Straying off the critical path can be fatal

Q: “I sat on the other side of the table last week for the first time – I was an interviewer. We interviewed seven candidates. Two did really well and clearly had their preparation done. They ended up being the clear 1-2. Two really didn’t have the experience we needed and you could see this dawning on them during the interview. Of the other three, two didn’t talk enough and one just went on and on and completely lost us. His interview lasted 45 minutes but felt like two hours. He finished behind the two who didn’t talk enough. I don’t have a question, just wanted to share that” – DC (email).

A: When working with candidates, a reasonably common problem I encounter is what I call ‘failing to stay on the critical path’. The critical path is important when climbing a mountain and it shouldn’t be overlooked when tackling a job interview too, writes Liam Horan, Career Coach, Sli Nua Careers, Ballinrobe.

Liam Horan,
Sli Nua Careers,

By ‘critical path’ I mean those parts of the story that the interview panel needs to know about – and no more.

A classic straying away from the critical path is the candidate who, when asked to talk about their management experience, replies: “In this role, I managed 25 people who worked on the bar and restaurant side of the business. Now, there was another 20 or so working in the night club at the weekends, but I didn’t manage them, they were managed by the night club manager because it wouldn’t make sense to have someone try to do it all. I’d never get home. And the night club is a different beast entirely. In the bar and restaurant, I rostered staff, set up cleaning rotas…”

Really, do we need this much detail? No.

This candidate has just spent most of the early part of the answer talking about the management work they didn’t do – which wasn’t the question.

The critical path would lead them to this answer: “In this role, I managed 25 people who worked on the bar and restaurant side of the business. I rostered staff, set up cleaning rotas…”

And away they’d go.

The critical path keeps you honest. The question invites you to give experience, so give it. Delve into your career to date and find the experience you have. Pluck it from a previous role like you would lift a football from a cluster of nettles – just take what you want and be gone.

Candidates sometimes feel the need to give too much context. When drawn into the story about the bar and restaurant, this candidate felt obliged to explain other elements of the business. Perhaps they felt they were being helpful.

But, in reality, they were just obscuring the relevant parts of their experience.

Don’t overload an interview panel with irrelevant detail. Don’t over-qualify what you’re saying. Instead, go to the good stuff and shine the light there.

Preparation is crucial if you want to do this effectively. Arrange your experience under the various headings or competencies that interest the employer – management, marketing, training, negotiation, and so on.

Identify those parts of your experience that help to paint the picture you’re trying to create. And be brutal about steering clear of the non sequiturs that serve no real purpose.