The One Answer Job Interviewers Want to Hear

Last Updated Nov 30, 2009 10:05 AM EST

Job interview advice usually centers around these basic tips: Show interest in the job, dress appropriately, don't talk too much, ask questions, do research. David Silverman offers a pretty complete list in his Harvard Business Publishing post, Ace the Interview.

But mostly what these tips do, if you follow them, is give your interviewer a reason not to scratch you off the list. How do you make the employer go the next step and offer you a job?

One way is by correctly answering a very risky question that many interviewers ask and interviewees dance around: "If we hired you, what would you do to help us do 'X'''. X can be anything from creating a new production process to slicing customer support time in half. This is your chance to show your experience, knowledge of the company, and its competitive challenges.

But beware. In truth, the employer doesn't really expect the answer; rather she wants to understand how you would get the answer. In fact, proposing a solution would just indicate you favor preconceived, formulaic answers to complex questions. What's really being asked is how do you think about problems? Can you see the big picture? What's your skill level? Do you have the right temperament to get things done in our culture?

So you might start out...

"How would I cut customer support time? First, I would do a baseline analysis of our current performance to develop a common understanding of where we are today. Then we would hold that up against both best industry practice and, more importantly, how we match up against our top competitors. We would talk with our current customer response team and with our customers on ways we could improve. Next steps would include..."
You get the point. You need to show you have a grasp of the issue and a road map to improvement. If you do this successfully, you've given your potential employer a very good grasp of your value. Interviewers, in the final analysis, want to know what concrete skills you bring to the party. That's when job offers follow.

As a job hunter, how do you try and demonstrate your value to a potential employer? And for employers, what do you want to hear most from the people you interview?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.