Two Things You Should Share With A Recruiter About Your Past Positions

You’re 5 minutes into a phone interview.

In spite of the obscene amount of coffee you drank this morning, your jitters are starting to subside. You’ve totally got this!

So far you’ve caught the recruiter’s attention, you’ve given them an executive summary of your professional experience, and you’re just starting to delve into your background — backwards, of course.

Awesome.

But now what? What do you actually say about each position on your resume? There are so many things you could say and so little time…ahh, decisions, decisions.

Only you can decide what to say about each position you’ve held. What you say will probably (read: should) vary based on the job you’re interviewing for, but there are two critical topics that you won’t want to leave out as you talk about each of your past positions.

chess pieces king and queen

Content is king but context is queen

What you say about your professional background matters in a phone interview, to state the obvious. But the context you give me about each position and the companies you’ve worked at matters a whole heck of a lot, too. Without it, I have no idea how to interpret what you tell me. And my interpretation will probably be wrong because, let’s be honest, there’s a 0.00001% chance that I’m deeply familiar with each of the companies you’ve worked at.

Let’s take a simple example.

One fundamental thing I want to figure out is whether or not you’re a good match for the seniority of the position I’m hiring for. And I don’t mean how many years you’ve been working. Seniority is a lot more nuanced than that. I want to know things like:

Who do you report to?

How much experience do you have working with C-suite executives?

Who reports to you, if anyone?

How big is your team, if you have one?

What is the scope of your / your team’s responsibilities?

So, once again, spoon feed me. Prevent me from thinking too much. Don’t let me draw my own conclusions. Give me the context I need to interpret the information you give me about the places you’ve worked and the positions you’ve held.

(As an aside — context is the same principle at work behind my resume advice to include a company description on your resume. )

What would you say…you do here?

Have you ever wondered what a friend or even a colleague actually does all day? Sure, you know they stare at a computer screen and send a lot of emails and probably go to some meetings. But what do they actually do.

You’re not the only one. I wonder this all day, every day about every person I interview.

And Tom’s answer from Office Space probably won’t get you very far —

“I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that?!”

I’m constantly amazed how many people I speak to and, even after a 5-10 minute conversation, I still have no idea what they’re good at or how they pass the hours between 9 and 5. That’s bad news. At some point, if I can’t figure out what you do, I’ll assume that you’re not a doer at all. You’re a delegator. And a delegator is the last thing I want in a start up where everyone needs to get their hands dirty.

So, after you give me a summary of your professional experience and a little context about your role, be sure to tell me what you actually do on a daily or weekly basis.

And there you have it! The next time you’re describing your background to a recruiter, be sure to include plenty of context about past positions and don’t forget to make it clear what you actually do all day long.

Yours,
The Distracted Goldfish

goldfish

 

Say What?! Sh*t Job Candidates Say That YOU Probably Shouldn’t

Kids say the darnedest things. Turns out job candidates do, too.

No need for waxing poetic to introduce this post. Without further ado, I give you: sh*t job candidates say. You probably don’t want to repeat any of these in your next interview.

The “Skills-You-Don’t-Need-To-Mention” Edition

You are totally a pro at adulting. You’ve got it down pat. You go to the grocery store every week LIKE A BOSS. Sometimes twice! You pay your bills – on time, obvi. And you even manage to keep a plant alive. How many people can say that?! Dude, you.are.awesome.

But that doesn’t mean I want to hear about it in an interview.

“I’m really good at washing dishes” is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard in an interview. Hands down. Pretty sure my response was to stare at the phone and blink like a cartoon character, mouth gaping .

Honestly, I can’t remember the context. But it wasn’t relevant. I can’t imagine any reason why it would ever be relevant. There are some things you simply don’t need to mention in an interview. This is one of them.

dirty coffee mugs for great dish washers

The “Better-Be-Specific” Edition

If someone said the following to you, how would you interpret it?

“I’m really good with all these different systems.”

No idea? Me either.

What systems are “all these?”

Why are they different?

What does “good” mean?

My number one goal as a hiring manager is to assess your skills. Needless to say, telling me that you’re “really good” at “systems” doesn’t help me do that. I’m going to need a lot more specific information than that to advance you to the next interview.

The “Get-The-Lingo-Right” Edition

I’ll admit that this one can be a bit unfair, especially if you’re just starting your career or you’re going into business after working in another field.

But the fact the matter is that you’ll sound much more like you know what you’re doing if you use industry language.

A candidate once asked me how long my company had been around and how many employees it had. After my response he said, “Ah, so you’re in that middle comfy stage right now.”

I’ve heard of seed stage. And Series A, B, and C. I’ve even heard of private equity buy outs. But I haven’t ever heard of anything called the “middle comfy stage.” Guess they didn’t teach me that one in grad school.

crossword graffiti - lots of words

The “Mentioning-Skills-You-Don’t-Have” Edition

Remember how your 9th grade English teacher always told you to “show, don’t tell” if you’re trying to persuade someone or make a point?

Her advice applies to interviews, too.

I know. I already told you that you should tell me what you’re good at by putting a summary and highlighted skills on your resume. But I sort of lied. When you’re having an actual conversation, don’t tell me what you’re good at. Show me what you’re good at. Name the strengths and then tell me a story that illustrates them; it’s much more powerful.

I once interviewed a candidate who said within the first 30 seconds of the phone interview, in a haughty tone, “Frankly, I’m a great communicator.”

And then, a few minutes later…

“And, uh…uh….we were trying to, I mean…you know…(throat clearing). I would also like to add………..Uh, let me collect my thoughts.”

The rest of the interview continued similarly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m inarticulate all the time. I’m not going to judge anyone for needing to collect their thoughts! But the juxtaposition just killed me. The candidate would have been much better off to not say anything about his communication skills and instead let those skills speak for themselves. Literally.

little boy screaming into microphone

The “I’m-The-Mature-One-In-The-Room” Edition

I’m not going to lie. Silicon Valley can be pretty ageist. That’s what happens when you revere the 22 year old founder, undoubtedly white and male, in jeans and a hoodie. (Barf. Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg.)

It’s shockingly common for older candidates to attempt to counter this bias. Typically they’ll call out the fact that experience is worth something, too, by mentioning something about an “adult in the room.”

“I’m always the adult in the room (laughs). Adults need to be around. As that adult, I see things from a larger perspective.”

Unfortunately, this usually back fires.

First off, you don’t know how old I am. Maybe I’m super young and I’ll be offended by the “adult in the room” statement. Plus, it makes you come across as smug and petty to frame it in this way.

It’s not that I disagree. I don’t. Experience matters — a lot for some positions and company stages. At a certain point any company needs some grey hairs — people who have been around the block a few times —  to take it to the next level. A gaggle of earnest 22 year olds can only get a company so far.

But here, too, the “show, don’t tell” mantra is a much better approach.

Demonstrate to me that you have loads of deep and relevant experience, or illustrate how that experience has helped you see the strategic “bigger picture” in the past. Maybe even tell me about a time when you helped to course correct a group of less senior employees because of of your deep expertise.

Just don’t imply that your colleagues are children. Please, and thank you.

Yours,

The Distracted Goldfish

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5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Describe Your Job Experience Chronologically

You’ve done it.

Your resume passed the test. A recruiter wants to schedule a phone interview to learn more about you. You’re one step closer to your dream job. Hooray!

Take a moment to celebrate. But don’t break out the bubbly quite yet. Patience, young grasshopper.

There’s a lot to think about when preparing for your first conversation with a company. It can be downright overwhelming! Research the organization, identify good questions to ask, brainstorm relevant stories from your past experience, think about how you want to present yourself… Where to even begin?!

The first step you should take is to figure out your answer to the question, “walk me through your resume” because there’s a 99.9% chance you’ll get a question along those lines.

As I’ve already mentioned, when you talk a recruiter through your past experience, you’ll want to assume they’ve never seen your resume before, do something to catch their attention right away, and start with an executive summary.

But there’s something else you can do to stand out even more, to go against the grain just a little bit.

A group of goldfish swimming with one swimming the wrong way

Begin With The End In Mind: Work Backwards

I love The Sound of Music. It was a staple of my childhood. But when Julie Andrews said, “let’s start at the very beginning,” she had it all wrong.

One of the worst phone interviews I’ve ever experienced started with the candidate saying, “I graduated from Rice University where I majored in Economics and Business.”

Ok, not inherently terrible…

But then the candidate proceeded to describe every single position she had held throughout her 15 year career — in detail and in chronological order — for twelve minutes out of a 20 minute phone interview. I had specifically asked for a brief, 2-3 minute description of her background. And I had explicitly mentioned that the interview would only be 20 minutes. I lost track of the number of times she said, “and then….and then….and then.”

Snoozer city.

By minute #4, my eyes had glazed over. She was still talking about experiences from 10+ years ago.

By minute #5, it was clear she hadn’t listened to my request for a 2-3 minute description.

And by minute #7, to be brutally honest, I wasn’t paying attention anymore.

Sure, I could have cut her off, but I learned a lot about her communication style, her inability to read others, and her (lack of) listening skills by letting her continue to talk.

Yes, she went into my reject pile. Did you really have to ask?

To avoid falling into this trap, don’t describe your prior job experience chronologically. Instead, begin with the present day and work backwards from there.

Why? Here are five interrelated reasons.

1. Relevancy

Your most recent job is almost certainly what’s most relevant to the position you’re interviewing for. This is the experience that matters most to me as your hiring manager, so please start here.

And if your current role isn’t what’s most relevant, start somewhere else.

2. Catch (and keep) my attention

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’m highly distractible.

The more relevant I find the first few things out of your mouth, the more likely you are to hook me. Making a positive impression quickly is the only way to catch my interest and attention. And that is critical to get to the next round of interviews.

3. Spend time on what’s most relevant

If you’re like 99% of other human beings, you’ll go into the most detail about the first position or two that you mention when you describe your experience. It’s only natural.

This is a problem when you describe your background chronologically because then you’re spending the most time on the things you did the longest ago. No bueno.

4. Stay flexible – and speed up

Starting with what’s most relevant gives you flexibility.

I don’t want more than a 3-5 minute description of your background. (Admittedly this varies between hiring managers). If I have specific questions, I’ll ask you to elaborate.

Telling me first about your most recent position makes sure you can stay within whatever time constraints a recruiter sets and still convey the important information. You then have flexibility to speed up or to go into less detail with every subsequent position you describe.

Consider checking in with your recruiter explicitly as you go. Ask questions like, “Is this too much detail?” or “Do you want me to elaborate more?” That way, you can adapt to what they want on the fly.

5. Stand out from the crowd

95% of job candidates describe their past experience chronologically.

Simply starting from the present day and working backwards will set you apart, which makes you memorable. And that is always a good thing to improve your chance of getting to the next interview.

Or, if you really want to break the mold, don’t take a job-based approach to the description of your background. Instead, talk about your experience thematically. Woah! You rule breaker, you.

Yours,
The Distracted Goldfish

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10 Unconventional Tips For Your Next Resume Tune Up

[Or, alternatively: I’m your recruiter. Don’t make me think!]

The first hurdle in getting your dream job at your dream company is the dreaded resume screen — that moment where a recruiter or a hiring manager spends 30 seconds glancing over your resume before they decide “yes” or “no.”

Most candidates never get past this step. They never get the opportunity to make an impression in-person or over the phone. But you can’t land that dream job if you never  meet face-to-face!

So, take time to polish your resume. The 10 tips below — in no particular order — will help you stand out from the crowd.

goldfish break free escape

1. Remove your address

Would you blast out your home address to a bunch of randos on the internet?

I didn’t think so.

So why would you put it on your resume before submitting said resume into the online job application abyss? After all, you have no idea who’s reading on the other side.

As a recruiter, there is absolutely no reason for me to know where you live. Fun fact: it’s actually illegal for me to ask! Plus, including your address can create negative bias.

“Oo, she lives in an expensive area. She’ll probably expect a high salary. Oo, he would have a really horrible commute. He probably won’t want to commute that much.”

An address also takes up valuable, limited, resume real estate.

And if you’re planning to relocate, know that some recruiters may filter clearly out-of-area resumes by default to avoid the hassle of employee relocation.

2. Include your LinkedIn profile URL

When I’m in an intense phase of recruiting, I practically live in LinkedIn. I eat up LinkedIn profiles like a child scarfs down candy on Halloween. Nom nom.

Because my brain is used to the standard LinkedIn profile format, LI profiles are super quick to digest and compare. And in crazy recruiting land, every minute matters. That’s why I always use LinkedIn as a first screen before I even look at someone’s resume. And sometimes I don’t look at a candidate’s resume at all if it’s clear from LinkedIn that they’re qualified or unqualified for the role. Yes I know that makes you die a little on the inside given how much time you put into crafting the perfect resume.

So, add a link to your LinkedIn profile at the top of your resume. The longer I have to search for your profile, the grumpier I become. The more expletives I spew. And that, my friend, does not bode well for your application.

neon side expletive frustration

3. Add a highlighted skills section

The more brain power I have to use when reviewing your resume, the more likely it is to end up in a pile of rejects. Help yourself by helping me: don’t make me think.

A list of “highlighted skills” at the top of your resume is a fantastic way to prevent me from thinking too much. You tell me what you’re good at instead of me drawing my own conclusions. You help to shape my impression of you.

I love resumes with “highlighted skills” because they allow me to quickly assess whether or not someone has the necessary skills for the job. If I can say “check, check, check,” you’ll fly through into the next round, so be sure to include any and all applicable buzzwords. Relevant keywords are also critical to get through automated resume screening tools which are used by larger companies.

4. Summarize yourself

Ditch the resume objective. It’s a waste of space.

Instead, add a short, 1-2 sentence summary of yourself at the top of your resume.

Why? See the “highlighted skills” section above. Spoon feed me. Pull the themes out of your experience for me. Frame yourself how you want me to see you.

5. Use months and years to show your tenure at each job

Your recruiter isn’t a bad person. But don’t count on them assuming the best or giving you the benefit of the doubt, either. Reduce the number of assumptions they have to make about you. The fewer assumptions I have to make, the lower the risk of a negative assumption. It’s fewer opportunities for my negative biases to creep in.

What’s the worst thing your recruiter will assume when he or she sees a resume with only years to indicate the candidate’s tenure in each position instead of months and years? If you said that the candidate is “hiding one or more significant gaps or short job stints,” you’d be correct.

So, unless you do have several large gaps or short tenures, use month and year to indicate how long you were in each position. Consistency is critical here. Listing some positions by year and some by month makes me raise an eyebrow. It makes me think. And we’ve already established that that is a bad thing in the context of resume review.

If you do have significant gaps in your employment history, don’t panic. As long as you can explain each one, you should be fine. It just may be a more challenging uphill battle to get in front of recruiters and hiring managers in the first place.

calendar day planner

6. Format to pass the “skim test”

What you’ve heard is true. Recruiters and hiring managers spend very little time reviewing each resume. I know this seems like cruel and unusual punishment given the amount of time you spent perfecting the darn thing. Sorry.

So, make it easy for me to take in as much information about you in a short amount of time. A resume that is 95% 12 point Times New Roman font makes me go cross eyed. Where am I supposed to look? What’s important?

Variation in formatting works wonders. Vary your text size. Use bold and italics. (Cautiously) consider using color or even grey on an otherwise black and white resume. Maybe even use all caps (but please don’t scream at me).

Think about what you want to pop out most on the page. Format accordingly.

7. Tell me what you accomplished, not your job description

This is an area where 80+% of resumes need improvement, so take this tip to heart. If the bullet points on your resume give me a description of what you did, it’s time to start over.

Instead, tell me what you accomplished. There’s a difference.

I want to know what you achieved. Quantify the impact you had on your team or the company. Remember that I don’t have the context about your business and team to know why each of your bullet points matters. Use numbers where you can. In other words, tell me why the heck I should care. Hit me over the head with it. I’m going to be a lot more excited about hiring someone whose resume is full of bullet points like “doubled our daily active users over a 6 month period” instead of “owned and improved user engagement on the platform.” Wouldn’t you be too?

While you’re at it, shorten your bullet points. Make them punchy. The longer a bullet point, the more likely I am to stop reading. So, be concise and phrase carefully to put the important stuff first. Break apart longer bullet points to ensure they each get the attention they deserve

Oh, and put your bullet points in past tense. A combination of present and past is a little jarring. If you’re focusing on what you’ve accomplished, this shouldn’t be an issue.

accomplished ice climber

8. Add a company description

If you’ve worked only or mostly for big name companies or organizations where it’s very clear what the company does (e.g. a law firm), you can probably skip this one. But if you’re a start up junkie or are switching industries, pay attention.

Knowing a little bit about the companies you’ve worked for gives me a ton of important context for interpreting the bullet points on your resume. There are a lot of companies out there and I’m way too time crunched to go look up anything about your past companies myself.

Help me out by including a short description of the company, your role, and/or your responsibilities. Tossing in numbers like company and team size is great, too. It instantly gives me a framework to understand how senior you are regardless of title, how your contributions fit in, and the scale you were operating at. It also allows you to skip the “what you did” resume bullet points.

Your company description might look something like this: “ABC Inc.’s global virtual marketplace connects cryptocurrency buyers and sellers digitally. My 9-person team was responsible for the buyer lifecycle on the platform from acquisition and engagement to quality and support.” Doesn’t take much room in a small font.

9. Show me your progress

Have you been promoted at any of the companies where you’ve worked? Show it off!

Resist the temptation to put only your most recent title because it’s the most senior.

Listing multiple titles shows progression and advancement which I love to see. And, if you have to adjust the title a teensy tinsy wee bit to make it understandable to the outside world, I think that’s a-ok. Just don’t go calling yourself a Director if you were actually a Manager.

punch today in the face

10. Eliminate jargon

If you’re job searching in your current industry or get lucky and have a super well-informed hiring manager review your resume, you can get away with jargon.

But most people aren’t that lucky. Remember what I said above about not making me think. Instead, play it safe.

A better approach is to assume that the person reviewing your resume is a clueless junior recruiter who doesn’t know very much about your specific functional area. Don’t assume that said recruiter will know the difference between NPS and NPV. (Sorry junior recruiters, don’t take it personally).

Whew, that’s a lot. And if you’re like most people, you have a lot more “to do’s” on your job search list now.

Happy resume editing!

Yours,

The Distracted Goldfish

goldfish

Show me you love me: 5 ways to show a hiring manager your commitment and passion

Happy almost Valentine’s day!

In honor of the excessively commercialized Hallmark holiday we celebrate this week that will fill overpriced restaurants and heart-shaped chocolate boxes to the brim, The Distracted Goldfish brings you tips on how to show a hiring manager that you love them — and want to marry them.

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“Love them? Marry them?!” I hear you saying, “But I hardly know them!”

Ok, so maybe not love exactly. But if you’re hoping for a job offer from me, I need to see your sincere commitment and passion for my company and our vision to change the world. This is a universal truth across start ups. Don’t worry, though, you can skip sending me a box of chalky, heart-shaped candy embossed with romantic phrases.

Commitment is carving time out of your day to have a proper phone interview

Let’s start with the basics, because I’m always surprised how many candidates either don’t pick up their phone or seem startled that I’m calling them.

One Friday afternoon at 5pm, several months ago, I was eager to head into the weekend. I called my last candidate of the day, Melissa, and waited through a few rings. She answered enthusiastically, clearly expecting my call, and then said “I’m actually on my bike about 5 minutes away from home. Can I call you back?” 

I’m sorry, what?

The Distracted Goldfish: “No, unfortunately I have a meeting in 20 minutes” (true story)

Melissa: “Ok, let me see if I can get my headphones to work.”

What she didn’t say — but what I quickly deduced — was “so I can talk to you while I continue to ride my bike.”

Hmm. Phone interview while riding a bike. That’s a new one.

Melissa fussed around with her headphones (unsuccessfully) for a minute while the wind from riding her bike made a loud whooshing sound in my ear. Fortunately, she eventually declared defeat and hopped off her bike to talk to me.

Here’s something to keep in mind before your next interview. Start up recruiters and hiring managers want to work with team members who are genuinely over-the-moon excited about what the company is building and how it’s going to transform the world. Enthusiasm is critical sustenance when it comes to late nights and the myriad of frustrations that plague start up employees on a daily basis, not to mention that start ups simply can’t pay as well as the Googles and Facebooks of the world. But you can’t fake it. Great hiring managers have the noses of drug-detecting Beagles when it comes to sniffing out candidates who care more about the paycheck than the company’s mission. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve seen candidates rejected because they just didn’t seem that interested in what the company was doing.

So, dedicate the time. Answer the phone. Don’t seem surprised when the recruiter calls. And keep in mind that start ups care a lot more than big companies do about your passion for their mission and vision.

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Passion is overlooking inconvenience. Passion is sacrifice.

Like most hiring mangers, I always save time for 2-3 questions from the candidate during a phone conversation. I distinctly remember one that went like this:

The Distracted Goldfish: “Do you have a question or two I can answer?”

George: “So, your office is in Palo Alto?”

The Distracted Goldfish: “Yes, and we’re opening one in San Francisco soon, too.”

George (said very seriously): “Oh good, because I would have had to cut the conversation off right there. I don’t do commutes.”

I’m 100% with you, George. Commuting sucks. I know this because (at the time) I was spending 3.5 hours a day commuting to and from work. I hardly saw my husband. I almost never saw my friends. And I certainly never did anything “fun” on a weeknight.

I understand that this kind of start up schedule isn’t for everyone. It’s completely reasonable to drop out of an interview process if you’re going to have an insane commute. But be careful about how you drop this bomb on your recruiter. For all George knew, we had the most incredibly flexible work from home policy and a second office close to his home. But, he let the cat out of the bag. He just wasn’t that into me, the company, or the role. We weren’t even interesting enough for him to continue the conversation.

5 great ways to show a hiring manager your commitment and passion

Here are a few simple ways to demonstrate how excited you are about the company, role, and team you’re interviewing with.

1. Ask excellent, informed questions

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing that impresses me more than a fantastic question or two. Start by investing a significant chunk of time to research the company you’re interviewing with. Use what you learn to craft nuanced questions about the company and role. And make sure it’s clear from how you phrase your questions that you’ve done research. This shows me that you care enough to dedicate the time.

2. Give specific reasons why you’re interested in the role, company, and team

At some point you’ll probably be asked “Why <this company>?” or “What are you looking for in your next role?” Next time you get one of these questions, tailor your answer very specifically to the individual company you’re talking to. Your answer should imply that the company, team, and role is exactly what you’re looking for! The more precise you can be, the more your passion will come through. Don’t just say that you’re excited about healthcare and so working for a healthcare start up would be great. Say why you’re passionate about healthcare; what impact do you want to make in the healthcare industry?

3. Write a thank you note

After you talk with the hiring manager, send a quick thank you email. I’m always surprised how few candidates take this easy step. Writing a quick note is an opportunity to emphasize your excitement. Reference specifics from the conversation you had with the hiring manager or follow up with an idea helpful to the company. More on thank you notes another time.

thank you 2

4. Be responsive. Follow up if needed

Rightly or wrongly, I interpret delayed responses to my emails as you just not being that into me. So, stay on top of your inbox and reply in 24 hours or less — preferably less. And if a lot of time passes without you hearing from the hiring manager, be proactive in reaching out to him/her.

5. Go above and beyond

There are plenty of other ways to demonstrate just how interested you are in the company you’re talking to. Here’s an email I once received from a candidate —

“I’m actually in the airport now about to head to the east coast for a wedding this weekend. If you think there is potential for me to move forward in the process, and you think there is also possibility for that to happen before Friday afternoon, I can switch my flight (I have flight insurance- and I am very interested in this role and will do what I can to show that). Otherwise I won’t be back in town until Sunday night.”

Wow.

No, of course I don’t want you to rearrange your travel plans! Please go take your vacation and enjoy yourself. But the fact that you would even suggest this demonstrates an incredible level of passion and commitment. Noted.

How will you demonstrate your excitement and passion in your next start up interview?

Yours,
The Distracted Goldfish

goldfish

What hiring managers look for when they ask about your background — and what you should say first

The world’s most common — and seemingly most innocuous — job interview question is the one that asks you to describe your background.

I know, I know. It’s your least favorite question as a candidate.

“Ugh really?” you’re thinking, “Can’t you just look at my resume? I spent hours on it! Asking me to tell you about my background is a total throwaway question. It’s a waste of precious interview time.”

But is it really?

Not in the slightest. If you want to nail your interview, preparing the perfect description of your background will take some serious time and thought. In fact, if you only have time to prepare one thing before an interview, it should be your answer to this question. It sets the stage for the rest of the interview.

As you start to think about your answer to “Walk me through your background,” first assume the hiring manager knows absolutely nothing about you. Never ever start by saying, “Well, you’ve seen my resume, so I’ll keep this brief.”

Second, make sure you hook the hiring manager’s attention right off the bat to make sure he or she is giving you their full attention.

goldfish in a bowl with a hook

What does a hiring manager look for when you describe your past experience?

Why do hiring managers ask candidates to describe their backgrounds, anyway?

They might be lazy.

(Why look at a resume when I can ask the candidate?)

They might be insanely busy.

(No time to review this resume!)

They might be distracted.

(What resume?)

Or they might be all of those things.

But there’s actually a lot a hiring manager can learn from your answer to “Can you walk me through your experience?”

Personally, I look for two things.

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Communication style

Excellent communication will be critical for us to work together productively in a fast-paced startup where there isn’t time to spell everything out in detail.

I want to know that you’re a structured communicator — that you organize your thoughts into a framework or logical sequence. This could mean starting with a high level summary to frame the conversation before sharing detail. I shouldn’t wonder where you’re going.

Similarly, please get to the point quickly and share only what’s important. I’m detail oriented but, if you’re joining my team, I don’t want to worry about all the details. So, be succinct without leaving out essential information. It’s a tricky balance!

If you can’t communicate your own background clearly and in a compelling way, that’s a big red flag for me. After all, you lived it.

Skills and areas of expertise

The other checkbox I’m looking to tick off as you describe your background is “fit.” Are your skills and past experience a good match for the role and company?

Take this opportunity to use buzzwords and keywords relevant to both your background and the role; show that you’re a good fit. But don’t be too obvious about it.

When I was interviewing to fill a marketing operations role, for example, I wanted to hear candidates reference specific technologies and tools, metrics, data cleanliness, and process.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that nailing the description of your experience is critical. So where do you start?

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Start with an executive summary

One candidate I spoke with recently started her answer with, “I graduated from Rice University in 2008 with a degree in economics” and I knew immediately that the conversation was doomed.

Don’t start at the beginning. Instead, start with an summary of your background and experience. Tell me the highlights.

What are you an expert in?

What themes tie your background together?

What do you want me take away or learn about you?

Do you have a core philosophy that governs how you work in your role?

Starting with a summary gives me the conclusion first. It’s a huge opportunity because you can significantly influence the hiring manager’s perception of you. And the more you can tailor your answer to the specific role and company, the better.

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Here’s what I mean:

“I have 10 years of experience in marketing, most of which has been building compelling brands for mid-sized tech companies. In the early days of my career, I was in the trenches and created a lot of content and visual brand assets. Now I have a team of people who do those things and I focus mostly on content and brand strategy.”

This is awesome. It tells me your area of expertise, the kind of companies you’ve worked at (which is important for context), and prevents me from doing math.

“My background has been entirely in start ups, anywhere from four employees to 250 employees. I’ve worked in a variety of functional areas from marketing and sales to product and operations. So, I’m an operational generalist and mostly an expert in learning new things and getting things done.”

This also works well — at least as a starting point. Again, it gives me context and a sense for what you’ve done in the past at a high level as well as what you think you’re good at.

“I’m extremely passionate about making things work better. For me, it’s all about people, process, and tools — in that order. Making sure that I have the right people on board and then improving processes creates the first layer of efficiency. And then leveraging automation tools takes that efficiency to the next level. Oh, and I always measure my success quantitatively with metrics.”

What I like about this description is that it tells me a little bit about how you operate — your core philosophy for how you approach work. It doesn’t tell me your core expertise, but that might be OK if you highlight various skills as you dig into the details of your background.

There’s no one right answer for how best to describe your past experience or background to a recruiter or hiring manager. But, start with a summary to provide a framework before you slot in everything else. After all, you can’t build a home without a solid foundation.

Yours,
The Distracted Goldfish

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How to share your current job frustrations in an interview without sounding too negative

Here’s one of my favorite phone screen questions: “What kinds of environments really allow you to excel and, on the flip side, what kinds of environments frustrate you?” It’s an intentionally open-ended question which, when answered well and specifically, demonstrates a candidate’s level of self-awareness and helps immensely in assessing fit.

Working in a startup is not for everyone. It’s filled with ambiguity, non-existent processes, and it often seems like everything is broken. You probably won’t get a lot of training or support on how to do your job but you’ll still have to hustle super hard and just make things up as you go along. Sounds super fun, right?

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All of this means I filter heavily for people who won’t just survive but will actually thrive in chaos. I really do want to hear an authentic and honest answer to what frustrates you. It will lead to the best outcome for both of us, I promise.

But one day a few months ago I got an answer that was not what I wanted to hear:

The Distracted Goldfish: “What kinds of environments really allow you to excel and, on the flip side, what kinds of environments frustrate you?”

Kimberly: “Do you want specific names?”

TDG: (Slight look of confusion, nervous laughter) “Uhh…”

Kimberly: “Let me go grab my shit list for you!”

TDG: “Uhh, no, that’s ok…really!” (Confusion morphs into an expression of horror)

Yes, I realize this was Kimberly’s attempt at humor. And I took it to mean that she was frustrated with the people she was working with. But the joke fell flat. Instead of being impressed with Kimberly’s wit, especially given that we were only 4 minutes and 16 seconds into our conversation, my impression was one of negativity and poor judgement. The implication that you might have a shit list is a little terrifying. So if you have one maybe don’t mention it, ok? Also, I appreciate a well-placed F-bomb just as much as the next person, but swearing has no place in an interview. Call me old fashioned, but it’s unprofessional (“Get off my lawn!”).

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I understand that you’re unhappy with your current job

Let’s start with the obvious: if you’re looking for a new job, there’s a reason why.

Duh, right? Very few of us willingly put ourselves through the time-consuming, emotional roller coaster that is the job search. It’s not really a “just for fun in my spare time” activity.

As a recruiter, I get it. Even if you aren’t actively looking, I understand that you wouldn’t be talking to me unless there was something lackluster about your current gig. It could be that your boss is a micro manager, that you aren’t being challenged, that you don’t think you’re being paid appropriately, or simply that you’re bored.

But, please! Be careful how you explain why you’re looking for something new. A candidate spewing negative comments about their current or former bosses, companies, or jobs isn’t flattering.

So how do you handle questions about why you left a past company or why you’re looking for something new?

Be honest but positive

It’s completely expected to talk about why you’ve left prior companies, why you’re looking for a new job, and what you’re looking for in your next role.

As you do, choose your words carefully. It’s all in the framing. Instead of talking about what’s wrong, talk about what you’re looking for.

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Instead of “It’s impossible to get anything done at my current company. The CEO has to approve everything,” try “I’m looking to have more autonomy in making decisions.”

Instead of: “I’m doing really boring, junior level work,” try “I’m looking for more opportunity for challenge and learning than I have right now, especially in the areas of <fill in the blank>.”

Instead of: “Everyone in this place is super siloed; there’s no teamwork,” try “I’m at my best when I can be really collaborative and bounce ideas off of my teammates, so that’s an important aspect of the next company culture I join.”

You get the idea.

If you’re having a bad day and feeling a bit like grumpy cat, go watch something on the internet that will make you laugh and put you in a good mood before your interview. Channel the “honest but positive” mantra. No hiring manager jumps with excitement to work with someone who answers “how are you today?” with a story about how they started their day by ripping a half-eaten chicken bone out of their dog’s mouth, and then stabbed themselves with a steak knife, and it’s only been downhill from there. I’m all for vulnerability but 4 minutes and 16 seconds into a first interview isn’t the time or place.

Yours,
The Distracted Goldfish

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