How to answer 'the' interview question: Why do you want this job?

Former CIOs and VPs vying for lower management jobs find themselves asked why they want the job, given past roles. An expert explains how you can address that hiring obstacle by indicating your passion for the new job and loyalty to the company.

Let's say you were laid off and, after months of unemployment, picked up a few consulting positions while trying to find another leadership role. Now, after a lot of soul searching, you realize it’s time to start applying for middle management positions since a CIO position seems out of reach at this time.

So you rewrite your resume and start applying for lower-level management jobs. But now you find yourself facing the inevitable interview question: “You’ve been a CIO; why do you want this job?”

It has to be the toughest interview question for every tenured professional who’s held top leadership roles. You have to convince the CIO you’re interviewing with that you’re not overqualified to do the job he needs done, or secretly hoping to step into his job.

Be prepared on what you'll say
The key to handling the question during the interview is being prepared, according to an employment expert.

“When the question comes, your instinct is to rush to answer,” said Steve McMahan, group president for major markets with staffing giant Kforce.

“Fight that instinct and take the time to really understand the objection you’re hearing.”

McMahan said the answer should reflect your desire to work for the company in the broader sense and offers this potential response as an example: “I’m not sure I understand your question. You’re looking at the position I’d be playing on the team. But I’m looking to get onto the right team. Based on X, Y, and Z in your organization, I think this is the right team for me.”

By providing this answer, explained McMahan, you’ve given the interviewer a chance to see that your commitment is to the company in the long-term. And you’ve also come a step closer to finding out the real underlying objection—most hiring managers aren’t too concerned about someone being overqualified, they just want to know if the candidate is just looking for a short-term job to pay bills.

“Often, the real objection is hidden,” said McMahan. “It’s not so much, ‘Why do you want this job that you’re overqualified for?’ but something more pressing.” McMahan noted that hiring managers want to know, given your past high-level management role, whether you have the hands-on technical skills you might need in this position. They’re also concerned with commitment.

“They want to know, are you going to drop it and run the second something better comes along? If you find out what the interviewer’s real question is, you’re in a much better position to speak directly to that objection,” said McMahan.

Your best bet is to play up your technical skills, if that’s what the job needs. Also, if your background supports it, explain that even as a manager, you were very hands-on and that you’re looking forward to getting your hands dirty again.

Whatever you do, don’t get defensive or argumentative when someone asks you why you want the lower-level job.

Instead, engage the interviewer in a dialogue. Here’s another suggested response, for example:

“Let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You’re worried that I’ll leave this job if the market picks up. I can understand why you might think that—it’s undoubtedly true about a lot of other people. But I’ve spent years working to identify the market for the kind of software you develop here. With that knowledge, I can help you streamline your applications and focus on adding the features that users will pay premium prices to have. It will be exciting for me to apply my knowledge in a more hands-on way. That’s not something I’m going to walk away from.”

This kind of answer speaks directly to the interviewer’s concern and demonstrates why you would be an incredibly valuable asset to the company. It also clearly demonstrates that you’ve identified the job as one you’re eager to sink your teeth into. Once you can bring that across to the hiring manager, you’ve made a tremendous step toward getting the job.