Saturday, April 9, 2011

Don’t Wing It – Prepare For and Win Your Next Job Interview

Article first published as Don't Wing It: Win Your Next Job Interview on Technorati.

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re most likely doing great on your 21st century job hunt and you have an interview on the horizon.   You should be prepared and use this opportunity to its fullest.  There are several kinds of questions you should expect to hear, and a few you need to ask along the way. 

Here are some questions you’ll surely get during the interview process, along with suggestions on how to answer them.  Learn to recognize these, even if they’re framed differently.

Why did you leave your last job?  Key points here are not to badmouth your prior employer and to convey information in a way that reflects positively on you.  If you were laid off, say so. If you were terminated, discuss a few points in positive terms why your employer was not a good fit for you.  If you’re seeking more money, frame that in terms of seeking more career advancement.  Be honest but also realize that flakiness and instability are traits that interviewers sniff out like bloodhounds.

Tell me about yourself. Remember your elevator pitch?  You’ll be glad you have one now – use it!  Here’s my prior post on that topic:

What is your greatest strength? If you cannot define your key strengths, it doesn’t give much confidence to the interviewer that you actually have any.  Be sure that you can crisply identify 2-3 real assets you bring to a job and that you can present examples of how those strengths have helped you in the past.  Make sure they’re relevant to the job at hand.  You may think your best strength is your ability to make risotto from whatever is in your produce drawer, but unless you’re interviewing to be the next Iron Chef, that’s not relevant.  Also, don’t go too generic with anything remotely like “I’m a people-person”.  You can do better than that.   Bonus point: once you’ve stated your strengths, ask the interviewer how he/she feels those assets or skills would impact your ability to succeed in this role.

What is one of your weaknesses? Again, if you can’t answer this question, the interviewer will assign a couple of weaknesses to you, and they may not flatter you.  Think in terms of what experience or skill you want to enhance that you feel you could improve in your next job.  In other words, frame your weakness as something learnable, rather than an enduring character trait.  If you choose to focus on a personality trait or work-style issue, make it something that could also be seen as a strength in certain circumstances.  Don’t be predictable and say anything remotely like “I’m a workaholic.” Interviewers see that coming a mile away.  

Where do you see yourself in five years (or other timeframe)?  If you don’t have a good answer to this, you’ll appear unfocused and not driven – not a good thing on a job interview. Alternatively, if your answer is very specific and improbable or even in conflict with their standard career path, that may not be great either.  My advice is to answer this honestly and really share where you want your career to go.  It’s perfectly ok to be focused on staying in the exact same role, but achieving greater mastery, and/or better task assignments.  If where you want to go over time is clear to you, and not in line with their plan, this probably isn’t the right job for you anyway, so it’s best to get that out in the open now.  A good way to use this question to your advantage is to flip it and ask the interviewer about the career path in the same timeframe for others in the role.        

These are just the warm-up.  Savvy organizations and smart hiring managers are using structured interview techniques, and/or behavioral-based interview questions to vet candidates.  Here’s how that will go down. In addition to reviewing your resume and asking at least a couple of the questions above, the hiring manager will ask a series of questions to get you to provide real world examples of how you’ve responded to workplace challenges.  Interviewers using this technique are often looking for overarching traits such as tolerance of ambiguity, resourcefulness, customer focus, problem-solving ability, sense of accountability, collaborative nature, and persistence.  The key here is for you to answer these questions with detailed, real world examples of how you’ve demonstrated this trait.  A couple examples of these questions include:

“Tell me about how you handled a dissatisfied customer in the last 6 months.”
“Tell me about a time you did not achieve your goal, and how you handled it.”
“Walk me through an example of how you’ve held yourself accountable on a challenging team task.” 

Here is a link to several more behavioral-based interview questions:  Take some time and think about how you’d answer all of these, using information highlighted on your resume.  Be specific.  Bonus point: ask the interviewer a couple of questions in this style as well.  You can gather some great detailed information on management style, team dynamics and expectations by framing your own questions in these terms.

That brings me to my final tip: Ask questions!  Remember you’re not just selling yourself, you’re buying a job!  Few decisions you make in life are more important than your career moves so be sure you have the information you need to make the right choice.  If the interviewer shares details with you that aren’t clear, ask for more information.  Say something like, “Tell me more about that,” or “how does that work?”. 

My best advice is to focus on what I’ll call “High Gain Questions.”  These are inquiries that not only get you some good data points, but just by asking them, make you look more engaged and articulate.  Does it get better than that?  Examples include:

“What key business trends are impacting your organization and how are you adapting to these changes?”
“What can you tell me about your management style?  What are you really looking for in an employee?”
“What key metrics are used to define success in this role?”
“What obstacles or barriers exist in the organization that impede success?  How can I work to overcome or avoid those?”

Do your research and learn a little about the company and if possible, the role and/or department for which you’re interviewing.  At the very least, thoroughly read the company’ web site, noting any questions you have along the way. You can also use sites like Hoovers, Linked In, and Yahoo Finance to gain insights into the firm.  If they’re a public company, read the latest annual report highlights and at a minimum, the annual CEO letter.  Look up the interviewer on a couple of social networking sites to learn about their background, tenure with the organization, affiliations and any shared connections you may have.  Walk into your interview armed with pre-written questions, but don’t be afraid to make ad hoc inquiries as well.

Most importantly, as the interview closes, ask what the next steps are and how they perceive you as a fit for their opening.  It shows you are interested, shows initiative, and that you’re willing to hear bad news.  I say this:

            “Based on our conversation today, on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel that I align with your expectations of a candidate for this role? What would make me a 10?”

But, you should use language that is comfortable for you.  So, do your research, plan how to answer questions you know you’ll have to field, write out some good high gain questions to ask, and most of all, be prepared, Go get ‘em!       


Daniel Milstein said...

Good share,I hope more people discover your blog because you really know what you're talking about. Can't wait to read more from you!

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