Skip to main content

People ask me what is the most common mistake that I see in executive interviews, and quite simply, it is a failure to be specific. 

Candidates often give answers that are too vague. They can talk quite a lot, feeling like they are answering the questions, but without delivering any real value.  The answer may sound good conversationally, but it is in fact rather hollow.

To be meaningful and memorable you need to provide relevant detail that demonstrates insight, experience or judgment.  I call these nuggets of information “units of value” and I encourage candidates to think about how they can include at least one unit of value in every single answer, rather than just saying something that seems to answer the question.  

The easiest way to explain what I mean is with some examples.

It’s not uncommon for a candidate to say something like, “I have always been good with customers” which sounds sensible enough, but it has no depth.  After all no one is going to openly say, “I have never been any good with customers.” 

A better candidate might say, “I’ve trained myself to listen well so I can often spot opportunities that most people will miss.”  You can imagine how this answer could lead nicely to a small story that illustrates the point.  It is still a short statement, takes no more time to deliver but it says a lot more about how the candidate is thinking.

Another example comes from a question I have asked when searching for sales leaders.  I would say “How will you ensure that you give me accurate sales forecasts?”  Very often I would be given a rather vague answer something like “Well, it’s a bit more of an art than a science, it depends on the sales person as to what I believe, but I get to know the team and I combine their inputs.”  Again, the candidate thinks they have answered the question but I have no idea as to whether I will get good forecasts or not. 

Imagine instead that someone said, “I will give you my forecast at the start of every quarter and an update each month during the quarter.  Each time I submit my forecast I will have done three small analyses. 

First, I look at everything in the pipeline that is due to close, and I see what coverage we have over and above the target, and this enables me to make a top-down estimate. Next, I look at the weighted values of the deals in the pipeline, based on the stages that we have in the sales process, and I make a second estimate from that.  Finally, I examine the deals bottom-up.  I step through each of the opportunities myself, and I make a binary call `yes or no` on whether I think a deal is likely to close this quarter, giving me a third value.  Then I combine these three inputs with an element of caution, and I give you my best estimate.”

This is not a particularly long answer, but it is one that generates confidence.  I can see that the candidate is accustomed to working with a structured sales process and knows how to use the data to good effect.  I also get a sense of ownership, namely that the candidate realizes the importance of these forecasts and will be thorough before making a submission.  

Let’s stay with the potential sales leader for a final example. 

Imagine the question is “Tell me about you sales experience,” and the candidate says, “Well I’ve been a sales leader for several years managing some pretty big teams” compared to if they said “In my last role, I led a sales team of 250 people spread across five different continents.  We would bring in over 200 purchase orders a quarter, and every one of those needed chasing, checking, and approving. So, I’m no stranger to scale or complexity or the intensity that is required to close a quarter successfully”.  You can see how the specifics bring the answer to life.  It is much easier to imagine this individual in the previous role and to get a sense for what this entailed.

Whatever your area of specialization or the type of interview that you are attending, discipline yourself to be specific and avoid the mistake of being vague.  Find the right level of detail and deliver at least one “unit of value” in every answer.  If you give this your focus when preparing and when you are in the interview room, then you will be sure to give a more meaningful and indeed a more memorable interview performance.