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Interview Hail Marys

Marty Nemko

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series on Job Seeker Hail Marys.

When a football team is about to lose, it often tries a Hail Mary pass--a long shot that pulls victory from the jaws of defeat.

The same is true of a job seeker applying for a long shot job: It may be worth taking a risk.

Here are some job interview Hail Marys. They require you to be more assertive than the typical wussy interviewee.

Give the employer homework. Email the employer something impressive you wrote--a business plan, a white paper on an issue in your field, etc.--and write, "This gives you a window into the way I think and might even be helpful to your organization. Feel free to read this before our interview and ask me about it."

Give high-risk/high-reward answers. Examples:
Tell me about yourself: "Rather than recap what's in my resume, perhaps you'd find it more useful to hear a little about me, the human being. You'll notice a gap in my resume. No I didn't take a year off for professional development or to take care of my ailing grandmother. I built a sailboat, which I then sailed, with my girlfriend, to Hawaii. As you can tell from my resume, I value my work as an accountant but there is another side of me."

What's your greatest weakness? Try radical honesty. Example: "I'm a bad team player. When I'm on a team, I either dominate, which annoys people, or I sit there frustrated. If you give me a project to do myself, even something hard, I'll almost always get it done quickly and well but put me on a team and, well..." Such radical honesty will get you rejected from jobs that are wrong for you and more likely get you hired for one that's right.

What's your greatest strength? "Yes, I'm handy with pivot tables. Yes, I can sweat the details and not just be big picture but--and I don't know if this is relevant--I heard that Cisco has a great hockey team. I'm not a bad goalie." (This actually worked for someone who was hired at Cisco.)

Tell me about a problem you solved. For someone with limited work experience, you might try this: "To this point, the most interesting problems I've solved have been outside work. For example, I wanted to have people to hike with my dog and I, so I started a Meetup and picked the best places for off-leash hiking. So more people could attend, I kept the hike to just one hour and alternated weeks: steep and flat. In a few months, we had 400 members and an average of 50 attendees per hike. I made a lot of people (and dogs) happy. Might that sort of thinking and follow-through be applicable on this job?"

Take control. For example, say: "Would you mind if I show you how I might tackle that issue?" Then go to the white board and draw a flow chart or other visualization of what you're proposing. To mitigate against your appearing like a know-it-all, conclude with, "What do you think?"

Disagree. Rather than being, as expected, the nice "yes man" in interviews, it may be worth being bold and disagreeing. For example, "Of course, I'm not privy to all the factors that led you to decide X but, from this outsider's perspective, it would seem wiser to do Y. What do you think?"

Play hard to get. After you've given a very good answer, you might try playing hard to get. For example, "In listening to you, I'm wondering if the work would be too routine for me. Am I misunderstanding something?"

An even gutsier example: If the interviewer has been bombarding you with tough question after tough question, say something like, "You know, it's one thing to ask tough questions but this is feeling like badgering and playing gotcha. If this is the way I'm treated when being recruited, I worry what it would be like after I've agreed to work here. Perhaps we should part ways here, or am I misunderstanding something?"

Ask probing questions. At the end of most interviews, the employer will ask if you have any questions. Try these: "Would you tell me something about working here that wouldn't appear in the employee handbook?" or "Why should and shouldn't I want to work for you?"

Next Monday, the next part of this Job Seeker Hail Mary series: Cover Letter Hail Marys.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.

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