While They Interview You for the Job, You Need to be Interviewing Them as a Potential Employer
The three most important things an interview should answer is whether you are right for the hiring firm, the role and your future boss.
What are the specific needs for the role, and is there a particular style which they are looking to have the work done? Do you match up with the title, pay, skills, role, span of control, prior experience, capabilities, communication style and work cadence that your boss needs or expects for the role? Ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that there is a match between your qualities and their desires is half of the battle.
The other half is determining if the firm is right for you. Interviews are absolutely not one-way streets, and too often, candidates allow their questions to be afterthoughts. Does the role make sense as a logical next step on your career path? Does it match up with your ambitions and direction? Does the company meet your desires on company size, culture and pace?
These are obvious questions, yet they are often left unanswered in the dramatic whirlwind of interviewing courtship. I have counseled otherwise bright and capable professionals who have been romanced through a recruiting process to take a job entirely outside of their interests or plans. There’s a reason so many new hires don’t work out -- and the “swept off your feet” interview process is the culprit. I’d guess that by 20 years into their careers, most American professionals have had at least one mulligan job. Has it ever happened to you? If not, you’re stronger than most.
To best determine your ability to do what the role calls for, you must ask questions. It’s advice so simple, it barely qualifies as advice, were it not for the hundreds of times I’ve asked people going to interviews what are the most important things they’re looking for from the role. I am usually met with a blank stare or a stumbling mumble.
When you’re setting up the interview, ask the HR person, recruiter or hiring manager which three things are most important to success in this role. You only want to know three because that’ll be about the number of factors you’ll be able to manage throughout multiple days of interviews. It also forces prioritization on the part of the hiring company. Sure, there are dozens of things they’d like from this hire but indicating to you the three most important reveals how they will be making the decision and how they are thinking about performance in the future. Further, whether it’s reviewing your work history in the context of these three items or comparing the varying answers you get from interviewers as to whether those are their priorities, to confirming with the boss after your interview that she heard your points loud and clear, three is a magic number for making your case.
It may not surprise you to know that the company will gladly tell you which three things are most important to success in the job. They’ll be pleasantly surprised you asked because so few people start off the interview process by focusing on the company’s needs rather than their own abilities. You’ll stand out from the start. It’s an encouraging sign to the interviewers that your style is to understand them better, before talking about yourself.
When the HR person or recruiter provides you with the three most important factors, you should do a careful review. Do these three performance factors match up with your strengths and what you’re looking to do next? If all three are right on target, then that’s terrific, and you’ll be prepared to nail each interview thoroughly.
Conversely, if all three are completely off the mark, your course of action is simple -- you let the recruiter know that there really isn’t a fit because your background or career path doesn’t match up. You may be tempted to fudge a bit, on the theory that getting your foot in the door is better than no interview at all, but this is not a productive approach. Informing the company and HR team upfront of the mismatch impresses with your self-awareness, your respect for their time and your good judgment. By showing your good manners as a candidate, you’re more likely to be made aware of other opportunities, not less. Especially if you position your feedback as “I’m not right for that role because of reasons one, two and three, but if you have something come open that requires x, y and z, I’d be a better candidate for that kind of opportunity.” With feedback like that, you are setting yourself up for success by communicating proactively and clearly.
The trouble comes, of course, if there is a mix among the three factors -- one or two of the three do not match up, while the others do line up with your background or interests. In these cases, it’s your business judgment as to whether and how hard to pursue. Raise these issues with the HR person or recruiter prior to heading in for the interview. It could be that they’ve misstated their priorities and will clarify for you in a way that makes a go/no-go decision easier to make. But, ultimately, the call will be yours as to whether or not proceeding is a good use of your time, and theirs.
Allocate one hour of preparation time for each hour of interview time. This will strike you as an impossible burden at first, and a pile of additional work on top of an already packed day. But like the saying about restaurants -- “if you can’t afford the tip, you can’t afford the restaurant” -- if you don’t have the time to prepare, you don’t have the time to interview.
To put it into perspective, if you get 10 relevant interview opportunities, half will last one hour total, and the other half will last four hours over two rounds, not including travel time. That’s 25 hours of interviewing. Adding 25 hours of prep time is the right amount. Investing 50 to 100 hours, every three or four years, in order to maximize your professional satisfaction and compensation, may be an investment you will come to believe is justified. It certainly underscores that finding a new job is, in itself, a full-time job.
You should do the right amount of research for the interview, neither under-preparing nor over-preparing. This means showing up with a good level of knowledge after doing a reasonable amount of research.
On one hand, there is the distressing number of professionals, at mid- and even senior levels, who show up for an interview without even visiting the company’s website. We all get it -- time is tight and you’re busy. But allowing crunch time to eliminate your preparation is foolish, and you’ll look bad.
On the other hand, there are the people who overdo it and show up with eight pages of single-spaced questions. They start the interview by asking why margins in the Southwest European region have declined by 10 percent over the past seven years despite favorable currency rates. Candidates like these do seem to have missed the point of an in-person, human-to-human connection.
The questions you raise and the research you bring reveal something about your business judgment. Are your questions reasonably related to the job and your duties, or are you asking simply to show off or play trivia games? Either approach reveals something meaningful about how you handle meetings, conversations and business tasks. Your actions speak much louder than your words, so be clear about the message you’d like to send with your preparation and questions.