Interviews, like dates, are sometimes mysterious. You establish a great rapport, the meeting lasts longer than you expect, you walk out with a spring in your step, and then... they don’t call. You wonder what gives. Is someone else in the picture, maybe one of those troubling internal candidates? Are there other politics you don’t know about? Were they feeding you a line? Your professional life feels like that song by Macy Gray: “Hey! Why didn’t you call me? I thought I’d see you again...”
In these situations, it’s hard to know what’s going on because there’s so much about the other side that you can’t really know. People often take things personally that have nothing to do with them.
And yet, sometimes the problem really is with the candidate, and specifically with what the candidate is saying or not saying. Sometimes, the reason you are not getting a job or call-back is because you might not be communicating as effectively as you think you are.
People are accustomed to thinking they are hired for their record of employment. In fact, you are hired for what you bring to the table, not what particular positions you’ve occupied before. And what you bring to the table are your competencies—the skills, knowledge, and traits that you can apply for the benefit of your future employer. Every employer is essentially looking for someone who can get the job done; your competencies are the direct link to this.
You will be much more effective in finding good opportunities if you make a habit of talking about yourself in terms of competencies, rather than chronologies and titles. Stop talking about your résumé and start talking about your competencies.
But doing this requires preparation. Start by asking yourself what are the three or four most important competencies for a particular job. (This is a good question to ask in an informational interview or networking meeting.) Perhaps they need someone with leadership, financial analysis skills, or negotiations ability. Perhaps they need someone who can manage diversity, resolve conflicts, or stimulate innovation. Perhaps they want someone who has good judgment, can thrive in chaos, or knows how to attain good work/life balance. It ultimately comes down to one question: what are the handful of competencies someone needs to be successful in this job?
Once you’ve identified the competencies required, find examples of how you’ve displayed these in action. Just listing your competencies doesn’t say much; giving concrete examples makes them come alive. Don’t restrict your examples to your current or most recent position; there may be more relevant illustrations far back in your experience or outside the realm of work altogether.
You can also approach this from the opposite direction. Think about what your chief competencies are, then figure out which of these apply to the job or path you’re interested in. If you are unsure what your competencies are, ask yourself: “If I had to hire someone to be me, what qualities would I need to see in that person?”
Finally, come up with a positioning statement to kick off the meeting that gives the listener an overall sense of your career path—who you are and what you’re looking for. (The list of your competencies is part of the “who you are” part). Avoid lengthy stories and do not start with the year you graduated from college. Just give the headlines. You may mention your competencies briefly in the positioning statement, and then use the rest of the interview to cover them in greater detail.
Here’s an example:
“I worked for ten years in finance and venture funding before taking a few years to raise my kids. My job has been basically to get affluent individuals and institutions to write large checks for interesting companies, and I’m really good at it! During the past few years I’ve grown really impassioned about conservation and the threat of global warming. I would love to use my fundraising skills and professional network to help an organization that focuses on issues like these, which is why I’m so happy to be interviewing here at Greenpeace.”
Note that the story line is simple, and the speaker doesn’t go into extensive detail about irrelevant or distracting things (such as his or her employment gap). The speaker quickly focuses attention on competencies–in this case fundraising skills, professional network, and passion for the cause.
Adopting a competency-based approach to interviews allows you to talk directly about what your potential employer actually needs. In a funny way it also tends to make you less self-conscious–instead of talking about you all the time (your history, your transitions, your drama), you get to talk about what’s relevant to the position (your skills, your energy, your forward momentum!). This then leads to a natural discussion about the challenges facing the institution you’re interviewing at, and how you can help your future employer meet those challenges.
Michael Melcher is a partner in Next Step Partners, a leadership development and executive coaching firm, and the author of The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction (American Bar Association, 2007). This article was originally published in 2006.