Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Prove you are a problem-solver

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Employers want to recruit new hires who will solve their problems — not create new ones. Here are five ways to prove to employers that you’re a problem-solver — not a problem.

1. Strategize your current projects. Long before you start looking for a new job, identify projects on your current job that are likely to produce tangible results. These might be reports, Web sites, training or new procedures that are likely to improve your office’s operations in concrete ways by, for example, cutting costs, increasing productivity or improving efficiency. Then, ask your boss if you can lead those projects. Completing such projects will provide tangible evidence of your productivity and problem-solving skills that you can brandish in your job applications and interviews.

2. Show your successes. Bring to your interviews solid proof of your success such as glowing performance reviews or praising e-mails from managers; and impressive work products, such as printouts of Web sites you created, reports you have written or descriptions of your projects in annual reports.

3. Solve problems volunteered by your interviewers. If your interviewers describe challenges, obstacles or problems confronting your target office, suggest potential strategies for solving those problems either immediately or during follow-up interviews.

A case in point: I know a federal human resources manager whose interviewer mentioned that her target office had trouble motivating employees who were not eligible for promotions. In response, the HR manager presented during her second interview a list of innovative potential motivating strategies. The result: Even before the HR manager got home from the interview, her interviewers had left her a voice mail message offering her the job — even though she had been warned before her second interview that she still faced stiff competition for the job.

Another example: I know a federal manager who was told during an initial interview that she would be asked in a follow-up interview to describe her vision for her target office. In response, she called her target office’s director and discussed his vision, and then prepared a short PowerPoint presentation on how to achieve the director’s goals. The result: She got the job.

4. Generate opportunities to solve your target office’s problems. If your interviewers don’t volunteer the information, ask them what challenges, constraints or obstacles are confronting their office. A good time to do this is when your interviewers ask if you have any questions about your target job. In response, on the spot, in follow-up interviews or in a post-interview thank-you letter, gently suggest potential strategies for solving those problems.

5. Help your references help you. Your references probably won’t know anything about your target job or which of your credentials they should emphasize unless you tell them. Nor will your references necessarily remember your past successes or even the praise they themselves have heaped on you.

So when you ask your references if you may use them as references, describe to them your target job, why it appeals to you and your qualifications for it. Also, remind them of relevant projects and positive feedback they drew. In addition, volunteer to provide your references with copies of praising evaluations they have given you, your résumé and any other documents that would support your case.

Finally, here is how to impress your interviewers with your organizational skills and, at the same time, guide their discussions with each of your references to your best advantage: Prepare for your interviewers a list of your references in a neat table that has the following column headings: Name, Title, Contact Info, and Relationship to Me. Start each Relationship to Me box by identifying what type of professional relationship you had with each reference. Then, write something like “Can verify my xxx skills,” followed by a brief list of the credentials, projects, soft skills and any other characteristics you would like your interviewers to discuss with that reference.

Make interview answers pop

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During your next job interview, you will almost certainly be asked some of those standard, clichéd questions that have been asked in interviews almost since the Spanish Inquisition.

Some guidance to help you ace them:

Q: Tell me about yourself.

Unimpressive answer: A biographical filibuster that rambles on about your entire career and includes personal information that is irrelevant to your target job. Save that spiel for your retirement party.

Impressive answer: A concise, logical summary of your relevant credentials — even if they’re covered in your resume. Emphasize recent (over ancient) successes, show your fire-in-the-belly, and conclude by describing how you would contribute to your target job.

Q: What are your weaknesses?

Unimpressive answer: Anything that will confirm your unworthiness for your target job. Consider that everything you say can and will be held against you. Avoid clichés like: “I don’t have any weaknesses,” “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I work too hard.”

Impressive answer: Use some time-tested techniques for demonstrating self-awareness, and humility of commitment to self-improvement:

*Describe how you stay current in your field, and identify some training goals.

*Describe a non-deal-breaking gap you fixed. For example: “I previously underestimated the importance of X. So now I emphasize it more.” Or, “I used to avoid public speaking. So I joined Toastmasters, and now enjoy it.”

*Acknowledge that, as a new employee, you would have a lot to learn about your target organization, and prove that you are up to the task.

*Say: “In order to avoid repeating mistakes, I inventory lessons learned after each project with my staff.”

Q: What are you most proud of?

Unimpressive answer: I know a fed who answered this question by referring to his role as a husband and father. In response, “my interviewer’s face fell,” he recalls. He didn’t get the job.

Impressive answer: Describe a high-impact project that parallels the demands of your target job, explain how your contributions to it improved operations, and cite resulting positive feedback. That’s what the proud husband and father did when asked that question in another interview. He got the job.

Q: Why should we hire you over other applicants?

Unimpressive answer: “I don’t know the other applicants so I can’t compare myself to them.” Your interviewers will hit the eject button. Don’t be meek, overly humble or apologetic.

Impressive answer: Describe your best credentials, your work ethic, and team-friendly approaches. Also leave copies of recent excellent annual reviews with your interviewers, if possible.

Q: Can we call your boss?

Unimpressive answer: “We don’t get along. Please don’t call him.”

Impressive answer: Don’t want your current boss to sabotage your prospects? Say, “I would prefer not to inform my boss about my job search. Here’s a list of other references, including several previous bosses.”

Q: How do you deal with conflict?

Unimpressive answer: “I won’t compromise when I am right.”

Impressive answer: “I look for common ground and ways to compromise. For example … Also, I believe that disagreements should not become conflicts. Colleagues should be able to discuss disagreements amicably. When I get overruled or overrule others, I just do it graciously, and move on.”

Q: What is your management style?

Unimpressive answer: “I’m the boss and I expect my staff to follow my orders.”

Impressive answer: “I am a decisive, effective, and fair manager who creates a collegial office atmosphere. To ensure that my office’s work gets done, I strive to understand the work, the people who do it, and relevant obstacles. And I give my staff the guidance and resources they need to do their jobs.”

Q: What would you do during your first week as a manager?

Unimpressive answer: A pledge to buffalo through the office and immediately overhaul it.

Impressive answer: “I would initially talk to as many people as possible and read as much as possible to understand the organization and its constraints before making any major changes.”

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.