Closing the Deal - The Wrong Concept for Interviews

When I’m analyzing a client’s or student’s career transition, trying to create a diagnosis of what may be going wrong , I’ll take a look at several critical elements:

  • Are there two or three clearly defined targets?  How were these chosen?
  • Are there well-designed pitches for these targets that will establish the value and unique qualities of the job seeker?
  • Is his/her networking leading to contacts with decision makers?
  • Are networking meetings resulting in new information, a reinforced or new relationship, and new potential contacts?  
  • If interviews have taken place, is there a problem getting to the subsequent rounds? 

It is the last item on this checklist that is one of the most difficult to figure out. The job seeker is getting interviews, which is usually the most difficult part of the process. That means all the other components are working, indicating that what I consider to be the toughest aspects, especially relationship-building, have been successful. And she or he is getting past the first round of interviews, also a tough obstacle.  

Getting to the next round

I think the interview is generally the easiest part of the career transition process to fix.  

Learning how to answer the difficult questions, how to present well, how to actively listen and respond accordingly are more mechanical and direct than the somewhat amorphous nature of building networks.  

But something goes wrong when the applicant doesn’t get past that second round. Sometimes it’s pure chemistry, and sometimes it’s just not a good match. It can also be luck of the draw, perhaps even the timing of the interview. And, too often, it’s impossible to figure out what didn’t work; prospective employees end up trying to read tea leaves, endlessly.   

When the process ends after the second or third round (or later), I will ask a client or student to tell me details of all of the interviews. What I’m particularly interested in is – what was the difference in substance and tone between the second and third rounds or between subsequent ones?  

Where job seekers go wrong

In a majority of situations that haven’t worked, I have learned that the applicant’s tone has changed. 

The problem, then, might be one of two issues that occur in the advanced stages of an interview process. First, there’s the sales notion of “closing the deal.” In other words, pitch and sell hard. Be more direct. Change tone and be more assertive. 


I usually advise job seekers to maintain the same tone that got them there in the first place. If an applicant gets past the initial screen, it means a representative of the organization feels it’s a good fit, stylistically and substantively. So why change in the next – or the one after that - round? 

I think it’s important to stay the same throughout the process, continue being the person they thought was a good fit at the beginning. The only thing that should change, perhaps, is adding more “war stories,” more behavioral examples of accomplishments.  

The other potential problem in advanced rounds is an assumption that it’s “in the bag,” so acting like it’s a done deal, with confidence, will reinforce the interviewer’s positive perception.


Never assume anything. The selling nature of interviewing should be continued throughout the entire hiring process, including negotiations. It doesn’t stop. Not even when a decision-maker indicates that you’re the lead candidate. (How many times have job seekers heard that one, and then never heard from the person again?) The tone should stay the same, and the selling should continue. 

What works

For as long as I can remember, I’ve advised people in career transition to always stick to my version of President Kennedy’s often-quoted inaugural speech, “Ask not what the organization can do for you; rather, ask what you can do for the organization.” That should be the focus of all interviews, and especially the later ones. With no change of tone.  


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Interviews are Getting Trickier - 5 Tips for Avoiding Pitfalls

I started to notice around 10-15 years ago that many organizations were taking much longer to hire. It was especially noticeable right after recessions in 2001-2002, and again in 2008-2009. 

The big investment banks were an exception to that change--long, involved interview situations have been part of their hiring process for years. 

In general, though, what used to be 2-3 rounds of interviews at most organizations somehow has evolved into 5-6. Gradually, more hurdles have been introduced into the equation. Assessments. Interviews with potential subordinates. Group interviews. Initial phone screens (more and more common). Delays. Lack of response. All resulting in a much longer process.  

I'm not sure that the increased hurdles have yielded better results, but one thing is certain--organizations are afraid of making hiring mistakes, and want to try to guarantee a successful hiring process. Yes, it's expensive to hire the wrong candidate, but it’s not yet clear whether the new, extended interviewing has guaranteed the desired results.  

Unfortunately, job seekers will encounter these labyrinthine processes more often than not, and it's important to try to get through them by avoiding some of the pitfalls.   

Let's take a look at a few possible steps you might face in a protracted process: 

  • Group interviews 

Group interviews are tough. You never know whether to address the questioner or behave as if the interview is supposed to be a performance for an audience. 

I always think it better to address your answers to the person who asks the question. That way you can avoid the anxiety of having to perform for a group; the others in the group will hear the response, too. Responses to individuals are also more personal.

  • Interviews with potential subordinates 

Interviews with potential subordinates are tricky. You're always wondering whether the subordinate has already applied for the same job and been turned down (and may be a political problem later on). Or, you're thinking you need to impress with your command of the situation. 

I think the best way to handle this kind of interview is to treat it the same way you would treat any other interview situation. Be prepared with those war stories that are addressed in the interview chapter of The Fun-Forever Job ("Would You Please Remove Your Blouse?"), to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about, and you've done your due diligence on the organization.

  • Phone screens

I recommend what my senior sales clients have suggested, which is to have some scripted bullets in front of you, so that you don't go too far off target (time is limited and you want to make best use of it). Use a headset, so you can gesture, which adds energy to your phone manner. Stand up and walk around, which will add some depth to your voice. Don't worry about not getting much feedback; few phone screens yield any significant feedback, and you can't read the body language. Just accept that, and realize it's more typical to walk away from the interview not knowing anything than feeling optimistic about it.  

  • Delayed response

I think it's an unwritten law that hiring managers and/or human resources professionals will not respond when they say they will. 

I can think of many reasons for this, but it's important to understand it's not usually about you; it's about not being able to get a decision together from many decision-makers. Or a requisition signed. Or funding secured. Or a person terminated (sounds awful – but that's frequently the case). So the applicant ends up reading tea leaves, endlessly ruminating and interpreting the signs, which is rarely useful, while sitting by the phone or at the computer. 

My general thinking is you never let more than 5-10 business days go by without reaching out. A simple email or phone call restating your interest, or restating what a great fit this job is--and why, and a request about the status of the situation. At this point, I love to ask my clients or students, what do you have to lose? Ego can’t be that important anymore. You just want an answer. 

Years ago, when I was doing heavy recruiting at a large bank, if I didn't hear from a prospective employee, I would assume the person had lost interest, or found another job. So what's the harm in expressing interest, in a low-key manner? No desperation, of course, and no accusations of "You said you'd call me…"  Bottom line--be proactive.   

Here's where you'll need to do some juggling. Be proactive but don't try to "close the deal." Closing the deal means a change of behavior. That's the exact opposite of what should be done. If you've been asked back several times, that means they're interested. Why change your tactic? Be the same adorable, charming, brilliant person you were all along, because that's the person they've asked back--not the person who changes tone and becomes someone different (the deal closer). There is an old baseball adage that applies here: Dance with what brung ya. In other words, use the same strategy that got you that far.   

Assessment seems to be gaining some traction in some companies. That's a topic for a whole other blog. Tricky issue.  

You need to stay steady through all these steps, maintaining a consistent tone and building your value by showing what you can do for "them." I hope most readers won't have to go through all these steps, and can get to a decision with maybe two rounds. But it's always good to be prepared. 

Explaining the Gaps

One of the tougher aspects of career transition is explaining any gaps in a work history. Some interviewers, or those on the other side of an informational meeting, will frequently get hung up on gaps in employment, as though you’ve committed some kind of criminal activity. Others will ask, because they simply don’t know how to interview very well, and are focusing on resume issues more than skills or experience. They need something – anything – to talk about. Some may want to find out of if there are any problems in the work history, occasionally a more logical reason for such questioning.  

These gap questions usually fall under the “Why are you looking?” category, and the other person might think that any gap is a problem – just because. Either way, you need to have good responses prepared for all the contingencies. Normally, I think that this is one of those issues that’s better dealt with on a one-on-one advising basis, but here are some general thoughts about possible explanations for gaps:  

Left a Job – Why?

If a potential employer, or anyone else involved in your transition, doesn’t understand today’s work climate well (or, for that matter, the past 30 years or so), they may think that anyone who changes jobs, or who has left a job either voluntarily or involuntarily, is tarnished goods. Unfortunately, there have been way too many bad pieces in the media about this false notion, even in well-reputed media outlets.  

The notion is ridiculous. The facts are that nearly everyone will have made changes in employment during their work lives, and frequently several. Not just career moves, but career changes, too. There is no need to feel defensive, even if you were terminated for poor performance or a bad fit. You’re now in marketing mode, and there’s no room for negatives. There’s always a substantive way to market yourself effectively. It’s important to understand that part of the cultural norm now is to make changes, whether or not the person sitting on the other side of the desk understands that.  

The key is to never be negative about the former employer. By saying that, for instance, the organization was badly run, or that your boss was insane or just garden-variety narcissistic (unfortunately, very common), or that the organization had terrible financial difficulties, the takeaway for the other person, somehow, is that YOU are the negative one, that you are the one who is associated with the negative connotation. That’s not the brand you want.  

You didn’t leave the job for a new challenge; that’s like announcing you’ll leave the next one for the same reason. You didn’t leave for more money or better work conditions (although these may be true). You left for better reasons.  

Your reason for leaving statement should be something along the lines of your having left due to your wanting to more fully utilize what you have learned over the course of your career, and that the opportunity didn’t exist with your former employer. Again, this is something that needs to be crafted on a more personal basis, but I wanted to give just an idea here. There are many variations on this theme.  What you want to accomplish is a positive, logical reason for wanting to make a change. Whether it was your choice or not. You want that reason to make you look good.  

Of course, if an entire division was laid off or there was a restructuring of some sort, or if you worked at Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers in 2008, then just say it. But also say that it was a huge disappointment because you liked your job a lot, liked the organization, and had the opportunity to . . . (and here’s where you get to pivot into a couple of quick accomplishments).  

Period of Unemployment

“You seem to have been out of work for several months. What’s the problem?”  

Yup, that one gets asked frequently. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful interview question, that it’s designed to put the interviewee on the spot, which is never a great way to conduct an interview, but - it does get asked. Way too often.  

Seriously, is a long period of unemployment indicative of anything other than either a difficult or, even, a bad search? Being bad at search, or being unlucky, or being discouraged, or somewhat stuck in a contracting industry – all of these may be the real reasons. Do these disqualify you from great opportunities? I don’t think so.  

But, since we’re in self-marketing mode, we need to explain this more positively.  How about making it appear that the too-long period of search was somewhat by design? Why not “I am working hard on a daily basis to make sure that I make an intelligent decision for my next move. A great fit is critical to me, and if it takes time, so be it.” That makes you look good, that you’re serious and deliberate about your career plans, and hey, it may even be somewhat true, too.

One more thing – it is NOT a stigma to be unemployed. It’s just part of the work process, and has been so for a long time now. Get over it. Don’t let it effect how people perceive you.  


Maybe you’ve been consulting, either by design or as a stop gap during your period of unemployment. While some will say “I’ve been consulting” is somewhat of a cliché, be prepared to back it up with evidence of your building skills during this period.  

If you’ve actually chosen to consult, maybe for years, prospective employers will be suspicious of your wanting to return to a more traditional job.  They may be concerned that you’ve hit a rough time, and are only planning to return to the “job job” for a limited period, just to get back on your feet – and then leave to consult again.

So when you’re asked about why you don’t want to consult anymore, you can state that you’ve had a great experience, had the opportunity to . . . (and here’s yet another opportunity to talk about gained skills and experience). But, you miss the ability to work on a larger team, brainstorm, and have a wider array of resources to be able to do larger scale work. As a consultant, you feel sometimes isolated, and sometimes an outsider, and you miss being part of an ongoing group that sees a strategy through to completion.  

Family Medical/Childcare/Personal/Personal Medical

If you’ve had a family medical situation and needed to take an extended time off, or a personal or medical situation, or took off time to help raise children, none of these should be problems to explain. The only problem is when you feel defensive about it, or are uncomfortable explaining. Have a response prepared, and make sure it’s confident and assertive. You’re in charge of your situation.  

With medical situations, state that there was a personal/medical situation that you needed to deal with, that it’s over and resolved, and that you’re ready to return to work. Period. No details, no emotion, matter of fact.  

The children issue is sometimes trickier. While it’s illegal in the US to ask questions about having children, it does become important to explain a large gap in the work history by discussing having had children. It’s important to pre-empt the possible questions about childcare by offering your plan for childcare, that it’s several layers deep (babysitter/nanny/mother-in-law/sister/husband/cousin) and that there will never be issues about coverage, and will not affect your work in the least. You’re confident about this and you state this with no reservation. Don’t wait for it to be asked.  

Clearly, the gap questions will need to be tailored to each job seeker’s particular story. What I wanted to show here is that they can be addressed. I’ve rarely encountered situations that couldn’t be dealt with effectively.  

To find answers to your questions on job search and career transition, get your copy of In Search of the Fun-Forever Job: Career Strategies that Work