Interviewing: Preparing for an Interview
Welcome back everyone. I’m going to jump right into the topic of interview preparation this week. I can’t promise that this is the “best” way to prepare for an interview, but I can promise that it has worked for me in my career. I hope it will work for you just as well.
If you’ve had some time to follow the advice from previous articles then you’ve already built up a wonderful portfolio of excellent examples that are sure to wow the interviewers…what’s that? You didn’t take action on that advice? Tsk tsk. Ahh well, I suppose that’s up to you. If that’s the case then you’ll want to start by identifying your best examples. Start a list. You need to write them down. It doesn’t need to be in detail, but at least a sentence or two that will call the entire story to mind when you review it.
Your list should be full of the examples that show how you stand out and make you look like the best thing going. Depending on the interview you will need anywhere from 6 to 20 really nice examples. Yes, 20. You won’t get to use every example on your list. Some will fit well with the questions that are asked while others won’t. It’s best to go armed with more examples than you need, that way you can pick and choose which ones to use based on the situation.
Are you having a hard time developing your list? Ask for help from your spouse (I’m assuming that you talk to your spouse about significant events at work). No spouse? What about your best friend or mentor? Figure out who you like to talk to and recruit their help. They should remember situations that you’ve talked about that you may have forgotten. If worst comes to worst you can look through your old emails and files to remember the situations and scenarios you’ve experienced to try and maximize your examples.
Ok, so you’ve created your list. Now, you need to be honest with yourself about which ones are good examples and which ones aren’t. You need to eliminate anything that isn’t a personal example. If you can’t take personal credit for the work involved in the example then it shouldn’t be on your list. Remember, the examples are there to show how you are special, not somebody else.
One of my pet peeves as an interviewer is listening to people who take personal credit for the work of a group. If your example is nothing but “we, we, we” then you can make like the little piggy and run all the way home, because I’m not going to hire you. If your best work happened as a part of the group then I want to hear exactly what you contributed to the effort. Tell me how your contribution made an impact on the performance and success of the group. If you can’t speak to this with sentences that begin with the word “I” then I’m not going to be able to give you credit for the work in the example.
Wait Jonathan, aren’t we doing this backwards? Shouldn’t I focus on trying to answer specific questions?
No. Your examples are the foundation for the answers to almost every question in the interview. You have no way of knowing what questions will be asked. That means that the best way to prepare is to focus on generating the maximum number of great examples. That will give you a stronger base of answers, regardless of the questions.
If you cannot pull together a strong list of examples that make you look good then you need to seriously consider whether or not you’ve demonstrated the ability to succeed in the new job you want. Let me elaborate on that concept a little because it’s very important. Just because you are qualified to interview for a promotion doesn’t mean that you are ready to succeed in that job. Your experiences (and therefore your examples) should speak to your ability to succeed in a position that will be more difficult than the one you are in today. If you can’t think of many good examples to show that you are ready then you may not ready and should focus on excelling in your current job rather than risking poor performance with a bigger spotlight on you.
I know that’s not what you want to hear. My personal policy is to try and spend a good two years in any position that represents a significant upgrade from my last job. The first year is spent learning all of the ins and outs of the new job. The second year is used building your new examples, building networks and really excelling in your position. Moving too fast can be very hazardous for your career. The expectations of you get higher as you climb the corporate ladder and it is very easy to find yourself in a position where you are not capable of success. It’s not that you’ll never be able to succeed, but there are lessons that are important to learn at each stop in your career. If you haven’t learned those lessons then you won’t be equipped for success in future jobs. By intentionally slowing down a little you can put yourself in a position to be a long term success rather than just a flash in the pan.
Ok, let me hop down from my soapbox. Let’s get back to interview prep. Once you’ve developed your list and whittled it down to the examples that you think you want to use in the interview it’s time to put together your secret tool for interview success. You’re going to love this one. I’ve seen people crash and burn because of nerves in an interview. I’ve seen them completely forget any stories that make them sound intelligent at all. How can you prevent this from happening to you? Bring your examples with you!
Uhh… come again?
I’ve carried a grid of examples into every interview I’ve been through in the past 8 years. It isn’t difficult to make, just a simple excel spreadsheet broken into squares with headers representing the type of examples in each column and enough room in the squares for a few key words that will trigger the example in my head.
Wait… are you saying that you use a cheat sheet in your interviews?
Now you’re catching on. The stress of an interview is bad enough as it is, why try to memorize everything. The purpose of the interview is not to test your memory. It’s to find the best candidate for the job. Your cheat sheet can be open on the table right in front of you. I typically put it on the left and my notebook on the right to organize myself. When they ask a question, if you can’t think of your best example immediately then take a second to review your sheet. You can match up the question to the example headers you’ve listed across the top and then scan down the page to find the best example for the question that you haven’t used yet. Interestingly enough, in some interviews I have barely had to use it at all. I think the comfort of having it allowed me to remember what I needed to without having to rely on my backup.
So, build your list in Excel, you want to be able to print it in 1 page. Now it’s time to practice. Obviously you should take plenty of time to review your examples, get them in your memory and tweak them alone. Then you need to choose someone and do at least 2 practice interviews before the real thing. This person needs to be someone you trust. But more importantly, it needs to be someone who has earned the respect of the people around them at work and can give you good feedback on your performance. A friend who is a manager and does interviews themselves is a perfect candidate. It really shouldn’t be your friend that’s struggling to get jobs. They don’t have anything to offer you until they’ve grown a little bit themselves.
I remember when I learned the value of this step. It was a while back and it was leading up to my first really significant interview. Edith and I were posting for the same position and she had set up a practice interview with Bob, an experienced gentleman that we both worked with. He asked if I wanted to participate and I agreed. With both went into the practice interview relatively unprepared and he asked some very standard interview questions. I thought it would be a breeze but all of a sudden I found myself feeling extremely nervous. This was the most relaxed, simple practice interview ever and I was still stumbling over my words and struggling to answer questions.
Do you get like this too? It’s totally ok. It’s natural. By engaging in multiple practice interviews you’ll learn how your body will react to that nervousness and start to develop strategies for dealing with it. Another big win for the practice interviews is the feedback from the interviewer. If you’ve done your homework ahead of time then you’ll be sharing your best examples with them. They will be able to tell you if you are a zero or a hero. If they are really good then they should be able to give you tips on how to modify your examples or your delivery of them. This can be a huge help because it improves them before you get to the real thing. This is extremely beneficial and should not be overlooked in your interview prep.
Ok, last tip or I’m never going to get this article published. You need to take the time to research the company or department that you are trying to join. If it’s a new company then that means you need to spend some time on their website. What kind of business is it? What are their core values? What is their most recent product offering? You need to know this because you will probably be asked what you know about the company and this will give you the baseline that you need to answer the question well. Another reason to do the research is to try and adjust your examples to display the qualities that the company values in your own performance. For example, if you’re going to interview for Google then it’s probably a good idea to have examples that show your ability to innovate.
For people trying to change departments in the same company the mission is similar. You want to learn as much as you can about the person who’s making the decisions. Does he value straight forwardness and honesty, or is he more likely to say nice things about everybody? Does she place value on a person who knows how to crack the whip or does she prefer to use positive motivation. You need to know as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing with before the interview starts in order to streamline your presentation (and also determine if you’re going to be a good fit in the area itself).
As always, we come back to our personal networks. Your personal network is the easiest and best way to get this information about the other people in your office. They will be able to tell you if he’s a jerk or if he’s a great person to work for. Remember to focus on more than surface attributes. If you’re dealing with a person who has big dreams then you want to show them that you can dream big too.
Ok, let’s wrap this up. I hope these tips are extremely helpful. I’ll be concluding this series with a focus on the interview itself and on what an interviewer will learn from the answers you give to basic questions about things like strengths, weaknesses, etc…
Until then, Be Blessed.