Episode 2: "Ace the Job Interview as a Relauncher" with Michael Neece
Join us for tips and advice on how to bring your best performance to your job interviews with CEO of InterviewMastery.com, Michael Neece. Michael talks with iRelaunch Chair and Co-Founder Carol Fishman Cohen about a range of interview and prep techniques including how to describe paid and unpaid experience, how to prepare for that dreaded "tell me about a weakness" question, and best practices for following up.
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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch. We bring you the most effective career reentry products and services. In each episode of 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, we'll be speaking with guest experts in the career reentry space. To help make your transition back to work smooth and successful.
Our guest today is Michael Neece, creator of www.interviewmastery.com, the world's most widely used job interview program, now used by 54,000 job seekers in 73 countries, over a hundred career centers in the US, and recruiting agencies to help people get hired faster and with more confidence. Today, we are going to be talking about interview strategy and interview mastery.
Hello, Michael, thank you for being with us today.
Michael Neece: Hello, Carol. It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm thrilled to be speaking with you, because interviewing is intimidating for even people who think they're really good at it. And relaunchers in particular often come to the interview table without recent interview practice, and we feel less than confident when we're in that situation.
I really want to talk to you and gain your wisdom about what relaunchers can do to make the interview process more comfortable and ultimately more successful.
Michael Neece: Sounds terrific.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I guess I wanted to start with the preparation piece. Do you recommend, before people even think about what they're going to say and how they're going to say it, and I want to get into more detail about that.
Is there some sort of a mindset that they need to get themselves in?
Michael Neece: Yes, that's actually an excellent question because your performance actually begins long before you actually get to the interview, and the one major piece is this intellectual preparation. Now the mistake people make is they say, "Oh, I'm going to have to read my resume and let me read the job description and check the LinkedIn profile or the person I'm interviewing for and read the company website. Okay. I'm all done!" But they're not going to ask you hardly any of that. What you need to do is be prepared to talk about any dimension of your background at a moment's notice. So, the most useful thing is to refresh your memory by taking an organized inventory of all of your experience and your skills.
Now, one mistake people make is they assume that if you didn't get paid to do something, it doesn't count. And that volunteer experience, academic projects, that all counts, and here's why it counts. It's because it provides evidence of a talent or a competency that you have demonstrated.
So you might be volunteering at the parent teachers' association or volunteering on a project at school or organizing a sports team or something. There's competencies and skills that you're demonstrating, even though you're not getting paid for it. So when you're inventorying your talents, you just want to first make a list on the left-hand side.
Just think of it as an Excel spreadsheet and you start by saying, "Here's the different types of activities that I've worked on." So you might list a volunteer project or an academic project. And then, all right, what did I actually do? Well, I had to plan, I had to do some analysis. I had to do some root cause evaluation or something, and then you can go backwards in time, specifically for relaunchers and you can think about, all right, here's the positions I held and what were the things that I did. And the answer to the things that I did typically starts with an action verb that ends in -ed. So it's formulated, procured, managed, estimated, those kinds of things.
Now, as you move from your left-hand column of your spreadsheet to the next column, you identify what the focus was of your efforts. So I project managed... what? What was it that I was doing? So it might be people, it might be a project or something else. Then as you move to the next column to the right, just make a list of the industries that you have worked in.
And then the final column on the right, you might make a list of some of the qualitative or quantitative results that you can identify. And now the mistake that people make on identifying their results is they make it only within their position. Well, I completed this project, but completing a project, think of the additional benefits downstream that it had.
So you might have completed this project, which improved our search engine optimization that contributed to increased revenue or increased traffic on our website. So it's not just about what you did. It's the implications of what you did that make what you accomplished. It helps your listener, your interviewer, put it in context to what you actually did, and it makes it sound a lot more significant too.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right! Thank you. So, you've gone through this process of organizing your background and what you did, and the different columns that you've just described and how to think about it with those action verbs and the implications and what you did. And then how do you recommend that people then prepare themselves?
Do they think about an anecdote from each one of their prior work and volunteer experiences? Or do they do something different and then do they practice this out loud? Do they practice it with other people? How do they get good and comfortable at talking about themselves on their background?
Michael Neece:You can make yourself a mock interview. You can first write down the questions you expect, just like two or three questions, and then make a list of two or three questions that you're really terrified of having them ask you, and then just make yourself little bullet points that you want to communicate for each of those questions.
And now you only have a list of six or seven questions, the ones you expect, and the one you're terrified of. And then you can just ask a friend, "Hey, can we just meet for coffee? And all I need you to do is just sit there, ask me the question and let me give you the answer." And so you have your little practice guide with you and you just practice hearing the words come out of you. And doing it in a live situation like that is much better than standing in front of the mirror and doing it. Your friends want to help you, they desperately want to help you. But they don't know how. They think, oh, well, if I can't recommend her for a job, that's open right now, then I'm not really doing much.
But if you ask them to mock interview you, and all they need to do is show up with a list, and you're going to give them the list of questions. They're like, “Oh my God, I'd love to do that. Thank you for letting me help you.”
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow, that's great. Very good. Thank you. Let's talk about some specific questions that people in general find tricky to answer, and also some questions that are more unique to relaunchers, and I'd like to get your advice on how you think people should answer them. There's always that question about describing your strengths and weaknesses, and the weakness is always the one that, how do you talk about a weakness without sounding like you're putting forth a fake weakness? Like, it's just so hard for me to control my urge to work 24 hours and get so many things done and I have to really work to curb that. How do you answer that question realistically and truthfully?
Michael Neece: So this topic about weaknesses, it actually has two parts. First it's the responding to the question. Tell me about a weakness that you have. That's one part. And the second part is overcoming an actual weakness that you have for the job. So let's take it in two parts. The first part is when they ask you, "So tell me about a weakness that you have." First, you don't want to try and turn a weakness into a positive because literally the interviewer is going to roll their eyes and go, "Oh my God, not again," right?
Carol Fishman Cohen: Exactly.
Michael Neece: You also don't want to identify a weakness that's in the job description. So think of a weakness, an area of your life that you either want to improve or a new skill you want to learn or something that you just finished learning, or something you're planning to learn. So let's say that you're thinking of learning a new language, and you're going to interview for an international company. Almost everybody's international and teams are bilingual, it's just the reality of the world.
So the interviewer asks you, "So tell me about a weakness that you have," and you say, "Well, yeah, that's a really good question. We live in a global society where we're always interacting with people all over the world. So I made a point to start learning a new language and I chose to focus on Spanish or French," or whatever it is, "and this is an area of weakness that I'm trying to improve on."
And the other thing you do is you describe what you're doing about it. So you identify the weakness and you describe what you're doing about it. That's the most important part. So that is describe a weakness that you have. If you have an actual weakness and the interviewer says something like, "Well, I'm concerned about your lack of industry experience and you don't have any pharmaceutical experience."
And what you want to do is first say, "That's a good question. Here's the three things, the strengths that I feel I do bring to the position. My research in the pharmaceutical industry, we'll use that as an example. Here's what people have told me are required to be successful in this industry. They said ability to multitask, ability to quickly problem solve, and ability to what they called intellectual agility. Being able to respond to changing business priorities. And the fourth thing they identified was industry experience. So of the first three things I can tell you that I have examples of my background, where I have demonstrated intellectual agility to ability to multitask, ability to change problems, to solve problems very quickly."
"And I'm happy to give you some examples where I've demonstrated those. And so I'm very confident that I can actually get up to speed rather quickly in a new industry by leveraging the things that I've already done that are required for success in this industry and investing the time to get up to speed as quickly as possible."
Now, the other thing you can do is if you have ever gone into a new industry, and you had no industry experience. You can say, for example, "I went into the publishing industry. I had never worked there before, and here's what I did to get up to speed within two days."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. Very good. I just want to probe a little further on that weakness question, is there any other example you can give besides the language example?
Michael Neece: Oh, sure. Let's say that I am going into a sales position and to make sure that I'm understanding the business needs of my customers, I felt that it was important that I get a more sophisticated understanding of accounting and finance principles. So what I have already done is I've already researched and about to start a class on accounting and finance at the local community college, because even in a sales role, now, if I'm able to more accurately speak the language of my prospective clients in a financial perspective, then I have a greater relationship, I'm able to improve my sales performance. When I put together statements of work, I'm more sophisticated in how I described the return on investment in terms of dollars and cents.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Very good. Thank you, I appreciate that example. All right, another question that relaunchers tend to get asked and it's sometimes a veiled, age-ism question is when the employer, the interviewer might say, "You seem really overqualified for this position. Looking at your prior work experience. I know you've been out of the work experience, work for awhile, but it seems that you are much more senior before your career break. I'm not understanding why you are looking at this particular position for which it appears that you're very overqualified."
Michael Neece: "Well, actually that's an excellent question. And I do bring a lot of experience to the position, and I think that I can contribute in lots of ways, but before I even submitted my application for this position, I took a look at your company and the kinds of things that you were looking to accomplish. And I said, I not only feel I can deliver a lot of value, but I also am really interested. So what you have in front of you is a person who brings a good deal of experience, who's very interested in this position and very interested in your company, because the reason that, the things that are most important to me in a position, I'm looking for an opportunity for growth, work with a great team and where I can deliver a great deal of value. And so all three of those things are already in place, which makes this the right position for me at this time."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Good. I like the emphasis on this is the right position for me at this time. We like to underscore for relaunchers that they describe to employers that they intentionally targeted this particular position because it's perfect for them at their current life stage, which is almost the same way they're making the same point. So I'm really glad you pointed that out. Any other questions that you think sort of tip toe around an ageism issue that people who are in their fifties or older should be aware of, and any advice on how to respond to those?
Michael Neece: Let's see, in addition to the ageism, that's a nice way to put it, situation, is realize that even if they don't articulate, actually, they're not going to say it, so you might as well bring it up. It's almost that technique they say, put the elephant on the table. So you can use the same strategy as you did with being overqualified, because that's almost, they say overqualified when they really mean over age. So you can say, "You might be wondering why I'm interested in this position because at this stage of my career, and I can tell you that I did do a great deal of research about your company. And I really thought hard about the skills that I could deliver to this position. So I feel like, again, this is the right position for me at this at the right time and the right stage of my career, because like everybody, the things that are important to me are not necessarily money and fame and visibility, the scope of responsibility. It's all about quality of life and the quality of the results you can deliver. And that's why I'm really excited to chat with you."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you, Michael. That's a great point. Let me just change directions for a minute, and ask you about just general tips to remember during an interview. Are there certain questions that you think are almost always asked.
And is there advice that you can give for the surprise question that you had not prepared for and how do you handle that if you are not sure at all what the answer is?
Michael Neece: Okay. This there's a few things there. So the questions that you can expect, one, they're always going to ask you, tell me about yourself, and this is a fabulous opportunity for you. So in your response, you start by summarizing the skills that you bring to this specific job or this specific industry. So this is why inventorying your skills and researching the job are very important. So you highlight the things that you bring to the position when you're telling them about yourself.
And then you might highlight some personal qualities that you think also, the personal quality, not personal qualities, but more intellectual agility, ability to solve problems, here's what people have said about you. But then after you're done doing that 60 seconds response to tell me about yourself, you want to ask a question and the question can be, what part of my background would you like to discuss first? This gets to another question that you asked me, which is things that people should think about during the context of the interview. And the thing you should think about is that this is a conversation between peers. This is not you, "Oh my gosh. I need a job!" You're not subordinate. They need you at least as much as you need them, probably more because they have problems that need to be solved. So what you do when you give a response to a question, I mean, when you respond to their question and then you ask a little question at the end, you are promoting a two-way conversation.
If you don't do that, you're going to get interrogated. And it's your own fault because you have forced the interviewer to just ask all the questions and you have demonstrated that now you're not going to ask anything, you're just going to give them some answers and that's an interrogation. Oh, another question that you're always going to get is the salary question.
Everybody hates this one, but here's what I want you to say when they ask, "What are your salary expectations?" The first thing you're going to say is, "Oh, I'm so glad you asked me that!"
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right!
Michael Neece:And what you say is, "I realize that we need to make sure that if we get downstream here that your salary range and my expectations are aligned. So what's the salary range and I'll just let you know where I fit."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. And then do you anticipate that they're going to play this game with you where no one wants to say the first number?
Michael Neece: They usually, first of all, they don't expect you to ask about the salary range. And even sophisticated recruiters will answer this question because I've been counseling people how to respond to the salary question, and their one approach is, don't give them a number, and I have preached this advice a lot for years.
And the way that you could do that is say, "Well, rather than give you a specific number, let me just tell you what are the most important qualities that I look for in a job." And then you can say quality of the team growth, opportunity location, blah, blah, blah. But you're still not addressing they need a number. So the simplest way to respond is, "I'm so glad you asked. I know you need to make sure that we're aligned. Just tell me what the range is, and I'll tell you where I fit in there." So the end. It catches them off guard and they usually, I would say, well over 90% of the time they'll answer. So give it a try and you're starting from intention, "I realize that you need to make sure that we're aligned to my intention is to give you that information."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right. And sometimes relaunchers run into a couple of problems. First of all, they are occasionally asked in an online application before they interview. Even if someone has a resume, they then have to fill out an online application and sometimes it requires salary history. So that can work one of two ways for the relauncher. It could be that the relauncher ended up pretty senior and at a pretty high salary level. But again, as with the overqualified situation, they're perfectly willing to take and understand that they may have to take a much lower compensation to get back in, especially if they're potentially changing fields or if they've been out for a really long time.
That's kind of a unique conversation that happens where the interviewer will say, "Wow, I see you are making quite a bit of money here before your career break." And then the other piece is that you were making a certain amount, but in today's dollars it would actually be a lot more. And so you actually want to be making more than you were making before, because you want that translation to be understood that, if you look at it in today's dollars, I was actually making X and that's the salary range that I'm truly interested in. Any comments on either side of that spectrum?
Michael Neece: Well, first you have to know, the best thing you can do is do some research, you can go to salary.com and there's several other sites that will give you insights into what the salary range is for a specific discipline in an industry, in a specific location. So you can get an idea, now that will give you the market range. The thing that you don't have knowledge of is what's the range inside of this company.
If you're asked your salary, you're communicating with a computer on this online application and you have a choice, you either put in the real numbers or you just put zero, zero comma triple zero, because you're just talking to a computer. That's trying to validate the data that you just inputted into this data field.
I hate these applicant tracking systems! Anyway, I even filed a patent for a better one, that was many years ago. So if the system will let you just put in zero, then do that because it's just going to go into a resume database and hopefully the recruiter will get some kind of alert that somebody responded to this job and here's their resume.
And so what their internal recruiter does, and I used to be one, is they're looking to match up skill sets. They are just buzzword matchers, that's what they are. So they're motivated to make sure that the people that they submit to the hiring manager are qualified to do the position.
And if the hiring manager says, "Yeah, this person looks pretty good." The recruiter comes back and calls you and asks you some other lame questions, but what they really want to know is your salary. And then you can respond voice to voice, about the salary number.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. I really liked that tip, putting those zeros in, because that probably allows you to move to the next step and still upload your resume. So that's perfect. I just remembered a question that I wanted to ask you earlier, and then I want to get some tips from you about follow up on interviews. But, the question that I'm remembering now that I forgot to ask when we were talking about the ageism, and you said you should just bring it up, it's the elephant in the room. So the question is, do you really just bring it up independently or do you wait for the interviewer to bring it up?
Michael Neece: You have to use your instinct on this one. How does this conversation feel? And if they have, if they're substantially younger than you, and that's likely to be the case, there's no risk in bringing it up.
There is risk in not bringing it up, but essentially what you're doing, you're bringing it up to communicate why you feel this is the right job for you at this point. And you've already decided based on what you know about this company in this position that you're really interested. So you're bringing it up and you get a chance to express your interest.
And if you don't, you missed an opportunity to express your interest and address a concern that's very risky for them to raise. You know, if they say the age thing, oh my gosh, that's a flashpoint. So they're not going to say that.
Carol Fishman Cohen:So let's talk about interview follow-up and how long you should wait before you follow up. And, how many times, and what your advice is.
Michael Neece: Yes. At the end of the interview, you can ask them, "When would you like me to follow up and how?" Now, if they say, "We'll get back to you in two weeks or two days," no matter what they say, they're lying, but they don't know they're lying. They might think you are awesome. And they're like, "Oh my God, I can't wait to get her back in here for this job. And I'm going to call you in two days!" You're thinking, oh, they just made a commitment to me to make, call me back in two days. But, their job rhythm, priorities, is not their own a lot of times, so stuff gets in the way. So they might not call you for a week and by the time they call you're mad at them.
So no matter what they say, they're lying, but they just don't know they're lying. When you follow up, I would follow up first, immediately that day, you follow up with the email. And that's the short, quick response. The second thing I want you to do is I want you to handwrite a letter as a little thank you note to everybody you met, and the reason you're going to do this is for differentiation, because nobody does it anymore. And I can't tell you how many times I have done that. And people save the cards and put them on their desks. And all I'm doing is a professional follow-up that used to be normal and if you didn't do it, you were weird. But now if you do it, you have an opportunity for differentiation. Now, so immediately that day, you send a short little follow-up email, you have handwritten a note. It's not going to arrive for several days to a week. And then,after you put that in the mail, like a week later, I would follow up with them.
And when you follow up, you want to do one of two things, either ask a question or provide some additional information about you, or actually there's a third thing you can do. Which is, if you see a press release from a competitor or a press release from the company you just interviewed with, you can just copy the URL and say, "Oh, I thought I saw this activity at your competitors, just wanted to make sure you saw it." Because the people inside the company are not monitoring what their competitors' press releases are.
So, what you're doing is you're trying to not get lost in the flow of their day, because time is your enemy and a press release, your thank you, your handwritten thank you note, your immediate handwritten, I mean your thank you, email, are just ways for you to stay top of mind. And every time you connect, you can do it once a week, but as long as you're adding value, they're not going to mind.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Alright. That sounds great. So, you think you can do that a number of times, as long as you're sending something interesting and relevant or having kind of an ongoing conversation with them, even though it feels like it's one way.
Michael Neece: Correct. And even if they don't respond, you are having an effect, even though you don't get feedback. When I was a recruiter, I was at Fidelity Investments. I was recruiting for 35 positions and I would often times get an email or a voicemail and somebody, a candidate would say they were following up and even just them saying, "Hey, we interviewed a couple of weeks ago, I'm following up on the position," and now I'm doing 35 jobs. I may have likely forgotten them. I may have only seen them 10 days ago, because at the time I was, like I said, I had 35 jobs. I was interviewing five people a day and my phone was ringing off the hook. I was stressed out. And so just by following up, you remind them of something that happened a week or 10 days ago.
They're like all of us, we're all overwhelmed. We're trying to just get what we have to get done and recruiters are all measured by their ability to find the right person to fill a position.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Would you connect with them on LinkedIn as part of your outreach?
Michael Neece: Absolutely! Yes, absolutely. And, don't just send the standard LinkedIn default message, "I'd like to add you to my LinkedIn network." Because that's all about you. You want it to make it about them. And so actually whenever you're corresponding, you'll start out writing something like I was impressed with blah, blah, blah. Rewrite the sentence so it starts with "you," which makes it, so now your reader is saying, it just comes across completely differently. "Your background was so impressive. It was very impressive. And I enjoyed our conversation. I'd like to become part of your LinkedIn network."
Carol Fishman Cohen:Got it. Perfect. So, we need to wrap up soon, but I have a couple of pressing questions. One is we are talking about if you're interviewing with someone who's much younger than you are. Do you change anything about your strategy if you notice that you're 20 years older than the person who's interviewing you, or is it always the same strategy?
Michael Neece: It's mostly the same strategy, but you want to avoid playing the, I have more experience than you, I've been on the planet longer than you, because that's just a function of when you arrived on the planet. You just don't want to call out, "When I was a younger man," or "Geez, I remember Apollo 13," for Pete's sake! You want to be current and you don't want to look like an old fogey. You just want to be, I'm not trying to make you something you're not, but, take care of yourself. Get a haircut and trim your nose hairs, guys, for Pete's sake. Again, my wife's always very happy to guide me toward the more current hipster sport coat, or you're going on this sales call each Sunday, "Honey, should I wear a tie?" "Are you kidding me? You're going to Cambridge. No ties allowed in Cambridge!" So you know that if you're going into a business setting, unless it's a financial or banking or a stock, you're probably not going to wear a tie if you're a guy.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. And, one additional question before I ask you our final question and that is, what if you give a wrong answer or an incomplete answer, then do you try to change or add to it or edit in some way in a written followup? Or do you just let it go?
Michael Neece: Oh, no, I would definitely respond to it, that this is actually normal, there's always points of reflection where you're like, "Oh, I wish I had said, I wish I had mentioned that."
[00:34:10] So in your follow-up, you can start by saying, "Reflecting on our conversation where you asked me about this, this is what I said, what I forgot to mention was this..." That's an excellent question and everybody has regrets about what they wish they had said. And so you take your follow-up messaging as a way to communicate that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Perfect. Thank you. We have one final question, we want to ask our guest and that is, do you have a favorite piece of relaunch advice or advice for new relaunchers? Even if a repeat, something that you already said during this podcast?
Michael Neece:es, two things. One is, if you didn't get paid for the experience, it actually may be more important than work that you got paid for. Because it's work that you chose to do, and you did very well, so non-paid work matters and it matters because it's evidence of a skill set that you have demonstrated. And paid for work is the same thing. You just had a lot more. It usually had a lot more people distracting you from it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I love that.
Michael Neece: The second thing is this is a conversation between two peers. You are equals. And whether or not it's a conversation is completely up to you. If you don't ask any questions. Oh yeah, we didn't do that. If you don't ask any questions throughout the interview, then you have forced it to be an interrogation.
And that brings me to one other point is, make yourself two or three questions that you want to ask at the end of the interview, that interviewers say over and over again, that was the best part of the interview. Like, what trends do you see in tech, in the industry that gives you the greatest concern for disruption, or something like that?
Or I noticed this, what do you think about that? Or, if they're a publicly traded company, go to their 10K, go to their risk factors and it's Section 1A Risk Factors. And that's where the top level executives have listed all the things that they're concerned about. So just pick one of them, "Hey, I noticed in reading your 10K that you're particularly concerned about currency fluctuations specifically in the European Union," blah, blah, blah. "Can you tell me what your perspective is on that?"
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great!
Michael Neece: And then you're going to hear total silence. They're gonna go, "Holy crap. I have a 10K and I don't even know what that is!"
Carol Fishman Cohen:Great advice. I love that. Well, thank you, Michael, for joining us today, we are so fortunate to benefit from your wisdom. For more information about Michael Neece or Interview Mastery, visit www.interviewmastery.com that's Interview Mastery .com.
And be sure to visit us at iRelaunch.com in order to get the most important tools and resources for returning to work. Thank you again, Michael, for being with us today.
Michael Neece: It was a real joy. Thanks very much, Carol.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks. If you have any comments or questions, please email us firstname.lastname@example.org. That's I R E L A U N C H.com. And be sure to visit our website at www.iRelaunch.com.