From what I’ve witnessed in conducting role-play interviews with hundreds of clients over the years, the vast majority of professionals today seem to believe that the purpose of an employment interview is to “show the employer that I can do the job.”

With all due respect, I disagree.  I think this is a dangerous oversimplification of what really goes on during the hiring process.  And I maintain that if the average job hunter stops and thinks about it, they’d agree that almost anybody an employer invites to the interview process COULD actually do the job at the end of the day.  There are a lot of talented people out there, after all, and by the time a company has screened 100 resumes down to 5-10 finalists, it’s reasonably assured that everybody in the running has at least the baseline skills and experience needed to tackle the job responsibilities in question.

So the REAL questions that swirl around under the surface in an interview, at least to my mind, are:

•  Is this person able to do the job more effectively than the other people I’m speaking with?
•  Can they do it faster, cheaper, or smarter than the next person?
•  Do they seem to “get it” and have a solid understanding of what we actually need accomplished?
•  Will they fit our culture?  Do they share our values and will they click with the rest of the team?
•  Do I like the individual and want to spend 8-10 hours each day in close quarters with them?
•  Does the person seem to just want a paycheck or do they really want to work for us, specifically?
•  Does this job make sense for them, given their career history?  Or will they be bored or overqualified?

Given these realities, as well as a number of similar thoughts expressed in the great articles herehere and here that went viral a number of years back, there are obviously many more factors in play during an interview than simply confirming that yes, you have the essential qualifications to do the job in question.  You’ve got to stand out.  You’ve got to be personable.  You’ve got to learn forward and show curiosity.  And you’ve got to give the hiring manager a specific reason or two to select you over a likely field of other qualified folks who can match you, blow for blow, in terms of skills and experience.

In some cases, the unique “x factor” that snags you the job can be as simple as a single word.

Years ago, as a case in point, I had a client come in who had been laid off after years working as an office manager for a local architecture company.  As we worked together to prepare for an upcoming interview, she shared a story that I haven’t forgotten to this day.  She said that her last supervisor, after hiring her, admitted to her that she was the least qualified candidate on paper out of any of the applicants that had been invited in for a meeting.  She barely made the cut and had just been granted a shot as a courtesy, based on a friend-of-a-friend networking relationship that had been brought into play.  And yet, my client’s boss later shared that she had uttered a single word in the interview that instantly landed her the job.

What was this magic word? What brilliant turn of phrase took my client from “charity case” to the leading contender during a competitive, multi-candidate hiring process? The moment in question came after the supervisor had spent a few minutes explaining just how chaotic the office environment was and how many huge changes/challenges were taking place within the company due to a recent reorganization.  After hearing all this, my client just looked the interviewer in the eyes, smiled, and said “Don’t worry — I’m fearless!

Qualifications aside, that was the attitude the hiring manager was seeking.  Somebody fearless.  Somebody who wasn’t afraid of change and could wade into a dysfunctional environment, infuse some optimism, and get things wrangled into shape.

In a similar vein, I had another client a mere few weeks ago express a related story.  This individual was going through an initial video interview with a very “hot” company here in town (which I’ll keep anonymous) and said that the hiring manager kept stressing that the company was growing fast, that the needs of the job would likely change drastically from day to day, and that the individual hired would have to deal with boatloads of ambiguity.  My client’s response?  He said “Hey, that’s the name of the game. Adapt or die.  I’ve frequently been in roles like this where I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and I’ll confess, I absolutely love them!”

Based largely on this response, and demonstrating that he not not only understood, but embraced, the unique challenges of the role, my client said the manager decided to skip the next step of an in-person interview and to just offer him the job on the spot.  And needless to say, I’m thrilled for him.

In closing, sure, these stories could easily be chalked up as outliers — and I’m certainly not suggesting that there’s a “magic phrase” everybody should memorize that will instantly get them hired — but I do believe they demonstrate the power of not playing it safe and being ready to express the things you feel set you apart, with confidence, during the interview process.  Again, just demonstrating to the employer that you could show up and physically do the job won’t get you anywhere.  Raise the bar and be ready to capture the hiring manager’s imagination with some more powerful, self-aware thoughts about your career-long differentiators — and why the job being discussed is the exact right one for you, in the right place, at the right time.