Interviewing: Your Life is an Interview

Today’s article is the second of what looks like 4 part series on improving your interview skills. You can find part 1 here. The concept behind today’s article is not the most glamorous of the series. In the future articles we will dig into preparation and game day performance. However, today I want to talk about how you can improve your chances in a future interview right now.

That’s nice Jonathan, but I don’t have an interview anytime soon. I just want to know what to do when the time comes…

I guess I don’t blame you. It is definitely easier to procrastinate. Here’s the problem – success doesn’t happen overnight. The difference between a well prepared candidate and a poorly prepared candidate in an interview is almost comical. The questions don’t take a well prepared candidate by surprise. They have anticipated the type of questions that they will need to be able to answer and adjusted their behavior so that they will have the examples they need to succeed. On the other hand, an unprepared candidate will look deep into their memory and find nothing. They will try to use a different example, or say what they would do, but they can’t tell me what they’ve actually done.

Let me make it clear. The planning and action that a candidate takes in the months and years before they ever know about an interview are usually what separates the winners from the losers. The losers will go back to their jobs and wonder if they are ever going to get that big break. I’m here to tell you that you make your own breaks. If you go back to your desk and do the same thing that you’ve always done then you are going to get the same result you’ve always gotten. You need to break that cycle and take action now.

Maybe next week…?

Not next week you joker. Right now! None of us knows what the future may bring. If you’re actively searching for a job then you might get that surprise phone call and be asked to interview today. What are you going to do then? There’s no time to engage in the crash course prep that seems to be standard today. It happened to me once about 8 years ago. I had interviewed for a job 2 weeks before and I got called back for a second interview. It was Friday and they wanted to know if I could come up and talk to them at 11:00. Of course I said yes, but then I looked at my watch. 10:30! That was a bind. I was dressed down for casual Friday and hadn’t thought about interview questions since the end of the first one. God was watching over me that day. They only wanted to ask social questions and I managed to answer them well enough to get the job. I learned my lesson then and there. I couldn’t take interviews for granted. If I wanted to maximize my chance to get the jobs that I wanted then I needed to be ready ahead of time.

I’m going to walk through four things that you can do right now to raise your stock in leadership’s eyes and increase your chances to walk out of your next interview as the victor. In a nutshell they are:

Performance
Relationships
Examples
Planning

That’s right, PREP. You know I’m on the right track when my list of four creates an unintentional mnemonic!

Performance

Here’s where I open up my bag of managerial secrets and reveal something that you might not have wanted to admit to yourself. I care about your performance in your current job. The fact is that your current job performance says much more about you as an employee than any interview will reveal. Can you handle stress effectively? How is your work ethic? Are you likeable? Are you a team player? All of these things are easily seen in your current job performance.

If I’m seriously considering you as a candidate I want to know everything thing about you that I can find out. I read through your old reviews, looking at your comments and your managers. What, you haven’t been taking the time to talk yourself up in your review documents? You should start. Reviews aren’t inherently positive or negative. They are there with the purpose of summarizing your performance over the last year. If your company allows you to make comments on them then you need to be taking advantage it. That way some prospective manager will have your voice in their ear rather than the emptiness of a cold, sterile document when they are deciding who to interview

The overarching point about performance is simple. You need to be giving your best, all of the time. I don’t care how long you’ve been in your job, how trapped your feel, or how much you hate your boss. Winners stand out. If you want to be a winner then you need to stand out as well. There are hundreds of ways to improve your in-job performance but I’ll tell you the simplest. Review your weaknesses, pick the one that holds you back the most, and address it. Yeah, I know, it’s not the deepest advice. But the fact of the matter is that self-improvement is not rocket science. You figure out what’s holding you back and address it. Any progress you make is more than you are making by doing nothing.

Obviously this advice about performance is much more important if you’re applying for a promotion in the same company. Regardless of this, the challenge is the same. If you are a person dedicated to high performance and dedicated to turning your weaknesses into strengths then your reputation will precede you and success will follow you. It’s not a switch that you can turn on and off. Make a practice of it now, even if you aren’t in a place that you want to stay. It will serve you well throughout your life.

Relationships

Here we go again. I bet I sound like a broken record when it comes to relationships. I’ve sure you’ve gotten the point many times over. So I’ll limit myself to two key thoughts before moving on. The first is an immutable truth that you need to understand. People talk. Pretty simple eh? The profound truths often are.

Let me elaborate a little. You know by now that any leader that you want to work for has probably grown to understand the usefulness of strong relationships. Job placement is one of the places where relationships are critically valuable. Remember how I pointed out how I would learn everything about you that I could? Guess how I learn the vast majority of what I know? That’s right, relationships. If I’m doing my job right then I will have contacts in every part of the company. Of course I’m discreet, I’m not running around broadcasting that you are interviewing, but it isn’t hard to get people talking. You find out if the person knows the candidate and then ask a few leading questions. Many times the information is second or third hand, but it’s still important. It’s more than I had when I started and it is critical for me to gather as much as I can before I interview you in order to do a good job of it.

The second point is that you need to be taking advantage of this. What’s the appropriate action when you find out that somebody is spying on you and listening to your conversations? That’s right; you feed them the information that you want them to hear. How can you do that? There are two ways that leap to mind quickly. The first is contained in the section right above this one. If your performance is good it will speak for itself. The second revolves around your own relationship building skills. Guess what I’m going to hear from my friends if you’ve taken the time to build your networks in the way that I’ve described. I’m going to hear how great you are. In fact, the person in the middle is going to feel like he’s doing both of us a favor by connecting us.

I know we’ve been around this block once, but I’m going to reiterate my earlier point. This advice doesn’t help if you try and implement it after you find out you’ve scored an interview. It only helps if you’ve been acting on it in the months and years leading up to it. In fact, taking these actions ahead of time might be the reason that you score the interview in the first place instead of getting rejected in the earliest stage of the process.

Examples

Ok, let’s move past the social stuff. Do you want something hard and fast? Something you can sink your teeth into? Here it is. First you need to identify a good set of interview questions. In some companies, like my own, there is a standard list of accepted interview questions that managers typically choose from. If you search on your companies intranet or ask around you shouldn’t have too much difficulty locating it. If you can’t find one then you can do a Google search and find pages like this one.

Step two – recruit a friend and schedule some time together outside of work to do a practice interview with your list of questions. Take a minute to think about the kind of job that you think you want and ask your friend to focus on questions that make sense for that type of job. Keep a notebook and pencil handy and take note of the questions that you struggle with and those that you already have great answers for. After you’ve done this two or three times you will have compiled a very good list of questions/topics that you will struggle with if you ask asked about them in a future interview.

This is where you take the bull by the horns. Your list tells you the kinds of examples that you need to develop for the future. Now do it.

Umm… what do you mean “do it?”

I mean exactly what I said. Now that you know what kind of situations you don’t have under your belt you need to find ways to put yourself in those situations and generate those examples. Did you struggle with the question about influencing your peers? Then pick an opportunity that you feel strongly about and make it a point to influence them to take action on it. Did you struggle with the question about how to analyze data? Ask your boss for a chance to help him out by analyzing your team’s performance data and recommending improvements. You’ve just killed 3 birds with 1 stone by improving your experience with data analysis, creating an example where you’ve showed initiative and making a good impression on your boss.

What you’re doing in the long run is turning yourself into a more marketable employee who has skills that will be useful to hiring managers. What you’re doing in the short run is creating good examples for yourself where previously there were none.

Job Planning

This goes hand in hand with the previous advice but it is worth its own section. If you know what you want to accomplish in your career then it makes it much easier to prepare for interviews and jobs. It’s easier because you have to opportunity to specialize. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Let’s say that you’ve been selected for the game show Jeopardy. You’re going to the filming in 1 week, which means you have a lot of studying to do. You start researching and find a list of all of the categories that you need to know something about. Uh-oh, there’s a problem. The list is more than 1,000 categories long. There’s no way that you can learn anything useful about so many topics in a single week. Now, imagine the same scenario except this time they tell you the 12 categories that they will be focusing on when you’re on the show. It’s still a lot of information, but it’s manageable. You focus on 2 categories a day and by the end of the week you feel well prepared for the show.

Career planning is the same way. If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish then you will be aiming your efforts in a hundred different directions. Instead of preparing for a job, you will become stagnant because there is too much to learn and you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. However, if you have a good idea of what you want to do with yourself then your personal development path becomes much clearer. Do you want to be a manager? Then you need to work on courage, emotional intelligence and effective decision making. Do you want to be a systems developer? Then you need to spend your time learning coding languages and computer systems.

Does that make sense? The time it takes to figure these things out is worth it in the long run. In fact, if you want to look back through the archives you’ll find that I have a series dedicated to this very topic. Once you’ve determined your path then all of the advice in the previous sections becomes easier to implement because you know where you want to focus your time and attention.

Closing

Ok, I just noticed that I’m up to 2,300 words, so I’m going to wrap it up before this turns into a novella. If you walk away from this article with one thing I want it to be this – The time to start preparing is now. Don’t wait until the last minute.

In next week’s article I’ll walk you through my personal interview preparation process.

Until then, Be Blessed.

Jonathan

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Posted on January 22, 2011, in Career Development and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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