Monthly Archives: May 2015

Tough Questions: Tell Me About Yourself

Whether the context is a meeting with your superiors, an informational interview, or a formal in-house interview, everyone is likely to get some variation of the question, “Tell me about yourself” at some point in their job search. This is a similar concept to the “elevator pitch,” where you need to be able to introduce yourself in 30-60 seconds and leave the other person with a clear picture of who you are. Although it may seem incredibly simple, this is actually a  hard thing to master, because it requires careful consideration to decide what information to include and what to leave out. Although your answer should be short, the impact it can have is huge. We’ve all heard that first impressions are important, and this is certainly the case in an interview setting. Since this is often the first question a candidate is asked, it’s especially important to ace this question and get the interview off to a strong start. Here are some tips on how to prepare a great response.

1.   Explain Your Transitions 

What employers are really asking when they say, “tell me about yourself” is, “what’s your relevant background and how did you get here?” Therefore, it’s important to give an overview of your path. You don’t need to go into detail about each role you’ve had, since that will be the main topic of the rest of your interview, but do give a short summary of each role. You also want to make it clear why you progressed from one role or company to the next. This helps them understand how you make major decisions; it also gives them insight into your motivations and priorities. In addition to explaining the logic of your decision, keep your explanations forward-looking. By that I mean, explain your transition in terms of which skills or experience you wanted to gain in your new position, rather than what you wanted to get away from in your old one. Let’s look at an example:

  1. Example A (looking past): After 3 years, I felt really stifled and I didn’t like the culture so I started to look for a new position
  2. Example B (looking forward): I am so grateful for all I learned in my 3 years there, but eventually I wanted to gain broader experience at a more mature company, so that is why I moved to my next role.

Keeping your explanation focused on what you wanted to add rather than what you were trying to escape keeps your tone positive and doesn’t disparage your former employer.

2.    Weave a Common Thread Throughout

When you think about what to say about each role, make sure you know which common threads you want to highlight. This is especially important if you are making a career transition, because you need to make it very clear that you have applicable skills and interests, even if your former duties weren’t exactly those required in the new position. For example, one of my former clients was in financial regulation and wanted to move into the hospitality industry. These may seem totally unrelated, but in fact he had a lot of experience in building relationships across different groups and in managing complex projects. These skills were both required for the hospitality job he wanted. So, in his answer he focused on highlighting these parts of his job and why he liked those responsibilities, thereby demonstrating his experience and natural talents in these areas.

3.    Conclude with Why You’re There

Since you’re looking for something (whether it’s information or a job) it makes sense to conclude with where you are now and what you are looking for in your next project or role. If you follow the guidelines above, your answer might go something like, “Now I want to combine my skills in {project management} and my passion for {Women’s economic development} to transition into a project management role at a non-profit.” This not only shows that you have the requisite experience, but it also demonstrates that you are excited about the position. This is important to employers because everyone does their best work when they are excited about their role. Employers want candidates who are qualified AND passionate, and this is your chance to show that you are both.

4.     Practice

There’s an old saying my father used to love, “If I had more time I’d write you a shorter letter.” That concept absolutely applies here. It takes effort to prepare a focused and concise answer. I suggest you practice what you are going to say and time yourself to ensure it doesn’t exceed one minute. It should be like reading the back of a book: give the other person a good sense of what you’re about, and keep them interested in learning more. I don’t recommend memorizing your answer, but practicing a few times will definitely help you come across as focused and confident, which will set you up for success in the rest of the interview.

Managing The Emotional Toll of Career Transitions

Like all major changes, career changes are challenging. While there are obvious challenges such as how to market yourself and how to acquire the necessary skills, there is also a huge emotional cost involved in transitions of any kind. Since most people rely on their jobs as a livelihood, and many more as a main source of identity, changing career direction can be downright scary. Over the course of making my own radical career transitions (teacher in AmeriCorps to manager at a hedge fund, for example), I’ve learned some lessons in how to lessen the emotional burden of making a big change.  While I’m talking specifically about career transitions here, I think these ideas could easily apply to other areas of life.

1) Think about your current reality, rather than the possibilities

One of the things I see clients doing the most is getting stuck in the possibilities. I don’t discourage exploration or dreaming — I think that it’s great and it’s a necessary place to start. However, dreaming about potential jobs endlessly, without a dose of reality, usually leads to more confusion than direction. I often hear people say something to the extent of, “There are so many things I want to do that I don’t know where to start.” One strategy I propose is to start narrowing the list down. Start broad, but limit the amount of time you allow yourself to stay in the mindset of “the world is my oyster.”  Start to whittle things down by learning about the realities.  There are probably practical considerations to help you narrow down the list. These could be things like work-life balance or salary considerations. Perhaps there are aspects of the job you haven’t thought about, such as, who knew the fashion industry really involves a lot of math and finance? By starting to ask real questions about yourself (what you like and what you don’t like, as well as your natural strengths) and your reality, you should be able to narrow your dream list down and move it one step closer to a realistic plan.

2) Get over the Idea that there is one perfect job for you

Another emotional hurdle is thinking that whatever you choose to transition to has to be “it.” I always tell my clients to start by taking away the expectation that they have to choose the “right” thing. Think about some of the most successful people you know and admire. Did their careers take one straight line, or were there many turns and pivots along the way? I’m guessing it’s the latter, and yet when we think of ourselves we tend to put enormous pressure on “figuring it out.” Rather than focusing on making one choice and tying ourselves to it indefinitely, I encourage people to think about it as an option. Perhaps it is an option you will enjoy and spend ten years in. On the other hand, you may realize once you get into the day to day that it’s not the best fit. That’s ok too. Give yourself permission to see your next move as a stage of your career and life, rather than an endpoint, and you will be much happier.

3) Use the Scientific Method

Now that you’ve accepted you need to narrow down the infinite possibilities, the question becomes: what to do with your short list? I suggest thinking of it like the scientific method, where you develop a hypothesis and then go out and test it.  You develop this hypothesis of what you might excel at by self exploration and research, and then go out there and test it by getting involved. The only way to know for sure is to experience it in some way, whether that way is working in the role full-time, volunteering, or shadowing. If your hypothesis turns out to be wrong, that is not a reason to panic. It is not a failure. As long as you learn from it, reflect on the new knowledge you have gained, and continue to move forward, it was progress. Big progress.

4) Ask yourself what it would mean if you don’t make a change

I used to ask myself, “What if I make the wrong choice?” That would send me down a spiral of doubt and anxiety. I see the same thing happening to clients all the time. The shift that helped me make some of the most radical changes in my life (e.g. quitting my lucrative job in finance and moving to DC to pursue graduate school) was changing the question. Instead of asking, “Is this the right decision?” I started asking myself, “How will you feel in one year, two years, five years, if you make no change at all?” For me, that was the motivation I needed. I knew that logically, if I stayed, I would only get unhappier. If I left, there was at least a chance I would find something I loved. When you look at it that way, it’s hard to deny the logic of taking action.

5) Get Support

No doubt about it, making changes and taking risks is hard. Really, really hard. Even with all the above work you can do internally, it is incredibly valuable to have outside support. For me, this was difficult because I had to tell people what I was going through. I also had to learn not to be upset when other people didn’t agree with the choices I made. What helped me was being clear about what I needed from people. Those who are close to you want to help, so let them know what would help. Want support without their input on your choice? Make that clear. Want a friend to work through the logic with you and be brutally honest? Make it easier for both of you and say that up front. This can be hard to do, but the only thing harder is trying to do it all yourself.