6 Mistakes Growth Candidates Make in the Interview Process

Written By

Get the customizable Growth Interview Prep Worksheet that accompanies the post here.

You walk into your growth interview after hours of preparation. You’ve perfected your 2 minute pitch, polished your work stories, and maybe even done some case prep. You’re ready to showcase your achievements and you have an answer ready for any question they throw at you.

But there’s one big problem you’ve overlooked - the interview isn’t actually about you.

Most candidates approach the interview process as a way to showcase themselves and their accomplishments. But, the best growth candidates orient the process around the company and its strategy.

After years of interviewing hundreds of people applying for various growth roles, I’ve seen candidates make the same 6 mistakes over and over again. They all tie back to this one core error - thinking the interview is about you.

In this post, I’ll outline the six most common ways those mistakes play out - and look at the mental models that can help you avoid falling into the most common trap that trips up even the strongest growth candidates.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 12.44.58 PM.png

Get Your Growth Interview Prep Worksheet

Use this worksheet to help you prepare for your next growth interview and avoid these 6 common mistakes.

1. You forget to identify what growth means to the company.

Growth means something different at every company. At one company, it may be another name for marketing. At another company, it may be a hybrid of marketing and product, while at another company it may mean expansion into new markets.

Whatever the case, it’s your job to find out what it means at the company where you’re interviewing, and frame your answers through that lens. The key here is to do the research beforehand, and then ask the right questions early in the screening process, prior to the main interview.

Below are a few select things you can research and questions you can ask to give you insight into what growth means at a specific company.

Research the following topics:

  1. Search LinkedIn to identify the leaders on the team you would be joining.
    1. Look at their backgrounds
      1. What functions were they in previously?
      2. What types of companies did they work at previously?
      3. How long have they been in a leadership role at this company?
  2. Google those growth leaders to see if you can find any blogs, podcasts or other content that gives you insight into their approach to growth.
  3. Google the company to see if you can find any press that outlines how it’s grown.

Ask the following questions:

  1. What part of the organization is the growth team part of?  Is it its own team or part of marketing or product?
  2. What metrics does the growth team own?
  3. What are a few examples of growth focused experiments or campaigns your team has run previously?
  4. How has the company grown thus far? What are your key channels?

The risk if you don’t ask these questions early and frame your answers accordingly is that the interviewers may misunderstand what you bring to the table. For instance, if you’re interviewing at a company that views growth simply as marketing, and you start talking about a bunch of product initiatives, it won’t resonate. To get the job offer, you need to adapt your ideas, language, and answers to how the company views growth.

You can also use this information to evaluate whether the company is the fit you’re looking for.

2. You overlook the cultural principles of the growth team.

Every team operates by certain set of principles that shapes the culture and drives how it makes decisions. Testing for culture fit is integrated into almost every growth interview, and lack of fit is often used by interviewers as a “veto card.”

Occasionally, those cultural principles are explicitly stated, but more often they are implicitly understood by the team. If you scroll to the bottom of my Work with Me page, you can see that I outline the principles that govern my team at Reforge.

Reforge Team Principles.png

Many candidates don’t realize how important it is to tease out the cultural principles unique to the target company and frame their answers in terms of those principles. Demonstrating that you embody the cultural principles during the interviews lets the interviewers feel confident that you share their values and will fit culturally.

The risk of failing to identify the key principles early, is that even if you embody them, it may not come through in an obvious way during the interviews. In this case, the interviewers may wrongly assume you don’t fit with the team.

Below are a few select things you can research and questions you can ask to suss out these principles.

Research the following topics:

  1. Check out the company’s career page on their site - does it outline details on cultural principles?
  2. Read the job description carefully. Are the team’s principles baked into the description of the company, team, and role?

Ask the following questions:

  1. What are the key characteristics of the strongest members on the team?
  2. What’s the difference between a good candidate and a great candidate for this role?
  3. What are the core operating principles of the growth team? How are they used in the decision making process? Can you give any examples?

3. You misunderstand the purpose of “Walk me through your resume.”

I’ve had many candidates walk me through their resumes word-for-word, listing off their previous companies and roles, without providing deeper insight than what I read on their resume. When interviewers say, “Walk me through your background,” they’re not actually looking for a verbal recap of your resume. They’re trying to get at two things:

1. What specifically did you contribute at previous companies?

2. Why did you make the decisions you made?

What specifically did you contribute at previous companies?

Rather than saying “I was on the retention team,” tell me what you did and how you drove results that led to growth. Ideally, you summarize this information on your resume, and then use this prompt to further shape the narrative around how you made an impact. Interviewers are more interested in your contributions than your role.  

Why did you make the decisions you made?

Interviewers also want insight into why you made the decisions you did. We want to know how and why you chose those projects, joined that company, and took on that role. Many candidates realize it’s critical to share what they did and the impact of those efforts, but fail to understand that “the why” is what leaves a lasting impression.

“The why” offers insight into what it would be like to work with you. It reveals your personal motivations, which are usually found in why you chose to work on certain projects, and how you allocate your time.

For example, if you’re an engineer and explain that you were excited to work on a certain experiment because you thought it would deliver meaningful conversion improvements, the interviewer may infer you are motivated by growing the business. In contrast, if you instead explained that you were excited to work on the experiment because it was a big challenge, the interviewer may assume that you value solving hard engineering problems above all else, and would be dissatisfied in a growth engineer role.

When I ask candidates why they chose to work on specific projects, a common but terrible response is, “It was decided by management.” This kind of answer not only makes the candidate appear to be an order taker, it also misses the opportunity to showcase the candidate as a strategic thinker.

Instead, flip this response on its head, transform it into an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking, and show that you had ideas about how to improve the strategy. Say, “My manager told me to do [explain the project]. This is why I think it was chosen [explain the reasoning]. If the decision had been in my hands, I may have chosen [insert other initiative] and here’s why [explain your reasoning and why you think this other project should have been higher priority and would have had a higher impact].”

Below are examples of the types of questions you want to answer in your “walk me through your resume”discussion.

  1. What results did you drive in each role?
  2. How and why did you choose each company?
  3. What factors helped you determine that a company was a good fit?
  4. How and why did you choose each role?
  5. How did each role progress your career towards your longer term goals?

4. You fail to think about the target audience.

Considering the qualitative and quantitative perspectives together drive insights for growth. When you’re interviewing for a growth role, approach questions from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective to demonstrate that you know how to use both to make strategic and tactical decisions.

One of the biggest mistakes I see growth candidates make is coming into the interview without a solid hypothesis of who the target customer is. I want to see that a candidate roots their ideas in critical thought about who the product serves, rather than blindly coming up with initiatives.  

Prior to your first interview, research the company and develop a point of view on who the target audience is, what their needs are, and why they use the product.

Test your customer hypotheses and showcase your critical thinking during the interview process by saying something like, “Before I answer that question, I’d like to make sure I understand the target audience. Here is my current hypothesis given the preliminary research I’ve done, but I’m wondering if you can tell me more?”

After the interviewer shares their point of view, weave their insights into your answers to show that you listened and adapted your hypothesis to reflect new input. Doing this will demonstrate that you take the user’s perspective into account when framing growth problems, opportunities, and hypotheses. It will also have three other positive benefits - it shows:

  1. You “do your homework” and take initiative
  2. You’re not afraid to develop a point of view
  3. You’re adaptable and you listen to feedback - you ask questions and refine your POV based on new input

Below are things to research and questions to ask to understand the qualitative aspects of the target audience.

Research the following topics:

1. Analyze the company’s website (especially the home page and pricing page) and/or presence in the App Store - what can you learn about how they define the target audience from the messaging, imagery, and pricing?

2. Read reviews on Yelp, in the app store and any other review site. Who are those people? Why do they love or hate the product? What motivates them to feel the way they feel?

3. Scan their social media presence - what are people saying about them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.? Who are those people? Why do they love or hate the product? What motivates them to feel the way they feel?

Ask the following questions:

  1. How does your customer describe the pain point or problem that your product solves?
  2. What are the top 3 reasons your customers use your product?
  3. Can you walk me through the persona for your target customer? What are their demographics, psychographics, and needs, and what channels do they spend the most time in?

5. You don’t focus on the data.

On the flip side, I’ve interviewed many candidates who make the mistake of relying purely on “gut feel,” rather than consulting behavioral user data to guide their decision making process. As I interview, I look for candidates who use data to pressure test and validate their growth ideas that may have originated from instinct.

There are a few ways that you can demonstrate data-orientation during the hiring process:

1. Include quantitative outcomes in your resume. For instance, if a bullet point on your resume highlights a project you worked on related to retention, make sure to include something like, “Launched [insert initiative], increasing retention by x%.”

2. As you’re walking through experiences in your work history with interviewers, speak to the quantitative impact your work had for each project you worked on.

3. When answering case exercises, explain how you would use the given data and ask for any data that seems important but hasn’t been shared. Even if the interviewer doesn’t give you the data, asking for specific baseline metrics not only demonstrates data orientation, but also shows you know which metrics are important.

4. Ask questions about the company’s metrics throughout the interview process. For instance, if you’re interviewing at a startup and you want to assess its level of Product-Market fit, you could ask what the retention curves looks like. Again, asking this question, and other data-related questions, will show that you know which metrics matter.

Intuition is important, but ultimately growth leaders are looking to hire practitioners who balance qualitative and quantitative inputs to keep themselves honest, on track, and working on the highest impact initiatives.

To get insight into the quantitative user data, here are a few examples of questions you can ask throughout the interview process.

Ask the following questions:

  1. What does retention for the product look like?
  2. What is the CAC and LTV?
  3. What do the top of funnel and conversion metrics look like for the product?

When candidates don’t factor in both the qualitative and quantitative data, they end up becoming reactionary, which leads us to the next mistake...

6. You jump to an answer too quickly in case exercises.

It’s becoming more popular for companies to ask case questions during growth interviews. These types of on-the-spot exercises can be nerve wracking for even the most experienced candidates.

The biggest mistake I’ve watched candidates make over and over, is jumping to an answer immediately upon being presented with an exercise-based question. For instance, when given a question asking where they would focus in a specific channel or on a certain initiative, many candidates jump right into ideas they have to optimize x or y.  

But that’s the wrong approach. Candidates often miss the point of these types of exercises, randomly grab for immediate answers, and then dig into those answers when questioned. These exercises are less about giving the right answer, and more about demonstrating how you approach problems, evaluate and prioritize options, and make decisions. Think back to 6th grade math - it’s the demonstration of your work that matters most, not your answer to the question.

In case questions like this, you want to make sure you take a step back first and start by focusing on higher level strategy, not tactics. Start by asking the interviewer questions to understand the goals, audience, metrics and any other information that would help you identify the strategy.

Once you have that baseline information, breakdown the desired goal or output into its inputs, and walk through how you would identify and prioritize different initiatives in which you could invest. Questions like this are great opportunities to get on the whiteboard and map out your strategy, goals, inputs and approach to show your process, rather than just tell.

By walking the interviewer through your approach, rather than immediately jumping to an answer, you demonstrate that you have a repeatable process for approaching growth problems.  More importantly, you demonstrate that if you had the role full time, and access to all information, that you’d have a high likelihood of identifying winning strategies and tactics.

Here are a few types of questions you can ask during a case exercise to help you focus at the strategic level first. Since case questions vary quite a bit, tailor the questions you ask to the information that is explicitly given in the case.

Possible Questions:

  1. What is the goal or desired outcome of the initiative, experiment, or campaign?
  2. Who is the target customer or audience?
  3. What is the baseline for [insert key metric]? And where do we want to take it?
  4. What resources do we have at our disposal?

Research + Hypotheses + Smart Questions + Critical Thinking = A Winning Interview Strategy

Ultimately, whenever you’re interviewing for a growth role, you’re being tested for skills, experience and fit, but most importantly, the interviewers are assessing your critical thinking.

One of the best ways to demonstrate your critical thinking about the company and its market in the interview, is to do as much of it as you can beforehand. Do your research, ask the key questions early in the process, come up with your hypotheses, and then translate your answers and stories into the language spoken by the company and its people.

Subscribe to get access to the interactive growth interview prep worksheet.


Build A Growth Machine

-  Unlock growth for your business, product, or yourself
-  Learn how to never run out of new growth ideas
-  Learn how to rapidly test and analyze experiments
-  Learn the 5 key foundational elements for growth