Navigating the 1st Interview Question:
Tell me About Yourself

by Daniel Silvert

What is the subject of an interview? Most people say, “I am.” This makes sense because the interviewer surely wants to know about the interviewee. Why should the company hire this person (let’s call him Bob), as opposed to someone else?

However, is the subject of the interview truly the interviewee? Not necessarily.

There is a silent subject - and that is the job itself. The job is why the interviewee is there. The job represents the problem that they are looking for someone to solve. The interviewee is only interesting to the interviewer to the extent that he or she solves the problem that the “job” represents.

But if this is true, then why doesn’t the interviewer simply open the interview with an in-depth description of the job itself? Some enlightened interviewers actually do. Most, unfortunately, do not. As a rule, one should not over-estimate the skill level of the person conducting an interview.

The Mystery Job Description
Suppose that our interviewee, Bob, answered a job posting on one of the job boards. Job descriptions are typically written by Human Resources departments. How much does HR understand about that position’s core needs - about engineering, sales, data migrations, marketing, financial analysis, product development, outsourcing, hardware installations, client consulting, or customer service? In most cases, not as much as one would think or hope. This is why job postings are so similar in language – “Looking for a highly motivated self-starter with strong organizational and leadership skills. Must be an excellent communicator with…” All too often, HR uses off-the-shelf descriptions from their own archives.

How about a recruiter? A recruiter calls and says, “Bob, I’ve got a terrific opportunity for you to look at.” How much does the recruiter typically understand about the core needs surrounding the position? Unless the recruiter has a long-standing relationship with the organization, the chances are not high that he or she is well informed about the position.

How about Bob’s network? Let’s say he was recommended to ABC Company by an old colleague. How much does Bob know now? It depends. If Bob’s contact works at the company and is well positioned, valuable information may very well be available. In most cases, however, Bob’s contact is either not with the company or does work there, but is not in a position to have an insiders perspective on the role.

In addition, it’s a buyers market out there. A buyer is the company, Bob is the seller. With resumes stacked to ceilings in HR and resumes by the millions circulating online every day, companies can afford to be very picky and thus, hidden criteria are established. For example, Mr. Hiring Manager (HM) is looking for someone with a passion for employee development. Loves to train, mentor, raise the skill level of everyone around him. Why? Because the last manager, while talented, had a difficult personality and this made the office atmosphere uncomfortable. Mr. HM is looking for a replacement who combines both the skills of the previous manager, but with a personality that matches the company culture.

Is Mr. HM going to volunteer this analysis to Bob at the start of your interview? Not likely, nor should he. Because the moment he identifies the key, Bob will turn it. “People?”, Bob responds, “Why, I am great with people! My direct reports love me. In-directs too!” And Bob’s competition will respond the same way.

In summation, Bob has walked into an interview without a job description that truly captures what the company is looking for, and must answer questions without the intangible “fit” criteria that – in a buyers market – ultimately decide who wins and who does not.

Question #1
The dreaded, “Tell me about yourself” question is typically met with anxiety by interviewees who sit squirming and think, “Where do I start? Where do I stop? Does he want personality descriptions or my work history?”

The Solution: Do not worry about what the other side “wants to hear” until they tell you. Bob is not a mind reader, but he can paint a self portrait. Bob may not know what the core needs of the job are yet, but he does know the value his skills and experiences have brought to organizations. His portrait will feature vibrant colors, strong composition, and backed by a sturdy frame. “Tell me about yourself” is an opportunity for Bob to present himself in the best possible light.

So why doesn’t Bob just ask up front what they’re looking for? Such a response could sound like this: “What aspects of my career would you like me to talk about: My early work in operations, my supply chain experience, or my more recent general management responsibilities?” While this approach may seem logical, however, I would not recommend it for the following reason: Answering a question with a question, particularly the first question in an interview, creates of a tug of war and and does not establish rapport. “Tell me about yourself” is a red flag that they did not really study Bob’s resume. By asking what the interviewer “means by that” Bob puts him on the spot. Catching the interviewer unprepared will not help his cause.
In addition, the question itself is facing the wrong direction (more about this later).

Remember: Never over-estimate the skill level of the person interviewing you. The vast majority of interviews are conducted by people who may be skilled at what they do for a living, but possess very little, if any, professional interview skills. While it may seem that you are the nervous one, the other side is not comfortable either. The interviewer is meeting with a stranger who could be important or irrelevant to the company, and there is pressure on the interviewer to get it right.

Four Steps to Success
The following steps will help you nail the “Tell me about yourself” question:

STEP 1: Provide a thumbnail sketch
First, reinforce the credentials that attracted the company to you in the first place. Accomplish this through a series of quick facts about your career: “I have 12 years of experience in supply chain and logistics, managing budgets of up to $15M and staffs of up to 5 direct reports and 20 indirect reports. Major initiatives that I have been involved with over the last five years include A, B, and C.

Why this works: In a few short sentences, you have provided a factual framework that sets the for the rest of the interview. Facts are an impressive way to open a conversation because it suggests that you are comfortable in your own skin.

STEP 2: Share your primary benefits
Since we’re painting a self portrait, lets use compelling colors: “The primary benefit I have brought to organizations throughout my career has been innovating new revenue streams. Would you like a quick example?”

Why this works: You may think that this is a good line because, who wouldn’t want to hire someone who increases company revenues?” In other words, we should say it because the other side will like it. Instead, highlight your primary benefit because it is true, not because they want to hear it. Your primary benefit is how you want the hiring manager to perceive the contribution you would make to his organization. By declaring your primary benefit early in the interview, you are leading the witness to the conclusions you want them to draw. If you do not declare your primary benefit, the interviewer will create their own.

STEP 3: Provide examples of your primary benefits
Use a SAGE™ story to illustrate your primary benefit.

  • Situation - What were the opportunities and obstacles

  • Action – How did you manage variables: Budget, staff, client, technology, products, and deadlines that made this assignment interesting or unique.

  • Gain - What did the organization gain upon the completion of this project?

  • Effect – What were the long term effects of your actions? How did the company and clients benefit?

Why this works: Your primary benefit demands proof. By asking and receiving permission to illustrate, your SAGE stories paint a terrific picture that solidifies the image you have chosen.

STEP 4: Turn the conversation around
Now lets turn to the silent subject: “That’s a little bit about my background. With your permission, Mr. Brown, I would like to get a better understanding about what your needs are. How would you characterize “success” in this role 6 months from now? Or, “I would like to get a better understanding about what your needs are. What types of projects do you want the person hired to immediately address?”

Why this works: Now that you have answered the question in depth, try to get the other side to explain why you are sitting in that chair. Thus, the key question is not, “What would you like to know about me?” That makes you the subject. The real subject is the job, so ask about the job instead!

Make Your First Answer Count
“Tell me about yourself” is a terrific opportunity to effortlessly articulate the value that you bring to organizations. Practice your answer to this question and your interview will get off to a great start.