Most of us only have to attend a few interviews during the course of our careers. Not surprisingly, many senior managers approach an important interview with some trepidation. Having worked in the executive search business for years, I am constantly surprised at how poorly prepared many senior candidates are for what could be a life changing event, writes Jeremy I'Anson, director at Interview-trainer.com, a provider of one-to-one interview coaching to job seekers.
I recently spoke to a client at a well known mobile operator who was interviewing a strong candidate for a senior position. His CV was excellent and, on paper at least, he looked like the perfect candidate, but he fell at the first fence. Their HR director commented, "We asked him a simple question about our business, but he clearly had not done his homework and waffled. We could not take him seriously after that."
It seems obvious, but research and preparation are the keys to a successful interview. If you are working through a headhunter or recruitment consultant, you should use them as your primary source of information. They will almost certainly have received an in-depth briefing about the job from their client and should be able to flesh out the job specification for you.
Ask your recruiter "What do they really want?" This is critical to your success. Find out exactly what the employer is looking for. Your next task is to map your skills and experience against the qualified job description. You can then start working out in some detail the sorts of questions that the interviewer will most likely be asking. Try to put yourself in the interviewer's shoes. What questions would you ask if you were interviewing a candidate for the position?
Your next task is to establish the likely format of the interview. Will it be a one-to-one "friendly conversation", a formal interview, or a very structured competency-based interview? Will you be required to make a presentation? Each of these forms of interview needs to be handled differently.
An important part of your research at this stage should be to find out as much as you can about the interviewer. Check the company website for a biography or CV, or use a search engine. You may be surprised to find that you have worked for the same company in the past, worked with the same clients or implemented similar projects. The knowledge of your interviewer's background will enable you to place your interview responses in the correct context.
Keep it relevant
Make sure that your answers are relevant and meaningful to the interviewer. Don't make the mistake of giving a highly technical response to a question only to learn later that your interviewer comes from a background in finance. One further piece of advice would be to carefully prepare your own questions. With a bit of research this is an excellent way to demonstrate that you really have done your homework. "I see that you have recently acquired XYZ, how is this going to affect your North American operations?" beats "How many days vacation do you give?" or "What are the working hours?" Good questions count.
Many otherwise excellent candidates have been felled by the competency-based interview. Typically, a candidate has sailed through their first interview with a senior manager and has performed well only to be caught out by a competency-type question such as, "Tell me about a time when a project was off track, how did you to rectify the problem?" If you do not prepare then these types of questions can be very difficult to answer.
Try to establish what competencies are required before the interview and then carefully prepare your responses. I always advise candidates to use the STAR technique when answering competency questions, SITUATION, TASK, ACTION, RESULT. Keep these points in mind when answering any interview question.
Briefly describe the situation, outline the task required, describe what action(s) you took (you, not the team!) and finally describe the (hopefully) satisfactory result of your actions. Interviewers not only listen to what you answer, they also listen to how you answer. A structured response goes a long way to reassuring them that you also work in this structured way.
Finally, and most importantly, don't exaggerate. From many anecdotes I recall the candidate who claimed that his hobby was hang gliding. "Oh, really," said the interviewer, "mine too! Where did you buy your hang glider what type of wing do you use?" All very fine if you are an experienced hang glider pilot, but embarrassing if you have only been for a joy ride on holiday!
This was first published in September 2008