WASHINGTON, DC | NEW YORK, NY | CHICAGO, IL | ORANGE COUNTY, CA | PORTLAND, OR

Five Common Interviewing Mistakes and How To Avoid Them

By David S. Martin, CEO and Managing Partner, Sterling Martin Associates

As Executive Search Consultants, we have a unique perspective on the interviewing process. In today’s competitive job market, it is more important than ever to avoid obvious gaffes in your interview, mistakes that are sure to take you out of the running. Here are five avoidable errors I have observed that have caused candidates to be disqualified.

Mistake #1: Making a weak opening statement.

If you are interviewing with a search committee you may be asked to make a formal opening statement of a few minutes in length. In a less formal setting the interviewer may ask you to “take a couple of minutes to introduce yourself and indicate why you are interested in the position.” Your opening statement is a great opportunity to “knock it out of the park” and set the tone for the rest of the interview. What interviewers often want to know, but may not explicitly ask, is: “Why you are interested in the organization and this opportunity specifically?” They are not looking for someone who is simply applying for a job. Don’t just recite your resume experience; the interviewers have already reviewed that. They are looking for someone who has taken the time to research the organization and is excited about its mission. Think about answering the question: “Why this job and why now?”

Here are some things to think about as you prepare an opening statement:

  • Have you done your homework? There is no excuse for not being well-informed.
  • What makes you stand out among candidates?
  • How can your experience help solve the challenges of the job?
  • Can you relate your experience to the requirements of the position description?

Mistake #2: Not answering the question asked or giving a rambling response.

I hear this all the time from clients: “They didn’t answer my questions!” If they ask about your management style, don’t carry on for five minutes about strategic partnerships before finally mentioning something about management. Stay focused and listen carefully to the question asked.

Think of your initial response to a question as being a “headline” or sound bite (crisp and to-the-point), then be prepared to back it up with more detail and specific examples. You might say, “The short answer to your question is that my management style is flexible according to the situation. I’d like to expand on that briefly with an example if that is OK.” You answered their question, then provided additional depth and a specific example as evidence.

Mistake #3: Not providing specific examples or anecdotes.

An interviewer may ask a question about how you handled a specific situation in the past. This is known as behavioral interviewing. The interviewer will ask you to tell them about a time when you had to handle a specific situation, what your role was and the action you took, and what the results were. When a candidate provides specific examples, the interview team often takes note and then mentions that in their feedback after the interview.

There is a lot of information about behavioral interviewing on the Internet, so it is worth doing a little research on it. Review the position description and think about questions that might arise from it. What experience or specific examples do you have from your career that relates to those topics? Be prepared for interview questions relating to leadership, management style, relating to clients/members, ability to generate new sources of revenue, and budgeting/financial matters.

Mistake #4: Being unprepared for your virtual interview.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews shifted to being largely virtual through Zoom or other platforms. As of June 2021, clients are starting to conduct some interviews in person, in particular the final round. But virtual interviews are probably here to stay at least for the near future. You should have some facility with Zoom and other virtual tools. It is likely you will continue to use them under any circumstances to interact with colleagues and clients. In effect, your comfort with virtual interaction is part of the interview process. Be sure you have downloaded any software well before interview time and be prepared to join the call a few minutes early. You do not want to have a Search Committee sitting there while you are trying to figure out the technology.

How is your lighting? The lighting should ideally be in front of you to illuminate your face rather than behind you. You don’t want to have bright sunlight shining in from a window directly behind you or to your side.

Try to look at the camera when responding to questions, rather than looking at the people on your screen. By looking at the camera, it appears to the interviewers that you are making eye contact with them. Try to have the camera at eye level.

We still recommend business attire for the interview. Yes, things have gotten more casual during the pandemic, but you are interviewing for an executive level position. Look your best!

Try to prevent distractions like pets, etc. If you have family at home, let them know you have an important meeting and ask them not to use technology that will use bandwidth during your interview if possible. This can cause freeze ups. We know one candidate whose teenager decided to reboot the home’s router during her interview!

Mistake #5: Preparing “overly creative” materials for follow-up interviews

It is not unusual to be asked to prepare a presentation, such as a PowerPoint, for a follow-up interview. While it is fine to be somewhat creative, don’t go overboard. Doing something outlandish can backfire and cause you to be disqualified. A small dose of creativity or humor goes a long way, but don’t be excessive. Be certain to answer the question(s) they have asked you to address.

Bonus tip: Saving some questions for the end of the interview

Prior to your interview, you should prepare a list of several questions you would like to ask the interviewers. Many of them will likely be answered during the conversation. Plan enough questions so that you don’t finish empty-handed. Try to have one or two original, relevant, thought-provoking questions in your “back pocket.” Then you won’t find yourself in the position of saying: “All of my questions have been answered,” at the end of the interview, which may fall a little flat. 

David Martin is a 30-year veteran of the executive search field. He’s CEO and Managing Partner of Sterling Martin Associates, an executive search firm headquartered in Washington, DC, which he founded in 2006.