How to Interview

Whether you are 20 years into your career and have been actively looking for a job for the last 6 months, or you’re fresh out of college and testing the market for the first time, you’ll want to go over your game plan before every interview.  The following is what I recommend.

Appearance

Don’t take any chances here.  Make sure your hair is groomed, shave if you don’t have a nice looking and well-groomed beard, and shine your shoes.  Regarding attire, generally you will want to go with business attire.  That means jacket and tie for men and a business suit for ladies.  If, however, you are applying for a job at a company with a very casually dress code, you may want to ditch the tie but keep the jacket.  Try to get some kind of indication of what to wear from either the employer or the recruiter.

Preparation

Research the company as much as possible.  I’d organize my research in these categories:

  • Industry.  Gain a broad understanding of the health of the industry and any current trends.  If not performing well, is it cyclical?  What niche does the company have within the industry and how does it differentiate itself from the other players?  Google search for info.
  • Operations.  Your goal is to be able to explain to someone that is not in their industry or even in business how the Company makes money, where it has operations, what companies it is affiliated with, where it’s customers are located, and who owns them.  You’ll also want to check to see if they’ve been in the news recently and why.  You can probably find most of this information on their website, but you can also check Wikipedia or simply do a Google search.
  • Financial.  You will definitely want to know how well they are performing financially.  Morale is usually not good at shrinking companies but that doesn’t mean you should write those off either.  If the company is public or a large private company,  you may be able to find their financial reports on the company website.  Otherwise, for public companies try Yahoo Finance or Edgar Online for SEC filings and look for their 10-K.  For private companies, your best bet will be your city’s business journal or a Google search.
  • People.  Try to find out from your recruiter who you are interviewing with and if they know anything about them.  If not, try Linkedin.  There’s a good chance your interviewer(s) will have a profile that may give you a lot of ammo to use in the interview in order to build rapport.
  • Reputation.  Check out glassdoor.com, indeed.com, and/or a handful of other company review sites to see what employees have to say.  Glassdoor and Indeed appear to be the most dominant in St. Louis.  If it’s a smaller company and there isn’t much volume you may want to be take those comments with a grain of salt.
  • Job Description.  Go over the official job description and note examples of how your professional experience and qualifications make you uniquely qualified for the role.

Think of questions to ask your interviewer.  As you research the company, write down smart questions in order to fill in the blanks.  You will want to take these questions with you when you interview.  I like to group questions into the following categories:

  • Questions that help you gain an understanding of the Industry
  • Questions about the business operations including how they make money, what products or services they offer, how they are positioned in the market, where they have operations and customers, who their competitors are, etc.
  • Questions about the organizational chart of the department and company
  • Questions about the Company’s financial health and outlook
  • Questions about the Company’s strategy
  • Questions about the Company’s culture
  • Questions about the interviewer(s)
  • Questions about the job
  • Questions about any big projects and the goals of the department over the next year
  • Questions about future plans for the position
  • Questions about employee learning and development
  • Questions about the opportunity and how the role fits into your career trajectory

Be ready for any question.  The best way to do this is not to memorize your answers to 100 possible questions, but to memorize answers to a handful of overarching questions (listed below) and come up with stories about yourself that will allow you to improvise.  If one of those stories is about the path you’re on professionally, including where you’ve come from and where you would like to go and how their Company and opportunity fits perfectly into that story, you will easily be able to answer questions related to why you are leaving (or left) your employer, why you are interested in their job, where you see yourself in 5 years, why they should hire you, etc.  Regarding the common and cliche questions in which an interviewer puts you on the spot and asks you to recall a time in which you encountered a problem or a problematic coworker, etc., and what you did about it, that may be tough to recall even if you have a lot of experiences worth noting because its really a test of your memory, and asking such an open question about a past event is difficult to recall simply because your memory doesn’t get triggered very effectively by those kinds of questions.  Therefore, as you prepare you will want to think about unique/tough/challenging/etc. work situations you’ve encountered and learned from.  But if you are thrown a curve ball and struggle to recall a specific situation, one solution is to respond by giving an example of how you would have handled the kind of situation they are asking about because, after all, the question is a test of your judgement and character in difficult circumstances, not of your memory.

Some specific questions to prepare for ahead of time:

  • Examples of your experience doing the tasks listed on the job description.
  • What are your biggest career accomplishments?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?  The interviewer is not looking for you to discuss one of your strengths disguised as a weakness.  They are asking if you have the self-awareness to know what one of your biggest weaknesses is, and the courage to admit it, face it head-on, and put a plan in place to improve in that area.
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are the 3 main criteria you look for in a job?
  • Questions about salary, including how much you’re currently making and how much you want to make (more on this below).
  • What do you know about the company?
  • What do you know about me or what do you know about my background?

Finally, visualize yourself relaxed and smiling, connecting with the interviewers, positively answering any questions they throw at you, and receiving a generous offer.

What to bring

  • Portfolio with pen and paper in case you need to take notes.  You won’t necessarily want to write down the answers to your questions but you may need it for something.
  • Copies of your updated resume for each of your interviewers and yourself.  These will most likely not be needed but it’s best to be prepared.
  • Copy of the job description.
  • List of questions to ask (see recommended questions above but create your own).  It is appropriate to bring a list of questions to ask so you don’t forget anything.  It shows that you are prepared and don’t want to forget anything.  You may find that once you get there you don’t need them, but it’s best to be prepared.

Arriving

Plan on arriving 20 minutes early and walk in exactly 10 minutes before the interview.  You may need this extra time because of unforeseen traffic or unfamiliarity with the company’s location.  When you walk in 10 minutes early you’ll also have time to do a “once over” in the bathroom to make sure you’re put together and show your employer that you are punctual.

The Interview

In general, you want to position yourself as confident, friendly, grateful for the opportunity and the interviewers’ time and consideration, and show curiosity about the role and the exact work you will be doing while at the same time selling yourself and expressing why you are the best candidate for the job.  You want to show that not only can you do the job and do it well, but also that you are professional and that you will be pleasant to work with, so make sure you smile, make solid eye contact, and genuinely express gratitude for their time and consideration (but you can overdo it so you want to avoid repeating yourself – ideally, one good time at the beginning and a “thank you again for your consideration” at the end will suffice).

Keep in mind that your objective in interviewing is to get an offer and the most effective way to do that is to express enthusiasm and sell yourself as THE candidate for the job.  So how do you sell yourself?  Talk in terms of what you can do for the hiring manager/company and don’t seek out information about what they can do for you.  There will be time for you to get the information you need after you’e convinced them that you’re the right candidate for the job.  Early in my recruiting career I convinced a passive candidate to interview with a great company for a position that he perceived as a lateral move even though the compensation was higher than he was currently earning.  He reluctantly agreed and approached the interview as if he were investigating the company and wasn’t sure if he wanted to work for them in that capacity or not.  He didn’t sell himself.  After the interview he was extremely excited and told me he would take the offer if it came.  Unfortunately, the hiring manager was not convinced that he wanted the job badly enough and would therefore be unhappy in the role so he ended up choosing another, less qualified candidate.  Needless to say, my candidate was extremely disappointed.  Don’t let this happen to you.

To start, let the interviewer lead the conversation.  There will probably be some small talk to begin with, and you want to be an active part of that, but let the interviewer be the one to start the interview.  During that small talk you can look for ways to build rapport by asking the interviewer something about his or her background or tenure with the company (this is one of the main reasons why it is good to research who’s interviewing you ahead of time).

How to answer questions.  Answer the questions directly and explain why you answered the way you did.  In general, if you are trying to express how skilled you are at a certain task, you want to break it down into some objectively quantifiable term.  For example, if I ask you how good you are at golf, and you say “I’m decent”, that has completely different meanings if you are talking to Tiger Woods or to someone who plays twice each year.  It could mean you are a scratch golfer or you are a 30 handicap.  But if you say, I’m a 10 handicap, everyone knows what that means.  So when you try to explain to the interviewer how much experience you have in a certain ERP system, for example, you can say “I do these specific tasks in SAP, which takes approximately 30% of my time on a monthly basis, and I spend 4 days each month-end doing X.  And I’ve worked in that capacity for the past 15 months.  Because of that, I would say I’m at an intermediate skill level with the system and I would rate myself a 7 out of 10.”  If the interviewer asks about Excel, for example, you can tell them how much time you spend in it, the kind of activities you use it for, and describe the most advanced knowledge you have of it: “I am skilled at using all the major functions of Excel . . . VLookups, Pivot tables, etc.”  Or whatever it may be.

The two objectives in asking questions.  There are 2 objectives to asking smart questions.  First, by the time you leave the interview you want to know exactly what kind of situation you’re potentially getting yourself into so you feel good about whatever decision you make when the offer comes.  You’re investigating where and who you are going to the spend the majority of your waking hours with for at least the next couple of years.  Have the self-respect to do your due diligence.  The second objective in asking smart, thorough questions is to let your employer know that you know exactly what kind of situation you’ll potentially be getting yourself into for the foreseeable future.  It sends the message that you care about your future and if asked to investigate something for your boss you’ll come back with the answer.  Asking smart questions often times separates the winning candidate from the rest of the field because it is an expression of professional curiosity, a very attractive trait.


Stay away from the topic of compensation or benefits.  You obviously want to be offered the highest starting salary possible but you can shoot yourself in the foot if you don’t approach this right.  You goal is to get through the interview process to the point where the hiring company let’s you know that they want to make you an offer.  At that point, the negotiation scales tip in your favor.  Prior to that, if you let it be known that you are at the higher end of their target salary range or slightly above it, they may cut you loose if they’re not yet convinced that you are the right person for the job.  So how do you handle the topic of compensation?  If you are working through a recruiter, you should already have an idea for the salary range so if the topic of compensation is brought up, you can say something like this: “Based on what my recruiter told me, it sounds like we are in the same ballpark.  I’m more concerned about making sure the opportunity is there for me and that I’m the right person for you.  If we get to the point where we both think my employment would be a mutual satisfaction of needs, I’m confident the compensation will work itself out”.  Unfortunately, however, it is almost impossible to dodge the question of “how much are you currently earning?”  By refusing to answer you are showing that you don’t trust them and that you may be difficult to work with.  So if are asked that question, here is some advice on how to answer under a few different common situations:

  • Ideal situation of 5-15 % increase to make a move: If the salary range is slightly above (5-15%) above your current salary, it matches your comp expectations and you are asked point-blank how much you’re looking for and/or how much you are currently earning, you can tell them “currently I am making a base of $XX and incentive comp (cash bonus, equity, etc.) of $XX.  I expect a reasonable increase to make a move and if we get to the point where it makes sense for me to work here, I’ll defer to you to make a fair offer.”
  • Total target comp package is lower than your current one.  “Comp is not the most important factor to me.  I’m more concerned about being in a fulfilling job at a great company, and I believe your company and the role you’re looking to me to fill fits that criteria.  I would consider working within your salary range if we determine I’m the candidate for the job.”  If you are in a good financial situation and can explain that to the interviewer, do it.  I’ve placed a candidate who took a cut because he was compensated to travel 75% of the time and was earning above market value.  I’ve also placed a candidate whose husband was making a lot of money and she was working for the challenge and fun of it so she took a cut.  The hiring companies needed to know that information to get them comfortable with the candidate taking a decrease.
  • Target comp is significantly above your current comp package (25% or more).  The reality is, you may not be able to get an offer in the range the hiring company is targeting if you are currently earning significantly less.  It depends on the situation.  One reason is employers want want to incentivize their employees to work hard, so by paying someone a lot more money than they are used to earning there’s a fear that they may become a little too comfortable and not produce as much as they would if they were hungrier.  This is why sales professionals are paid lower salaries and higher commissions.  The primary reason, however, is that employers have leverage over you and a stronger position to negotiate a salary that is lower than they are willing to pay, and by asking for too much you will be perceived as unreasonable.  You have to ask yourself if you are really willing to pass up a great job with a reasonable salary simply because the hiring company is willing to pay more for another candidate.  If not, then you should readjust your expectations.  There are, however, situations where it is entirely possible for candidates to make a 25%, 30%, or even a 50% or more increase over their current comp.   For public accountants going into industry, for example, it is typical to see a large increase in salary.  It is simply what the market demands for such skilled and technical professionals because the gap between them and the next best candidate is pretty wide.  It is also common for a very aggressive company demanding a lot out of their key employees to pay well above market rate because of the hours and expectations (and therefore, sacrifice) the job demands.  If you are in either of these situations and you are asked directly how much you are earning and how much you can expect to earn, you will have to justify your expectation for a large increase, which shouldn’t be difficult because you are simply asking for market rate, and most of the time they will understand that a large increase is appropriate for the situation.

Closing the Interview

In closing the interview, you want to tie up any loose ends for both parties and get and idea about what to expect moving forward.  To do that, I would ask your interviewer(s) these 3 questions, in this order:

Question 1: “I think I have a good idea of what this role entails, but I don’t know what I don’t know.  Were there any questions you think I should have asked but didn’t?”

Question 2: You want to give the interviewer the opportunity to address any concerns or areas of uncertainty related to your candidacy, but you don’t necessarily want to draw attention to any areas of weakness.  If you think you have an area of weakness that the interviewer will bring up, make sure you think about what kind of response you would give him to convince him or her that it really shouldn’t be a concern.  I would ask this: “Is there anything else about my background that you would like to hear more about or would like for me to clarify?
Question 3: “I want you to know that I’m very interested in this opportunity.  What are the next steps and when should I expect to hear back.”

As you are leaving, shake each interviewer’s hand, smile as you look each of them in the eye and thank them for their time.  Make sure to send each interviewer a thank you note no later than first thing in the morning the day after your interview.  A hand-written thank you note is best, but email is good as well.  It is appropriate to ask for a card while you are there but if you are unable to get one and are working through a recruiter her or she may be able to forward an email on your behalf.

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