A Better Way for Modest People to Answer “What Are Your Greatest Strengths?” was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
Nearly every interview includes the question: “What are your greatest strengths?”
Even though you know it’s coming, it always still seems like a trick question. Do you brag and risk sounding arrogant? Play modest and chance not presenting your incredible accomplishments?
For a seemingly straightforward question, it sure is tough to come up with an answer that doesn’t make you look a little too proud of yourself. But it is possible! My solution, which I’ve used dozens of times with my clients, is to take the focus off your accomplishments.
After all, hiring managers don’t really care if you think you are great at X, Y, or Z. Instead, they want to know how your particular bag of skills, personality, and experience can help the company. They care how those skills are applied, not what they’re called or how you feel about them.
That’s why it doesn’t work to say, “I’m an awesome graphic designer,” or even “I’m the best software engineer in the world.” How good you are means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t help the company with the challenges it faces every day.
To get at that concern, I’ve developed a three-step framework to move you from the skill to the application of the skill, and in doing so uncover hidden strengths you might not even have known existed. I call this exercise “Past, Present, Future.”
This practice, which gets you to a) identify what you’re good at and b) talk about it in a natural, compelling way takes the confusion out of this classic interview scenario.
It requires approximately 30 minutes of prep on your part, but do the work, and you won’t be disappointed with the results.
Start by carving out quiet time and space where you won’t be disturbed or easily distracted and answering the following questions. Note: Don’t think about it too much! Just answer without censoring yourself.
1. Look at the Past
What have you been really good at in previous jobs? What skills and experiences do you rely on over and over again to tackle challenges in your personal and professional life? What events stand out in your past as particularly meaningful, fulfilling, or powerful?
2. Look at the Present
What do your friends and family come to you for? What compliments do you regularly receive? What do you genuinely love doing? Which activities do you find so absorbing that you lose track of time when you’re engaged with them?
3. Look at the Future
If you were to design your ideal job, what would you do all day? (Remember, no self-censoring or qualifying your answers. Write it all down, even if it seems impossible or unrealistic!)
You can jot down words, draw pictures, make lists, or do a stream-of-consciousness free writing. Don’t concern yourself with the format. The goal is to get a lot of information down on the page and then begin identifying patterns.
Review what you’ve written. Circle or underline anything that surprises you. Draw lines to connect notes from different time periods that link together. Find patterns and clues—you’re looking for what really defines you.
At this point, you may be running into one of a few bumps.
Oftentimes, my clients are working against preconceived ideas of who they are. They say, “I’m great with numbers,” because they’ve always considered themselves “numbers” people. But what else might be hiding beneath that?
If you pigeonhole yourself too quickly, you won’t uncover those hidden gems that separate you from the millions of other “numbers” people in the world—hundreds of whom might be applying for the same job. Challenge yourself to dig deeper, to really look for the experiences that make you and your skill set unique.
Are you great on quick turnaround projects? Do people come to you when they need to know what the numbers mean? Are you a whiz at projections? These are all different expressions of someone with “numbers” skills, each of which makes you a fit for a particular role in a particular company.
Another complaint I hear at this stage is that there’s no pattern. Everything seems too disjointed and unconnected. You don’t know how to make sense of your love for classical music with your organization obsession. Sometimes, it’s helpful to talk through your ideas with a trusted friend or coach to help make those connections.
Remember: If you’re not used to recognizing and talking about what you do well, you may find this exercise particularly challenging. You’re going to have to set modesty aside and dig into what makes you the perfect job candidate. Part of a successful job search is “packaging” yourself, and you have to believe in the product—that’s you—before you can count on anyone else to.
Now, once you know your unique strengths—what we call “signature strengths”—you can bring them up in your next interview.
Here’s how this might play out:
Interviewer: “So, what would you consider your strengths?”
Me: “Currently, I’m a sales manager with [Name of Company]. I’m responsible for managing a team of six other salespeople, working with them to meet our quarterly goals and grow our territory. One of my my favorite things is to create strategic partnerships with new businesses. For instance, last year I established a relationship with a new client with six branch offices. They added an additional $250K in revenue to my region—without requiring an expansion of personnel to handle the new business.”
“Before that, I worked with several other software companies as a field sales rep where I really got terrific experience in establishing the kinds of long-term relationships that have been so valuable in my current role.
“In the future, I’d love to work with a startup where I can build a quality sales team from the ground up and create a relationship-based sales organization that is lean and leveraged. I’ve discovered I love finding efficiencies for making sales teams more effective and bringing in more revenue without adding overhead or staff.”
In this example, I was able to successfully and naturally weave in the idea that I’m a high-performing sales professional with years of experience, who brings in big fish in an ethical, long-term manner and who adds to the bottom line without adding expenses. I didn’t even have to sound like I was bragging to do it! I simply grounded each claim in specifics, which made it completely believable.
As you can see, when you combine this interview framework with the brainstorming exercise, you connect all the dots for the hiring manager. By doing the tough work for them, you not only show what you’re great at, but you also solve the biggest problem: finding a qualified candidate who will not only fit the organization, but help grow it in the right direction.