Saturday, July 23, 2005

Of Interviews & Truths

If you’ve ever interviewed for a job more than once during your career, perhaps you can appreciate that the questions are often times simple variations on the same themes over and over again.

In my case, as a sales, marketing, and business development professional, the common questions generally revolve around; How did you learn your sales skills? Where did you learn about finances and budgeting? And the always popular tell us about the most meaningful experience from your educational background request.

Now as all good interviewees know, proper etiquette suggests you carefully structure your response to best align with information the interviewer is looking for and if you can successfully structure your answer to bridge your past business experience with the needs of the interviewer’s company, you get to proceed to the next step. Of course, you don’t lie (that’s simply unacceptable) but you do want to present the best possible answer that proves you are the man or woman for the job. Thus smart interviewers think and plan carefully how best to answer the common questions they are likely to hear again and again.

All is well with the above approach. However, wouldn’t it be nice to simply tell the “raw truth” the next time? So, without another thought, here are the truest of answers to the sales skills, budgeting skills, and educational experience questions for consideration the next time an interviewing opportunity heads down the home stretch into those same old themes.

Sales Skills

While I’ve spent more than half of my career in official “sales” jobs, the lesson that set me so well equipped onto my sales journey occurred when I was only about nine years old. I remember the excitement of the day when as a member of Cub Scout pack 737, I rushed home with a box full of candy bars as part of my first ever fund raising participation opportunity. The box was full of sleeves of name brand candy bars priced at $2.00 for five bars. According to my Scout leader, all I needed to do was knock on the neighbor’s doors and they would buy the bars lickety-split; he promised it would be easy!

My traveling salesman of a father however had a different idea. In spite of my excitement and my repeating the scout leader’s simple instructions, my father insisted that I wait until he got home at the end of the week so he could properly train me on the required sales techniques. And so, I waited. And yes, I probably became the youngest person ever to actually participate in a sales role play training program just to sell Scout candy.

My father’s instruction however, clearly taught me how to establish an introduction that included stating why I was interrupting the neighborly prospect, properly presenting the “finest available candy bars”, underscoring it was for the benefit of Scout pack 737, overcoming the $2.00 price tag objection, and asking for the order. His role playing process had me knocking at our own front door which he in turn answered and then I had to “sell” him on my wares. Of course, the Cub Scout uniform I had to wearing while on these sales calls also had to pass an army-like inspection before I headed out the door. In all the years since and through all the training that I’ve participated in, those first words of wisdom for achieving success in sales still ring true.

Without a doubt, my early success as a Cub Scout candy seller based upon my father’s training, generated the excitement that later sent me so well equipped out into the world upon my journey in sales. And while this answer doesn’t eloquently provide the interviewer a view into all the technical and relationship driven elements of professional sales the question is meant to uncover, it is simply the truth.

Budget & Finance Skills

Rather than the MBA driven response that clearly links my past work performance to business success as an interviewer might anticipate, the truthful answer as to my budgeting and finance skills were learned at 11 years of age from my Mother.

You see by the time I was eleven years of age, I held a local newspaper route delivering nearly 100 papers each morning before school and collecting the fees once a week. Once I had the earnings from this route burning a hole in my pocket, I entered the domain of the consuming public and fell in lust with a brand new, bright blue bicycle. Not just any bicycle mind you but a 26”, 5-speed, Schwinn bicycle! The only trouble was that the price tag was $80 (yes, that was many years ago) and I didn’t yet have such a princely sum of cash.

Like any red-blooded 11 year old, I started down the path of badgering my parents into making the purchase for me to no avail. As the oldest of eight children, I can now look back and see the wisdom of their response! However, my mother’s own wisdom cooked up the following lesson; If I would commit to and live by a budget system that divided my earnings amongst three envelopes; one for long term savings, one for short term savings, and one for charity, she’d match me dollar for dollar on the short term envelope to help me buy that shiny new Schwinn.

And so it was that by the end of that summer, my envelopes were showing their progress and my short term envelope accumulated the necessary amount to enable my first ever “major” purchase and I became the proud if not possessive owner of a 26”, 5-speed Schwinn bicycle.

More importantly, I had learned a budgeting system that has served me well for many years including during those first few years of my marriage when we actually used a similar envelope system to accumulate our rent payments, car payments, and pizza money – all in separate envelopes of course!

Imagine telling an interviewer from a big, real-world company that in spite of the MBA, my best budget and finance lessons were learned from my mother’s envelope system in a quest for a Schwinn bicycle! There probably wouldn’t be enough envelopes to hold all the accounts necessary for a modern day business.

Education Experience

Finally, when that tired, catch all question surrounding the most valuable lesson from your educational years comes about, the proper plan of attack is to describe one’s schooling success and relate it as closely as possible to how it provided unique insights into the workaday world. Such an approach, done well, is sure to impress the interviewer.

In my case, however the truthful answer is simply that out of all my educational experiences, the FFA or Future Farmers of America taught me the most directly applicable lessons for business success. So much for wowing them with impressive scholastic degrees!

You see as a teenager, the family moved from the suburbs of Virginia to the family homestead in rural Ohio. Now don’t misunderstand, we didn’t move onto the farm, we were townies in a town of 2,000 (counting the cows). However, for some reason, perhaps an early teenage rebellious phase, I chose to join the local high school’s FFA program. It was within the FFA program that I learned how to; judge cows (miserably as they all looked the same to me), determine whether a pound of light soil or a pound of dark soil weighed more (I incorrectly guessed “dark” (they are of course equal) on my final exam’s extra credit question for this tidbit), and how to operate a meeting by Robert’s Rules of Order, how to properly construct and participate in a debate team, and how to prepare and present a speech in public. Quit a range of topics I’m sure you would agree.

As it was, the FFA’s programs for meetings, debating, and speaking, gave me all the foundational skills necessary to attack the business world with vigor. Even today, I am constantly going back to the lessons learned in those FFA programs. Imagine telling the interviewer that the FFA provided all the key elements necessary for survival in the big business world of today!


So, there you have it. The three basic questioning themes I have heard all my career; sales, budgets, and education countered by the three absolutely truthful answers; my Dad’s candy lesson, my Mom’s three envelope budget lesson, and the meeting, debate, and public speaking lessons of the FFA. None of these truths I have yet to deliver to an interviewer – at least not yet!

Best wishes for success in all you do!

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