaching groups are guided self-study courses.

Each week we'll send you a new lesson and exercises to work on during the week as your schedule allows.

You don't have to be in a particular place at a particular time. You'll share ideas with your fellow participants and get advice from the Human Workplace coaches as you go.