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If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be …

by Maria Onyango August 31, 2011

A question for you: If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you choose to be? Don’t answer too quickly and think about the ramifications of your furry alter-ego because, if certain unnamed guides to interview technique are to be believed, your choice might well lose or win you the job of your dreams.

The overall ‘guide’ consensus is that to approach this question with success, a candidate should choose an animal that is often extremely busy and efficient in every way. So not a sloth, then, or a killer whale. Or indeed a vampire bat. You get the picture. Supposedly ideal animals would be worker ants, well-trained Labrador retrievers or drone bees. But should candidates really aim to present themselves as hive creatures, good for little but taking orders and maintaining their correct positioning in a long queue of identical Animalia? With this in mind, should we not also take into account that the apparently undesirable sloths, killer whales and vampire bats are a) perfectly suited and adapted to their respective – if odd – lifestyles and b) in fact very successful at being sloths, killer whales and vampire bats? If they didn’t possess the qualities that they do, their ecosystems would probably go into meltdown.

This analogy, taken to its natural conclusion, shows that there is no universally ‘correct’ answer to this interview question. Indeed, perhaps there is no universally ‘correct’ answer to any interview question.

This theory is especially relevant in the case of recruitment companies interviewing candidates for the first time. At FreshMinds, we screen newly registered candidates not with a view to filling a specific job but in order to find out what their skills, experiences, strengths and weaknesses are. If a candidate were a killer whale or sloth it might be worrying, not because these animals are ‘bad’ but because they only really do one thing. So in animal terms, a candidate would ideally be something akin to a duck-billed platypus (a smorgasbord of different qualities), but dramatically more useful. In short, there is no perfect answer.

Well then, you may ask, if there is no perfect answer to any question, how on earth is any interviewer supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff or, more subtly, the good from the truly excellent candidates? That’s a very good question and – you’ll spot this as a running theme – there is no one perfect answer.

During our years of interviewing bright minds, however, FreshMinds has built up a wealth of experience in gauging just which of some apparently evenly matched candidates is the winning horse to back. Candidate Manager Katharine James says, “There’s not necessarily one question that separates wheat from chaff – good candidates are open and flexible, able to respond to specific questions rather than trotting out generic answers”.

This isn’t to say that interviewers don’t have their favourite go-to questions. But in these cases they aren’t questions with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ one-word answers but questions which reveal or indicate something interesting, previously unseen, about the candidate. James advocates asking candidates about their ‘biggest weaknesses’. A pretty standard question, on the surface, but if the interviewer is on his or her game, it can be very revealing. James says that “everyone has a weakness so it’s nothing to be ashamed of but people approach this sort of question very differently”. Some candidates deny having any sort of weaknesses whatsoever. Apart from being physically impossible, this answer is worse than useless to an interviewer who genuinely needs to know a candidate’s areas of development. A denial of any weaknesses betrays a lack of self awareness and willingness to accept and work on one’s faults.

On the other hand, some candidates can be too honest. If you’re greatest weakness is Lionel Richie B-sides or serially dating men with mummy issues, we don’t need to know. What is interesting about this question is that candidates think there is a right answer, and those stock responses are uncanned again and again. But this question is also an opportunity for candidates to present themselves as thoughtful, honest and focused on developing their skills. And more often than not, these are traits that cannot be easily mimicked.

With the ‘greatest weakness’ enquiry, it is not necessarily the question that is the illuminator, but the way in which a candidate approaches it. This is true for interviews in general. James notes that “good candidates are concise, articulate and lively – I hate interviewing people with low energy.” While an interviewer is listening to the answer a candidate gives, we are also human beings with human responses. If a candidate can answer a question articulately, concisely and in an interesting, engaging way, they are half way there. This sounds woolly – it would be great for all of us if there were indeed a ‘correct’ answer to the interview question conundrum – but it confirms that there is no exact science to recruitment, for interviewers or interviewees. You cannot reduce any sort of candidates to the answer of one or two questions; every candidate is more than the sum of their parts.

That said however (and because I know lists are fun), we find that the excellent candidates can:

• Answer the question. Be able to tell us articulately and succinctly, what we have asked.
• Say what they personally did on a piece of work. ‘We’ is not ‘I’ and we want to know about ‘your’ ability.
• Show commercial awareness. Especially true for graduate level candidates; if you’re interested then we will be too.
• Engage with the interviewer. Charismatic, vibrant people are great. Why? Because they have high energy, are generally motivated and, crucially, people love to hire them.

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