Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Want to have a good job interview? Have a conversation.

I interviewed a student today, a mock interview. She wanted to practice because she has a second interview on Friday...with the CEO of a local company. Naturally she's a little nervous and wants to make a BIG impression on the BIG Cheese.

She didn't interview well with me. Why? For one thing, she sat in front of me, limpid and withdrawn. For another, she didn't smile and her poor posture reflected a meek and timid personality. To make things worse, she only spoke when I asked her questions; and then, she only answered with terse statements.

When we finished, I gently told her these things and she readily acknowledged them. Knowing she didn't do well, she asked me how to improve. I told her that a good interview, especially with a CEO, demands a good conversation. I told her that to have a good conversation she needs to stimulate a dialogue by asking the CEO questions. Of course, she had no idea what questions to ask. In my experience with mock interviews of students and prospective employees, no one knows what questions to ask.

I have seen this problem, not just for the last nine years I've been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, but for the 20 years before when I interviewed prospective employees in the marketing and corporate communication departments under my direction. Everyone seems to think that an interview is a passive process. It isn't. It's a dialogue. You interview me; I interview you.

This kind of interview starts with attitude, the attitude that you, the prospective employee, have skills and talents that are marketable. Again, this attitude says, "I'm interviewing you as much as you are interviewing me." In boom times, or bust times, that questioning attitude pays off.

Notice that I'm not suggesting that an interviewee have "an attitude." Anyone who goes into an interview with arrogance and aggression is going to lose. I'm talking about confidence. You need to sit in an interview feeling confident that you have the skills, experience and general wherewithal to do the job under consideration. Again, this means, in part, that you are interviewing the interviewer to determine if the organization is a good fit for you, just as they are trying to determine if you fit with them.

You can learn whether or not they fit by asking them questions, just as they ask you questions. Your questions will stimulate dialogue and that will help to make you seem interesting, communicative and discerning. So, what questions should you ask?

Over the years, I have told so many students in so many mock interviews to ask questions and heard them say that they can't think of any questions, that I wrote them down, in book form, and sent the manuscript to an agent who sent the manuscript to a potential publisher. I can't list all 50 questions from my manuscript in this post, but I will list a few (in random order).

Questions to ask a prospective employer
1. What happened to the last person who had this job?
2. How are employees evaluated?
3. What is the management style of the organization?
4. What is the work-life balance?
5. Is there a 'glass ceiling?'

If you ask those kinds of questions, you will stimulate conversation and demonstrate a serious and discerning nature. Moreover, the interviewer will not feel as if he or she is in the presence of a lump. Nothing is worse than interviewing someone who sits limply in front of you and is unable to engage in a conversation. Trust me; I have interviewed some real lumps.

To test my questions, I sent my manuscript to an HR professional in Silicon Valley. She agreed with the premise and the questions and endorsed my manuscript. Take our word for it, if you want to have a good job interview, have a good conversation. And, use me as a reference!


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