Getting a great job – Part 2 of 2 – Interviews

two women in conversation

Much of the process I’ve used for turning an interview into a job offer comes from Jeffrey Allen.  His book is absolutely brilliant and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I have purchased this book at least a dozen times over the years and always try to have a copy around.  I used it personally and it was a great handout to those in the “getting a great job” process.  Links to it are below.

If you’ve not read part #1 first, you should.  Here is the thing about job interviews. They follow a well-known, rather repetitive path. With some thought, preparation and practice, you can get very good at them.  While it’s fun to do the work and get really good, you don’t have to, because the vast majority of candidates you will be competing against, won’t do the work, won’t prepare, and won’t practice. The end result is you will do far better and be the person who receives the offer.

This next point is critical.  The first thing you must do is to shift your focus to obtaining a JOB OFFER vs. obtaining A JOB.  On the surface, this may seem like a nit.  IT IS NOT.  It is vitally important to the process.  Your goal in a job interview is to have them indicate they want to offer you a job.  Once you have a job offer in hand, then and only then should your focus shift to, “shall I take this job with this company on these terms?”  Interviewing for a job offer versus interviewing for a job are two fundamentally different mindsets.  The dynamics change for you and most importantly, the dynamics change for the person who is interviewing you.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to change your attitude in this area.  Most people get so desperate for a job, they decide going into an interview they just have to get the job they’re being interviewed for, resulting in the interviewer picking up on this desperation, you performing poorly and no job offers as a result.  As you will read later, your ultimate goal is to get 2-3 job offers, all coming in at about the same time.

Winning the game:  What follows is how to go about preparing for a job interview and how to manage the process. BTW, since what happens in a job interview is roughly ten times as important as what is written on your resume, plan to spend at least ten times as much time and effort on this step as you did working on your resume.  Go ahead, total up how many hours you spent tweaking and fiddling with your resume, multiply that number by 10, and this is how much time you will want to put into this step.

Step one in this phase is to anticipate the questions you will be asked, prepare your answers and practice them until you are able to deliver them smoothly.  As Jeffrey Allen explains in his book, there aren’t that many different ways to ask essentially the same questions, so it’s easy to prepare.  For example: Nearly every job interview opens with something like, “Well tell me a little about yourself.” You should have a 20-30 second answer to this question nailed and memorized.  You want to be brief, to the point and summarize the high points of your career. Quickly and efficiently!  I once asked a candidate this question and it appeared to have caught him off guard, he thought for a moment, then slowly began: “Well, I was born in Truman, Minnesota and went to grade school and high school there.  When I was in high school my parents moved to Rochester, Minnesota and I ended up graduating from there in 19XX.” This story, with various side stories and tangents, went on for 20 more minutes, finally bringing me up to this person’s current position in life.  Needless to say, I decided in the first five minutes that I’d never hire anyone that clueless.

When my younger daughter Ginger was job hunting she replicated a technique I’d used and it worked wonders for her.  Here is what to do:  Take 30-50 index cards, either 3X5 or 4X6, and on one side, write the interview questions you expect to be asked.  On the other side of the card, write your answer.  Your answer must fit, legibly, on the back side of the card.  No 8-pt type allowed. Craft your answer and practice saying it aloud until you like the sound of it.  Don’t be surprised if you need to say it out loud 15-20 times per question before it feels right to you. It’s an iterative process.  Shuffle the cards, hold one up, read the question on the front.  Then, without looking at the reverse side, answer the question as close as possible to what you recall writing on the reverse side.  Then turn the card over.  Grade yourself.  Did you nail it?  Did you say precisely what was on the back of the card in the right order and no more? Maybe even jot down a grade for yourself, A – F.  The “no more” part I mentioned above is important.  When you’re nervous, you’ll tend to say too much. Practice helps with this!  Mentally put yourself into the interview room and across the desk from the one asking the questions as you practice.  You’re going to keep doing it until you can repeat this over and over, scoring highly each time.  Don’t quit until you can score yourself B’s or better on all the cards.  Occasionally, when practicing your answer, something will pop into your head and you will find yourself saying something out loud that is really good but wasn’t in your written. Not a problem; revise the answer. Think about where the new text should go in the answer, at the beginning, middle or end? As you edit, your answers will get tighter and more powerful.  Allen’s book lists a lot of the questions interviewers will ask. Also, do a Google search on “job interview questions for XXXX role” and find a lot more. At a minimum, be prepared for:

  • Why did you leave or why are you leaving your present job?
  • What are you looking for in a job?
  • What are your career objectives?
  • Why would we hire you here?
  • Tell me about your greatest strengths.
  • What are your biggest weaknesses?
  • What sort of salary are you looking for, or what were you making in your last job?
  • What were your top 3 accomplishments when working for X?
  • What were your biggest career accomplishments ever?
  • Can you work under pressure, hit deadlines?
  • What sort of people do you like? Dislike?
  • Tell me about your last boss.
  • Give me an example of a project you took from start to finish.

Again, the more questions you prepare answers for, the more confident and relaxed you will be in the actual interview.  You should have 30-40 cards at a minimum and having a full deck of 52 cards is not too many.  This preparation pays massive dividends and is so important and such a key part of getting a great job. I don’t understand why people spend ten hours finessing their resume to perfection and then only 20-30 minutes working on interview practice.  As I said before, you want to reverse the time spent on these efforts and if you do, you’ll be a rock star and receive frequent and better job offers.

Another benefit of having your answers thought through and rehearsed is it frees up attention to work on your delivery.  Having mental room to focus on your pacing, posture and composure, is helpful. The interviewer will see your quiet self-confidence and it will put them at ease, too.  The entire interview will go more smoothly.

The final benefit of this preparation is that part of your brain is free to focus on how your answer is being received by the interviewer.  Are they looking you in the eyes? Nodding their head? What else is in their office? Pictures of kids, awards, models of sail boats or statues of Shakespeare? Use the part of your brain not answering the question to observe and assimilate this information for the next phase, when you ask your own questions.

After 2-3 questions it is perfectly okay to begin turning the interview into a friendly conversation by asking questions of your own.  Initially, your questions should try to build camaraderie with the person you are meeting. For instance, if they have models of sailboats on their bookcase, you could point at the models and ask, “Do you sail? I was on my college sailing team” or, “my family rented a sailboat every summer, etc.”  Of course, never lie.  Find something in the person’s office with which you can genuinely connect and use it to build a bridge. If there are no personal effects around, such as in a bland conference room (or you’re in a Zoom call), arm yourself with other bridging questions such as: a) How are you dealing with Covid, has it had a big impact on you?  b) I saw a new restaurant named X, when I was parking, it looked new, is it? Have you tried it yet?  c) Last week I went to SFMOMA for the first time. I see it’s only a few blocks from here, have you ever seen it?

Not just winning, but hitting it out of the park:  After you feel on the same wave length, the step required to absolutely cinch an offer is to ask a few insightful questions of your own. These few questions you’ll have prepared, accomplish a couple of important goals.  First, in asking these questions, you demonstrate to the person doing the interview that you’re the candidate they really most want to hire.  Second, they give you some good clues on whether, once you get a job offer from them, if they are really the company to which you want to dedicate your time and energy. Here are several examples.  Use the ones that feel right at the time.  You would never ask all of these, most likely no more than 3 or 4, so pick and choose based upon your homework on what this company is all about and their values.  Here are some ideas:

  1. The person doing this job now, or most recently, what did they do exceptionally well? What about their work surprised and pleased you the most?
  2. Along the same lines, for the prior person, were there expectations that were not met? Did this person fail to deliver or under-perform, perhaps through no fault of their own, but some things just weren’t getting done?
  3. What are the top three customers that the company has won and is most proud of? How about three customers you’ve lost?
  4. Has working at this company changed you in any way?
  5. If the company is growing rapidly, ask “What is on the company’s immediate horizon and what are the biggest blockers to reaching those goals? If I were to get this position, what could I do in the first month that would have the greatest positive impact on the company? First 3 months?
  6. What factors, in your mind, are the most important for someone to have to be successful in growing with this company?
  7. Could you give me an example of something that the company tried to do recently and failed? (If you get an answer, see if you can determine why it failed and how the company responded. Does it sound like they’re being honest or attempting to paint a rosy picture? Does it appear that they learned from the failure and were able to quickly pivot and make things right again?)
  8. Would you go over the key financial metrics which drive the company? What are the most important priorities that must happen for the company to stay successful? How does this position impact or contribute to these metrics?
  9. Outside of this company, which companies or competitors in your space do you admire and you feel are doing well? Are there any companies you would wish to emulate, either from a growth or culture standpoint? Or, who are the competitors you most detest and why?
  10. If you had a magic wand, what is one thing you would change about the company? (This helps you learn where the company may be behind or in what areas it needs to improve).
  11. Can you think of anything that would only happen here, at this company, but wouldn’t happen at other organizations? (You will likely get one of two responses; either an “Oh no,” look on their face, or they light up at a memory that pops into their head. Whichever it is will help you better understand an organization’s values, norms and practices – which will have a huge impact on your happiness and success working there.).
  12. What have you learned while working here that you will take with you, no matter where you go next? (same rational as Q11.)
  13. If you are being interviewed by someone who would be a co-worker with you if you take the job, ask if it would be alright with them if they would walk you through their calendar for a week. It could be last week, if that is easier. (You’re asking to see what people are spending time on.  Time is a worker’s most valuable asset, so how someone spends their time tells you a lot about what they value and what the company values.)
  14. Have you found any common attributes among the people who join the company and become really successful, versus those who aren’t? When people leave the company on their own volition, what reasons do they give for leaving?

When your goal is getting a job offer, what I’ve written above is the playbook for getting the very best job offer from a company.  The most successful job seekers nearly always set a goal of having 2-3 job offers in hand before making a decision.  This takes simple but careful time management.*  You want to compress your job search and schedule interviews to happen fairly close together.  Ideally, if you’re going out on 6 interviews over a two week period, you would want to interview first at the companies you feel you would least want to work and save your later interviews for the companies you most want to work. The last interview will be your best. So, you want to be at your very best when interviewing at the company you most want to work.

Hopefully this top-line summary is helpful.  It is not the way most people go about it.  However, these are many of the techniques I used in my career and while I wasn’t uniformly good at every job I had, I know I was really very good at getting every job I ever got.

*Life rarely delivers ideal situations but that doesn’t mean you have zero control.  You gain control by making a plan—and following it.  Some job-search guidelines tell you to plan to mail out five resumes a week, or something.  If the above makes sense to you, and I hope it does, you might create a plan that looks something like this:

Phase 1 – 2 weeks: Research companies that: a) deliver a product or service you admire, b) are in an industry that interests you, c) have an obvious need for your skill set.

Phase 2 – 2 weeks:  1) Make contacts, set up informational interviews and go on some.  2) Try to connect with those who could submit your resume for you, which will have a much greater chance of being read. 3) Create Q&A cards and start rehearsing, and 4) Research how to discuss salary questions.

Phase 3 – 2 weeks:  1) Schedule interviews (in the right order), 2) Follow-up with any interviews with thanks and next steps, 3) When you receive an offer, seriously think about it – it is the first rung of a ladder.  What will be your chances of moving up or switching to a different ladder?  A “foot in the door” mentality can backfire when it’s time to advance.

If you didn’t see Part 1 of this job advice newsletter, you can find it here.

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