How would you go about acing a corporate job interview at Apple? What strategy would you use to impress admissions officers at Harvard Business School? Or convince savvy venture capitalists that you and your startup are worth investing in? At the pinnacle of your career, how would you persuade a board of directors that you should be the company’s next CEO?
The answer is simple, but counterintuitive. And, unfortunately, no matter how emphatic I am, most people still won’t have the courage to follow my advice. But here it is anyway.
Don’t pretend to be perfect.
I should clarify that this guidance does not come without ample personal experience and research to back it up. I have been interviewing and advising job candidates for the past 25 years. I’ve worked at top executive search firms including Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles, and at Ivy League schools including Harvard Business School and Yale Law School. I’ve helped boards hire their next CEO, helped venture capital and private equity firms size up new talent, helped sports teams hire their next head coach, and helped students prepare for big job interviews. In other words, I’ve been on the “other side of the table” enough times to know what makes true leaders stand out within a sea of highly qualified prospects.
Having said that, let’s assume you do decide to take my advice. Now you may be wondering: What’s the right way to describe your imperfections during the most significant interview of your life? It’s an intimidating prospect, and I can’t stress enough how important it is to put in the time for both reflection and rehearsal before you sit down for that meeting.
The first step is to practice self-awareness. Here’s a dirty little secret in the business world: Nearly half of all executives are self-delusional, not self-aware. They think they’re much better, and far more important, than they really are. Do not fall into that trap! Take the time to get to know your flaws. We all have them, and being honest with ourselves about our shortcomings will take us a lot farther than pretending they don’t exist. Ask others for feedback. Take a self-assessment quiz. Talk to your counselor if you’re still in school, or get a coach if you’re already in the corporate world. There are countless ways to become more self-aware — just take the time to do some digging.
It’s important to note here, however, that the process of becoming more self-aware is never-ending. It’s not a one-off event, it is a journey. Even the most successful CEOs in the country seek new avenues to self-improvement. Brad Smith, the iconic Silicon Valley leader, used to insist that he undergo a 360-assessment every single year during his decadelong tenure as CEO of Intuit. What did he do with his results? He shared them with his personal coach, and then he shared them with the entire company. He even posted them on his office door. He knew that exposing his strengths — and, more important, his weaknesses — set a powerful example for others in the company to do the same. The point is, if someone is as impressive and revered as Brad Smith did it, you should too.
The second step you’ll want to take is to zero in the right development areas. If we put our minds to it, most of us can think of 10 to 20 skill sets we could improve on, but I want you to focus on just two or three of the most important ones. What new behaviors, abilities, and competencies can help you level up? Pick a small handful and really focus on where you may fall short. Then get ready to share these development needs with others. Don’t fake it. Don’t try to fool the gatekeepers. Interviewers have heard trite answers like “I work too hard” and “I have terrible work-life balance” a thousand times. They won’t fall for it. Some more honest and authentic examples are “I have a fear of public speaking,” “I have difficulty giving my tough team feedback,” or “I still struggle to assemble A-teams.” The point is to be genuine and truthful.
Third, practice articulating these development goals in advance. Do not wait until the actual interview before you spill the beans. Just saying these personal challenges aloud will sound strange the first couple of times. Practicing will help you say them in a more relaxed and confident way during the actual interview. Also, be prepared for some probing questions to help the interviewer understand the color and context of your answers. For example, when I assess a leadership candidate, I ask follow-up questions like: “Why do you have a tough time giving your team feedback? Are you afraid to hurt their feelings? Are you afraid of conflict?” I’m not looking for a long answer, but an honest, well-constructed, authentic response demonstrates both self-awareness and preparedness.
Fourth, have a plan of action. It’s one thing to know your flaws, but if you don’t have a plan for improvement, what’s the point in exposing those weaknesses? Show that you are proactive, and that you have been thinking about how to take the initiative to improve. In the above example, the candidate could ask others (colleagues, mentors, coaches, friends) how they give their team members “tough love” feedback, and then try implementing those new ideas. You should be open and willing to try different things. Get outside of your comfort zone, as that is where the most growth occurs.
Once you’ve taken that step, it’s important to reflect on what you’ve tried. How did these new ideas work in practice? Did they solve your problem, or make things worse? How did you feel when getting outside your comfort zone? How did team members respond when you tried something new? Was their response what you expected? You may even want to keep a journal, as it’s a great way to unpack and analyze strange new feelings. Also, I always recommend having a discussion with a coach, if possible. Remember, your interview isn’t a therapy session, so don’t go into a deep dive during your limited time together. Instead, be clear and concise about your action plan.
And fifth, explain how the organization can help you achieve your leadership development goals. This is the icing on the cake. For example, if you’re interviewing for a coveted spot at Harvard Business School, explain how that specific school is uniquely positioned to help you become a better leader. Perhaps it has a club on campus that helps women overcome fears as they learn how to shatter the glass ceiling. Perhaps it has a class or a department that will help you learn new technical skills that you currently lack. Perhaps one of its professors conducts exclusive research in an area that deeply interests you. Do your homework ahead of time and be specific about not only what you can bring to the school, but also what it can do for you.
Or perhaps you’re interviewing to get hired for a coveted product marketing position at Coca-Cola. Think carefully about the company’s culture, its core values, and its unique approach to leadership development. Maybe you have heard through the grapevine that the company has a top-notch program to help analytic but extreme introverts overcome their fear of public speaking, and that’s an area you struggle with. This would be a perfect example to discuss with your interviewer. Iconic brands like Coca-Cola have often invested heavily in leadership development and are genuinely excited to partner talent to help them overcome personal obstacles.
Of course, at the end of the day, you will still need experience, competence, and integrity, or you’ll never get past the starting gate. But, all things being equal, the imperfect human being will always get the big job over the “perfect” leader or “perfect” job candidate. It’s a mathematical certainty because the latter simply doesn’t exist.