How to Ace Your Interview

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I love it when a junior person asks me for career advice.

It’s not because it makes me feel smarter or because I enjoy mentoring, although both of these are true. The number one reason is because it helps me remember lessons that I might otherwise forget.

As we move up in our careers, we run the risk of forgetting the fundamentals that helped us get here. Seizing the opportunity to reflect in response to a question is a useful antidote.

Recently, a friend asked me a question about interviewing. I could have given him the usual glib answers (e.g., research the company, be prepared with questions, have great stories), but I stopped and really thought about it. The result was I reminded myself of an important principle when it comes to making an effective connection while interviewing. A lightly edited version of our exchange is below.

________________________

Hi Joe,

A copy of my resume is attached to this message. I've put some thought into those questions and I've come up with the following regarding KPMG:

1. What values and traits do you find management and hiring professionals within your firm look for most in new associate candidates?

2. [intentionally omitted]

Thanks,

B.J.

_________________________

Hi B.J.,

Great questions. I've interviewed a ton over the years and failed to get the job many times so I'm sharing from my experience. In hindsight I look at this question very differently. One can't actually answer it in a helpful way because the lever you are looking for is something else entirely. Instead, I'd ask what skills do you need and what preparation should you do to strongly connect with each interviewer in front of you? And once you are connected, how can you lead them to believe (honestly) that hiring you will be the best outcome for them, their group, and the organization? They are the protagonist, not you. That's what gives you the best chance.

Good luck!

Joe

_________________________

So remember, for the next time, treat each person you meet during your interview as the protagonist. You already have been screened as qualified for the job. Your mission is to show each person how you will help them in their story. Along the way you may find out you don’t want to be a part of their story and that’s okay, too.

Your Move: What have you found to be the most effective thing(s) in preparing for and succeeding in interviews?

Change Your Perspective, Nail the Interview

Many years ago, I was sitting in a conference room that felt like a lion's den, wishing my name was Daniel instead of Joseph. After what felt like an eternity, my interviewer strode in. Cue gleaming smile, firm handshake, and we're off!

A few minutes in I get asked an open-ended question about my background, my nerves settle and I switch into interview autopilot mode. Earlier interviews gave me confidence in which answers and stories worked and which didn't. Time flew and before I knew it, we were wrapping up. I strode out of the building feeling p-r-e-t-t-y confident in my performance. Surely I nailed it.

WRONG! I didn't realize it at the time, but I had totally bombed by committing a cardinal sin most candidates don't even realize they are making.

Fast forward several years and I'm sitting on the other side of the table. I smile, give a firm handshake, and we're off! At some point I ask an open-ended question and the candidate switches into interview autopilot. The answers flow, highlighting skills and successes. But after meeting several candidates, I begin to notice something. Sometimes what the candidate is saying is relevant to why I might want to hire them and at other times, it's totally irrelevant. A candidate might even spend a large chunk of the interview talking about impressive and entertaining things that don't advance their cause at all.  

Now you might point out that a well-prepared candidate would review the job requirements and tailor their answers to reflect these. Surely, you say, this helps ensure that their answers will pack a good punch. This is better than not preparing, but it is still leaving a lot up to chance because of one counterintuitive secret.

Job requirements are generally useless for revealing what criteria the interviewer is using to evaluate you.

"But, wait! Aren't job requirements the main criteria a good interviewer should be assessing candidates against?"

Well, yes and no. While a candidate must be able to perform what is required for the position and this is typically covered in the job requirements, HOW an interviewer is evaluating a candidate goes much deeper than that. We'll get to that in just a second.

"Then, if the job requirements aren't that helpful and even my best performance might not advance my cause, what can I do to improve my chances?"

Change your perspective by treating your interview as a negotiation and not a performance.

Allow me to explain.

I recently attended a training led by Marty Latz - Gain the Edge! Negotiation for Lawyers. Marty is the founder of the Latz Negotiation Institute, an Adjunct Professor at Arizona State University College of Law and has appeared as a negotiation expert on CBS' The Early Show and national business shows such as Your Money and Fox Business.

Marty shared with us his 5 Golden Rules for Negotiation. This wasn't a class about interviewing, but his First Golden Rule opened my eyes that most people's interview strategy, including mine, was fundamentally flawed. In fact, I've probably landed jobs IN SPITE of my approach. The cardinal sin I was committing was focusing on delivering a dazzling interview PERFORMANCE, without any real understanding of the interviewer's needs. What I should have done was approach the interview as a NEGOTIATION. This change in perspective forces you to understand the interviewer's needs and prompts you to communicate how you will help fulfill them.

Marty's First Golden Rule: Information is Power - So Get It

In a negotiation, the more you learn about what the other side wants and doesn't want, the better you'll do. However, this knowledge can be elusive or even hidden. As a result, it requires focus and skill to uncover this.

There are two types of information. The first, substantive information, is factual - the price, the timing, etc. In the context of an interview it's the job requirements and the questions that are being asked.

The second and more valuable type is strategic information - the "why" behind the substantive information. In a negotiation context, some examples are understanding, "Why do they want this price?" or "Why do they need to close in a week?"

In an interview context, take the common and seemingly innocent question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Is the person asking concerned you may be gunning for their job or are they looking for a worthy successor? Everything you say will be viewed by the interviewer through their personal "why" filter. Your answers pack the biggest punch when they successfully address the "why" behind the questions.

When you answer an interview question without understanding why the question is being asked, you are leaving it up to chance whether your response will help you land the job.

"So if the job requirements don't get me to the "why" and the interview questions don't contain this information, how do I find out what I need to know to give the best responses?"

1. Ask questions about their questions.

Before you answer any question, if you don't know the "why" already, try to get some context by asking your own clarifying question. It may seem odd at first, but I guarantee no one will yell at you for asking and if they do, you should leave the interview immediately, anyway.

Old approach - Be ignorant of the "why" at your own peril

Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Joe: Well, I'm from NJ and attended the University of Virginia and graduated with a B.A. in...then I took a year off to study in Korea before entering Georgetown Law...my first job was with...

New approach - Find the "why" to get in sync

Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Joe: I'm glad to answer your question. What parts of my background are you most interested in hearing more about?

Interviewer: I noticed you don't have the type of background that is typical of candidates who apply for this role. I'm interested to learn more about your practical experience.

Joe: Great question. I think I understand. After I graduated from Georgetown Law I decided I wanted to work closely with the business...one of the benefits I've had with my particular work experience is the opportunity to go beyond just giving advice and work on actually implementing global privacy programs. I believe this will be an asset in this position because...

2. Talk less, listen more.

Don't get on a roll to nowhere. Sometimes during an interview, after you overcome the initial butterflies, you get a question you know you can nail and proceed with a non-stop word tsunami that fills up the better part of the interview. In your mind you are being persuasive and dazzling them with charming anecdotes and notable accomplishments. The problem, as we've already noted, is without knowing "why" the question is being asked, you are taking your chances as to whether your answer is advancing your cause or hurting it.

Thanks, Marty for sharing your experience with us and helping me learn a little more about the power of negotiation.

Thanks, Marty for sharing your experience with us and helping me learn a little more about the power of negotiation.

Instead, engage the interviewer in a dialogue and when they talk, REALLY listen to what they are saying. What is important to them about the position? What type of people would they like to work with? How do they see the trajectory of the company? And so on. Take what you learn and deliver your information in a way that showcases how your background and abilities align with their interests.

Or to sum it up with a quote from Marty:

"Negotiation power goes to those who ask and listen, rather than those who convince and persuade."

Good luck and if this approach comes in handy for you, would love to hear about it!

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.