By Sabina Nawaz
Harvard Business Review, April 24, 2019.
Alex had an impressive résumé. He had excellent grades in school, a string of technical projects that won recognition, and concrete results from his first two jobs. Yet when he interviewed at a new high-tech startup, the company turned him down. Luckily for Alex, he learned the reason for his rejection from an unofficial source — a colleague who didn’t agree with the decision. It turned out that the interviewers thought Alex lacked passion. He was quiet, didn’t specify how he contributed to the projects on his résumé, and didn’t display the effusiveness they were used to seeing in strong candidates.
Alex had grown up in Hong Kong, where he had been taught to downplay accomplishments and lead with results. Unfortunately, the company where he was interviewing was in the U.S. The interviewers had a blind spot: they believed that passionate candidates would speak loudly and at length about their achievements. Alex needed to figure out how to communicate excitement and commitment in interviews without fundamentally changing his personality or culturally ingrained mannerisms.
Demonstrating passion is not the only predictor of a great job candidate, however hiring managers reference this trait repeatedly in their interview feedback. To succeed in your next job interview, you need to figure out how to convey what matters most to you. Here’s how.
Start with your why. Most résumés and interview responses are a long list of “what” someone did without ever delving into “why.” Instead of telling hiring managers what you’ve done, begin by explaining your motivations — why you chose that activity — and the impact of your work. Alex liked to build software applications because he believed technology equalizes access for everyone. His parents had made many sacrifices to send him to an elite school, including buying expensive textbooks and supplies — the cost of which could have been reduced through technology. Alex’s motivation to pursue coding was highly personal, which fueled his passion.
Discuss where you invest extra time. For most positions, a suitable candidate is expected to be smart, work hard, and get results. An exceptional candidate tells interviewers about when and where he went above and beyond. During his senior year of college, Alex would hide under the table in the computer lab when it was shut down so he could stay after closing time and continue coding. His hard work and extra hours paid off. A program Alex wrote was used by the system administrator at his university to help run the lab more efficiently.
Share your hobbies. When you’re passionate about something, it tends to spill over into other aspects of your life. Alex loved to build things. He created computer programs in school, at work, and at home. One such project was the construction and programming of a beer-fetching robot. During his next interview, Alex showed videos of the robots he’d built in his spare time — projects that demonstrated his enthusiasm and deep commitment to his field.
Talk about where you’ve worked for free. Passion and belief can lead you to work on something even when it’s not part of your job or hobby. At his next interview, Alex told a story about helping to feed the homeless at a shelter. Because of limited space, the shelter fed a hundred people at a time and then turned around the seating for a second batch of guests each evening. It was a scramble to feed everyone during the allotted time. Alex noticed that one delay was caused by taking orders for the two menu choices and delivering them accurately. He coded a program that displayed the seating chart and the chosen menu item. The program increased serving efficiency by 17 minutes and reduced errors and frustration.
After using these techniques during interviews, Alex was hired by a competitor of the company that had turned him down. At his new job, he worked hard, won five patents, and was a prolific coder.
Don’t get overlooked during your next job interview because you don’t display the kind of full-throated, table-thumping behaviors companies tend to equate with passion. Help employers to see the commitment underlying your actions and words. Show them that passion comes in different forms and yields impressive results — the kind of results you’ve already nailed.
Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations.