In the past year I’ve conducted 30-plus interviews for “professional” positions reporting to me, positions requiring both technical skills and strong experience. After about the 10th interview I started making notes regarding what I’d seen, little things that I would have liked to have fed back to the candidates after the interview if I had a chance. What follows are some of the personal, admittedly idiosyncratic advice I’ve collected but, alas, not distributed. Until now.
Show up on time
“On time” means 10 minutes early. You can pick up all sorts of nifty little bits of information while you sit in the lobby waiting for the interview to start. You can get a sense of how old your potential coworkers are, what the dress code is, whether it’s a noisy place or a heads-down place, whether the company seems professional and slick or down-home and folksy, even whether the physical environment has natural light. Some of this might be handy in the interview; more of it will be handy when you get the job offer and have to make a decision.
Turn your phone off, not to vibrate
A vibrating phone is a distracting phone. Do you want me thinking about your phone or do you want me thinking about you?
Your resume and cover letter is important, but your interview is way more important
When I evaluate resumes I’m scanning for a few key things to see if I want to talk to you, and after that the resume is simply a conversation guide for the interview. I want the resume to give me a clear picture of work history, a general sense of the scope of responsibilities you’ve had, and a good indication of technical skills.
I skip over the obnoxious personal branding junk that is increasingly cluttering up resumes because all it tells me is that you know how to string together some silly MBA gibberish. I do look at hobbies and personal interests because it makes you seem less boring than the rest of your resume makes you look and because it makes you seem different. I want to get a better sense of who you are.
Show some interest in the company and the job
I understand that sometimes you just need the work but try to make an effort to fake excitement about this particular work. It’s easy: imagine yourself in the role (or what you think is the new role), now imagine yourself succeeding in the role (or whatever you think success in the new role is).
One of the questions I ask is, “What do you want to do in this new role?” A good answer here can be a real differentiator. This is your opportunity to convince me that adding you to the team will add value to the team. Sometimes candidates answer this in a way that shows the candidate to be interesting and experienced but ignorant of what we actually do as a business. This doesn’t automatically rule you out, but it does mean that you might be disappointed when you get here, which is bad.
"Also, unless you have a nasty cardiac condition, a bit of energy and enthusiasm won’t kill you. I don’t need fireworks, but I do need evidence of a pulse."
Also, unless you have a nasty cardiac condition, a bit of energy and enthusiasm won’t kill you. Your current job might be boring—that might be why you’re leaving—but demonstrate that you can learn something because of that boredom. I’m amazed at how many people seem bored in a job interview, especially when they talk about their own careers. I don’t need fireworks, but I do need evidence of a pulse.
Realize that team and organizational “fit” is important now, even in stodgy old industries
For lots of positions your skills and expertise are table stakes and you’re competing with others who have roughly the same skills and expertise. You can win on having interesting experiences, but you can lose by being a bad “fit.”
The job-seeker and resume industry, which increasingly requires hard data points to function efficiently, may be working at cross purposes with candidates because it makes it look like companies care only about hard qualifications. Here’s the thing: Once you’ve gotten past the phone screen and into the interview process we’re already reasonably satisfied that you meet some minimum qualifications. Unless you’ve been dishonest on your resume the discussion in the interviews about your qualifications are to ensure that our initial impressions about your qualifications were right and checking to see if you’ve done something that might be unexpectedly and especially useful to us.
After that a lot of it is about confirming that you’re not some morale-busting Nazgul bent on organizational destruction.
Show a bit of ambition
Young people, this is how you stand out when your qualifications are weaker than others: Be smart, self-aware and ambitious. Some candidates are too weak to bring on but are such good fits that I’ll try to find ways to use those people, to bring them aboard. Sometimes talent trumps experience.
A person who doesn’t know what they want to do with their career is a person who doesn’t know what they want to do. I can forgive this to a point in young people because they need time to figure it out, the amount of choice can paralyze, and if they’re smart they’re worth bringing along.
If you’re no longer a “young person” then you should have some sense of where you’re going. It doesn’t have to be about the sector or skill or department or job, by the way. You don’t have to say “I want to be in marketing” or “I want to be a designer,” although that’s OK. It can be “I want to be a manager” or “I want to own something” or “I want to manage a team.” Any career ambition is better than none.
Sometimes not knowing something will work in your favor
Saying something like “I don’t know this programming language” or “I’ve never worked with this product” tells me bad and good things. You might be saying, “I don’t know how to do something that I need to know how to do for this job” or “I’m going to spend the first 18 months of the job just learning what business we’re in,” and this is bad. You also might be saying, “I’m really more interested in the business than the technology” or “I haven’t had a chance to develop bad habits,” and this is good. Honesty is still the best policy.
On the other hand, look creatively at your experience. Just because you’ve never been called a “project manager” doesn’t mean you haven’t “managed a project.” If I find some experience in your background that you don’t see it means you need to get a deeper and broader perspective on your own career. It also means that I’m awesome.
First impressions do matter
"My job isn’t to figure out how to sell you, that’s your job. I’ll help you out because I want to like you so that I can hire you and get back to the “regular” parts of my job."
Even with an interview script I assess and adjust to the interviewee right from the beginning of the interview. The first question I ask is typically about the person’s current or past job, and it’s easy: “Tell me where you worked and what you did.” If the impression I get from your first answer is that you don’t know how or have not planned to articulate something personal, familiar and predictable like your own freaking job history then I’m going to bring the interview to a quick close. If, at 20 minutes in, you’re forcing me to change my opinion then good for you, but you just risked a job because you weren’t sharp right out of the gate.
My job isn’t to figure out how to sell you, that’s your job. I’ll help you out because I want to like you so that I can hire you and get back to the “regular” parts of my job. So, help me to like you. Be personable. Be professional. Be prepared.
One word answers are never good
Even if you’re asked for a one-word answer fight back with a paragraph or two. The interview is about you.
If you can’t carry a conversation at your own job interview it means you’re not going to be able to carry a conversation when we’re sitting next to each other at the department Christmas party. And that’s bad.
When I ask you if you have any questions about us make sure you have something to ask.
If you’re good then I’m going to have to work to pitch the job to you. If you don’t ask me questions about the job then that’s a signal that you want a job but not necessarily this job.
This is your opportunity to make me nervous, to make me sweat a bit. Ask me what the organization wants to get out of this job, and what the areas of improvement are. Ask me what the team is like. Ask me where we’re going strategically. Ask me what I would change right away (that’s a really good question). Ask me what it’s like to work with me. Everybody loves talking about themselves, especially me, so let them. It’s a good way to build rapport.
I don’t punish people for being nervous... at first
Trembling hands, red faces, lots of water drinking doesn’t lower my opinion... unless you’re still nervous at the 30 minute mark. Then it means that (a) you and I don’t have a good rapport, because I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes trying to relax you, and I have failed; or (b) you’re really not confident.
I personally love interviewing (“You want me to talk about myself? Sure!”) but others hate it. If you’re nervous try to distract yourself from the unnatural contrivance that is a job interview. Crack a joke. Laugh at one of my lame jokes. Observe something in the interview room. Ask me about my weekend plans. Comment on your experience getting to the interview. Don’t make a story of it, but do something “normal” to remind yourself that you’re a human being first and a job candidate second.
Ed Brett lives in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. He is Manager, Product & Service Delivery of Westminster Savings Credit Union. Ed's worked in the credit union industry for 15 years, beginning in the teller pool and migrating over time into the Ecommerce channel (via I.T.). He didn’t find the Ecommerce channel, it found him, and he's glad to be there.