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Best Practices: Ace Your Interview

I confess I love interviews! I see them as a rare opportunity to trot out your experiences, strengths and work philosophy. I know some people that feel the same way, but for most, interviews induce hives. The combination of having to talk about themselves plus being tested for a job they really want produces such anxiety that they can’t give their best performance.

I’ve got news for you: You really only need to get six things right. I promise that if you focus on these, everything else will fall into place. These six things are, without fail, the major reasons people either make or break interviews. If an interview is a failure, it’s usually do to one or more of the following:

1.       You haven’t done your homework about the company

2.       You fail to make a strong impression

3.       You fail to pick up on “cultural fit”

4.       You blunder the ‘reasons for leaving’ question

5.       You put your needs ahead of theirs

6.       You don’t thank them for their time

Let’s dive right in, because I have six years’ worth of material!

1. Do Your Homework

I read recently that the one of the best interview questions to outsmart practiced, superficial answers is “What do you know about our company?” It’s the ultimate measure of interest and effort. Whether you took the time to learn and prepare questions about the company and role reveals more about your work ethic and commitment than other commonly asked questions.

So, figure out why you want the job before you go on the interview. The employer can fill in many blanks, but s/he can’t tell you why you want to work there, or what excites you about the place. Develop real questions about the company’s expertise and services, vision and growth plans, leadership team, etc. Imagine how you fit into those plans and what contributions you’re qualified to make. To answer what’s in it for them; you first need to feel excited about what’s in it for you. Skip shallow questions designed to demonstrate you’ve done your homework. You won’t need them!

2. Make a Strong First Impression

It goes without saying that you need to be prepared to answer the typical questions, e.g. What accomplishment are you most proud of? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Tell me about yourself. Etc.  You need to bullet point your responses and rehearse them like your elevator pitch.

You should also think critically about how you come across. Does it align with what the employer wants you to be? If you’re a Mac, I’m not advocating you be a PC. Don’t be someone you’re not. That doesn’t serve anyone well. Be yourself, only better. Your best you.

Enlist a trusted friend to help you with this, because we can be blind when it comes to deeply-ingrained habits. Ask your friend to critique how you present yourself and what impressions you leave, e.g. Are you assertive enough? Comfortable? Dynamic?

Finally, try to schedule your interview during your most energetic hours of the day. For example, try for an early afternoon interview if you’re a zombie before 10 AM. Treat it like the big game, and make sure you hit the court in top form.

3. The Land Mine of Cultural Fit

“Cultural fit” may seem like a slippery and elusive measure of interview success, but what it really boils down to is this: Did you listen? Did you pick up on the [non-verbal] cultural cues of the organization and assimilate? Did your energy level and presentation meet their standards? Do you think you could work together well? Did you like each other?

So, let’s take a look at each of these.

  • Listening: You should have questions and be prepared to listen to what’s important to the employer. Managers have previously complained to me, “I asked him one question and he talked for 45 minutes straight. He never took a breath!” Don’t be that guy.
  • Cultural cues: From the time you walk in, be looking for things that can clue you into the company’s culture, e.g. Are people wearing suits or jeans? Does the reception area look corporate or casual? Do people sit in common areas and collaborate on the fly, or is the arrangement more hierarchal? Can you get a feel for the pace – is it noisy and energetic or more refined and serious?
  • Assimilation: Not a lot to say here. Employers are attracted to people who “get them” and make them feel comfortable.
  • Energy level: This is so tricky and so crucial! Make sure your passion comes across. Not in a Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch kind of way. That would be creepy and desperate. But you should strive for something that communicates “Your business really intrigues me and gets my creative juices flowing. I’d love to work together to produce something great.”
  • Likeability: Rapport should be easy, but be careful of getting too casual or revealing too many personal details. It’s still the first date.

4. Reasons for Leaving: When Less is More

Wow, if there was ever a question where less is more, this is definitely it! Even if it’s an irrefutable fact that your old boss is an oppressive turd, resist the urge to proclaim this in your interview. The same rules of engagement of a first date apply to interviews. Trashing your ex is just bad form.

Instead, your aim is to be gracious about what you learned from the experience. You should be able to demonstrate that you tried to resolve any challenges before deciding to leave. Your future employer is asking this question to assess your commitment. No one wants to hire someone who bolts at the first sign of trouble.

For example, I’m often told by job seekers that an opportunity for growth doesn’t exist within their current companies. I probe to find out how they’ve come to that conclusion. I want to be satisfied that they’re asked for more responsibility, tried to grow the business, etc. More times than not, this response turns out to be code for “I wasn’t promoted when I thought I deserved it.” This doesn’t given me confidence that these people have staying power or will take ownership of their professional development.

So, figure out how to gracefully convey what you’ve learned and why it’s time to look forward – sans the gory details – then rehearse your answer until you can rattle it off confidently. It’s a killer question, and if you don’t nail it, it can bury you.

5. It’s All About Me

Don’t begin the interview by stating you need a $30,000 raise and 4-day work week.

Be realistic.

These demands will go over about as well as asking someone their bank account balance on the first date. UGH.

I understand that things like salary and flexibility bear a lot of weight in the decision process and incredibly important to job satisfaction. There’s time to get there before the job offer. Your first interview is about falling in love. First you have to prove you’re an amazing catch.

The logistics come later. The best way to find out about them is thru your own reconnaissance. Reveal them to your recruiter by all means. Recruiters can help you read the right time and context to bring up your criteria.

6. Interview Follow-up: The Devil in the Details

Think sending a thank you note is old-fashioned in the digital age? It’s not. Make sure you collect business cards when you interview and send an individual email to each person you meet. You don’t have to write a novel, or even riff on a detail from the interview. The idea is to be gracious and affirm interest. A couple thoughtful sentences will suffice.  I once sent this note to a director who interviewed me for a recruiting job:

Dear Maureen,

Thanks for your generous time this week. I know I could learn a lot from you, and would welcome the opportunity to work together.

I hope I’ve left you with a strong sense of my recruiting philosophy and practices, as well as commitment to excellent client service.

I look forward to continuing our conversation.

Best regards,


Nothing crazy. Say thank you, then reiterate interest and potential contributions. If you referenced an article or web site in your meeting, then by all means send it.

If you can’t say thank you after somebody has spent an hour with you, what does that say about you as a person?

PS – Make sure you spell check it.  

The End. Now go out and have a great interview!

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