It was an eerily similar experience each of the 350 times I asked my opening question: one or two participants would answer “yes” while the other eight or ten would nod “no.”
I was conducting executive career search skills training seminars at the time; the room was usually filled with job seeking professionals, there to learn to present their wares more effectively. The workshops lasted three and a half hours. While I had an agenda to teach, the program was designed to collect information too, so that I could ensure ongoing relevance to what real hiring decision makers were asking and how decisions to hire were being made.
It was an interesting dynamic because, while nearly all attendees were hiring managers in their own right, most weren’t at all sure how to make the grade on the other side of the desk. As the responses to my first question sank in, eyebrows invariably rose around the room as both yaysayers and naysayers took measure of the result.
The visual was a powerful way to convey why the best candidates don’t always get the job.
The question I asked was this: “how many of you hiring managers have been formally trained to interview candidates and feel completely qualified to select the right one?” The 80% “no rate” was consistent, meaning that 3000 executives acknowledged to me that they didn’t think that they were fully qualified to make great hiring decisions.
Probably not coincidentally, most executives said they didn’t particularly enjoy interviewing people either. Being a bit disinterested and somewhat disoriented doesn’t make them bad people, just occasionally ineffective employee purchasing agents.
Job seekers today must understand that it is unwise and unproductive to leave all control of an interview to a possibly-untrained person who would probably rather be somewhere else.
Properly managing this dynamic will provide a competitive advantage. While no tactic works every time, strong execution in these five areas will make a profound difference:
1. Interviews happen because someone needs help. Most people get hired either to fill a vacated position or because an organization requires more help in a functional area than it already owns. Sometimes it is possible to meet a manager who has a need but has not yet begun a public hiring process. At this stage you often have to satisfy only two qualifiers: the ability to do the work and a “fit” with other people. This is the hidden job market; the best way to find a great job.
Once jobs are defined and posted, hiring devolves into a process of elimination. Companies frequently build candidacy requirements that knock out great people. They invest less time looking for reasons to say yes and expend more effort into sleuthing out shortcomings. And worst of all, they focus more on what candidates have done before than on what they can do now and in the future.
Imagine hiring a plumber based on what he did before he was a plumber. If your problem is a backed up toilet, do you really care that a plumber used to be a ballet dancer or an accountant? Of course not; you would need to be convinced that he can fix johns and is the kind of guy you can trust to take care of you if the fixture breaks again. Arguably, job interviews should be more like hiring a tradesman than they are about an elimination process; most are not.
Therefore, it is important for the job seekers themselves to try to make the interview about more than job descriptions and work history. They should hold themselves accountable to find out why a position is open and what the expectations will be of the person who fills the job. It is also great to learn about anticipated obstacles to achieving the desired outcomes and inquire about additional areas of potential impact. Try to do this early in the interview. Most decision makers will get excited talking about how great life could be given the right support. You may be the only one in the mix focused on the true reason you are all there.
2. Companies never hire anyone; people do: Researching the company is a great way to prepare for an interview. Learn what you can about anything and everything that affects what you would do and the impact you might have. But the key to really nailing an interview is to make your preparation person-specific.
Most employees invited to interview candidates are brought in because the position being filled affects them in some way. It is important to anticipate this and prepare answers accordingly. Delivering a one-size-fits-all message is likely to leave most interviewers wanting. It is both professional and courteous to consider how the role you would fill affects the positions interviewers currently hold.
Imagine that you are interviewing with the Vice President of Sales and the Vice President of Manufacturing for the position of sales representative. These two executives will be impacted by your performance very differently. The VP of Sales will be interested in your ability to negotiate product features, price, support, and delivery terms to close as much business as possible. The VP of Manufacturing will want to hire the person who will make production, support and delivery commitments that he can handle and not create unrealistic customer expectations merely to close a sale.
An effective candidate would present differently to each of these two interviewers.
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare: Researching companies and people is a lot easier than it used to be. Conveniently, I have included over 80 handy career related links on the resources page on my Job Guy website. Using these links and others can provide real insight into company culture, interview techniques, sales trends, partnerships, funding, compensation, M & A activity, and leadership changes. Knowing as much about a company as possible will help you develop better questions and to improve your answers.
It is also important to research each individual who is scheduled for the interview. A Google search will often produce important information on an interviewer’s on-the-job expertise and outside interests.
Social networking sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are excellent tools to acquire helpful information about someone’s background and interests that may prove useful in forecasting needs. For example, a manager who is new to a company, function or industry may value a subordinate who is strong in the area that is new to them. Still other decision makers relate best to candidates who share common backgrounds or personal connections.
4. Interviews are more about fit than function: Hiring managers typically don’t invite unqualified candidates to interview (at least not on purpose). Basic qualifying is almost always done by computer and human review of the resume before decision makers get involved. While interviews will involve validating some qualifications, they are mostly about chemistry.
Most decision makers I have surveyed say that they would prefer to hire someone they like but who needs training over someone who is immensely qualified but would be difficult to relate to. They believe that it is easier to fix a skills deficiency than it is to make someone enthusiastic or a great team player.
This means that presentation in an interview is just as important as content. Getting there on time, being prepared, and using understandable language are critical to demonstrating interest in the position; proper attire, a great handshake, strong eye contact, and appropriate posture convey professionalism and poise.
Remember that it is considerate, professional and appropriate to modify delivery style to align with the interviewer. Formal managers tend to prefer more formal employees. Fast paced bosses favor those who can keep up. Technical managers are at ease with new hires who “speak the language” while non technical leaders may view overuse of technical terminology as showing off.
5. Be prepared for direct, behavioral or chronological interviews: The days of “what are your strengths and weaknesses” are largely over. Availability of interview advice tools has almost assured a prefabricated response to common questions. But some folks still use these, so a well prepared candidate should be ready to answer direct questions about their background and skills.
Many hiring managers nowadays favor a behavioral form of interviewing whereby the interviewer will ask for an example from a person’s background to get more real life input upon which to build an impression. Where in the old days I might ask “what are your strengths?” today I might ask “what is your greatest accomplishment?” and extract strengths from that answer.
To prepare for a behavioral interview, it is more important to share stories that the interviewer can relate to than it is to answer the questions literally. In responding the “top accomplishment” question for example, your third or fourth best achievement may be a better illustration of how you can solve the interviewer’s problem than your true number one accomplishment might be.
Stories should be told in three parts: the problem/opportunity that existed, how it was addressed, and the outcome. Decision makers want people who can solve the problems that they will encounter on the job to produce positive results. Try to describe the problem you solved and results you achieved using terminology that best aligns with the job for which you are competing.
The third type of interview is the chronological “take me through your resume” style. I coach my clients to start with the oldest stuff and work forward, using each job as a building block, to demonstrate full competence for the job at hand. Avoid spending a lot of time on things that don’t relate to the position you are interviewing for. Remember to focus on the elements of most interest to the specific person asking the questions.
As a general rule, prepare for an interview as you would get ready for a project meeting with the boss, partner or a major client. In those cases, you would make sure you understand what he needs done before you would tell him how you could execute. You would ask questions to gain understanding of what is expected. You would adjust your presentation to line up with what works with him.
You would be enthusiastic and positive, which, not coincidentally, is also the key to effective interviewing.
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