Put Those Business Interview Tips in the Round File

performance improvement

Some advice isn’t worth keeping.

Some business interview tips should be ignored.

I never meant to write this article.   However… during my research I happened on some very popular and highly reshared advice about how to interview.  Intrigued, I read it end to end, and then reread it.

I most certainly hope that you never apply those tips I read during an interview with me.

Here’s what I heartily recommend you avoid.  I’ll tell you why, and I’ll tell you what, after 18 years of hiring and firing, I really need to know about you.

It’s NOT  all about passion… it’s about grit and commitment

It’s popular to be passionate today.  Passion radiates wonderfully in video clips, 30 second interviews… it even communicates well in 20 minute TED talks.  Your passion may be “undeniably magnetic”.  But that’s not where my business lives.

I don’t want to intrude on your personal life.  But… I really, really, need to hear evidence that you have sacrificed, and delayed gratification.  I need to hear how you made a promise and kept it, day after week after month.  It’s that quality I want to know about.  If you need to tell me about your hobby or your family to show me that quality, then that’s what you need to do.  You’ll have to trust that I won’t be distracted by the circumstances.  I’m only interested in your experience of commitment.

If you’re wondering why that low-key, unprepossessing, no-flash candidate got the job and you didn’t, maybe it’s because of what they showed in boot camp and Fallujah.  Or on the rock face at the end of a belay.  Or in a soup kitchen on Christmas day.  In another article here at GoodBusiness, we explain that grit and commitment are the singular indicators of success in work and life.  That’s what I’m looking for.

I DON’T CARE if you’re likable… can you work with people?

Likability is one of those interesting qualities that’s useful in all sorts of social situations.  It helps to nurture an aquaintance after the icebreaker opening.  Likability smoothes the rough patches in everyday encounters.  But that’s not why my business exists, or what makes it successful.

Here’s my example scenario:

It’s three o’clock in the morning and delivery is at nine.  Sharp.  No one’s getting any sleep tonight.  Sam’s really wound and sensitive, courtesy of too much coffee.  I’m not over my cold and I look like death warmed over.  Justine just tripped over the coffee maker power cord.  Can you ignore Sam’s grating laugh and my incessant sneezing while detouring from rebooting the server just long enough to help Justine wipe a gallon of coffee off the floor?  I need to know.  In fact, we all need to know.

My experience is that people working in teams, under stress, are more sensitive and more easily offended,  But what offends most is someone who isn’t doing their own job well, or who doesn’t offer to help their teammate.  Working with people is only partially about rubbing along together… it’s really about taking on the shared goal and accepting the shared sacrifices to achieve it.

DON’T complement me or my business. Find another way to get my attention.

A good guest always finds something to complement about their host.  It might be the home, the furnishings, or a well-behaved dog.  It might be sincere appreciation.  Or not.  In many cultures, this kind of mutually complimentary preliminary is part and parcel of everyday interactions.

I’m looking for something else.  I very much need to know whether you observe, whether you discern, or whether you merely see.  Anyone who sees something can make a compliment of it.  Instead:

  • Show me you understand what you’re looking at by amplifying my descriptive comment.  Cite some related experience, or perhaps a relevant technical paper.
  • Ask a question about the people or the process involved in making the product.
  • Ask me where we create the value our customers buy.
  • OK, you’re not so great with words.  Draw a diagram.  Do a quick calculation in your head and ask if you’ve got the numbers right.
  • OK, so you’re not lightning quick on the update. Ask to take home a process specification or product description and ask if I’ll answer some questions.

I want to hire someone who wants to know everything about their job.  Then, I want someone who wants to know everything about the business.   My experience is that the questioners, the learners, are often very teachable and productively inquisitive.  My experience is that an honest question is much, much more revealing than a compliment.

One More Thing…

There are three golden words I need to hear during the interview.  In fact, I’ll go out of my way to put you in a position to use them.  Here they are:

“I don’t know.”

It’s not about me or anyone else being smarter than than you.  It’s about you acknowledging a limitation.  We both hope you’ll keep learning and growing every day.  “I don’t know” is where that starts.




  1. Carol Orris says:

    I think most of us have it all wrong when it comes to job interviews. We work hard to say what the employer wants to hear, and wind up lacking in sincerity. Again, “grit” and the ability to learn are the keys to success. I plan on sharing this post with my grown children who are looking to make an impression on would be employers.

  2. JAMES OJUOK says:

    Wow ! This is nice. The urge and commitment to learn is a quality that is desirable.

  3. JAMES OJUOK says:

    Good read..But can passion “conceive” grit and commitment. If you like what you are doing, you are going to want to do it well and to perfection.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      James it certainly helps to be intensely interested in the work. I think you have it right and I like your phrasing: passion “conceives” grit and commitment. It’s the grit and commitment that so clearly make the difference. It’s too easy to pretend passion, but it’s hard to fake grit.

  4. Daniel Varbanov says:

    While I was reading the end of the article I remembered one my teacher from high school. This is what she said – when someone asks you a question and you do not know the answer , risk and respond anything but say it with confidence like you are sure of your answer. Sounds a bit funny, but do you think there is some truth in this?

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      In cultures where public persona is very important this might be a good approach. In other situations I’m not so sure. People who really know what they’re talking about often have little patience for people who assertively demonstrate that they don’t know the subject matter. I’ve sometimes found that a subject matter expert might respond to the first instance with a very mild comment like “different people, different perspectives”, or perhaps “I don’t think I’d do it that way”. That’s a polite way of saying “I know that you don’t know… do you know that?” It’s also our signal to stop, right away, or lose the respect of a future friend.

  5. Solid advices for us, who are still on the market. I have been doing several things wrong according to the article, so this will certainly help improve me. I have always be afraid to say “I don’t know” to the employer, becuase I thought that would be a sing of incapability. I have always tried to present something that I do know, not directly related to the question, but maybe I would be better off saying the obivous.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Alice, I have three tips for you. Here are 4 words that go very well with “I don’t know”. They’re”… but I’ll find out.” Or, in 5 words, “… I’d like to learn more.” Or, you can turn the admission into an honest question.

      “I don’t know” doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation, the end of the negotiation, or the end of the sales pitch.

      • Mr. Chadbourne, I really appreciate all of your advices. You really take time to help us “newbies” in buissness. Will remember that for my next interview.

  6. A very interesting article and I have to say that I completely agree with your philosophy. When I was in a situation where I wasn’t quite clear as to the assignment, I found that being honest, saying when I didn’t understand something and getting clarification always worked for me. Colleagues would rather you get it right by asking that “dumb” question than faking it and totally screwing up the assignment.

  7. Tami Harrison says:

    My job when I was younger was construction work. I was the type of person who wanted to get everything done the right way and do what I was told; others I worked with could care the least, and it showed. I wanted to be surrounded with a team who equally gave effort to completing the tasks they were given. But most of the time when you work with people this is what you get. They would be very friendly to the boss and try to suck-up, but efforts were lazy and limiting.

  8. I had a job once where I was in a group that had alot of bickering. One of those jobs that had too many chefs in the kitchen. In the end a good co worker of mine took the lead and we had a successful project under him.

  9. It’s good to see folks take the lead when its all about job security. You have to be a shark when it comes to work.

  10. Saira Syed says:

    ‘DON’T complement me or my business. Find another way to get my attention.’
    I like that point. Flattering doesn’t always works. Not with you of course I can say it after reading this post. Very beautifully written. I am gonna read some more posts.

  11. Exactly. It’s amazing how far confidence will take you.

  12. Great read. What I get out of your article is “be yourself”. There’s no need to step outside.. or in some cases.. back inside the box when it comes to potentially getting hired. It seems like most job interviews are full of lies and brown-nosing. Some people feel like they’ll only get hired if they take it down a notch. But that’s not always true. Most bosses are looking for someone who’s willing to take the helm and not just pass it along to the next guy.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Thanks, Sam. “Take the helm”… I like that. You remember when we were in school, and the ones we always wanted on our team where the ones who said “give me the ball” when the score was tied with time running out?

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