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The Art and Skill of Preparation

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In the early years of my career, I believed I was naturally gifted at job interviewing. After all, I'd received an offer for every position I had interviewed for. Blessed with this talent for finessing job interviews, I never bothered to prepare properly. Sure, I knew enough to wear my best, most conservative suit and arrive on time or a few minutes early. Because my mother raised me right, I was always polite and helpful. And because of who I am, I always presented myself as an intelligent person with good communication skills. This is behavior I take for granted, although I've seen many candidates neglect such basics.

What I didn't know then--but definitely know now--is the added value you gain from doing your interviewing homework. To get the most from an interview, you must know what you want, what skills you're selling and who you're selling them to. Back then, I didn't know my product very well or my buyer at all, so I was at the beck and call of anyone who showed interest. Consequently, I took a lot of jobs that weren't really right for me.

For example, a year after college graduation, I interviewed with a personal injury law firm which was one of the largest firms of its kind in Chicago. When I was hired, I assumed it was because of my speedy typing abilities and experience as a legal secretary. I was only partly right.

As it turned out, I was given a paralegal-type position that involved legal research, writing and word processing.

(Apparently, I hadn't mentioned my computer phobia to them.) Now I see that my English degree must have been as interesting to my employers as my clerical skills. But how did I ever accept a job offer without knowing what kind of work I'd be expected to do, or what kind of organization I'd be working for?

The answer is simple. Like many candidates, I needed a job. Since I didn't know what kind of position I wanted, this one seemed good enough. Such haphazard decision making won't hold you in good stead if you want to build a career. In my case, it took seven years-and two different jobs-before I discovered that the "legal biz" wasn't for me.

My subsequent struggle to actively choose a more meaningful career led me to the field of psychology and vocational counseling, where I spent the next 15 years figuring out exactly how career decision making and job hunting really works. Perhaps the greatest surprise has been the discovery that we all have more power to determine our fates and futures than we realize.

I've worked with people from all age groups, backgrounds and fields in their searches for more successful and satisfying careers. And I've found that at the heart of much vocational angst and unhappiness are overly passive, insecure individuals who never figured out that they have choices. Grateful that someone wanted to give them a job, they never questioned whether they really wanted the specific position offered. Believing that any work is better than none, they've lacked the perseverance to find a job that would truly suit them.

To find the best position for you, you must first assess yourself. You must know what you do best, do worst, like to do and really hate. Then, you must plan a job search that takes into account your interests, skills, values, needs, talents and desires. This preparation will lay the groundwork for successful interviews later.

This doesn't mean that every employer you talk to will have what you're looking for-or will offer you a job. It simply increases the odds that you'll be talking to the right hiring managers about the right things.

When deciding which aspects of their background to stress with prospective employers, many candidates focus too narrowly on their current job responsibilities. As a result, they underestimate their strengths and miss their key selling points.

"Interviewees should take a broad approach when thinking about their marketable skills," says the president of Phoenix-based consulting firm. "Informal knowledge also counts. You don't just learn at work. Education and volunteer activities provide lots of informal knowledge that can also be marketable."

He believes this is especially important for career changers who may not have the specific technical skills a position requires. When she was interviewed for a consulting position in Atlanta, a marketing manager emphasized her flexibility, ability to learn and customer service skills.

When she advises other career changers, she always encourages them to think creatively about their personal and professional accomplishments. To demonstrate her conflict-resolution skills to employers, for instance, she has discussed her volunteer experience with the Junior League.

A similar strategy paid off for an operations analyst. When he wanted to become a meeting planner in the hospitality industry, she knew she'd need to sell potential employers on the value of work she'd done as her church's social chair. But she also reviewed her entire professional history to ascertain her best selling points. She found that she's well-organized, service-oriented ("I see service as a privilege"), quality-conscious and a quick learner, which is an important trait for any career change.

Regardless of how or where you acquire them, the strengths you'll need to market to hiring managers generally fall into one of three categories:
  1. Technical qualifications (e.g., "I can program in C++ language.").

  2. General liberal arts skills ("I speak and write well," "I'm a good problem-solver.").

  3. Character traits ("I'm dependable," "I'm conscientious.").
It's important to highlight all three areas in interviews, although few candidates do so. In fact, many job hunters don't mention their personality strengths at all, either because they're afraid they'll sound like braggarts or because they take their own charms for granted. This is a big mistake. You can have superior technical abilities, but if you always show up late, don't care about the quality of your work and are the first one out the door each night, your genius won't help an employer much.

Don't Be Fuzzy

Your next challenge is to determine how to sell employers on your "soft" and "hard" skills. Technical qualifications are the easiest to identify and tout to prospective employers because clear-cut criteria can prove their existence. Perhaps you took a course in small-business accounting or have five years' of experience in commercial underwriting.

General liberal-arts skills are equally important, but somewhat harder to demonstrate. How can you prove that you have, say, good interpersonal skills? One way would be to look at the role you normally play on teams. Do your bosses and coworkers rely on you to help them accomplish their goals? Also consider how others feel about working with you. Have your customers or clients ever complimented you on your work? Do they make it clear that they enjoy working with you? How good are your performance reviews? Don't forget the immediate present. Is your relationship with the interviewer demonstrating your people skills?

The more you can point to specific results, the better. Again, consider the case of operations analyst. When asked about her strengths, she can say she's well-organized. Or she can prove it by discussing the details of various conferences and events she's planned. The same holds true for her claim of being customer service driven. While it's admirable to say that you see service as a privilege, such idealism only goes so far with interviewers. Actions count more. Thus, she should describe specific instances when she went the extra mile to satisfy a customer's needs.

Visible accomplishments prove your case for you. I can say I'm an accomplished writer, but you're more likely to believe it if I hand you one of my published books to read for yourself.

Most impressive of all is when you describe to interviewers how you used your skills to achieve a benefit for an employer. Any time you save your company time or money, increase your department's profits or productivity, initiate or implement programs or systems, improve the quality of service or in any other way demonstrate your value, you gain a bona fide selling point that could make future employers salivate over your talents.

"Aloof as they may seem, employers are actually begging you to get them excited," says the president of a career consultant firm in Bellevue, Washington. "Show that you can make or save them money, solve their operational problems or ease their workloads and they'll be thrilled to hire you."

Take some time to review the evidence supporting your selling points and, if possible, include some objective data in your repertoire. While you don't need to bring photocopies of your awards or glowing performance evaluations to interviews, you must remember to let employers know they exist. Interviewers want to know that you're not the only member of your fan club, and that others have recognized and rewarded your contribution.

Telling Tales

Storytelling is a good way to anchor information about your strengths in interviewers' minds. In a few short minutes, you can tell a powerful story that will enable them to picture you in action and remember you months later.

Because stories provide concrete examples of how you've performed in real-life situations, they're a lively way to showcase your skills and make a strong impact on hiring managers. The president of the career consulting firm in Bellevue remembers tracking down a woman he'd interviewed seven months earlier because she'd impressed him with stories about how she built a client base loaded with referrals and repeat customers.

While there's usually room for some spontaneous anecdote sharing during interviews, it helps to prepare a number of stories in advance. This gives you time to draft and edit your presentation. One of the worst interview sins is to tell a long, boring story that never really makes a point.

Good stories are great rapport-builders. But don't tell them just because you're a friendly person or love the sound of your own voice. Remember, your conversation has a purpose. Every story you present should highlight your experience and encourage the interviewer to extend an offer. With that in mind, make sure your stories are devoid of any negative undercurrents. No moaning or complaining is allowed. The rule is: Keep your anecdotes lively, upbeat, impressive and short.

Anticipate Tough Questions

Your next step is to familiarize yourself with the issues interviewers like to ask. Many of the standard questions are negatively phrased. Remember, you've only done half your homework if you identified your strengths without also considering your weak points.

Each response you give should incorporate a selling point, a quantifiable result and a supporting anecdote. You'll probably find some questions more difficult to answer than others. Monitor your feelings lest they sabotage your efforts. When you balk at a particular query, it usually means the issue being addressed makes you feel vulnerable. In that case, take extra-special care to formulate and rehearse an effective reply.

Value is in the eye of the beholder. The degree to which a buyer's needs match your product's capabilities determines its value in that particular setting. Sometimes, though, convincing employers of your value is a tough sell. When a Governors State University professor interviewed for a brand-management position with Procter & Gamble (P&G), she found herself battling stereotypes about her doctorate in English.

"I'm worried about this ivory tower thing," one senior manager told her. "I'm afraid you won't be practical enough. You're too theoretical."

English professors may be theoretically inclined, but they're also verbal. They can talk circles around you.

This professor is no exception to that rule. Before that executive knew what hit him, she'd made it clear just how practical her skills are.

"I can analyze problems, organize information and communicate solutions," she replied. "My job is to make sense of complex information. What could be more practical than that? Besides," she added dryly, "good theories can be practical, too. That's why people at Harvard Business School teach case studies."

Apparently, her argument was persuasive enough. The offer came through that same day. But she turned it down, having acquired a few reservations of her own in the meantime. She'd learned during an interview with another brand manager at the company that P&G was having trouble selling its 48-ounce Ivory soap product. The manager was very proud of the fact that he'd developed a marketing plan to shrink wrap romance novels with the soap in order to "entice overweight women in curlers with kids hanging out their grocery carts" to buy the product.

"The guy's attitude toward the buyer was offensive," the professor says. "I didn't think I'd be happy in that environment. I was actually happier in an academic environment."

While it's never a good idea to argue with employers, the objections they raise can highlight important value differences. In this case, the hiring manager wasn't sure an academic would suit his company's needs, and in the end, the professor pretty much agreed. Typically, when a job opportunity doesn't work out, it's a reflection of a mismatch between what you're offering and what the employer is buying. It means that you don't fit the position's specs, not that you don't measure up to standards in the job market. It isn't a statement of your worth as a person, or even of your future marketability. But it can highlight areas where you need to focus more attention.

Use Your Network Fully

You probably know by now that networking is the single best way to uncover job leads and land interviews. But your networking doesn't end once you land an interview.

On more than one occasion, the marketing manager of Chicago has been able to make contacts inside the company where she was interviewing-before the interview. This gave her an insider's knowledge that was extremely helpful. Rather than coming into the interview like a stranger in a strange land, she was able to familiarize herself with the organizational culture and hiring concerns, so that she could enter into the interview conversation with greater knowledge and assurance.

The more you know about a specific employer's needs and goals, the better you can tailor your interview questions and responses. If you're working with an executive recruiter, he or she can tell you about the company and prospective interviewer, as well as provide tips on what you should and shouldn't say. If you don't have access to a recruiter's expertise, don't despair. Find your own inside sources (in the form of networking contacts) who can explain what a particular employer might be looking for. Armed with that information, you can develop more effective interview strategies and more interesting conversations.

For example, an international marketing manager sent her resume to a West Coast freight-forwarding company after an industry contact mentioned the firm was planning to expand its overseas operations into China. The candidate had experience opening new markets in foreign countries, so she figured the company would be a good target.

Sure enough, she was called in for an interview. Once the meeting date was set, she checked back with her sources to make sure the company's plans for overseas expansion were still in place. Then, she plotted an interview strategy that emphasized her proven ability to penetrate the international marketplace. The strategy worked; she got the job.

In another case, a corporate travel manager was interviewing for a sales position at a prestigious hotel chain. Since he lacked direct experience in the hotel business, he knew it would take some extra preparation to identify his best selling points. So he called upon his wide base of contacts and learned that the hotel chain was planning to build sales in the growing Chicago tourism and convention business. During the interview, he touted his extensive network of Chicago-area contacts, knowing this would give him a distinct advantage.

It takes time to conduct effective pre-interview research. So when hiring managers call to invite you to interview, resist the impulse to drop everything and appear on their doorstep the same afternoon. While there's nothing wrong with appearing eager, you should give yourself enough time to get ready.

To speed the process, ask the employer to fax you a copy of the job description. With this information, you'll avoid unpleasant surprises ("I thought this was a director-level job, but you're saying you need an account executive."). More important, it will help you develop a focused interview strategy that synchronizes your goals and strengths with the employer's needs. When it's your turn to ask questions, you'll be able to inquire cogently about job requirements and expectations for the new hire. It will also enable you to identify your weaknesses. Should the job require skills you don't have and aren't interested in learning, it's better to face that reality now rather than set yourself up for failure and unhappiness later.

Keep in mind, however, that the company may deny your request. A recruiter for a major health-care product manufacturer in Chicago says he won't give job descriptions to candidates. He says he wants to learn who they are and what they want, not what they think he wants to hear. Unfortunately, many companies share this recruiter's philosophy, especially if they've been burned by candidates who interview better than they work.

What if the hiring manager says there is no job description? Typically, that's a sign that the company doesn't know exactly what it's looking for. On the one hand, that means you'll have the opportunity to shape a job description according to your qualifications. On the other hand, it means company executives may not agree on the exact position requirements. While you're busy selling them on your background, they may be bickering about what they really want and need.

Read Up on the Company

If you're interviewing with a private firm, ask the hiring manager or the investor relations, public relations or human resources department to send brochures on the company or department. Better yet, offer to come over and pick that material up. There may not be much other information on the organization widely available.

With a publicly held corporation, however, you're better off doing your own legwork at a local library. To make the most of your visits, seek out a reference librarian who's familiar with the resources, explain the purpose of your research and ask for assistance.

Before you start burrowing around in the stacks, give some thought to what kind of information you really need to prepare yourself for the interview. Start with the company's annual report. There, you can locate information on its major products and services, new developments, mission statement and financial bottom line. You don't have to read every word; just try to get a feel for the company. And don't take the information as gospel truth; keep in mind that annual reports are also marketing and public relations tools that only tell one part of the story.

The Value of Research
  1. It gives focus to an interview strategy.

  2.  It enables you to make a better presentation.

  3. It conveys interest and enthusiasm to potential employers.

  4. It demonstrates thoroughness, competence and emotional readiness to work.

  5. It enhances your ability to make an informed decision.

  6. It encourages you to make choices.
Ideally, you should also gather data that will help you prepare tailored responses to standard interview questions and unearth potential areas of concern that might require further discussion and information. By running a computer search on the organization, you'll uncover newspaper and magazine articles that can help you identify its hot buttons and sore points.

This worked well for media relations professional who was interviewing for a position with a prestigious Chicago museum. She buried herself in the library for a whole day searching databases and studying past media coverage of the institution, rightly believing that it was important to see how effectively previous incumbents had done their job.

What she discovered was a number of factual discrepancies in reports, tipping her off to an "accuracy-of-information" problem. This gave her a better understanding of the actual problems she might be expected to solve.

Dealing with Sensitive Information

Once you gain insight into an organization's challenges, you need to consider how best to use that information. While you should let employers know that you have the interest, desire and skill to solve their problems, you shouldn't necessarily tell them what their problems are. Like individuals, organizations have emotional sore spots. Should you stumble into their vulnerabilities with an ill-timed statement, you won't impress them with your knowledge. Instead, you'll make them feel defensive and exposed.

The media relations professional understood this, so she used a subtle strategy during the interview. Rather than reveal her discovery of an organizational problem outright, she decided to emphasize two strengths that would prove beneficial in rectifying it. First, she described herself as being extremely detail-oriented and told an anecdote about a time when her "eagle eyes" had really paid off. Second, she discussed her belief in the importance of a clear and consistent message.

Upon hearing this, the hiring manager admitted that the department had been guilty of some slipshod communications in the past and said he didn't want such mistakes repeated. At that point, the media relations professional chose to tell him that she'd noticed some factual discrepancies while reviewing the media coverage. She then described a specific discrepancy that "concerned" her.

This was a calculated risk. Although the employer might have felt tricked or manipulated into having a discussion he didn't want to have, he was impressed with her diligence and noted that she really did her homework.

Indeed, her use of the word "concern" helped ensure that she got the desired response. By expressing honest concern, she appeared caring and interested, not critical. This is important. Employers want to hire team players, not critics.

So as you acquire information, consider how to use it judiciously. Don't just heap it on the unsuspecting hiring manager's head. Any discussion of problems and concerns should evolve naturally within a context of growing rapport and trust.

Go Online

Computer-literate candidates can use technology to help them focus their research efforts and improve their efficiency. Joyce Lain Kennedy's book Hook Up; Get Hired (New York: Wiley, 1995) has many suggestions on how to do this.

Kennedy tells the story of Lee Waldrep, a PhD psychologist at George Mason University in Virginia, who went online to find a new job. When a university scheduled a telephone interview with Dr. Waldrep on short notice, he accessed their campus-wide information service and learned a great deal about the school in very little time.

It was a smart move. The first words out of the interviewer's mouth were, "Tell us what you know about our university." Since this question fell into Dr. Waldrep's comfort zone, he was able to relax and impress the recruiter with his resourcefulness.

Regardless of how or where you do your research, it should be as focused and specific as possible. Besides looking at the company and its place within the industry, you should also find out whatever you can about the prospective interviewer.

An attorney who was interviewing for a position as an intellectual property lawyer with a major Chicago law firm did some pre-interview sleuthing on the Internet. There, he discovered that one of the firm's name partners had recently published a book on entrepreneurship. He bought the book and read it before the interview so he'd be able to talk more knowledgeable about the partner's obvious interest.

From the book's topic alone, the associate accurately surmised two things: (1) that the partner represented many entrepreneurs, and (2) that he probably was an entrepreneur himself. This led the associate to ask during their interview whether associates were also expected to be business-getters.

The answer was "yes." Not only were associates encouraged to develop their own clientele, it was the key to partnership in the firm. Based on this information, In Researching Your Way to a Good Job (Wiley, 1993), business librarian Karmen Crowther suggests that interviewees search out the following types of information about companies:





Financial data


Strategies and goals

Management and employee data

Executive biographies the associate decided to accept a position elsewhere. He didn't see himself as a business-getter (nor did he want to become one), so he chose another firm that judged its associates more on their technical expertise than their rainmaking skills.

One goal of an interview is to determine whether you'd really want to work for the organization. When you have an open and honest conversation with the interviewer, you have a better chance of discovering whether you truly are compatible employment partners.

Sometimes, your research and questioning will lead you to conclude that you don't want to work for, or might not perform well, in a certain organization. Don't close your eyes to that reality just because you want a job. Odds are it will only backfire in the long run.

Be Ready to Negotiate

As you and the employer explore whether you're right for each other, a key consideration may be money. Generally, it's best to postpone salary discussions as long as possible, but you must be prepared to handle the subject whenever it surfaces.

Start by researching salary ranges within the industry for positions like the one you're interviewing for. Many professional associations conduct compensation surveys to provide members with this information. To get the real "inside skinny," also talk to people you know in the field to find out what others are earning.

While you obviously want to secure the best package possible, try not to be blinded by greed. Consider, as objectively as possible, how qualified you are for the opening. If you're uniquely suited to the position, you'll have more bargaining power. If it'll be a bit of a stretch, you'll probably need to be more flexible.

You also need to calculate your personal bottom line. No matter how desirable or interesting they are, there are some jobs you simply can't afford to take. However, don't automatically eliminate a position because the salary seems too low. Your goal is to make the employer want you, and then push for more money.

Organize Yourself

As part of your interview preparation, you must also handle some mundane logistical matters. By managing issues of time and place well, you create an impression of competence. When you let these details slip, you establish a needless obstacle to overcome during the meeting.

An insurance underwriter with the now-defunct Kansas City branch of the New Hampshire Insurance Group ruefully remembers showing up late for an interview with another company in her office complex-because she got lost. When she found herself standing in the lobby of the wrong building with three minutes until interview time, she was visibly chagrined. Fortunately, the interviewer understood (and forgave), but such a gaffe can really throw your timing and self-control off.

When you do make mistakes like this, try to use them as rapport builders. Apologize, explain what happened (have a good reason) and move on. This will demonstrate your ability to handle mistakes honestly.

Paperwork presents another organizational concern. The night before interviews, pack your briefcase with extra copies of your resume, a notepad, pens, letters of recommendation and appropriate work samples. You don't want to be scrambling to throw everything together right before your meeting.

Good grooming counts, too. "Physicality matters whether we want it to or not," says a partner in a New Orleans law firm. "When I assess potential associates for the firm, mentally, I picture them in the courtroom. People whose appearance worked for and not against them definitely have the upper hand."

This doesn't mean you have to look like a movie star. But you do have to make a lasting first impression.

Rehearse Your Strategy

Great interviewing skills are not learned overnight. Says Dallas-based career counselor, "To be effective at interviewing, you need a practice-and-perfection mentality."

Mock interviews are a great way to get that practice. Team up with a job -hunting friend or recruit your spouse into action. Have that person feed you some of the hard questions so that you can rehearse and perfect your responses

Videotaping your performance can really help, especially if you have a skilled interviewer at the other end of the mike. The strong visual impact of seeing yourself on tape can be more powerful than any objective feedback from a third party.

If you can, do some throwaway interviews to boost your confidence and comfort level. Just as you wouldn't try out for the Olympics without any prior practices, your first interviews shouldn't be with your first-choice employers.

Before Sherrie Oppenheim Singer accepted her current job as a health-care representative at Wallace Computer Services in Detroit, she endured a six-month whirlwind of job-search activity that included an estimated 100 interviews. (She had nine interviews at Wallace before she was hired.)

All that practice helped her become a virtually flawless job interviewee. She became so comfortable and effective in the role that before signing on wit: Wallace, she received four offers in a single week. Her friends began affectionately calling her the "Interviewing Goddess" and pressing her for advice on how to handle tough questions and stressful situations.

She encourages preparation and practice, saying that it's easier to perform well when you know what to expect and feel confident that you can handle whatever employers throw at you.

But don't over rehearse. Candidates who are over prepared risk sounding stilted and mechanical. To be truly effective, you must strike a balance between the rehearsed response and the spontaneous impulse.

For Singer, maintaining spontaneity in job discussions was difficult. She was so well-prepared that the answers to questions rolled off her tongue with remarkable ease. To make sure she wouldn't sound like a tape-recorded message spitting out preprogrammed answers, she made a conscious effort to tell her stories and discuss her experiences using slightly different language in each inter-view. That way, her material remained new for her as well. She also made frequent eye contact with interviewers so they'd feel that the conversation was personal.

Singer treats interviewing like sales call in which she's selling herself. It's something she does quite well. She has an open, honest, friendly style that inspires trust and confidence and masks a highly competitive nature. It's all part of her natural sales personality. But she has also benefited from a practice-and-perfection mentality.
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By using Employment Crossing, I was able to find a job that I was qualified for and a place that I wanted to work at.
Madison Currin - Greenville, NC
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