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  • Pat Libby

How to blow a job interview

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Anyone who knows me, knows I love to talk.

Thankfully, I also love to listen.

I fell in love with my husband because he’s one of the greatest storytellers of all time (and decades later, I’m still in love with him for that reason).

But enough about my love life. This blog is about successful job interviews.

A good chunk of my work involves leading executive searches for nonprofits, which means I spend countless hours in job interviews listening to people talk.

And I have to tell you, sometimes I just want to run from the room screaming because I’m so frustrated that a candidate has wasted everyone’s time, including their own, by not being prepared.

A few weeks ago, things were so bad during one interview that I used the time to scribble notes on what not to do (which became the basis of this blog and prevented me from falling sound asleep).

1. Don’t begin by telling us your job history. We’ve read your resume which is why you’ve been given an interview.

Many interviewers like to break the ice by asking something like “Tell us about yourself.”

Be prepared to answer that question in a way that doesn’t regurgitate what we already know but instead provides a fresh perspective on why you’re the right person for this job. In fact, think about all the possible questions that these interviewers might ask and rehearse them in advance (which will help you quell any nervous energy).

2. Don’t talk in excruciating detail about what you’ve done in the past! Give us the CliffsNotes™ version of what you did, paint a picture (if we want more details, we’ll ask). 99 times out of 100, interviewers don’t want to hear the play-by-play of a particular project you worked on unless you are a mesmerizing raconteur and even then, we only want to know the details if they are relevant to the job we are interviewing you for. Interviewers want to hear about how your skills and talents will work for them. Focus on what you believe you can do for THIS nonprofit. And pleeeeeeeeeease don’t look at any question as an exclusive opportunity for sharing old war stories. If someone asks: “Given this scenario, how would you approach it?” You should begin by providing your best analysis of the situation presented to you and THEN, if it’s appropriate, respond with an example (if you have one) of how you handled something similar in the past.

3. The flipside of wallowing in minutia is talking in vague generalities. Answer questions directly. If you have given careful thought about the elements of this particular job, your answers should reflect that thinking. Be as specific as possible (given what you know).

4. Don’t use “we” when you talk about your past accomplishments. When you use the royal “we,” the people who are interviewing you have no idea whether you accomplished something on your own or if what you accomplished was only through the good graces of more talented colleagues. There is a way of being modest without giving away your power. If you worked as part of a team, say that, and be clear about the role you played in a particular effort.

5. Don’t forget to do as much homework as possible on the nonprofit.

Interviewers recognize that you can’t know as much about the organization as they do, and trust me, they are fine with that imbalance. Interviewers want to see that you’ve taken the time to imagine yourself in this job; that you’ve thought through the challenges you might face, and have envisioned ways of addressing those challenges.

We also want to hear your questions about this organization and about this particular job.

6. Don’t forget to be engaging! Smile! Bring positive energy to the room! Look people in the eye! Be the person that people will want to hang out with every day at the office.

Successful nonprofit executives are people who are strategic thinkers and doers. Use your strategic thinking skills to contemplate the challenges you believe will be inherent in this position. Then try to imagine what types of skills and talents the interviewers will be looking for, and the questions they will ask to ferret out those attributes. That type of planning and preparation will prepare you well.



Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant and philanthropy consultant. Her executive search consulting services have been helping organizations transition into new leadership for 20 years. Find out more about Pat's services here, and contact her today for a free consultation.

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