As a career coach, I spend a significant amount of time coaching clients (generally at the management and executive level) on how to interview with confidence and ultimately success. In doing so, there are a number of key points covered and I’d like to share these with you in this article. While many of these would be deemed to be common sense, it is amazing to me how often they are either forgotten or poorly delivered. In essence, common sense ain’t so common…
Remember, if you are invited to an interview, it means that the organisation or recruiter likes your resume. They can see that based on your experience, you are a good fit for their role. While this should give you a confidence boost (‘They like me!’), the key purpose of the interview is to find out more about you and how you more precisely fit the requirements of the job...and of course, the odds are more in your favour as you may only be one of 3-7 candidates called in for interview…
So, what are the 8 critical success factors for a job interview?
1. Preparation - Quelle surprise! You need to know your resume inside and out and be able to amplify any content if asked (even that leadership course you did decades ago). Similarly, you need to have gone through the job advertisement or specification and prepared stories to illustrate your skills (see point 3 below). For example, if they want someone who’s a great leader, logically, you should have prepared a number of stories that illustrate your leadership skills.
75% of the interview is completed even before you attend the interview. It’s all about the preparation (Paul Di Michiel)
2. Research - Further to (1), research the company so that you can gauge if you’d like to work there, but also to answer the perennial question; ‘What do you know about our organisation?’. Beyond revenues, the date founded, the number of employees, and other throwaway facts, go a little deeper. For example, if you are a marketer, your research may include looking at marketing campaigns the organisation has recently run.
Similarly, research the interviewers. LinkedIn is a database of the world’s professionals, so take a look at the people you will be meeting. Some people are put off doing this because they fear they’ll be perceived as a stalker with less than savoury intentions. This is rubbish, and most interviewers would be impressed that as part of your preparation, you’d viewed them on LinkedIn (but not 5 minutes before the interview!). The other benefit here is that you may know people in common with the interviewers (2nd-degree connections). In this case, you may be able to get even more insight into the interviewers, their management style, etc. by speaking to these contacts.
3. Stories to illustrate your skills - Most interviews include so-called behavioural interview questions. These questions start with ‘Can you give me an example of…’; or ‘Can you tell us about a time when…’ The interviewer wants to hear a specific story which then serves to validate your skills, based on the fact that if you have done something successfully in the past, you can do it well in the future. Most interviewees have 3-5 stories going into an interview and these are quickly exhausted in that time, therefore, you should aim to have 10 or more stories to illustrate your skills (noting that most of the stories you tell will contain many skills). For example, you may tell a story about leadership, but also demonstrate collaboration, problem-solving, negotiation etc.
4. Story structure - You may be familiar with STAR as a structure to respond to behavioural questions. There’s also SAR, SOAR, CAR, SAO and others I’ve not heard of. The world of business has way too many acronyms designed to confuse and irritate, so I try and avoid them. Instead of trying to figure out one of these maddening acronyms, use the following structure to tell your story in response to behavioural questions:
This is what was going on (Context, background)
This is what I did (your actions taken to address the issue); and
This is how it turned out (the result, quantified (preferred), or qualified.
Nothing complex here, as the structure is similar to the stories we tell every day of our lives. There’s a beginning, middle, and end to the story.
5. Tell us about yourself - Generally the first - and most important - question asked in an interview and often, poorly answered. A long-winded diatribe about your exciting 15 years in accounting (or worse, Human Resources), or your interests in bird photography (or both), generally won’t be that enthralling to the overworked and easily distracted interviewers.
Why is your response to this question important? It is the first impression of you and sets the tone for the interview, therefore it’s critical to answer it well. I generally favour a response with the following structure which you should adapt to the role or audience you are addressing:
I am a… (e.g. An MBA-qualified marketer);
I have worked in…(A sampling of industries and companies you’ve worked for. This provides brand association as generally great companies are perceived to employ great people (think SalesForce, American Express);
I have skills in…(3-4 professional skills you possess relating to the role, such as ‘employee relations’ for an HR professional, or 'digital marketing' for a marketer);
My strengths include…(3-4 soft or leadership skills you possess that relate to the role).
Don’t be afraid to amplify a particular skill if you feel it is a success factor for the organisation. For example, if they want someone who is a strong leader, you would not just say ‘My strengths include leadership…’, but rather accentuate that statement by saying something like; ‘My strengths include leadership, as demonstrated in my last organisation where I successfully increased engagement scores in my team from X to Y in a 12-months period’. Not only does this add veracity to your answer, but is also more than likely to prompt a question from the interviewer to find out more (see point 4 above).
6. Just answer the damn question! Many of us lean towards verbosity in interviews, which is either based on nerves, lack of preparation (we say a lot and hope something hits the mark), or simply a predilection to talk too much. Make sure you listen to the question and respond to it only. Don’t offer other little pearls of wisdom or asides you think will impress the interviewer unless they ask for it.
An example I often use with my clients is what I call the ‘What time is it?’ example. If we are having a coffee together and I ask you the time, you will let me know (“It’s 2 pm.”). However, if we then put ourselves in an interview situation and I ask you the time, you will likely not only give me the time but also the brand of your watch, the fact it’s silver, has Roman numerals, is made in Japan, etc., etc. I only wanted to know the time!! If I wanted to know where it’s made, I would ask you.
7. Make sure you ask questions - Having no questions or asking a throwaway question such as ‘Is the job located in this office?’ probably won’t endear you to the interviewer, as you’ll come across as lazy, poorly prepared, and/or disinterested. Instead, make sure you prepare a number of questions that give you the information you need to determine if you want to work for that person, in that job, in that department, or in that organisation. Not only will these questions give you the information you need to make a determination to work for that organisation, but also impresses the interviewers.
It’s all about differentiating yourself from other interviewees…
8. Is there anything else required? Toward the end of the interview, make sure you ask something like; “Is there anything else you would like to know from me to determine my suitability for your role?”. Generally, interviewers won’t have anything else to ask, however, occasionally there may be something outstanding that could be the difference between a ‘no’ and progressing in the selection process. Asking this question simply prompts any outstanding questions, and allows you to clarify or confirm certain aspects of your experience.
So, while this is not a complete list, I’ve tried to tease out elements of the interview where mistakes are often made and if done well, will serve to differentiate you from other candidates.
The job market is competitive, and there are other strong candidates out there vying for the same jobs. The interview is your opportunity to shine, to stand out from others, and to give yourself every opportunity to get the job you deserve. Good luck!