Assessing John McCain’s Job Interview

Yesterday I assessed Barack Obama in the first Presidential debate. Today, I am critiquing John McCain. The political debates are essentially job interviews, with the American people the hiring managers.

I am assessing each candidate based solely on the content of the first answer they gave in their debate.  I chose the first answer because it was very predictable – a question about our current financial crisis – and it is likely the candidates scripted some or all of their answers.

The transcript of McCain's answer is in the gray area to the right.

McCain's Answer

In this answer, McCain begins by expressing concern for the medical condition of a political adversary. This ties in with the overall theme of his answer, unity and bipartisanship.

McCain begins his discussion of the financial crisis in a similar manner to Obama, by stating his understanding and empathy for the situation.

He then discusses how the current political situation is unusual with both sides working together. McCain then reviews the significance of the economic situation and reiterates that both parties are coming together to address this. McCain then reviews the reasons why the bailout proposal is advantageous. He concludes by stating that the challenges are significant and will not be solved quickly.

Interview Criteria

The first question of a job interview is typically Tell Me About Yourself.  A successful answer includes the following characteristics:

  1. Organized clearly and concisely
  2. Focused on the values and needs of the hiring manager and company
  3. Reinforces the skill and experience of the job seeker
  4. Separates the job seeker from their competition with a strong positioning statement
  5. Backs up the positioning statement with accomplishments that demonstrate an ability to succeed
  6. Demonstrates enthusiasm for the job and company

It isn't entirely fair to judge the candidates on this standard, since the question wasn't Tell Me About Yourself.  Despite this, the criteria do very well with the answers the candidates gave.

McCain's Assessment

McCain's answer is typical of the answers I hear from many job seekers. It discusses values and the challenges of the position, but doesn't sell the candidate with accomplishments. Below is the assessment of the six criteria:

  1. The answer is clear, it repeats one theme three times
  2. The answer describes specifically the benefits to the hiring managers – avoiding the negative outcomes of losing a job, poor credit and home foreclosure.
  3. The answer very briefly reviews the candidate's experience with the statement "…certainly in our time, and I've been around for a little while."
  4. The positioning statement is clear but not stated strongly. The candidate positions himself as a catalyst for cooperation between the parties, but doesn't state this specifically.
  5. The candidate does not give an example of an accomplishment that demonstrates his ability to succeed. 
  6. The answer implies that the candidate wants the job by stating the desire to meet the current challenges.

If I was coaching this candidate, I would start by changing the positioning statement. The candidate positions himself as catalyst for cooperation. The mistake is implying this instead of saying it. Let's look at a stronger way to reword this:

I went back to Washington, and met with Republicans in the House, and found they weren't a part the negotiations. I worked with Democrats to bring the two sides together, to meet and discuss this issue. My efforts helped both sides to focus on the solution to the problem, not the differences between them.

This answer gives a specific action that was taken with results. The results are not a solution to the problem, just an effort to develop a solution. Despite this, it is a much stronger positioning statement than the candidate gave.

When you are interviewing, your goal is to create a clear message of why you are the best candidate for the position. You do not want to create puzzles that the hiring manager needs to put together. Don't assume the hiring manager will make the connection to the message you are implying. Make it simple and deliver a clear message.

To make an even stronger impact, the candidate should relate the positioning statement directly to the benefits of the hiring managers. Here is how I would reword the answer to do this:

I went back to Washington, and met with Republicans in the House, and found they weren't a part the negotiations. I worked with Democrats to bring the two sides together, to meet and discuss this issue. My efforts helped both sides to focus on the solution to the problem, not the differences between them. We are in the process of developing a package that will address our problems. The package has transparency, accountability and oversight. When we finalize negotiations and implement the plan, it will help avoid the crisis on Main Street – lost jobs, ruined credit and home foreclosures will be reduced with this plan.

Everything I wrote in this version is in the answer that McCain gave, either directly stated or implied. All I changed was the order and wording.  This change results in a strong positioning statement for the candidate.

I do a lot of interview coaching, and in a coaching session, I would take this positioning statement one step further.  I would dig into the candidate's work history to find an accomplishment that reinforces the positioning statement.  Unfortunately, the candidate didn't use an accomplishment in their answer and I'm limiting this critique to the answer's content.

Candidate Comparison

Obama and McCain made some of the same mistakes. Neither candidate promoted their experience much and only implied their capability. Additionally, neither candidate gave an example of an accomplishment that demonstrates their potential to succeed. This is common with many job seekers. A clear, specific accomplishment can be extremely effective in an interview. Both candidates worked to empathize with the hiring managers. Finally, both provided a clear theme to position themselves.

Tomorrow, I'm going to move on to the Vice Presidential debate with a review of Joe Biden.


Lehrer:  Gentlemen, at this very moment tonight, where do you stand on the financial recovery plan?

McCain: Well, thank you, Jim. And thanks to everybody.

And I do have a sad note tonight. Senator Kennedy is in the hospital. He's a dear and beloved friend to all of us. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the lion of the Senate.

I also want to thank the University of Mississippi for hosting us tonight.

And, Jim, I — I've been not feeling too great about a lot of things lately. So have a lot of Americans who are facing challenges. But I'm feeling a little better tonight, and I'll tell you why.

Because as we're here tonight in this debate, we are seeing, for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats together, sitting down, trying to work out a solution to this fiscal crisis that we're in.

And have no doubt about the magnitude of this crisis. And we're not talking about failure of institutions on Wall Street. We're talking about failures on Main Street, and people who will lose their jobs, and their credits, and their homes, if we don't fix the greatest fiscal crisis, probably in — certainly in our time, and I've been around a little while.

But the point is — the point is, we have finally seen Republicans and Democrats sitting down and negotiating together and coming up with a package.

This package has transparency in it. It has to have accountability and oversight. It has to have options for loans to failing businesses, rather than the government taking over those loans. We have to — it has to have a package with a number of other essential elements to it.

And, yes, I went back to Washington, and I met with my Republicans in the House of Representatives. And they weren't part of the negotiations, and I understand that. And it was the House Republicans that decided that they would be part of the solution to this problem.

But I want to emphasize one point to all Americans tonight. This isn't the beginning of the end of this crisis. This is the end of the beginning, if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable.

And we've got a lot of work to do. And we've got to create jobs. And one of the areas, of course, is to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil.

Full Transcript of the Debate