Saturday 9 February 2013

How would you describe yourself?

I was interviewing a candidate and started the conversation off with a clichéd question. How would you describe yourself? I don’t normally use this question in an interview but for some reason this came to mind and I ventured forth. The interviewee did not blink and started giving me her life history. At some point I brought her back to the question but she then paused and hesitatingly asked what the point of the question was and how was she supposed to answer it. I laughed and then steered her to the next question but post the interview I sat back to think about what was it that I wanted to hear when I ask an interviewee this question.

The common perception is that it takes someone of an immodest bearing to answer this question despite the simplistic manner in which the question is framed. An interviewee when faced with this question does exactly what water does. They flow in the path/direction of least resistance i.e. start giving a response that is cliché driven or walk the interviewer through their resume or curriculum vitae (CV) in the expectation that they would have answered this “unfair” question in some form or fashion.

The average interviewee forgets that the interviewer is in all likelihood acting as a gatekeeper to eliminate (whether you like it or not) or evaluate to stack rank from the list of potentials (to take to another round). This the interviewer does by attempting to ascertain whether you are a good cultural fit in the organisation and/or whether you have the skills to do the job and/or whether you can help the organisation move forward with the skills you bring to the table.As I thought about this a bit I came to the realisation that this question could be the “deal maker or deal breaker” in an interview situation. This is “the” question that allows the interviewee to take complete and total control of an interview.

The focus in answering this question should be on making sure that you respond to it based on your understanding of yourself, which surprisingly can be different from what others perceive of you. Hope you can differentiate. When you try to describe people’s perception of you the focus will be on regurgitating positive “labels” that people have used to describe you (“friendly” or “helpful” or “honest”). Balance (i.e. the ability to use the right adjectives and consider your limitations) can only come from deep insight of yourself. One of the best ways to articulate about yourself is to know yourself! So how well do you know yourself?

My recommendation is to attempt a simple strength and weakness analysis. What I suggest is that you create a balance-sheet of your assets (strengths) on the left and liabilities (weaknesses) on the right. For those of you who consider weakness a politically incorrect term then feel free to substitute this with the term “area of development”.
Now start off by thinking about what your family (parents or siblings) would attribute as strength(s) for you. Then move to any performance appraisals or reviews that you may have gone through with your manager. What did they have to say about strengths? What have colleagues told you? Do not stress at this point. Just list without judgement.

Now move to weaknesses. Ask yourself a series of honest and simplistic questions to prompt a detailed listing of strengths and weaknesses. Read and rewrite what you have put down for relevance and brevity. Many also extend this analysis to the traditional SWOT by adding O(pportunity) and T(hreat) but I recommend that it is sufficient to work on the S(trength) and the W(eakness) of the SWOT.

Now that you have a deeper understanding of yourself the next step is to articulate this in the form of a memorable pitch that links your strengths to your achievements and also outlines your weaknesses as something that you are focused on mitigating successfully. This articulation is aimed at ensuring that the interviewer sees that you are actively feeding your strengths while starving your weaknesses. Just the very notion that you know yourself as a person sets you apart from the average interviewee. Being able to show that you realise the value of managing both sides of the balance-sheet will set you apart. Think about how you can you use your strength to mitigate a weakness. Can you subdue a weakness to remove it from your balance-sheet or even move it to the other side as a strength (challenging but an interesting concept!).

On the matter of weakness, outline them in a positive frame of reference i.e. ensure that you outline that you are aware of and actively managing (the weakness). For example, “I am known as a social person and I actively work on this to ensure that I maintain professional poise at all times in the work environment” sounds much better than saying “I sometimes appear to be unprofessional as I can be overly social with my work colleagues”).
Remember this is an attempt to describe yourself. Do justice to it and prepare for it using the strengths and weakness framework that was discussed above. Look at samples of positive and edifying words that can be used to describe yourself but also remember that the world is tired of clichés (one I heard that made me roll my eyes was the illogical combination of “subtle charmer”; just by saying that it didn’t feel so subtle anymore!).

The answer to this critical question can let you take control during an interview. It puts the proverbial remote in your hand (or ball in your court!). In the end, if you are still not sure on why you should invest on figuring out an answer to this (or spend time reviewing the links embedded in this write-up) then remember this simple caveat – “If you cannot describe yourself then who can or will?”


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1 comment:

  1. Interesting article- If you cannot describe yourself then who else can??.. Very clear to develop the balance of your assets and area of development. I think a Interviewer will be highly impressed with it.