Difficult interview questions fall into a few different categories, including stress questions (“I don’t think you’re good enough…”), seemingly off-the wall questions (“how do you find a needle in a haystack”), behavioral questions, including those that assume a negative (give me an example of a time when you had a difficult employee…”) and “greatest weaknesses” types of questions. In answering these questions, the key thing to remember is, as we say at the Five O’Clock Club, to play the interview “game”. More
Below are four of the areas that I focus on with clients when helping them to prepare for a job interview.
1) Be a consultant (take a strategic approach to the interview)
This is a whole mindset that can change the dynamic of the interview. You do this by figuratively sitting on the same side of the table as the interviewer, helping the interviewer solve her or his business problems. It’s NOT about just memorizing the answers to their questions and then asking three of your own (this is the way many job-seekers approach the interview). It IS about preparing extensively through research (like any consultant would), anticipating what issues they face, and gaining the understanding needed to demonstrate how you can help them.
2) Seek to tell two or three “stories” about your experience that are relevant to the interviewer, and that you’ve practiced beforehand.
Make it your goal to get these stories out in the interview. Use them in answering most of the interview questions you receive. Telling a story, or illustrating your expertise (i.e. saying “I have strong analytic skills, for example…”), can make all the difference between a lackluster interview and a powerful, compelling presentation. I tell clients to use a storytelling format, such as “problem, action, result” (or PAR), and make it interesting!
3) Surface objections to your candidacy by asking these two questions at the end of the interview…
1) How do I stack up against the other candidates? 2) Any reason you couldn’t see me in this position? These questions are essential to conducting an effective followup (see below). There’s a saying that the sale doesn’t begin until you find out what their objections are.
4) Follow up effectively (like any consultant would)– don’t write a thank you letter– write an influence letter.
Use the answers you receive from the questions above, and other questions you asked about their needs/issues, to write that powerful followup. Address their objections to your candidacy, if any, and show how you can help them solve their problems. The follow-up is often more important than the interview itself– I’ve seen numerous cases where candidates have turned a “no” into a “yes” from an effective followup.
If you feel stuck in your search, understanding where the problem lies is the key to moving forward. To diagnose your search and find the “cure”, ask yourself these questions, split into three broad categories: Your targeting, your marketing, and the volume in your search. If your answer to any of these questions is not clearly “yes”, you may have a gap that you need to address.
For the targeting, consider– am I going for the right position for me? Is it a fit with my background as I’m presenting it, or is there a mismatch? Is my search focused enough, or am I trying to be all things to each target? Am I pursuing 2 to 5 clearly defined targets in sequential but overlapping order? (At the Five O’Clock Club we define a target as a combination of three parts: 1) specific position or job description, 2) company type or industry, and 3) geographic area. Changing any one of these parameters may require different positioning.)
For your marketing, consider– are your pitch, resume, and cover letters/emails all sending out the same message for each target? Are they written clearly and with the appropriate message and tone for the audience? Do you have a marketing plan, listing the organizations you are interested in by target, and are you showing this plan to those who could help you?
Are you marketing yourself by using all four ways to get interviews (networking, direct contact– directly contacting people you don’t know, search firms, and ads), and are you prioritizing the first two? Networking and Direct Contact have been shown in Club research to be far more effective in landing interviews. In interviews, are you asking the right questions, and following up assertively to influence the outcome? Are you speaking to your target audience about how you can help them, or are you just talking in terms of the last job you had? All these areas get to the quality of your marketing effort.
If your targeting and marketing are correct, then it becomes a numbers game. You want to go for 6 to 10 things in the works with your “Stage 2” and “Stage 3” contacts. The reason we say this is if you go for 6 things, five of them will fall away through no fault of your own. Using the Club’s terminology, “Stage 2” means contacts you are talking with who are in a position to hire you or influence the hiring manager, but have nothing open now. “Stage 3” means the same “Stage 2” contacts, but now you are talking about a specific open position. So, do you have six to ten things in the works?
If you don’t have six to ten Stage 2 or Stage 3 things in the works, maybe your “pipeline” is running dry. Stage 1 contacts– essentially everyone that you know, are the people who can help you get the Stage 2 & 3 meetings. You should aim to get the word out about your search to 200 people in Stage 1 (including family and friends, co-workers you haven’t talked to in years, your dentist, etc.). Are you?
Similarly, on average you need to be targeting enough “potential”, roughly 200 potential positions, to end up with a job offer in a reasonable time. By “positions”, I don’t mean open positions, but rather a specific position in a company whether it is open or not. This number will vary depending on the industry growth rate. So, are you targeting enough positions?
If the volume is not there, are you spending enough time on your search? If you’re currently not employed, at the Five O’Clock Club we recommend spending 35-40 hours a week, and if employed 15-20 hours a week.
A recent article in the NY Times focused on how particularly difficult it is for job-seekers over 45 to land jobs in this market. I and others at the Five O’Clock Club have discussed this article and strongly disagree that this group should be singled out. In fact, everyone has been impacted by this “buyers market”, but some older workers, when they get discouraged, may misinterpret concerns about salary level as age discrimination. Personally, I’ve seen a similar rate of success among older job-seekers vs. other age groups, and have witnessed the power of a positive, can-do, energetic attitude in clients landing positions, no matter what their age.
The Times article also suggested that those older workers discussed in the article were getting turned down when “applying”. Welcome to the world we are all living in, no matter what the age group. Those older job-seeking clients who I have witnessed land jobs and interviews are not just “applying” for positions. They are taking a far more proactive approach (one that all job-seekers should be taking)– aggressively using networking and effectively contacting people directly who they don’t know to build relationships, and not just waiting for jobs to appear via ads and recruiting firms.
I see a lot of new job-hunters who are unfocused about their job targets. They feel that their background allows them to do many things (e.g. I can be a project manager, marketing director, or a corporate trainer). So their whole approach to the search is to position themselves as generally as possible, in the hope that others (recruiters, network contacts, etc.) will decide for them.
This approach doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. First off, you need to make it as easy as possible for people to help you, and that means pitching yourself appropriately for a specific position. Don’t ask them to do the work to translate your varied background into specific targets– do this for them! Second, targeting is all about the benefits that accrue through focus vs. a less successful “scattershot” approach. You increase efficiency and momentum by focusing on a target, because you get to know the players and the issues specific to that target, you learn to speak the “language”, and you essentially become an “insider”. People want to hire insiders!
So what is a target? At the Five O’Clock Club we consider a target to be a combination of three items– 1) Job description/title, 2) Industry or company type, and 3) Geography. By varying any one of these, you change the target. Why? Because changing any one of these parameters will require different knowledge, conversations and positioning. For example, systems development in the Health Care industry vs. the Banking industry means different positioning (and networking), particularly because the business end-users could have very different needs. You want to ensure that your pitch, cover letters, and resume speak the language of the industry you are approaching.
Make sure you are specific with your target description, so that you create the most effective positioning in your resume, cover letters, and pitch. For example “finance, regional banks, NYC metro-area” is not specific enough, but “CFO, regional banks, NYC metro-area” is. Have 3 to 5 targets that you engage one at a time in priority order.
As you build momentum in one target you start to focus on the next. This way, if a target doesn’t work out, your job search is still moving forward because you’ve already started on the next target. If you need help researching targets, check out the industry/company research links on my website, as well as the job descriptions listed in job boards. And then consider setting up informational meetings with people in the targets you are pursuing to further validate the target.