“That’s an excellent answer…to a completely different question.”
One of the most basic pieces of interview advice I have given to candidates is to make sure that they understand what the interviewer is really asking with what I call Clarifying Questions. Often interviewers will ask questions in a more nebulous fashion (see my posting on passive-aggressive interviewing). They assume that the “right” candidate will organically give them the “right” answer. A simple clarifying question that helps you understand what it is that the interviewer really wants to know can make all the difference in success or failure during the interview.
Case in point, I had an amazingly talented marketer interviewing for a very senior level job with a well-known CPG client. This candidate had successfully done the exact brand extension work my client was seeking. However, in the final interview, the interviewer asked, “How would you go about growing our business?” The candidate went into a diatribe on pricing, sales enablement, and other non-brand extension issues. As a result, the client went with another candidate.
Had the candidate said something like, “I have had success in growing businesses both strategically through brand line extensions and tactically through ensuring our sales operations, pricing, etc. are appropriately aligned. Can you tell me a bit more about what you are seeking to know so that I answer your question appropriately?” This simple clarifying question would have made all the difference in the interview and the candidate would have landed their dream job.
Of course, use good judgement when using clarifying questions. If they ask you something straight-forward, then answer the question. Overuse of clarifying questions can make you sound needy and/or a poor cultural fit for the organization. But failure to use clarifying questions can be catastrophic to your interview. After all, you don’t want to have an excellent answer to a completely different question.