Avoid these Interview Mistakes for your next Engineering Manager Role

I recently hired a new Engineering Manager to take over one of my teams. During the hiring process we received almost 200 applications. The overall quality of candidates looked good on paper; some were already at companies like Amazon, Twilio, Uber. The initial screen during our interview process is a simple 30 min chat where I introduce the company and get to know the Manager.

To my surprise, many of the candidates that appeared to have strong background and experience, didn’t do well during the initial screen. I started to notice a common theme in the mistakes they were making. Interviewing is a skill of its own, and requires the right kind of preparation to convey your strengths to the hiring manager. It is ultimately a sales pitch.

Perhaps these candidates could have been a fit. Clearly they were already executing well at their current role. But if they don’t communicate well during the interview process, it’s difficult for a Hiring Manager to gauge the fit.

What follows is a list of mistakes and pitfalls I have noticed Engineering Managers are making when they interview for their next role.

Mistake #1: Not having a strong elevator pitch for introduction

During conversations with candidates, the first thing I notice missing is a strong elevator pitch when I ask them “tell me about yourself”. This question is an opportunity to deliver a concise, potent summary of the work you have done and the impact you have had. But it is not an invitation to repeat the resume. I have had some candidates with 15+ years of experience rehash their history from their junior years to today. This easily turns into a ramble that eats up time.

Most Managers are aware that, for leadership roles, communication is especially important. So you should come up with a powerful 60-90 second summary of who you are,  what sets you apart, the business impact you have delivered in your career and what you are looking for next. Practice your pitch so it becomes clear and second nature. Getting this right will put you in a commanding position during the interview and get the interviewer excited at the prospect of learning more.

Mistake #2: Talking only about management activities instead of business impact

During the conversations, some candidates tend to focus on specific management activities. They will mention the size of their teams, how they lead the scrum, how they hired and fired etc. Of course these are important skills, but they don’t set you apart from other candidates. General day-to-day management activities are table stakes for high performing organizations.  Even more important is how your decisions and actions lead to business outcomes.  You want to keep the results front and center during your interview.

The Hiring Manager needs help to determine the kind of impact and difference you can bring to the organization. It is up to you to succinctly connect the dots from actions to the outcomes and business results. It’s the latter that will help you stand out from the crowd.

Mistake #3: Not providing stories and examples of your leadership

Management interviews will involve delving into your leadership style. These are often considered “soft-skill” questions with no right answers. But you still want to leave the Hiring Manager with a clear understanding of how you lead. Average candidates tend to answer these questions in a direct manner, stating their approach and philosophy, but without specific examples from their experience. This makes you come across as someone who read a lot of management books, but hasn’t yet experienced the challenges.

The key is to show, not tell. That means coming up with concrete stories and examples of specific scenarios. Clearly show how you handled different challenges and what it demonstrates about your leadership skills and approach.

Mistake #4:  Not asking about problems the Hiring Manager is trying to solve

Hiring new leadership talent into an organization is an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on problems and build value for customers. To my surprise, very few candidates ask to understand what problems we are trying to solve and what challenges we are dealing with. Having the curiosity to ask this question serves two purposes. It demonstrates to the Hiring Manager that you are seriously considering the role, and conversely, it helps you gauge whether this is a role that fits what you are looking for.

Further, asking about problems and outcomes the organization is shooting for helps shift the interview discussion towards business problems, giving the interviewer a chance to see what it would be like to have you in meetings and brainstorm the problem space with you. It’s a powerful win-win question to ask.

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