Preparing more effectively for a job interview
Interviewer: “After you told us about some achievements, can you share with us something professional you are NOT so proud of?”
Candidate: “That’s actually a good question.”
Interviewer (thinks): Of course, smarty, that’s why WE chose this question….
Candidate: “Well, I have never thought about this”.
Interviewer (thinks): Well, you should have.
Believe me this is not fiction.
Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
Everybody Else … is the 1993 debut studio album by Irish rock band The Cranberries. As a Cranberries fan it reminded me of how interviewers and interviewees prepare for job interviews. In more than 20 years of interviewing experience – on both sides of the table – I often found it intriguing how differently candidates come prepared (or unprepared) to this occasion. It looks almost asymmetrical how interviewers and candidates equip themselves. Good interviewers come with a script: They usually have identified key competencies, questions, and benchmarks for what a good answer is made up of. But what have most candidates done prior to this conversation?
How did you prepare for your last interview?
What do Pep Guardiola, Roger Federer, boxing champion Cecilia Braekhus, and other distinguished athletes have in common? They have a GAME PLAN, a plan for achieving success. In other words, they have a script of how to reach their goals in the next match or competition.
So, how did YOU prepare?
- You surely have read large parts of the public website
- You looked at some social and other media, incl. staff profiles
- You have talked to people who know the organization or to people who know people …
- You re-read your CV or application
- You may have even exercised how to mentally cope with interview stress
- You may have googled interview preparation checklist
- You ironed your shirt or blouse ….
Interview checklists might be useful; however, they only give you the basics. They cover logistics, outfit, interview etiquette, what to bring, etc.; evidently, they also venture into frequently asked questions (“What are your strengths? What do you know about us?”) and suggest the top 100 answers. Never mind that some of these questions are outdated, obsolete or too basic for our advanced purpose.
What do you need to be prepared for?
In an interview situation you are on your own: No high-level advocate, no nicely written support letter, no network, no Harvard or Oxbridge. It is about your performance, i.e. what you say, how you say it, and how compelling and confident you appear in general.
So, how can you anticipate what is going to happen in an interview?
Panels want to hear that you intellectually master your technical area of work. They want to be convinced that you are pro-active in generating ideas and solutions, see them through and get work done on your own. International organizations, such as the UN, NATO or others, tend to be conservative and retrospective rather than prospective and targeting your hidden potential. They prefer candidates who have performed in such a job before. They use the competency-based interview approach and ask you to demonstrate your qualities by presenting examples of how you handled professional situations or challenges in the past. By doing so they check on your degree of self-awareness and ability to process what you have gone through and experienced in order to become a reflective and go-getting professional.
Evidently, in an interview there are many things which you cannot control. However, there are three things you CAN control:
- The opening pitch
There will definitely be a standard opening question to kick-off the conversation. It is a warm-up question to get you into talking mode and inject a bit of self-confidence for what’s coming in the next 40 minutes or so. Therefore, you must prepare for an opening pitch. There is no excuse for not rehearsing this initial phase of the interview.
⦁ Why do you think you are a suitable candidate for this position?
⦁ Please tell us about something you are particularly proud of professionally.
⦁ Tell us about what made you apply for this post.
There are different ways to phrase this question. You are expected to share with the panelists a concise summary of what characterizes you professionally – psychologists recommend to limit it to three powerful key points which the average human brain can easily remember. What makes your experience so special and suitable for this job? Don’t go into chronologically repeating your CV since interviewers have read it. Present the essence of your professional profile in two minutes!
- Your own questions (if they planned in time for that)
Interviewers may ask quite innocently: “Do you have any questions for us?” Don’t step into this big bear trap. Don’t say: How will the process continue? They will tell you. “What is your ideal candidate like?” Silly question – that should be you! Your answer should be: “Of course, I have many questions, but let me prioritize 2 or 3.” Then you ask something smarter, because you know: your questions will be evaluated as if they were answers. Refer to something in the media about the organization, ask about the team’s key projects or priorities for the coming year, or ask about how the position you apply for interfaces with other roles in the organization.
- Think about 2-3 messages you want to get across, no matter what they will ask
What are three interesting things they should know about you, even if the questions they ask are not specifically touching on that? Keep them in reserve and drop them in when suitable, perhaps even at the end, before the interview ends.
Speaking from experience: A key factor in the interview is clarity. Obviously, vagueness or avoidance does not go down well with interviewers, neither do text-book answers, lack of courage to volunteer your own analysis and thinking, cynical, arrogant or unreflected comments. Clarity does not mean provoking the panel with risky statements, but showing that you trust your own professional assessment and that you can express it in your own simple and authentic words.
Clarity requires an internal thought process – this means you need to do some work. Remember: Processed experience is much healthier than processed food. Only if there is clarity in your thinking interview techniques begin to support you. The CAR (Context, Action, Results) or STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results) method is commonly known as a very useful structure for your answer: Situation or context of the example → your activities → results and → lessons learned. Once you presented your answer it is helpful to seek guidance from the panel: Do you want me to go into more detail? Would you like to hear another example?
Present the evidence
Next to clarity comes evidence. It is equally essential. Interviewers are used to listen to a lot of claims put forward in cover letters, profile summaries and of course in interviews: Everyone is a team player, but able to work independently; likes to be creative, but accepts repetitive work; thinks strategically, but also embraces operational tasks. Interviewers are tired of listening to claims – they want to hear evidence in the form of real life examples, ideally garnished with some figures proving a result.
The script – see the template below – will help you identifying concrete examples or evidence from your own professional life for what you claim to be. Otherwise interviewers will speculate about whether you only claim something without substantiating it – and in the end it may not work in your favour.
Looking for factual information about your professional and personal qualities rather than a string of nice claims also helps you avoid underselling or overselling your skills and present a realistic yet positive picture. Interviewers have listened to too many self-appointed superstars or indifferent or undemanding interviewees.
How do you build your professional inventory?
The most effective method to think about your own experience is: Go out and take a long walk – or several. Talk to yourself (even if people may think you are a bit weird) and interview yourself. Take the guiding questions in the framework and practice. Start to fill in the script and expand as you go.
Advisably, you start with a review of the vacancy notice. What do they really want? Take a hard look at the top five tasks and responsibilities. These are your deliverables over the next 1-3 years. Can you perform all of them without needing to be trained for several months? Are your skills, knowledge, professional, and personal qualities good enough?
Sometimes candidates are being asked: “What can you perform right away and where would you need more guidance and orientation?” Don’t underestimate this question. It is also about self-awareness and how well you have scouted the organization or the position.
Again, clarity and honesty should be your signposts. Be open about your lack of inside knowledge (obviously you are unfamiliar with most of the internal workflows), but also think about what might be missing in your repertoire.
Scan your “human resources”: level and depth of your technical knowledge; personal networks to can draw from in the job; cross-cutting skills such as drafting and presenting; planning, monitoring and evaluation methodologies; adaptability, tolerance for uncertainty, political astuteness, attitude to work.
Map your professional accomplishments. Make sure examples are relevant to the new position and that they are not too tiny (“revised the two-page request form…”). Put together your own playlist of successes and really dig in your previous positions or studies – you may forgotten about some of them.
What else is on your to-do-list?
In order to deliver a winning performance you need to be aware of what you say and how you say it. Both should be aligned. What is the credibility of somebody claiming to be a forward-thinking pro-active professional if you look like you don’t want to be in this conversation? It would send mixed and contradictory signals to the panel, and instantly they will start guessing of who you really are. Ideally their intellectual and (perhaps unconscious) emotional assessments of you are coherent. How do you achieve coherence? By having undertaken some self-exploration with a good picture of your ambition, abilities, limits, preferences.
It helps to have information about the interviewers. In larger organizations there will be the hiring manager, another member of the team or department, someone from HR, and someone from another unit. They are expected to make a recommendation to the respective appointing authority. All of them have voice in the process, but the more senior they are, the more they may dominate the evaluation of the candidates. The hiring manager is the key person. Perhaps your “reconnaissance” can find out about his or her approach to manage the team and the activities.
Last but not least: what questions will they ask? When it comes to competency-based interviewing, there are a lot of resources online, compendia of sample questions. Many international organizations have core competency frameworks and the applicable competencies are listed in the vacancy notice. This gives you some entrée into the selected questions, subject to the grade and level of the position and whether it includes managerial responsibilities. Frequently it includes something about team work/collaboration; conflict; planning; self-organization; working under pressure; project management; and specific aspects of the position.
Over to you
Never forget: Organizations want to hire someone who is enthusiastic about the opportunity, self-starting and with a hands-on mentality. A systematic preparation will help you get there. And you may even start enjoying being interviewed – after all, somebody is really listening to what you have to say.