Even though, quite often, yawning and eye rolls enter the room when the question of strengths and weaknesses comes up in interview training (not this old chestnut again! Is anyone really still asking this BS?), if it happens to slide into the conversation it is a topic on which you don’t want to be called out. Self-awareness is an important aspect in employability, but self-awareness without the ability to sell yields little results. Here are some thoughts and ideas based on my experience in interview coaching.
When your biggest strength isn’t so strong
So it’s this time of your life again. Interview time. You are on top of your resume, you’ve done your company research as well as you can and you’re sitting, quite confidently, in front of the interviewer when they ask you one of those age-old interview questions.
“So…” they slowly begin, “it sounds as if you have some solid experience in your field and a firm vision of where you want to take your career next.” There is a small pause. “Just wondering” they continue, “what would you consider to be your biggest strength?”
Ah! you think. The old strengths question. A slight smirk crosses your face. You’re prepared for this one. And, just like they’ve taught you in interview training, you start rattling off your three key strengths and finish your answer with a big smile. You lift your gaze, anticipating the interviewer to nod approvingly, because – let’s face it – you nailed this one. Yet, what you see is far from expectation. Instead of an approving nod, there seems to be a weird kind of blankness on the interviewer’s face. And is that really a slightly raised eyebrow you see as they lean back in contemplation? You nailed the answer, didn’t you? Because, if not, then what the heck went wrong?
The Age-Old Strength Question: An Example
Even though, quite often, yawning and eye rolls enter the room, when the question of strengths and weaknesses comes up in interview training (not this old chestnut again! Is anyone really still asking this BS?), if it happens to slide into the interview conversation it is a topic on which you don’t want to be called out. Self-awareness is an important aspect in employability, but self-awareness without the ability to sell yields little results.
So what did go wrong? Were you going too fast? Were your answers boring or predictable? Or was something else at play?
Well, it depends. Let me give you an example. I once interviewed a potential candidate for a role in the accounting industry. Now, obviously, in order to perform well in the role some skills and characteristics are more important than others. In this case, the selection criteria explicitly stated the company’s desire to hire someone who can work autonomously, who has good attention to detail and a sound knowledge of Microsoft Office. Of course, there was more to it but let’s just focus on these three.
The lady I interviewed, let’s call her Jeanie, performed well thus far. Even when confronted with the often loathed strength question, a brief smile appeared on her face, before she told me that her three biggest strengths were: teamwork, a big picture view with lots of bright ideas and proficient knowledge of Adobe. I cocked my eyebrows. Right!
And I honestly believe that Jeanie was good at all three. At least I believe that Jeanie believed that she was good at all three. Unfortunately, her answer was a bit like selling ballet skills to a football team.
Why Jeanie was Selling Ballet Skills to a Football Team
What do I mean? Imagine you’re recruiting a new player for a football team. What you need is someone who can throw a ball, catch a ball, run fast and not immediately topple over when tackled. The person in front of you, eager to be part of the team, responds to your biggest strength question quickly and confidently: “I am great at ballet, especially doing pirouettes.” To support their point, they jump up and show you the most elegant pirouette you have ever seen in your life. Great!
And though they might be really good at ballet and pirouettes, this is not what you want or need. In fact, in order to achieve your goal to win this year’s championship you need a fast runner. You need someone who is solid with a ball. And you need someone who can withstand the mean tackles of your next opponent. Not someone who can gracefully stand on their toes and beautifully dance to the rhythm of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
In other words, the person’s strengths are great, but they are far from what you need and far from what you would consider your ideal candidate to bring to the table in your attempt to secure this year’s championship.
The same can hold true in an interview. Just because you think you’re great at time management, intercultural communication, and producing high quality work under pressure, doesn’t mean that these skills are required or even wanted in the exceptional fulfilment of the role for which you’re applying. Yes, you might rate yourself nine out of ten or even ten out of ten for all of them, but sometimes your strongest strengths are not strong enough for closing the deal. In fact, sometimes choosing that one skill for which you only rate yourself seven out of ten might be a better strategy.
Aligning Your Skills with Selection Criteria
Instead of insisting on your strongest skill, talent or trait, be more strategic. Have a close look at the job description, particularly the selection criteria. Chances are that among an – often too long – list of desirable qualifications, characteristics and experiences, you find a particular skill set they’d like to see in their ideal candidate. Work with that.
Obviously, Jeanie didn’t. She was a solid candidate, no doubt. And her chosen strengths were good strengths to have. Also no doubt. But if working autonomously, having good attention to detail as well as sound knowledge of Microsoft Office, indeed, were relevant selection criteria, then this is what she should have focused on within the scope of her experience and skill level (unless, of course, she had been able to clearly highlight how her strengths would be even more desirable for the superior execution of the role… but this is an entirely different ball game).
Think about it this way: if you were to invite your best friend over for dinner, would you cook your favourite meal or their favourite meal? You might be an absolute expert at making “Chicken Masala” and only middle- to top-range in creating a vegetable pie; however, if your friend is a vegetarian, then – believe me – the vegetable pie will be appreciated and the meat will not.
This simply means that when preparing for an interview, it is crucial to consider the selection criteria. Personally, I like to rate myself on each of them (out of ten). Everything that I rate seven and above stays on the list and I discard the rest (for the purposes of the strength question only). Then, for each of the criteria, I come up with a solid example. I mostly use the STAR method, because it provides a clear structure and forces you to show a tangible result.
Remember that the selection criteria give a very clear indication of what the company wants to see in their ideal candidate, so choose one of those as opposed to your biggest pride or your perceived biggest strength. I get it. You might be proud of your superior active listening skills and you may have invested a lot of time perfecting them – and that’s great. But it simply might not be in alignment with the company’s needs at this point in time.
If you’re uncomfortable using a skill for which you only give yourself seven out of then, you can always start your answer with something like: “Great question. Well, in the context of this particular role, my biggest strength is…”. Or: “Given the company’s goal of [insert company goal from your research], my strongest skill is…”.
This way you highlight the context and you even have the opportunity to you link your expertise to the company’s needs. Even better, right after naming your biggest strength, go one step further and exemplify your chosen strength – a bit like our candidate jumping up and performing the most elegant pirouette you have ever seen. Stating your strength is one thing, convincing the interviewer that you really have the strength, quite another. Standing up and demonstrating superior time management skills might be difficult in an interview, coming up with a solid example of a time when you demonstrated your superior time management skills isn’t, however.
Again, old or not, I like the STAR structure because it’s neat. When properly applied, it allows the interviewer to follow you easily and, most importantly, you have the opportunity to end on a high.
Where to from Here?
So, the next time you’re preparing for an interview, I invite you to highlight those strengths and skills that are relevant for the job and the company’s goals and ambitions:
- What are the skills and strengths outlined in the selection criteria?
- Rate yourself on all of them out of 10.
- Cross out everything that ranks below 7.
- For each of the remaining ones, come up with a solid example that has the potential to convince the interviewer about your expertise in that area/skill.
- When asked about your particular strengths, lean back, take a deep breath and start with: “In the context of this role, I would consider my biggest strength to be…”
This way you might not talk about what you consider your biggest personal or professional strength, but you’ll be talking about a strength that they are in need of; a strength that allows you to perform your job well and a strength that is valuable in achieving the role’s and company’s objective. Most importantly, you won’t be selling ballet skills to a football team. Good luck!