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Focus: The most critical interview prep step.

Early in my recruiting career, I came across a seemingly perfect candidate for an open position. Her background exceeded all the qualifications for the role. She was a great communicator, excited about the company, and her pay requirements fell well within the salary range. I was very eager to share her resume with my client. My client responded immediately and was very impressed with her qualifications. We set up a phone interview for the three of us the following day.

When the call began the next day, the hiring manager started with a simple question. “Can you tell me about your background?”

The candidate started by sharing where she went to college and her degree. Next, she discussed her first role out of college. Then the next role, and the next role… on and on it went. She shared the fine details of each of her 8 positions over the past 15 years of her career. It was almost as if  “The Song that Never Ends” started to play in the background. She talked for nearly 12 minutes straight.

After the dissertation, the hiring manager took a deep breath and said only one word, “okay.” While the manager continued asking questions, I could tell the energy of the interview had changed. It was only a 30-minute interview. The hiring manager was rushing to get all her questions answered. There was simply no time. As a result, the candidate was not selected to move forward even though she seemed to be the “perfect” fit for the position.

Lesson learned

Light bulb reflecting ideas and notes

This experience taught me a valuable lesson. Regardless of how qualified someone is for a role if they’re too long-winded it will leave a bad first impression. Above all, a candidate must be brief at the beginning of an interview. Especially when describing the overview of their background. An interview needs to turn into a dialogue, not remain a monologue.

As a result of the failed interview, I started taking mental notes on what worked well for candidates. Now, I coach all my candidates on the most critical interview prep step. This particular step is so important that I’d like to share it with you.

This post will show you how to prepare for the beginning of an interview. Being able to describe your background and skills will help portray you in a good light right from the start of the interview. In a previous post, I discussed the 5 Ways To Prep For Your Interview. Together, these tips will give you a leg up on the other candidates who choose not to prepare for their interview.

The problem

As someone who’s sat through tons of interviews, I can tell you that most professionals don’t prepare what they are going to say at the beginning of an interview. Individuals tend to share whatever comes to mind. Much of that information is not relevant to the role. Doing this ends up delaying the natural progression of the interview.

Recent college graduates don’t have a whole lot of experience to share. Furthermore, universities do not teach an interview introduction strategy. In comparison, it’s a different story when a candidate has 10-15+ years of experience. It’s a challenge to determine what information to share. Especially, when they’ve held a variety of roles throughout their career.

While researching information about the organization and position you’re interviewing for is a great first step- it’s not the most critical step. The most essential step is to know how to convey your background and skills as they relate to the position. Especially at the beginning of the interview.  As the saying goes, “You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression.”

What not to do

Man covering ear - not hearing most critical cybersecurity prep step

I would say that around 95% of interviews start with the questions, “Can you tell me about your experience?” Unfortunately, this question is so broad that it traps candidates. Please don’t take the bait! Sharing random facts and personal details that are not relevant to the position takes up unnecessary time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be personable. Let your personality shine throughout the interview! Make sure you capture their interest from describing your qualifications first though.

Similarly, don’t go back to your first role after graduating from college in fine detail. More than likely the role you first held is not relevant to the position. A general rule of thumb is to only talk about areas that directly relate to the job you’re applying for. Hiring managers can read your resume to see the progression of jobs you’ve had.

If you fail to prepare a concise Elevator Background Pitch (we’ll discuss below) the interview is over before it begins. After 2-3 minutes, if the hiring authority has not spoken at all, they are mentally checked out. From a time management perspective, if your background overview is more than 5 minutes, you’ve wasted anywhere from 8-16% of your interview time.

The Solution

Celebrating a successful beginning of interview

The most critical interview prep step is to create an “Elevator Background Pitch.”  To do this, you should use the following steps:

  • First: Review the position description to understand the requirements.
  • Second: Determine how your relevant experience qualifies you for the opportunity.
  • Third: Write out your qualifications in a condensed format. The write up should be a high-level overview and no more than  6-7 sentences. Lastly, practice it until it becomes second nature.

For example, below is part of a Director of Information Security job description. I’ve numbered the requirements and preferences to illustrate how you should highlight your qualifications.

Required experience:

1.) 8-10+ years of information systems or cyber security background.

2.) Strong understanding of network security architecture.

3.) Experience working with and presenting to the executive management committee.

4.) Experience managing a team of security-focused engineers and analysts with 24×7 coverage.

5.) Able to communicate technical concepts between technical and non-technical stakeholders.

6.) Familiarity and experience implementing concepts, standards, and designs based on NIST Cybersecurity Framework.

Preferred experience:

7.) Strong knowledge of financial services industry best practices and regulations (GDPR, etc.)

8.) Information Security certifications (CISSP, ISA, ISC2, SANS, etc.)

How to Prep your Elevator Background Pitch

Below is an example of the most critical cyber security interview prep step. The Elevator Background Pitch:

Overall, I have 15 years of IT and 12 years of Information Security experience serving the Financial Services, Healthcare, and Telecommunications industries. (Point 1 & 7 covered!) Throughout my career, I have been responsible for providing strategy on network security architecture while managing teams of ranging from 3-10 professionals providing 24×7 coverage. (Points 2 & 4 covered!) I have presented to the executive leadership explaining technical aspects in relevant terms. (Points 3 & 5 covered!) Most recently, I led a successful GDPR initiative and have had extensive experience with the NIST security framework as well as HIPAA and SOX compliance. (Points 6 & 7 covered!) I’m a CISSP, CISM and hold a Masters in Cyber Security and Information Assurance. (Point 8 covered!)

Reading the example out loud should take you less than a minute or two. It provides a high-level overview of your experience while demonstrating your qualifications. The first couple of sentences should be consistent for every job, highlighting the overview of your experience. The last couple of sentences should relate to the requirements for the specific position you’re interviewing for. If you use this framework, you’ll captivate the hiring manager’s attention right away.

The Elevator Background Pitch is a broad overview for a reason. Afterward, the interviewer can choose what area they would like to discuss in greater detail. It helps transition to the questions and answers phase. Again, the interview should be a conversation, not a monologue.

Practice makes perfect

Bullseye - Hitting your target by using the most critical cybersecurity interview prep step

My recommendation is to practice your Elevator Background Pitch until you perfect it!  First, review it multiple times to make sure it is as concise as possible. Next, practice it out loud in front of a mirror. Finally, practice with someone else. Make sure you pick a person who will give you honest feedback. You want to make sure it sounds natural!

This is the most critical interview prep step. It’s the first point of an interview where you get to sell yourself to the interviewer. Coupled with the 5 Ways To Prep For Your Interview, these tips will put you ahead of the competition.

As always please share, like, or comment below if you found this beneficial. If you disagree that’s great too! We’re always open to learning and enjoy discussing these topics with others.

Interested in what’s possible for you?  Here are 2 ways we can work together so you can gain an Unfair Advantage!  One-on-one coaching sessions and customized coaching packages.  Not ready to dive in, but want to dip your toe in the water? Let’s have a 30-minute conversation to see if we’re a match.  Schedule a complimentary consultation call now.


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