Saturday, 11 February 2012

"What is your greatest weakness?"

 “What is your biggest weakness?” is a question that is starting to disappear from interviews, especially for graduate programmes, because it has become very cliché. However, there are still plenty of old school hiring managers out there who (some would argue out of laziness…) like to ask this question, in part because they know everyone absolutely hates answering this one.  Even Barack Obama faced it during his presidential campaign from several journalists!

The main stage I’ve heard it used at for graduates is in final stage partner/director interviews – which unfortunately makes it a question you definitely need to be prepared for because getting a ‘no’ at this stage of the process - even if you’ve done really well in a challenging assessment centre - is usually career-limiting.

In general respondents still use the approach of ‘I know you are asking for a weakness, but I am going to tell you something that you will actually see as a positive.’ Something like ‘I like to get into the detail of something because I like to make sure everything is done right’, or ‘I need to learn to say no – sometimes I get involved in too many things and get pulled in too many different directions.’ Or my favourite (!) ‘I’m a perfectionist’. Oh please – so boring, and doesn’t lead the conversation anywhere…

To be honest, as a recruiter, that trick is very old now. It is really dull when someone rolls out an answer such as these and in general it doesn’t inspire me to push them forward to the next stage.  I prefer to hear honesty about a development point and some evidence of how you’ve already started working on it:

 “At the end of my internship, I was given a lot of positive feedback but I also asked for development points as I was keen to make sure I learned from the experience. My manager told me that sometimes in meetings I needed to be more confident, because most of the time the points I raised with him after the meeting were spot on, and he wished I had said them in the meeting.  I knew this was something that I needed to work on, and I was trying to, but to have a manager I respected raise it with me really reinforced the point.

I reflected on the occasions where this had happened – where I had regretted not making my point in a meeting – and I realized that had I spoken up at the time, I would have been seen in a positive light by the directors at those meetings as I would have been making pertinent points and would probably have enhanced my prospects of advancement. I also realized that the worst thing that could happened would have been I made a point that wasn’t necessarily relevant and the meeting would probably have just moved on and no one would really have thought the worse of me except that I was trying to participate, which in general people appreciate rather than just sitting there quietly.

On my return to university, I was put in a project team with some more senior members of the faculty around whom I did feel quite intimidated. I set myself a challenge of making sure that I spoke up in the first team meeting at least once. I was very nervous, but I did it. After having made one point, which was picked up on and further discussed, I found that I made two and three more points and got more involved in the discussion as my confidence grew.

I still do get nervous in meetings, but I am working hard at it and feel that I am getting much better as I am exposed to more opportunities to participate. If I got this role, I would continue to work on this development point.”

This is broadly an answer that I had a couple of years ago and I thought it was a good, honest answer and demonstrated something who wasn’t playing games with the weaknesses question. I also liked that she was well-prepared as it was very articulately discussed.

I’m not saying that you don’t walk a fine line with some answers like this – if you take this approach, you have to have a finely-tuned answer about how you have worked to improve that development point / ‘weakness’ – but there is something very refreshing about someone who has been given some tough feedback and instead of ignoring it, or thinking the person giving the feedback is just wrong, has taken it onboard, analysed where they are going wrong, and then gone about correcting it in a methodical and conscious way.

As a line manager as well as a recruiter, the idea of training and developing someone who is open to feedback and really works on improving themselves as a result is quite exciting because it is possible to have proper, frank development conversations with someone like that and really bring them on quickly. Their prospects for advancement are much better than for others in my mind.

(As a slight aside, I would avoid actually using the word ‘weakness’ in your answer, even if they have said ‘weakness’ in the question. It is a word with such negative connotations. I prefer ‘development point’ or ‘areas for improvement’ – I would use that language instead of ‘weakness’ if I were you. They are also words that indicate more self-awareness and confidence.)

What’s your “weakness”? If you know, then you’re already half way to an answer because being conscious of it and knowing you need to do something about it is already more than many people.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The financial world's gone crazy... but what does it all mean for graduate programmes?

I've been asked by a few former followers to restart this blog - which I'm happy to do if you keep the questions and suggestions for topics you want to hear my general musings on coming! Specifically a couple of you have asked for my perspective on the current market and what it means for graduate recruitment.

What's behind the numbers?
It's important to understand the dynamics of graduate recruitment relationships at times like these. Grad Rec teams at big companies have long-standing relationships with the big universities in this country - say the top 20-25. They depend on the careers services to promo their opportunities, give them prime time slots and venues, help them make connections with faculty members to point them to the best students, allow them to sponsor prizes to increase visibility, etc. In good times and in bad, grad rec teams and career services need each other - and the 'balance of power' shifts along with the economy depending on the level of demand. The careers services depend on them to give jobs to their students, which in turn allows them to be seen as universities with great conversion rates into employment at top firms. Beneath the relationship dynamic is the unspoken rule that the big firms will visit the big unis on the Milkround year in, year out, regardless of how many grads/interns they are hiring, with few exceptions.
Thus, it's important that you do what you can to understand what the 'real' picture is with regard to hiring. What's behind the numbers? Asking the question straight out will only get you so far - if numbers are down you will only likely get a fairly loose answer, especially from the graduate recruiters themselves. At the careers fair or evening receptions, try to corner the graduates or business reps, with more of a "I saw in the careers guide that you're expecting to take 20-25 grads this year - is that still the case?". If you're a real planner, bring along a friend and ask him/her to pose as being interested in the internship programme and ask him/her to ask what the conversion rate was last year. (They are more likely to want to 'promote' the conversion rate to a potential intern than a potential grad as they are trying to sell the positives of the internship programme.)
You might also want to ask at the careers service as they might know more on the numbers as they have employer liaison officers who specifically develop the relationships with the graduate recruiters. A contact at the firm is of course also a great route, but not many people have this.
If a company is not really recruiting reasonable numbers, then you don't want to have to spend endless hours on an application if there is no real opportunities available.

Company Prospects...
More than ever before, you need to think about the company you join and not just the role or the graduate programmes reputation. Getting a solid 2-3yrs of experience is important in this market if you want to start out on a career journey if this is to be your chosen direction for a while. Companies in difficulty are increasingly having to brutally cut costs. Joining a grad programme only to be made redundant after 9-12mths can be a real kick in the teeth, and it can be difficult to get back on the ladder again, not least because that amount of experience is likely to mean having to re-start as a grad again - and facing back into that level of competition and the rigidity of the cycle can be difficult. Read the papers, read the blogs, read the forums and then make the best judgement you can about where you want to work - but I think in this market, you need to be more open-minded than might have been necessary in the past.

The importance of 'Reputation'
From day 1 in your new role, be that a grad programme, temp role or internship, it is more important than ever before to impress. In a world where people are moving on a lot because of level of redundancies and level of temporary workers in the marketplace, your reputation will travel faster than ever before. Don't make enemies and dont do anything stupid on those nights out with the MD.
In a market where people are not willing to take any risks when it comes to hiring decisions, a recommendation from someone internal about a known individual is worth more than ever. Likewise with companies watching every penny, employee referral programmes are infinitely more preferable (because they are so much cheaper!) than agencies - so again, networking and maintaining a strong reputation is key.

Do not take rejection hard. Don't let it knock you. Don't let it get you down.

In this kind of market, the level of rejection of CVs and applications is huge. Unfortunately there will be plenty of times where your CV has had little more than a glance - if that - before it's rejected. This is down to numbers, or the fact there have been loads of internal referrals, or just a busy, stressed-out manager not doing his/her job right. It sounds harsh, but it is the reality. Don't spend hours picking through the detail of your letter/application worrying about where you went wrong. If you're happy with your CV/letter, just move on to the next thing. Its disappointing, but the chances that it is nothing to do with your application or your profile are higher than ever before. Your application is a victim of these crazy times and, for now, this one isn't meant to be. Move on... their loss!

Do what's best for you
If you're lucky enough to get yourself into a position where you might get two offers - e.g. because you're invited to multiple assessment centres, etc - this might well be the year to hold onto both until the last minute. Yes, it annoys recruiters and might get you black-listed from a company for a couple of years, but if it means being guaranteed a job come next July... it's worth thinking about...

The temporary job market
More than ever companies are taking people on contract and temporary roles because they don't want to commit to permanent roles because of the costs involved. This makes this a great time to think about alternative routes into a company to 'try them out' or to get a mix of experience on your CV if you can get in the door. If you have temporary work or any internship experience make sure you are really doing a good job of that on your CV and not over-looking anything in terms of transferable skills that you developed. You might need to start at the bottom - data analysis, helping to fill admin gaps - but if you are willing to think about alternative routes to get into a company other than graduate programmes, this can be a good time for that.
If you do get something, work hard at making an impression. As mentioned earlier, its a very important time to do this. Don't winge or moan or feel the work is beneath you. There is a huge amount of that going on at the moment and anyone who rises above it and remains positive and professional immediately stands out from the crowd. Regardless of how tough times are, a great temp/ contractor who makes an impression is not someone anone wants to lose. I've seen it happen endless times where there are apparently no jobs and yet the invaluable temp is made permanent out of pure fear that they might leave. And if that doesn't happen, the impression you've made on those around you means you will be top of their list when someone asks "Do you know someone who....". Again, I've seen that happen many times - and indeed, made recommendations myself many times of people who have made an impression, sometimes years ago.

The old rules and advice of graduate recruitment all still apply - get your application in as early as you can, not the day before the closing date; attend the fairs and events to build up your contacts, etc. There are still jobs out there, you just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more open-minded.

These are just my views. The next recruiter might well give you a whole new perspective. Ask around, read the forums, read the articles on places like efinancialcareers, etc.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

No job yet? What next?

So it's 2011, Christmas has come and gone, and you still haven't secured a permanent role much as you'd hoped to have one 'in the bag' by now. Where to go from here?

Well, firstly, all is not yet lost. Many consultancies and banks aspire to have everything filled by Christmas - and some do - but there are usually still graduate roles to be had right up into March/April if you are willing to be a bit flexible on the role / location / company you want to work for. You should also be sure to keep your eye open for roles around May/June/July time. This is usually when banks start to get reneges from graduates who have accepted 2, or even 3 roles, as they were worried that some might be pulled by the employers, or because they couldn't make up their mind. If guaranteed graduate numbers are required, some banks will look to fill these at the last minute. is a good place to have a look, along with Targetjobs or Totaljobs.

The second major point is don’t panic and start applying to every job you see that is vaguely in the right ballpark. This will take time and effort. The most important thing to remember right now is don't sacrifice your 2:1 - keep studying!  As long as you have a 2.1, you are not closing the door to a whole range of options you have with regard to the way forward. Settle for a 2.2 and you can pretty much give up hope of getting a role on a banking or consulting grad programme, regardless of the route you take.

Many people at this stage wonder whether they should 'hold out' for another year and give the application process another go to see if they have any luck getting a role in the next cycle. To make the right decision, it is worth consider how close you came during this cycle. If you applied to 5 or more banks and didn't secure any interviews, then it's possible that your profile and background unfortunately are just not right for the industry and the level of academic and extracurricular endeavour it demands from its applicants. If you got through to a couple of interviews, or even an assessment centre, then you got past the first CV review hurdle, and so with the right practice, research and further "propping-up" of your CV with more employability indicators, its entirely possible that you might do better next time around.

For the entrepreneurial amongst you, it might be worth considering starting up on your own. There is great advice, and even some financial assistance available, if you go to the right place and have a good idea for development. Check out the Princes Trust website, Shell LiveWire. Local councils also offer advice and help to new start up businesses in their area. Also check out

There are still graduate programmes in Financial Services that are open to applications at the moment. Try Man Group, Prudential Momentum M&G, ING, Markit Group …. all considerable players in the FS field, even though they are perhaps not mentioned in popular media as often as the Investment Banks.

Many people will also consider going on and doing a Masters if their graduate degree has not got them the job they were hoping for. This route proves successful for many, but with a huge number of Masters Programmes and candidates out there, it might be worth considering alternative ways of developing your employability. Perhaps think about a Mountbatten Internship in New York / London, or applying to TeachFirst UK Programmes if you have the right background? Volunteering may be an option for you - there are many of the other volunteering companies out there - although beware, volunteering is often a costly business - "voluntourism" companies can charge considerable amounts, so shop around. The Global Volunteer Network offers good value for money from what I've heard. If you have an ambition in relation to volunteering, it might be worth seeing if you could do some sort of fundraising exercise to help you on your way. Volunteering can be a great way to build management skills, leadership ability, entrepreneurial experience, etc, as well as many other life skills.

Hope that's given you some ideas. And remember, some of the applications you have made you may still hear back on, so don't give up on them completely just yet.... but maybe get a Plan B in place too, just in case. Think about doing an internship instead, if you can find one. Sometimes the application dates are later and they can lead to a full time role if you do a good job.