Job Seekers: Focus Less on What You Do and More on Why You Do It

a recruiter with U.S. Customs and Border Protection speaks with military job seekers about career opportunities with his department. (U.S. Army/Christine Cabalo)

Question: Recently, in a job interview, I was talking about the many ways I’m qualified for the opportunity and the interviewer stopped suddenly and said, “I can see what you know how to do [from your resume]; what I don’t understand is why you care about this job.”

Am I approaching the job search wrong?

Answer: When being asked about qualifications for an opportunity, it is very common to focus on what you know or how you know to do it. What the interviewer was asking for, however, is for you to describe your passion and drive for the specific opportunity they are seeking to fill.

Hiring managers and recruiters typically see candidate resumes that all look the same. Depending on how the job description was written, candidates tend to populate their resumes to highlight the certifications, skills, experience and results that qualify them to meet the minimum criteria for the open job.

What the hiring manager or a recruiter wants to know is: Why does this specific job, in the specific company, at the exact time excite you? How does this opportunity leverage your talents, dreams and goals, and how would you add value? These questions are answered when you communicate why you care rather than just what you know how to do.

The Power of Why

In his groundbreaking 2009 TEDx Talk, Simon Sinek introduced the world to the notion of starting your value proposition from the place of why. In his talk, he proclaims that if you don’t know why you do what you do, how could anyone else care about why you do what you do? The burden of understanding motive, according to Sinek, starts with you.

When you are clear about what you seek to accomplish, why, how your motivations align with your values and what the dream looks like, then you’re empowered to communicate that to others.

An Example of Why

Let’s say I’m looking to hire a roofer to put a new roof on my house. I contact several local roofing companies to get bids on their services and the materials they use. I compare their standings with online review sites and the Better Business Bureau. And then I interview each one.

The first roofing company sends a junior salesperson to meet with me. He brings me company brochures, pictures of other houses they have done in other cities, and for each question I ask, he says he will get with his manager and get back to me. I don’t hear back for several days. I am not left feeling very confident.

For the second roofing company, a salesperson meets me and gives me the list of several of my neighbors with whom he also has done work. He asks me how long I’ve lived in my home, and what some of my favorite memories have been there. He talks to me about the community and how much it’s changed and how much he really has enjoyed working in this neighborhood. He tells me about his own family and how important it is to keep them protected under a good roof. He asks me if I have any questions and then patiently responds to each of my inquiries, never making me feel like my question was foolish. The next day, he follows up with a nice note and phone call, letting me know he enjoyed meeting me and looks forward to working with me.

Between these two candidates -- with their pricing and products being similar -- I naturally would choose the second roofer because he made me feel valued, seemed truly to care about my home and my family’s ability to live there comfortably and safely, and answered my questions confidently.

The second roofer made it obvious that he is passionate about the work he does and cares about his clients. While the first roofer may have felt similarly, he didn’t communicate that.

Anyone who hires anyone wants to know there are basic competencies. Beyond that, we want to know why you care and why you’re passionate about doing the work that we’re hiring for.

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