The #1 Interviewing Mistake, Plus 5 More Lessons

The #1 Interviewing Mistake, Plus 5 More Lessons

One fine Friday afternoon, I was doing my usual browsing of that week’s recently published  consultancies and job offers. There, on page 3 of ReliefWeb, I spotted a consulting contract that sounded suspiciously like the one my friend Ella had told me about on the phone.

“They sent me an advance copy of the job offer, she told me, weeks before the job was published online. “It sounds like a really good fit for me.”

“I’m sure you’d be great at it,” I said, playing the role of supportive friend.

This month, when I saw the role posted online, I emailed Ella to check if it was the same one.

“Is this it?” inquired my email, with a link to the job.

“Yes,” came the reply, and: “I have a call with the person who’ll supervise the role next week.”

Hearing that a potential candidate for a job has a semi-interview with the job’s supervisor all set up weeks before the job is ever published online might surprise you.

But job vacancies are rarely sudden events; they are carefully-timed situations beginning with conversations that can begin up to a year in advance (especially if the vacancy is in Europe, where they like to plan in advance, and particularly if the role is being vacated by a pregnant woman), and end with a job application that reads: You have one week to submit an application for this role we’ve been talking about filling for the last year. That’s partly why it’s key to ensure that everyone in your network knows you’re available for work – and the kind of work you’re qualified and able to do – because, as with Ella’s case, job vacancies are often shared via internal networks before they are officially advertised, if ever.

Back to my friend: this week, she’s going to chat on Skype with the person who might be her boss.

And though this conversation is not called an interview, it’s like an interview in that it’s an opportunity for her potential future boss to evaluate her as a candidate for the job, and get a sense of whether she’s trustworthy, reliable, and a good fit for the role. After the call, she’ll be asked to submit an official application through the official channels (aka, send an email with a CV, cover letter, and financial proposal attached),

I know Ella wants this job. And really, she’s perfect for it – she has the right background, the right education, and has already worked with some of the people she’d need to liaise with if she was chosen for the role.

But she still needs to make a success of the first step: the interview (even if it’s not yet being called an interview). She could google for interview tips, but it’s not that simple. To succeed, she’ll need to go inside the head of the hiring manager, and understand their doubts, fears, and concerns, so she can address them in her interview.

These are the interview tips I’d give my dear friend Ella, and here’s what I’d tell you:


1. Categorise the job.

Most jobs have one main duty: you’re either going to be leading a team or an organisation, implementing a project, coordinating efforts of other people, or supporting one of project managers or team leaders. The bigger the organisation, the more you need to narrow down to ONE of the above categories. With small organisations, you may be asked to wear multiple hats, but your output (and impact) will be less wide-ranging. Pick one of these categories, and test it against the actual job duties: could most of them fall into this category? If yes, you can move on to Step 2. If not, ask yourself why they’d saddle you with two primary duties, and if you’re going to have a paid assistant working for you so you can handle both roles.


2. Summarise the job duties in your own words

HR managers love to write job descriptions full of jargon, such as:

  • Review all grant agreements and contracts within the region and work with HQ departments to support negotiation and final signature.
  • Ensure regional grant administration is on track and support country-level grant administration.
  • Responsible for tracking compliance to donor requirements, such as financial and procurement regulations, visibility and branding, etc., from proposal through grant close out.

Usually, you can summarise the job duties into 2-3 simple sentences. In case of the above, this would be:

  • Make sure grants are approved (i.e., paid). If necessary, be insistent with someone who takes too long to respond to your emails.
  • Make sure everyone is spending their grant money responsibly and transparently. If necessary, be stern with them.
  • Make sure the orgs who were given grant money are also properly writing their reports on how they spent that money, in line with what the donor said they wanted to see in the reports and reporting process. If necessary, be stern with them.

Before embarking on this process, you should already be intimately familiar with the job description, whether or not its the final version, and intuitively understand what the orgnaisatin is asking you to do. Then, summarise the job duties (as they relate to the primary ‘duty’ of the job as mentioned in Point 1) using your own language, to be confirm in your interview or pre-interview call.


3. Alert them to the potential potholes.

After reading through the job description, if you’re qualified for the role, you will already have a good sense of how much time each aspect of the consultancy or job will take, and what resources you might need to mobilise for it. Before the interview, prepare a short list of critical questions (maximum of 3-5) and pitfalls of the assignment and add these to your proposal or put these forward in the interview. Often, ToRs are published with a lot of expectations, and ambitious objectives, but with little attention to the implementation aspect of the role, such as asking for a  30-day time period even if the actual job would require 60-90 days. Successful applications often address the critical elements before taking on the role. This shows both professionalism and the ability to show ‘a weakness’ by saying “No, I cannot do it all”, or “I need more clarity on XYZ or ABC part of the job description/ToR.”


4. Get clear on your value-add. 

If you’re convinced you’re a good fit for the job, you must also know what you’d bring to the role, such as a head for numbers, the ability to inspire your colleagues, a cheerful personality, or strong project management skills and systems thinking. This is the “value” that you’ll be “adding” to the position, the team, and the organisation. We’re not done making your case, but you need to already have sold your worth to yourself before you start talking to your future boss.


5. Talk about the BENEFITS, not FEATURES, of hiring you. 

Yes, you might have a solid background the kind of experience this job requires (e.g., 7 years experience in climate change, or previous experience living in a rural African context), and you might have the right education they hope to see on the CV of a person applying to this role, and you might speak French and Spanish and German all fluently, even though German is not relevant to the job but makes you cosmopolitan. Those are the FEATURES of your profile. Now, my dear, let’s talk about the benefits: a trilingual person is likely to be a versatile communicator and able to interact with and deliver messages to a wide variety of audiences. This is a benefit. Someone who’s lived in rural Africa is likely able to easily adapt to resource-poor contexts, and knows how to come up with creative solutions. That’s another benefit. Talk about these benefits (of your background and education) in your conversation, thereby selling yourself for the role.


6. Empathise. 

Nearly everyone misses this one: it’s mega-stressful to hire a stranger you don’t know, when you’d really rather just work with someone you already like and trust. Sadly, international NGO jobs aren’t limited to just one village, and the average job opening gets inundated by cover letters from a variety of countries, each one with a culture more different, and, at times, incomprehensible than the next. As humans, we’re xenophobic by nature, and in the hiring process, look for profiles most resembling those of our own. But hiring is still hard, and hiring well is even more difficult, even if the interview is a hit. Take the opportunity to empathise with your future boss, on the difficulties of finding a candidate who’s both a good fit for the job and appropriate to the needs of the team and the organisation. This makes you appear mature, thoughtful, and – best of all – like a colleague who’s already a part of the team.



Good luck Ella! I’ll be rooting for you forever.


Top photo via Dave Brenner.


Tell me, do you have a job interview coming up? How do you typically prepare for an interview? And how can you prepare better to convince them to hire you on the spot?

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