It is the one constant. It is the one question all career counseling clients ask me. “How do I respond when they ask, ‘Tell me about yourself’?”
Well, my first response is always the same. “It’s not a question, it’s an opportunity. So the real question you should be asking is, ‘What’s the best way to take advantage of the opportunity?”
The mistake most people make is to summarize their resume. The interviewer(s) has/have already seen your resume. They know what’s in it. They like it or they would not be interviewing you. So this is the chance to tell them something about yourself that is not on your resume. Within a professional context, it’s an opportunity to tell them about the person they will be hiring and not just the professional. It’s a chance to focus on what is truly meaningful for you. It is a way to tell them about your character. Here are three examples:
I’ll begin with the story I like to tell about myself. I’ve written about it before so my regular readers know it. For those of you who do not, I’ll keep it short:
Let me tell you about my best day on the job. I was volunteered to dress up for a fair as a cartoon character. My colleagues chose Big Bird. When I entered the gym where the fair was taking place, one little girl came over and grabbed my leg. For four hours she did not leave my side. She was either holding my leg or my hand. At the end of the fair I had her father pick her up so I could give her a hug. She must have been no more than seven-years-old. After the (mutual) hug, I took a few steps back to get a good luck at her. I waved to her. She said, “Bye-bye Big Bird” to me, I waved to everyone else, and went back to my office to get out of the costume.
When I left my office I was covered in perspiration, had a towel around my neck and was drinking from a bottle of water. I saw the girl’s mother. I had thought everyone knew who I was. (Never make assumptions!) I went over to her and said, “No one has ever hugged me the way your daughter hugged me.” She looked at me like I was the biggest pervert on the planet.
I then began anew. I introduced myself and said, “I was Big Bird.” Her expression totally changed and she got all misty-eyed. She said, “Bruce, my daughter has autistic tendencies. When she said ‘Bye-bye Big Bird’ to you, that was the first time she ever spoke to anyone outside the immediate family or her teacher.”
That was my best day on the job.
Now when I would tell the story properly, it took a good five minutes. I usually had at least three-quarters of the women and half of the men in tears and I always got the job offer!
I once had a veteran come to me. He was in this mid-twenties. He had served one tour of duty in the Infantry. The mission of my company is to promote the hiring of veterans, so I am use to the modesty of veterans. I’ve even had a Silver Star recipient not want to tell me about his honors! (Of course, as soon as he did, and we made them front and center on his resume, his phone started ringing!) So when we got to the “Tell me about yourself” portion of our consultation he was adamant that he had done nothing of any significance during his service.
I wasn’t buying it for a minute. I believed him when he said he simply followed orders, attacked what needed to be attacked, defended what needed to be defended, and did what soldiers do. Well, I happen to know that the thing soldiers do most of their time is wait or guard duty. Being a soldier can be very boring. So I asked him what he had guarded.
Of course, he said, “Nothing important.” But I pushed him and finally he said, “Construction sites.” Turned out, he guarded a site, in Afghanistan, where they were building a school. Not just any school, but a school for girls. Not just any girls, but girls who had never been in a school before.
So I asked him, “Did you see the girls enter the school?” “Yes.” “Were they smiling?” “Yes.” “Did they come back the next day?” “Yes.” “Were they still smiling?” “Yes.” “So you protected girls going to school for the first time in their lives?” “Yes.”
My story has become known as the “Big Bird Story” and I had told him about it. So I said, “That’s your Big Bird Story.”
At his next interview he said,
Let me tell you about my best day in the Army. I was guarding a construction site. They were building a school for girls. Once it was built, we protected the students. I can’t begin to tell you what it meant to me to see the smiling faces of little girls going to school for the first time in their lives.
He got the job.
Like the Big Bird story, the next and final example was unintentional. I was being nice to that little girl. I was doing what Big Bird would have done! I was not trying to get an autistic girl to speak to me. It just happened. I would never take credit for an unintentional act. And, in the next example, I did not intend for anything more to happen than for my client to get the job offer.
This client, as they say, “was a woman of a certain age.” She came to me specifically for interviewing assistance. She had a job interview, the next day (!), and wanted to practice. She sent me the job description and her resume, and we got started.
Now let me tell you a little secret. No one but the interviewers know the questions they are going to ask candidates. So-called “experts,” like myself, guess. We don’t know. But it is safe to assume they will review the job description. If they don’t they’re idiots! It is also safe to assume they will offer the “Tell us about yourself” opportunity. And when we got to it, the fun began.
She was applying for a job as an assistant director of purchasing. She was totally qualified. I asked her, because it was not on her resume (which, I hasten to add, it would have been if I had prepared it!), what were here special accomplishments? Of course, she said she had none. She just did like everyone else. She got three bids for all purchases above (I think) $500 and would make a decision or recommendation based on price and quality.
Truth was, she really had done nothing special. She was good at her job and that was it. But That was not good enough.
Then I noticed her left hand. She was wearing a wedding ring, but no engagement ring. I asked her why. She told me she never received one. “We got engaged when we signed our pre-nup. I didn’t want or need jewelry.”
First thing I did was ask her if she was Jewish and had a sister. She laughed. And then I said, “If this is true, here’s your Big Bird Story.”
Let me tell you a bit about myself. I don’t bring my personal life into the workplace but in this case, it’s relevant.
A lot of people have a split personality. They act one way at home and another at work. I don’t. As you may have noticed, I don’t have an engagement ring. What you don’t know is I have a prenuptial agreement. I know it’s technically not a bribe, but morally it is. I don’t accept bribes. And I don’t enter into agreements without knowing exactly what is expected of me and what I can expect from the other person. It’s the same in business. I get everything in writing and I never accept gifts from vendors. I look for the best price and highest quality for my company, not the best restaurant coupons or event tickets for myself.
I told her, “Once you say that, shut up!”
And she did. Now, I had also warned her to include a caveat, “I am not criticizing others, this is just my way,” if there were any women in the room with engagement rings. In this case there were no women at all. That was both a curse and a blessing.
The curse was that the woman she really had to meet was the director of purchasing. She would be working for her and she had called in sick. There was no time to reschedule the appointment so the owner of the company decided to sit in on the meeting. That was the blessing. This was what was unintentional with my advice:
The owner told her that she had to meet with the director but he was extremely impressed and looked forward to welcoming her to “the family.” This was after she had given the above response. As far as he was concerned, he had heard enough and the interview was over.
What happened next was totally unexpected.
The owner realized that the director of purchasing had a very nice engagement ring, along with her wedding ring. She did a good job. He had no complaints. But now he had suspicions. So he took it on himself to spend the day on the phone talking to vendors, none of which had changed since the director started working their five years earlier (thus his suspicions). It turned out that everyone of them had give the director a gift. Some gave gifts for the holidays and a few actually gave them when contracts were signed. And, apparently, these were not simple trinkets, mugs or t-shirts with corporate logos. We are talking dinners-for-two at fancy restaurants and great seats to sporting events. The director had never said a word about them and, of course, had never shared with her colleagues. (Whether they were “gifts” or “bribes,” you can decide for yourself!)
That evening, the owner picked up the phone and called my client. He offered her the directorship, not the assistant position and, as she was unemployed, asked her to start the next morning. He told her what had happened. She accepted the offer. He fired the director.
There are a lot of good reasons to sign pre-nups and some bad reasons not to, but this is one I never saw coming!
Bruce Hurwitz, the Amazon international best selling author of The 21st Century Job Search and Immigrating to Israel, is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that! A five-star rated speech writer on Fiverr, he is the host and producer of the live-interview podcast, Bruce Hurwitz Presents: MEET THE EXPERTS.