Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to Interview Like Barack Obama: Successful Strategies for Your Job Interview

How to Interview Like Barack Obama: Successful Strategies for Your Job Interview

Courtesy of the Recruiting Blogswap

From: Lewis Lin of SeattleInterviewCoach.com

Inspired by Barack Obama's historic presidential inauguration, I wondered to myself: if Obama sat down with a hiring manager, how would he answer the most common job interview questions such as:

  • What's your biggest weakness?
  • What is your leadership style?
  • What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in this industry?
In one of my favorite Obama interviews, CBS' Katie Couric gives us a glimpse of how Obama would answer these questions. Here's my analysis of Obama's responses and how you can learn and apply Obama's style in your own job interviews.
What's your biggest weakness?
Couric asks Obama a variation of the dreaded "biggest weakness" question:

Katie Couric: What one personal flaw do you think might hinder your ability to be president?

Barack Obama: I don't think there's … a flaw that would hinder my ability to function as president. I think that all of us have things we need to improve. You know, I said during the primary that my management of paper can sometimes be a problem.

Couric: You can come up with something better than that, though, can't you?

Obama: I just use it as an example of something that I'm constantly tryin' to work on. What is often a strength can be a weakness. So, you know, for me there are times where I want to think through all our options. At some point you've gotta make sure that we're making a decision. So far, at least I've proven to be pretty good about knowing when that time is. I think, as president, with all the information that's coming at you constantly, you're never gonna have 100 percent information. And you've just gotta make the call quickly and surely. And I think … that's a capacity that I've shown myself to have.

As special as Obama may be, we find that Obama is human too; he has difficulty with this question, just like everyone else. He tries to skirt the issue by saying "I don't think there's a flaw" and follows up with a vague, innocuous statement about his "management of paper can sometimes be a problem."
Couric doesn't let him off the hook, and Obama comes back with a stronger response. Obama is well-known for his deliberate and cool decision making style. And here he's candid on why this strength can be a liability. But he reassures us that, although this is a weakness, it is not a problem. Although he doesn't cite a specific example, Obama's fast start indicates that he is a fast-moving, action-oriented leader -- eradicating concerns around his deliberate decision making style.
What is your leadership style?
Couric uses a behavioral interview question to probe Obama's leadership style:

Katie Couric: When was the last time you fired someone who worked for you and why?

John McCain: Well, we had to make a change in our campaign. It was going in the wrong direction. We knew we had serious problems in our campaign and the way it was being managed. And that will be well chronicled in the books that are written after this election. But, it wasn't easy and it wasn't fun. And I still value the friendship of the people that left our campaign. And it was just that we needed a different direction. It certainly wasn't anything that had to do with personal differences.

Barack Obama: I have directed people to be fired during the course of this campaign. I would prefer not sharing that with the public because obviously I don't want to embarrass them. You know I don't mind people making mistakes, but I want them to learn from their mistakes, and, what I won't tolerate are people who put their own ego or their desire for self-aggrandizement ahead of the team. You know, I played sports as a young person, and still try occasionally as an older person, and I am a big believer in "there's no 'I' in team." And I don't tolerate a lot of drama or people back-biting or trying to push people down to push themselves up. When I see evidence of people who are not acting on the basis of "how are we getting our mission accomplished," then I'll give them a couple of warnings, and if it's chronic, they won't be part of my organization.

Obama gives a direct yet discreet response. Then, he uses what I call the "springboard tactic" -- answering one question and discussing another question. In this case, he talks about his management style. Here we get the sense that he is team-oriented and accepts mistakes, but has low tolerance for organizational politics -- hence his nickname "No Drama Obama."
By comparison, John McCain's response is not as strong as Obama's. McCain responds with a vague and rambling anecdote. There's no spring boarding here. Instead, McCain is apologetic, possibly even sheepish, about the firing. His response doesn't give us the sense that he's the self-assured, rational, and strong leader that Obama is. To top off his ineffectual response, McCain volunteered some unsavory tidbits about how his campaign was managed, further damaging his leadership credibility.
What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in this industry?
Couric's question on "the best and worst thing that has ever happened to this country" is the most similar to this often asked job interview question. Just like the "opportunities and challenges" question, Couric's question tests Obama's subject matter expertise and his judgment in identifying and distinguishing critical events.

Katie Couric: What do you think is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to this country?

Barack Obama: The best thing that ever happened to this country was the founding fathers and the starting premise of America. "We hold these truths as self evident that all men are created equal endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among these, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That idea just kept pushing throughout centuries, through a civil war, through civil rights, through women's rights. It became the North Star for people, not just in America but around the world. The worst probably would have to be slavery in this country. Although the treatment of Native Americans oftentimes … showed great cruelty. You know, but slavery was a stain on this country. Fortunately, we had people like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman and Dr. King and you know, so many were able to battle through that legacy. And we're still wrestling with it. But it's one where I feel more optimistic about the direction of this country.

Offering details is the easiest way to convey credibility in a job interview. By quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama shows that this is not an off-the-cuff response. He is trying to convince the reader that he is intelligent and knowledgable, and the quote helps cement that image. And of course, the quote's theatric effect cannot be underestimated. It subtly draws parallels between him and America's founding fathers. It also breaks up the interview's staccato rhythm.
Obama's mention of Native Americans is also noteworthy. It wasn't necessary, but it does show that he considered other alternatives before deciding on his final response. The interviewer is free to ask follow-up questions around the Native American issue. Without the mention, his choice of slavery may come across as trite and one-dimensional.

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