Whether you are a candidate or the hiring manager, understanding interview best practices is essential. Our guest Evan Piekara shares everything you need to know about job interview questions and answers. In this episode we discuss case study interview questions, the “right” answers for common interview questions, and tons of good ideas for your next job interview.
Evan also shares how to position yourself as a leading candidate by preparing meaningful questions that reveal your pre-interview research, taking a genuine interest in those you interact with throughout the process and demonstrate your expertise. Most important, his advice is pertinent whether you are interviewing for a management position or an entry-level one.
Listen to the Episode Here!
The Book: Case In Point by Evan Piekara
The Book: Made to Stick
John Kotter’s Leading Change Management Framework
Wear Zola (the company that made Evan’s awesome shirt)
(4:38) Emotional intelligence is critical to the interview process
(5:25) The S-T-A-R method for hitting a home run with the answer to every interview question
(6:32) The role of a host for your nonprofit’s interviews
(9:27) How to answer some of the most commonly asked interview questions
(12:56) Questions to ask the interviewer that will make you stand out
(26:00) Using frameworks to solve your intractable problems
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. Listeners, originally, this recording was scheduled for November. However, our guest today is almost as big of a fan of baseball as he is of nonprofits, so there is no way that I could blame him for missing our first recording session to watch the Nationals shockingly win the World Series. Nevertheless, Evan Piekara is with us today. Whether your organization is looking to fill a critical position or you’re interviewing for your very next job, I highly recommend you tune in for today’s show to listen and learn from our guest Evan Piekara. Evan is an expert on interview practices, change management and project management recruiting. Over his 12 years of experience working in the government and nonprofit sectors, he has built internal practice recruiting processes for BDO Public Sector and now manages cross functional teams as the Senior Director of Change Management for Acumen Solutions. In his book Case In Point, he shares his knowledge and passion for case interviews. Those are interviews that use case studies in problem solving for the public sector. While this book is primarily written for undergraduate and graduate students preparing interviews with consulting firms like McKinsey and Accenture, I believe there are so many takeaways for you if you’re in the nonprofit sector. But I’m not going to spoil this too much when we can hear it from Evan himself. Hey Evan, welcome to the podcast.
Evan Piekara (01:43):
Dolph, thank you so much. It’s great to be here with you. Calling in from Washington, DC, and I also want to thank you for the promotion as well – – – because I’m actually a Senior Manager, but hopefully someday I will be able to achieve Senior Director status. So thank you very much. Really appreciate it.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:58):
Hey, no worries – promotions are easy for me to give. Now. I think probably the best place for us to start is how you initially became interested in the case study interview.
Evan Piekara (02:08):
As an MBA student at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, I was preparing for the government and nonprofit sector and specifically for government and nonprofit consulting. And we had a pretty extensive case interview process. And for those who aren’t aware of like what a case interview is, it’s really like a simulated experience. So you’re given a business problem or a business challenge, and you’re supposed to kind of work backwards, work collaboratively with the interviewer to try to solve that. And every time you get a little bit more information, you’re supposed to work that into your interview and your structure. Typically, these interviews can be pretty high pressure, last 30 to 45 minutes and ultimately, you’re going to give a recommendation. So as I was going through my MBA in the extensive program that Georgetown has, I was learning about case interviews and finding that there weren’t a lot of resources available for public sector and nonprofit cases.
Evan Piekara (03:10):
And as someone who wanted to go into industry, it was challenging to put together resources. And so what I started doing, and this was really a labor of love and really what this book was what I wish I had told my younger self 12 years ago. Here are resources, tips, and frameworks that apply to government and nonprofit sector. And they will help you prepare for that role whether you’re entering as a government employee, a nonprofit employee or as a consultant.
Dolph Goldenburg (03:43):
A lot of our listeners are not going to identify with wanting to be a consultant at Accenture, but you give such great tips and ideas for interviewing. And, as you described some of the case studies and how those interviews go, I loved the entire structure of how people answer those questions. And as someone who has been an executive director, been a development director and done a lot of interim gigs, I cannot tell you how many people I’ve hired over the course of my career. Certainly more than a hundred, probably less than 250, and I just see so many mistakes in the interview process. And I also often see organizations that are not doing interviewing very well. So I thought maybe we could start and talk a little bit about tips on interviewing.
Evan Piekara (04:38):
Sure, absolutely. A lot of this is things that I’ve learned from experience, both as the person being interviewed and then ultimately being on the other side of the table as well. First, I think emotional intelligence is very critical to the interviewing process on both ends. Being able to recognize what kind of mood your interviewer is in. Some interviewers just want the facts. Some interviewers are a little bit more cordial and want to have more of a conversation with those interviewers. So get a feel for the interviewer or try to build that rapport right off the bat. You probably hear this a lot, but eye contact, a firm handshake, and smiling as much as you can allows your personality to shine through. When responding to a question, take a brief moment to pause and actually take in the question and then think through what I call the S-T-A-R method. Situation. Task. Action. Results. So if you are answering a situational question, being able to recap the situation or task that you were supposed to accomplish, the specific actions that you actually fulfilled and then what were your results or impact.
Dolph Goldenburg (05:51):
You talked about the importance of telling stories regardless of whether your interviewer is a just the facts person or really wants you to elaborate a lot. You note that what the interviewer is going to remember are your stories. So in your answers, make sure that you are telling stories of actual situations that you may have found yourself in and then how you resolve that situation.
Evan Piekara (06:19):
And that’s a very important point too that causes me to do a plug for one of my all-time favorite books: Made to Stick. This book talks about how you make yourself or an idea memorable, and stories are a big part of that.
Dolph Goldenburg (06:32):
Almost every single person walks into an interview and says, “Oh, I’m a people person.” You talked about the fact that consulting candidates will first be passed onto a host who will have a brief conversation with them. Evan, I will share with you, that I have never seen this in the nonprofit sector. I love the fact that this happens in the for profit sector. Can you say a little bit about how that works?
Evan Piekara (06:59):
So this really goes for any interview, not just consulting. Your interview starts before you enter that door, and so making sure that you are putting your best foot forward to whoever the executive assistant is or to whoever the host is who’s greeting you. Before you even get into the one-on-one interview or the group interview, everyone is kind of looking at you and assessing you as a candidate. And they’re ultimately thinking, “Is this a team player? Is this someone I want to work with? Does this person conduct themselves the way they are in the interview and are they authentic?” The host helps determine if the candidate does this in the interview as well as outside of the interview. And I remember a couple situations where a candidate had a very strong interview and blew us all away. They told the stories, they made positive impressions.
Evan Piekara (07:48):
They nailed the case interview, and then we walked out and talked to our host who was greeting them and directing them. They said that person didn’t give him or her the time of day, didn’t really take the opportunity to sit down and talk with them and converse with them. The person kind of looked at them as almost like a low-level employee. And that was enough for us to not hire that person. And we ended up going with another candidate who built rapport with the host. And so be very mindful that your interview starts before you even set foot into the interview.
Dolph Goldenburg (08:23):
And you also noted that, when a candidate is first greeted by a host, that oftentimes the very first interview question is, “Hey, what was your host name?”
Evan Piekara (08:32):
Very good point too. Whether consulting, government, or nonprofit positions, it’s all about building relationships. Being able to make that personal connection with the host (with the executive assistant, with whomever is the person directing you to the interview) shows that (1) you’re practicing active listening skills; (2) you’re trying to build relationships; and (3) that you’re an authentic person, willing to be a team player and not just looking to ace the interview.
Dolph Goldenburg (09:04):
I loved that this gave candidates an opportunity to demonstrate authenticity and that you like people, remember people and want to be a team player. Evan, while this might seem small, this was actually was one of the takeaways that I got from your book. The next time I interview someone, I’m going to make sure that there’s a host involved and my first question will be, “By the way, what was the first name of the person that just brought you back here?”
Evan Piekara (09:26):
Dolph Goldenburg (09:27):
I also love that you translate common interview questions. There are some questions that we all get in any interview, such as “Tell me about yourself,” or “Why are you interested in working in our organization and not another organization?” You translate those for us and explain what the interviewer is really looking for. So can you give us a little bit of a tease so people will want to read the book. Can you give a couple of examples and translate some of those common interview questions?
Evan Piekara (10:10):
So a big one that you’ll get in consulting is “Why consulting?” Translating that, what they’re really looking for is, (1) Does this person understand what consulting is today? And this could be Why nonprofit? Why government? (2) Does this person actually understand that the industry? Are they able to tell stories to show that they’re passionate about the industry? Are they, are they doing research? Are they regularly reading news and other media on those industries? And (3) are they demonstrating skills and knowledge that suggests this is something they’re passionate about. And so that question really opens the door to explaining the skills and knowledge you want to share to show that you are interested in this industry we almost always get some sort of variation of.
Evan Piekara (10:59):
We almost always get some sort of variation of “Tell me about yourself” on an interview. And so that’s almost your elevator pitch. Be able to show in a clear, concise way, “This is who I am, this is why I’m interviewing or applying for this role and this is who you’re going to get.” It’s a chance to, again, show your authentic self and tell a story about who you are as a person and how you fit into that company.
Dolph Goldenburg (11:28):
One of the questions I ask all the time that you translated just perfectly, is “Why do you want to work here instead of the American Red Cross or the Humane Society?” What I’m really asking is “Have you done your research? Do you actually know who we are as an organization?” And I’m often surprised how many people have a sense of what we do because of the name but have otherwise not done their research. They have not said, “I understand that you have leading practices in the following areas. I’m really excited about that, but I also understand that you all have had challenges in these other areas that I really look forward to rolling up my sleeves to help with. These are the types of challenges I really like to work on.”
Evan Piekara (12:13):
One of the most effective interview stories that I referenced this in the book was interviewing a candidate for a Department of Defense opportunity. And we asked the candidate, “Why are you interested in this role?” And she highlighted not having any particular military service, but said that her brother is overseas and fighting as part of the military. “Being able to support the military in some capacity makes me feel like I’m helping and connected to my brother in some way.” And so she was able to build that personal connection and show that it was part of her mission. This Was extremely effective it was one of those things that stuck with us after.
Dolph Goldenburg (12:56):
You gave candidates a “pro tip” in the section on interviewing that you’ve got to share. When you as the candidate are given the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewer or the interviewing panel, this is always a great time for you to bring up a white paper that you read at their website and ask them questions about it.
Evan Piekara (13:20):
Absolutely. And this gets to whether you are naturally curious? Are you interested in the industry? Are you doing your research? And, if you are, you should be able to highlight something from the news or other research that relates to a particular client or organization. Being able to tie that into your question shows that you ask higher level questions. It shows that you’re not just asking the bare bones questions, and also shows that you’ve done your research and are able to have a more detailed conversation about the question. And, hopefully, people love talking about themselves too. So hopefully you’ve found someone who has a connection to that question, whether they wrote the white paper or know the author of the white paper. It gives them a chance to connect with you and build a stronger relationship with you as well.
Dolph Goldenburg (14:06):
To tailor this for folks looking for work in the nonprofit sector, most nonprofits don’t have white papers on their website. But they often do have a media or press page where they post press releases or they have a blog. And use one of those press releases or blog posts that really interests you and include that in your questions when you’re given the opportunity to ask questions.
Evan Piekara (14:29):
Absolutely. I’m on the board of a few nonprofits and they have blog posts and even share the personal stories of people who they’re. You can ask, “I was reading on your website about this particular person and their journey using your services, have you interacted or engaged with this person?” This shows you’ve done your research and allows you the chance to show that personal and emotional connection to the organization. And it gives them the chance to show what their connection is to the organization and the mission as well. And it shows your understanding of the mission.
Dolph Goldenburg (15:05):
From my perspective as a hiring manager, it’s a bad sign when a candidate’s only question is “What is your timeline for hiring?”
Evan Piekara (15:19):
That raises a red flag too because oftentimes this means, “Hey I have other opportunities or I’m looking to accept the first opportunity that comes my way.” And so I would strongly caution you against that or maybe it’s your last question after you’ve already established some credibility and shown that you’re interested, you’re passionate, you’ve done your research. Then it could be, “Hey, I’m interested in what the next steps look like.” Or another good one is, “If I advanced to the next round or if I’m ultimately hired, what are the expectations of me in my first 30, 60, 90 days?” So that you can reiterate how you’re actually preparing to meet those expectations.
Dolph Goldenburg (15:59):
I love that. I have to share the all listeners that we have spent most of the time on the first 50 or so pages of the book. So once again, this is a book you need to read to get the most out of it. But if we could maybe transition for just a moment and talk about frameworks. I love the fact you laid out various frameworks for analyzing and planning around an issue or a problem. So often I think in the nonprofit sector, we don’t necessarily as professionals have discipline about saying, “We have a problem, what framework are we going to use?” So can you share with us just a little bit about frameworks and why they’re important?
Evan Piekara (16:51):
Sure. Since frameworks are customizable and scalable, they give us a structured way of approaching a problem or a business challenge. In the book, I recommend a few that are a bit more IT-focused, a few that are a bit more human capital focused and some that are more for strategy and operations. They’re important because it gives you the chance to kind of walk through in a structured way and begin to apply that structure to your business challenge. This will probably illuminate some things for you, but also open up some questions and allow you to identify where you want to do a little bit more research here. I’m going to get someone to the table who does know the answer and can better help us, you know, address this challenge or provide the information needed to solve the problem.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:45):
So folks can get a sense of what we’re talking about in a very realistic way, can you give a couple examples of frameworks that you really like to use and situations in which you think that those frameworks work well?
Evan Piekara (17:58):
As a Senior Manager of Change Management at Acumen Solutions, I use a lot of frameworks specifically around change management. And for those unfamiliar with that term, a lot of complex business challenges invoke change in some capacity. You’ve got to get people to change the way that they’re operating. You have to make sure you’re communicating that change. You want to make sure that you’re providing people with that ability to change. And so a framework that I use in this book is John Kotter’s Leading Change Framework.
Dolph Goldenburg (18:33):
I knew you were going to say Kotter. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. Sorry, go ahead.
Evan Piekara (18:38):
That’s all right. It’s one of my favorites, too. There’s another very popular framework for change management that I highly recommend as well that’s not referenced in this book. And it’s called Prosci ADKAR framework. A lot of the elements kind of coalesce together. Essentially it’s about (a) how you build awareness of the change, (b) how you make sure people are desiring or motivated by the change, (c) how you make sure you’re implementing the processes and communicating in a way that provides them with the ability to change, (d) and then how are you making sure that you’re reinforcing that change throughout? So those are two of my favorite frameworks, and I feel like those apply to government, nonprofit, public sector, and private sector. So much of what you do as a consultant deals with change, regardless of the industry you’re in, and so those are two frameworks that I highly recommend.
Dolph Goldenburg (19:30):
Honestly, if you are senior leader in a nonprofit, a lot of what you’re doing is change management as well. Personally, I love the Kotter Leading Change framework and feel it’s very useful for nonprofit leaders.
Evan Piekara (19:43):
I can’t emphasize enough that you’re going to have to face change in some capacity. And so being able to have a structured way of looking at that change is very helpful, very powerful. And helps you identify (a) who we need to bring together for our team? (b) what are the processes that we need to put in place? and (c) How do we manage resistance to that change? Because change is not easy, and it’s important to know how we are going to communicate that change throughout the entire process so that it’s successful.
Dolph Goldenburg (20:17):
Two thirds of your book is really all about the case studies themselves. So, listeners, if you love stories, you’re going to love case studies. Because each of them in your book, Evan, unfold as a story.
Evan Piekara (20:39):
I developed those case studies by doing a lot of reading on the industry, looking at resources, and being on mailing lists. I built each case study based on real world problems, and what those nonprofits or government was trying to solve. It’s how you as a consultant or as an employee operating in that space would get from point A to point B — then all the way to the end goal.
Dolph Goldenburg (21:15):
Is there a favorite nonprofit caser study in your book? And I’m actually going to write down the initials of the nonprofit, I think you were talking about.
Evan Piekara (21:26):
There was actually one based on the New York Public Library, and they were trying to build greater capacity and attract people to the library for more than just books. And they were seeking to make it more of a community center, a training center and a way for people to meet and engage. And so that was one that immediately comes to mind. And San Francisco, actually, I think was also doing something similar with their public libraries where I think they were even evaluating how to use it to potentially support the homeless population in San Francisco.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:08):
So I got it wrong. I’m going to hold this up so you can see it. There’s one in there that certainly seems like it’s Teach for America. I know you do not name them but it seems like Teach for America. So, I thought that was the one you were going to say.
Evan Piekara (22:19):
So I lived Teach for America for four years and absolutely you will see some cases that might resemble Teach for America. Had had a great experience with that program and learned a lot. And if you’re looking for a nonprofit that is very well run, just their emphasis on results, on impact and on metrics. I will say over and over again, Teach for America really drives performance towards metrics.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:50):
Nice. Well, Evan, I want to make sure that we leave just a few minutes to talk about the off the map question. There is no way we’re going to cover your incredible book Case In Point in just a 30 minute podcast. So we’re going move on to the, off the map question. I walked in thinking I might ask you about Teach for America, but I’ve actually decided to ask you about something else. And I’m going to clearly show that I know nothing about sports because I think it might be sports-related. So you’re wearing a golf shirt today, and the shirt has a bulldog with a red bandana tied around its neck. Now I’m assuming there’s a story about that.
Evan Piekara (23:27):
You’re doing great marketing for one of my friends. So this is a company called Zola and it was actually started by a Georgetown alumnus, and it is the most comfortable golf shirt I’ve ever worn. And there’s a social mission to it as well. Part of the proceeds for shirt goes to supporting rescue dogs. So I love the shirt, fits really well and it’s super comfortable. A former classmate of mine developed the business and then the social piece as well. So I’m happy to support them.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:00):
That’s awesome. I was thinking, “Did he go to the University of Georgia? No”; “I don’t think Georgetown’s mascot’s a bulldog, although it might be.” So I was really puzzled, and we will definitely link to Zola as well. So we’ll buzz market your grad school colleague just a little bit more by linking to Zola in our show notes as well.
Evan Piekara (24:19):
Great. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that. Since you went to Georgia state, I was wondering if you might see the bulldog and think of it as a Georgia reference or not. And just so you know Georgetown’s mascot is the Hoyas, and they actually have a bulldog as their mascot as well.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:37):
Got it. So really it’s a buddy of yours who has a company that makes amazingly comfortable shirts. And we’re going to link to Zola on our show notes so that if you want to check out this shirt or you want to get one for yourself, you can.
Evan Piekara (24:52):
Great. Thank you so much.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:53):
And so now you need to call your buddy up and be like, “Hey you owe Evan one more shirt because he just got the marketing for you.”
Evan Piekara (25:01):
I think Dolph, I think you, you might be getting a free shirt in the mail.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:05):
That’s awesome. All right, well Evan, I am just so grateful that you have joined us today on the podcast. You’ve provided some incredible information both for nonprofit hiring managers about some ways they can finetune or sharpen their hiring process, as well as for candidates that are looking for work in the nonprofit sector. And all of us working in the nonprofit sector are interviewing for a job at some point. So really this has just been so incredibly useful and helpful today. Now, dear listener, if you heard Evan talking today and thought to yourself, “Dang, this is someone I need to get in touch with!” You can find him on LinkedIn and we’re going to post that on our show notes, but the quickest way to learn more about his work would be to check out his book. Case in point, which is available on Amazon.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:53):
You can also find it at one of the websites, publicsectorcaseinterviewprep.com now, and I also suggest that you check out casequestions.com now. At either of these, he’s got an active blog and there’s just some great material at both blogs that you will really, really want to read. But one post that I want to point you to at public-sector interviewprep.com is a blog post titled “What is a useful framework for benchmarking and measuring in case interviews and consulting projects.” So, if your nonprofit is interested in benchmarking for best practices and measuring the work you are doing, definitely read this blog. In preparation for the interview, Evan also shared with me that they have 20 new blog posts that are just about to release. And I think, Evan, you said that’s going to be on a weekly basis, right?
Evan Piekara (26:53):
Yeah, we try to keep it on a Tuesday, Thursday schedule, so Tuesdays for a case questions and then Thursdays for public sector case interview prep.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:01):
That’s awesome. So make sure you subscribe to the blog so that you can get each of these blog posts as they come out. Again, even if you’re not interested in working for a consulting firm, it is going to be super helpful for you. Hey Evan, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Evan Piekara (27:18):
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure and if you’re ever in DC, I know you’re on the road a lot. I would love to catch up in person.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:24):
Listeners. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, but at Successful Nonprofits, I would hate to be liable for any motor vehicle accidents as you try to write Evan’s information down as you drive. So to avoid traffic mishaps altogether, we have included all of Evan’s information on our website, successfulnonprofits.com. And it will be available for you there all the time.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:58):
As I always say, I love connecting with members of the nonprofit sector and always encourage you to reach out to me with questions, thoughts, or comments. I respond to every email. Sometimes it takes me a few days, but I do respond to every email, so keep them coming. If you enjoyed today’s show, I also need you to do me a favor and hit the subscribe button on the podcast platform that you’re using and don’t forget, right after you subscribe, give us a rating. And if you’re beaming with positive energy, write a short review as well. Dear listeners, that is our show for this week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:40):
I am not an accountant or attorney and neither I nor the Goldenburg Group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.