After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Monday, October 10, 2011

About Face!

A well-prepared candidate is a headhunter’s best friend (at least for the duration of said candidate's job interview).  This individual has planned and rehearsed a presentation that highlights his/her qualifications and  strengths to a potential employer.  So why do I sometimes want the candidate to ditch that presentation?

Let me pose the following scenario:  Amy is a senior financial analyst with an aptitude for and enjoyment of creating advanced financial forecasting tools.  She is now interviewing for a position as a finance manager, and has prepared a neatly organized portfolio displaying samples of her work.  As Amy prepares to delve into samples of her finely honed spreadsheets, the interviewer pushes them to one side and asks her fourth-in-a-row question about how Amy would deal with unruly staff members. 

It begins to seem as though the interviewer is far more interested in people management than in Amy’s technological skills. 

Amy has several choices at this point.   

1.     She can give cursory answers to the interviewer’s people management questions, and try to return the focus to her prepared presentation.

Headhunter’s Response:  Bad choice.  Ignoring an interviewer’s clear focus is never a winning strategy.  An employer engages in the hiring process for only one reason: to fill a need that isn’t currently being met.  In this case, the interviewer is making that need quite clear.  Amy’s technological skills are not the primary interest of this employer.  If Amy does not adapt to the interviewer’s line of questioning, her future will not be with this company.

2.     Amy can determine that a management role supervising a potentially out-of-control staff is not an opportunity she wants, and proceed to the end of the interview as quickly as possible, cutting her losses. 

Headhunter’s Response: This is a legitimate decision.  If Amy’s best days are the ones spent immersed in technology, she may not be inclined to be assume the disciplinary activity which seems to be implied in this position.  Paying attention to the interviewer’s questions has revealed to Amy the truth of a situation she may want to avoid.  Instead, she should look for a senior role in which the focus is on process rather than people.

3.     Amy can sigh, close her neatly organized portfolio of spreadsheets, and begin to focus on providing the information the interviewer is seeking.

Headhunter’s Response:  Listening closely to an interviewer’s questions is the single most important piece of advice I give to candidates.  The questions an interviewer asks not only reveal information about the substance of the position; they also provide clues to the candidate about areas of his/her expertise on which to focus. 

In the scenario above, if Amy decides that the job is worth pursuing but perceives herself to be somewhat lacking in people management experience, she need not disqualify herself.  Instead, she might list examples of management techniques she has encountered and what she has liked or disliked about those techniques; conflicts she has been a part of or helped solve; goals she would set for staff; dysfunctional staff situations she has witnessed, etc. By following the lead of the interviewer and adapting her presentation to the newly acquired information, Amy can position herself to be a realistic contender for this position.

I have heard it said that the best-laid battle plans are usually abandoned as soon as the first shot is fired.  Good armies must adapt to the evolving reality if they wish to survive.  The same could be said for job candidates. 

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