Acing the Toughest Interview Question: A Q&A with Career Coach Fran Berrick
"Tell me about yourself."
Many people would agree that those four words comprise the most challenging sentence you can hear in an interview. What, exactly, are hiring managers looking for when they ask you to tell them more about yourself? They have your resume. Presumably, they've already checked out your LinkedIn. How do you add to your narrative without merely repeating what they've already seen?
Vault recently spoke with Fran Berrick, career coach and founder of Spearmint Coaching, to learn how answering this question is much like building a brand and gain insight into the best ways to make your narrative resonate with a potential employer.
Vault: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and Spearmint Coaching. What is the Spearmint approach to career coaching, and how does it change the game for jobseekers?
Fran Berrick: With more than two decades of experience in global business and entrepreneurial ventures, I worked on the inside helping organizations grow their bottom line and gain key insights they needed to drive performance. At the heart of my success was a focus on outcomes and a consultative approach that resonated with clients. Over the years, I found myself increasingly helping colleagues, friends and young professionals sort out their career journeys, and I found a new passion that brought a more compelling fulfillment to my life. I saw a gap in the coaching market characterized by an absence of real-life business experience and the insights this provides. That inspired me to make a career shift to provide individuals and organizations with street-smart, results-driven career coaching. That’s how Spearmint was born.
At Spearmint, whether working with a client entering the workforce or an experienced executive pursuing a career transition, we start with an honest assessment and understanding of their strengths, skills, and values—with an eye towards skill gaps and positioning. We help them define their narrative through a pragmatic process for marketing themselves effectively. I guide them in the art of holding productive conversations and building a ‘board of directors’, emphasizing the importance of developing personal connections rather than simply refining resumes and LinkedIn profiles. A deep understanding of the client and the market is the unique Spearmint advantage.
Vault: What should jobseekers look for in a career coach? How is career coaching most effective, and what do career coaches need to do to meet the needs of today’s jobseekers?
FB: Availability! This is a service that has real-time needs. I am unabashedly 24/7 in helping clients when they are in play for a role. You can prep for game day all you want, but when the player is in the field, that’s the moment of truth. Clients should also look for a coach with a process they understand, who is patient with them and doggedly determined and optimistic for their successful outcome. For coaching to be most effective, it should be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-related).
Vault: What are some of the biggest challenges facing job seekers in today’s job market? How have those challenges changed over the last two decades?
FB: Automation. The internet has created a virtual barrier that favors the employer. With greater reach, there are exponentially more applicants and more digital hurdles to scale to be visible. You have to be able to master the complicated environment of online job sites and employer application portals. Most recruiters look at a resume for six seconds! We can help carefully tailor your resume every single time you apply and optimize for ATS search and ranking algorithms by matching your resume keywords to the job. However, the data shows you will always have a better success rate applying through a warm contact, or someone to refer you on the inside once you have submitted online.
Vault: What is the most common mistake, skills gap, or area for improvement you encounter among the job seekers, you coach?
FB: First, driving your search solely online is a mistake. You will get better results when you work through your ‘Board of Directors’ and meaningful contacts to help support what you do online. Second, many job seekers fail to do the research to address the “why employer XYZ” question, and that puts them at a disadvantage in an interview. You can have much more productive interview conversations – and they should be conversations rather than interrogations – if you do the prep work and practice the conversation ahead of time. Third, many people neglect the process of establishing a goal (i.e. I would like to be a consultant at a boutique healthcare firm), evaluating what skills you have, and addressing possible gaps before you start the search process.
Vault: What do employers want to know when they ask a candidate, “tell me about yourself”? If you could identify one thing—one “aha! moment”—that interviewers need to make a decision, what would it be?
FB: Beyond serving as an icebreaker and transition, this introductory question (which, by the way, comes in different forms, such as, “What will I not see on your resume that I should know about you?” or “Tell me about your journey”) helps recruiters and hiring managers accomplish one of their major goals in the hiring process: getting to know you. This question is about suitability in large respect: your hard skills are of course key, however, this part of the interview is about culture and fit, so what you say is going to help them figure that out.
It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that you can communicate clearly and effectively, connect with other people and present yourself professionally. If you answer it well, the interviewers will see why you’re the best candidate for this job. However, all of this natural rapport takes preparation. It’s rehearsed authenticity. Nailing this sets you up for success for the rest of the interview.
The aha moment happens when you tailor your answer to the role and company. This is the best chance to be direct and share your objective, but your objective needs to fulfill their goals. That’s what will resonate with employers. Can you solve, with your skills and strengths, the problem they have? That’s where the work is for jobseekers.
Vault: We think of a personal brand in terms of an online presence—an image or message that a person’s activities try to convey. However, you’ve compared an effective response to “tell me about yourself” as building your brand. Can you explain how a person’s brand translates to the interview? How separate should a person’s general brand and the brand they portray in an interview be? How similar?
FB: In the best of situations, if you have set your goal or target job description effectively, your brand (what you offer in hard and soft skills) is aligned with the prospective employer’s needs. As great as your resume and LinkedIn profile may be, they will in no way substitute for that aha in-person moment with a recruiter or an executive in a position to hire you when they see that you offer what they need. My work with clients is to get their online presence razor-sharp to add depth and dimension to the in-person communications they are having—not the other way around. The overlaps should be emphasized in the narrative, and any discrepancies should be addressed and explained.
Vault: Can you talk a little bit about the preparation that goes into crafting a compelling story for your interviewer? What do job seekers need to do in advance of an interview to ensure they’re telling the best possible version of their story?
FB: The in-depth work I do with clients (using assessments when needed) helps them understand their best professional selves holistically. That then translates into where they want to go next and how they can communicate this to employers. After this is done, the best place to start is with what the employer is looking for and taking a realistic look at how you can shape your narrative to fit their needs. Generally here are some tips:
- Keep it professional: no hobbies or personal details unless relevant to the role. If you can inject some passion into your answer (“I knew I wanted to work in marketing when I was a kid. I’ve always really loved writing.”), that’s great. If a client is connected to a company’s mission, this is a great place to bring that in. You might incorporate a sentence like, “I’m passionate about X and Y and so I was attracted to your company.”
- Do not recite your resume. They have seen that already.
- Every answer is different; know your audience. If you are speaking with a recruiter, you may want to refer back to your hard skills. If you’re talking to a C-level executive as part of your final round, it’s probably smart to touch on why you’re drawn to the overall mission of the company.
- Keep it positive. First impressions matter, and this includes your greeting, handshake, eye contact, and the first thing you say, which may very well be your response to “tell me about yourself.” Be prepared for this question and show interviewers you prepared for it. Your confidence will come across right away, and that’s a big plus in an interview.
You might have a basic template you use for every interview, but make sure to tweak it to fit the company. It’s an opportunity to show them right away that you get it. If they talk a lot about culture, weave that into your answer, and if the company, or even the particular team, emphasizes something else, see if you can incorporate that down to the keywords they use.
Vault: What are three things that anybody reading this article can do right now to begin changing the way they talk about themselves in interviews?
FB: Hmmmm, tough one as many of your readers have probably got this nailed! First, they need to be able to describe their unique attributes in a way that is different and distinct compared to their previous roles and titles. Create and embrace their unique elevator pitch, for lack of a better term. Second, they need to consider what the employer’s needs are. This drives the whole conversation in terms of which aspects of their narrative they emphasize in an interview. Third, do any and all research you can, use every resource possible to ensure your ‘answers’ and how you present yourself (#2) are as on point as possible.