By Outside-In® Team Member Zach Werde
This blog is Part III of a 3-part series on Cracking the On-site Interview. The first part examined “the why” behind when you feel perfectly qualified for a role and extremely confident about your interview performance, but didn’t land the role. Part II introduced the best tips for mastering the interview basics. And Part III will help you take your interview skills to the next level.
Okay, if you’ve mastered the basics from part II (or think you can handle those instructions), it’s time to discuss how to bring your interview to the next level. These are the things that will separate you from the rest: competency, conciseness, and focus. Let’s break them down below.
You’d be amazed what the power of competency (or perceived competency) can do for you. This is something surprisingly few people have mastered, and yet it is so very easy to do if you recognize the importance of it and how to do it. I can break it down to one, simple, statement. Answer the question that is being asked. This may sound absurdly elementary, but you’d be amazed how many interviewees fail to do this. I talk to $100/hr project managers all day long. When I ask them a simple question, 9 times out of 10 their answer far supersedes the question (or worse, they start to ramble and don’t even address my question). It’s astounding.
For example, I will ask a question like “tell me about your responsibilities for company X”. The answer I expect to receive is “my responsibilities for company X were A, B, and C,” followed by a pause in anticipation of the next question. Instead, candidates proceed to tell me how they got the job, who they reported to, what they liked and didn’t like about their role, and how the position ultimately terminated. It’s nice that you are ready to talk about your experience, but if you do what I just described you are really doing yourself a disservice. Answering outside the scope of the question is really frustrating for interviewers.
Aside from not providing a direct answer for a direct question, you are disrupting the flow of the interview. Let’s say your interviewer has prepared ten questions and allocated about three minutes for each question (30 minute interview). When you spend ten minutes answering the first question, your interviewer either won’t be able to ask you all the questions that they would like, or they need to inconvenience themselves by cancelling whatever is next on their calendar so that they can spend 60 minutes conducting an interview that should have lasted 30 minutes. Is this the impression you want? Do yourself a favor. Answer the question that is being asked of you and pause for the next question.
This is a direct follow up to competency. Most hiring managers ask direct questions and expect direct responses. My advice? Play along. By all means, if your interviewer asks you vague open ended questions to prompt you to talk (such as “tell me about yourself”), then feel free to spend a few minutes and talk about yourself. But for the direct questions (such as “why did you leave company X” or “what was your favorite part about working for company Y”) you are committing an interview sin if your answer is longer than 30 seconds.
Even for direct questions with a little more meat on the bones, such as “give me an example of a time where you encountered a problem and fixed it” – this should not be longer than a two minute response. Call it 50 seconds to a minute to introduce a problem, another 50 seconds to a minute to discuss how you fixed it, and maybe 5-20 seconds left over to discuss the results or ramifications. I’ll say it again: Answer the question that is being asked of you and pause for the next question.
Another deadly interview sin is losing focus. You must know what role you are applying for and be prepared to speak to the best qualities for that specific opportunity. If you are a developer applying for a developer role, but you also have some experience working on architecture, DO NOT spend time in your interview discussing your architecture experience. Unless the hiring manager asks you about architecture, stick to your developer experience. Talking about experience you have beyond the necessary experience can be insinuated as you suggesting that you should get the job because you are overqualified, and that is NEVER a good idea.
At the end of the day, the hiring manager is only interviewing you to see if you’re interested and qualified. Spending time talking about non-relevant experience does neither for you. Instead, the recruiter will start to question if you have the appropriate day-to-day skills, and they will certainly question whether you are genuinely interested in their role. DON’T DO THIS! Stay focused and talk about your relevant skills and experience.
I see this all the time for candidates who are qualified for multiple classes of positions. For example, when a project manager applies for a project manager role, but they also have some experience with program management, it is all too easy for the project manager to fall into the same trap and start talking about the highest level experience they have and about the strategic leadership they have offered for programs in the past. What the hiring manager really wants to know is, have you managed a project before. And did you get it done on time and in budget. What was your team size? What was the scope of the project? How were you able to utilize classic PM tools (like Visio and Project)? Those are the areas you should be dedicating your focus to in an interview. Hiring managers want to hear about all the relevant skills you possess. Anything else is extra baggage and will make them question your fit and interest.
You’d be amazed how the three traits above can really set you apart from the rest. Getting a job is hard. There is usually fierce competition and companies and hiring managers are very selective about who they bring on, especially for higher level positions. As a recruiter, I talk to people all day long who just don’t get it. They know they are qualified and they are confident in their communication skills. So they just show up and take the interview. Then they are baffled time after time when they don’t get the result they want. They have predetermined what they want to discuss and ensure they get their full story out at all costs.
Avoid predetermined monologues – let the interviewer dictate the flow of the conversation. Eventually, a number of these folks start blaming other people, and making statements like “they must be discriminating against experienced workers” or “you have to know someone to get a job at this company”. I’m not here to tell you tell you that those things never happen, because they do. But more often than not, when you apply for positions that you are qualified for and you land interviews but not jobs, sooner or later you have to figure out why. Are you interviewing with a strategy that is maximizing your chances for success? I hope that the above concepts are helpful in turning you into a “pro” interviewer.