Part 3 of 4: Interviewing for the Job
With a valuable skill set and established brand, you are now promotable. Unfortunately, just being qualified for the job will not suffice. Actually getting promoted is a competitive process requiring a specific set of communication skills. These skills might seem unrelated to the actual work you will be doing, but they are fundamentally related to all aspects of modern urban life.
Effective communication is the principal skill required for success in the workplace. Performing the basic functions of your job will keep you employed; the ability to share ideas, explain technical information, build rapport, and convey professionalism in your communications will get you promoted. The interview is a test of your verbal communication skills and ability to control your non-verbal signals.
A successful interview involves active management of the message you are delivering and the way it is being received. We will discuss the major interview types and how to approach the varying questions involved. Mastering the ability to control the way you reveal your character and dictate how you are perceived will make you a confident and highly successful interviewee. To illustrate key points, we will appropriate some classic quotes from history’s great communicators. To begin, we should understand the employer’s perspective: what do they want to know and how are they going to find out?
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs
The first formal verbal interaction in a hiring process will usually be screening interview. During these sessions, typically conducted over the phone, a recruiter or similar Human Resources representative will call and ask you basic qualifying questions. This interview appears to be about what the company is looking for; it is not, this interview is about what they are not looking for. While determining exactly what we want is difficult, identifying undesirables is quite simple. Companies preload disqualifying questions to encourage applicants to voluntarily withdraw. This is not some devious plot to derail promising young careers, it is a practical necessity. Scores of unqualified applicants fire resumes and applications off at whatever job sounds mildly interesting, unencumbered by concerns of minimum job requirements. This screening process quickly weeds out the riff-raff. This interview is not about you and there is no reason to invest time and energy into preparation. If you meet the minimum qualifications for the job and you are agreeable to the employment conditions you will be done with this interview in a few minutes.
For higher level positions, an informational session may take place. During these one-on-one, informal meetings, prospective employers and employees get to know each other and determine if they are compatible. These are networking sessions and, if both parties walk away intrigued, often result in a formal application for employment. Your goal is to learn about the company and its philosophy and decide if you are interested in being involved. If you already work at the company, you will be gathering information about a particular department or business unit. Be friendly and engaging, you are networking and while this particular opportunity may not prove appealing, the person you are talking can become a powerful supporter of your brand.
“A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.” – Mark Twain
After the screening interview, the top candidates, based on the strength of reputation and/or resume content, will be selected for a formal hiring interview with one or more people responsible for the final hiring decision. Performance in this interview will likely determine a candidate’s ultimate fate. During this interview you will be asked a series of questions meant to demonstrate to the interviewers you have the skills and abilities you claim on your resume and to gauge how well you will fit with the company’s values. This is a high stakes communications test.
During these interviews you will be asked to sell yourself to the company. Popular questions vary by industry and position, but the current fad is to use behavioral questions to determine how well a candidate fits the corporate culture. Questions are phrased as either hypothetical events in which you must convey how you would react, or based on real-world experiences from your past employment. The interviewer wants you to demonstrate three distinct qualities: The ability to listen, the ability to articulate an appropriate response, and the ability to demonstrate you possess the behavioral characteristic in question.
For example: “Tell me about a time you had to disagree a manager while you worked at [insert your previous employer] and how you resolved that situation”. This is a demand, not a question, and fraught with potential pitfalls.
The interviewer wants to know if you are a valuable team member (good supervisors view their employees as key advisors and rely on their input, especially when they disagree), an effective communicator (can you disagree in a professional manner), and capable of quickly forming intelligent answers (problem solving and communications). A poor response will not directly address the question, meander off to unrelated stories, or show a complete lack of comprehension. If you have done some research and prepared for such questions you will appear to effortlessly accomplish all three tasks. An appropriate response might be:
“As an advisor to [the manager in question], I was expected to voice disagreements whenever I thought a policy or practice was not compatible with our mission. The most relevant occurrence, to your question, would be when I successfully lobbied to change our production schedule. I observed inefficiencies in the process my manager had developed and voiced my concerns. The initial effort did not change her mind, so I wrote a more formal proposal and submitted it to her for further consideration. We debated the points I raised over the course of a week and she ended up accepting two of the three changes I proposed. These interactions were important for us both, maintaining a professional relationship while disagreeing, within an appropriate professional context. I give her a lot of credit for teaching me how to provide a higher level of service to her and I look forward to implementing similar work relationship strategies for you.”
The main points to make in the response are: I understood the question, I can provide a complete response directly addressing the question, and the experience we are discussing will directly translate to the job under consideration.
“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” – Winston Churchill
“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” – Mark Twain
At some point in the interview you will be asked to discuss a failure or weakness. This question is difficult to answer for many because we are conditioned to mask our shortcomings and overstate our positive qualities. The conventional response involves twisting negatives into positives:
“I’m a bit of an overachiever and perfectionist.” – Oh really? Achieved too many good things in life? Accomplished too many projects with perfect execution? Yeah, this is a major weakness, we’re gonna have to go ahead and pass on you.
Those trite non-responses may spare you embarrassment of a real, meaningful answer, but they will do little for your interview score. At best, you have dodged the question, but to your detriment, you have left a significant opportunity un-seized. Recovery is the mark of a champion and the story of any success will include a series of failures along the way. How we manage disappointment and failure is a critical feature of our character. The interviewer and interviewee both know there will be moments of poor decision making in your future; how will they be handled?
Confessing you once seduced the boss’s daughter to run off on a romantic tryst in Vegas for the weekend and got fired would be ill-advised. Discussing how you botched a sales call, created a bad first impression with a potential client, or missed an important deadline can be highly effective in demonstrating your ability to learn from mistakes, accept coaching from your leadership, and grow professionally. Failures are learning opportunities and discussing what you have learned and how you learned it are key components to a great interview.
“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.” – Winston Churchill
Unless you are applying for a job you have already had, you will encounter responsibilities you have no direct employment experience to relate. The wrong response is, “I haven’t done that” or “I don’t know”. The interview is not about what you have not done. When confronted with an unknown, discuss prior experiences confronting unknowns. Use the question to discuss your work ethic and commitment. Convey how your lofty personal expectations drive you to bring a persistent, high effort level to your work. Our favorite tactic, talk about your outstanding dedication with humility:
“Have you managed a team of 10 or more employees before?”
– The teams I managed as a [previous job title] were typically 4-5 employees. When I began that job I hadn’t directly supervised anyone before. There was a learning curve, but the process was much smoother than expected because of the lessons my mother taught me about respecting people, treating others with dignity, and developing a genuine interest in who they are. Those qualities bought me a lot of leeway with the employees because they trusted that I would be considerate of their interests. I have worked hard at becoming the leader I would want to work for and I bring that dedication to work everyday. I am excited for the challenge of growing my leadership skills to meet the unique challenges of a larger subordinate team.
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” – Abraham Lincoln
At some point during the interview you will be asked about motivation – why you want this job; if you are not, find a way to bring it into the conversation. You may be tempted to use this as an excuse to say nice things about the company. This is propaganda and easily dismissed. The company has no ego and playing to it is a waste of time. The question is how you motivate yourself. Your personal desire to succeed will outweigh whatever tools your employer concocts to drive you and they know this. Demonstrate your vision and dedication, thank your parents for raising you right, and don’t get cocky.
“He who knows best knows how little he knows.” – Thomas Jefferson
Before you walk into any interview, research the company. If you have read Part I [hyperlink] you know how much added value corporate knowledge provides. If you are unfamiliar with the company, learn as much as possible before you walk in. Lack of knowledge here indicates a lack of seriousness or interest. Prepare a couple questions about the company and its philosophy. Do not ask about leave policies, holidays, bonuses and other perquisites. That conversation occurs when a job is offered and negotiations begin. Ask why you should want to work there, this is your interview and they should demonstrate value to you as well. Demonstrate thoughtfulness and intelligence with your questions.
The interview can be intimidating and overwhelming, if you are unprepared. Understanding what the interviewers want to find out and demonstrate the value of your personal brand. They don’t know what they want yet, provide the answer. Practice interviewing. Apply for a job you have no intention of taking and use the interview to try different strategies. If you are prepared and know your brand before you walk into the interview, you will exude confidence and professionalism during an enjoyable, productive interview.