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, September 17, 2012

Thinking across the desk: Refresher # 287

Last week I participated in a marathon.  Although I didn’t win any medal, I did feel a sense of satisfaction as I interviewed, almost non-stop, a series of strong candidates I had recruited for my current assignment.  After speaking to an impressive group of professionals, my usual problem as I present them to my client afterward is remembering “Was it X or Y who was raised in a village in Ecuador and swam in the Olympic trials while working his way through Harvard selling knives?” 

Fortunately for me and them, all of the candidates I met last week performed well in their interviews.  A few of them could have done even better.

An idea I have addressed many times in this blog, as well as in my book, is “thinking across the desk” or focusing on what your interviewer wants to hear rather than what you want to say. As I analyze my recent series of interviews, I think it might be helpful to review the concept.

At the beginning of every interview I conduct, I present the case for my client, including:  size, history, industry, and financial status of the company; reason for the opening; main functions of the job; people management requirements; technological expertise requirements; factors in the success/failure of any recent occupants of the position; my sense of the priorities of the hiring manager; etc.etc.

In other words, I provide the candidates with a fairly detailed shopping list of what I am seeking in their respective backgrounds.

A successful candidate pays close attention to what I say and seems to “get” what I want.  He/she focuses on my shopping list and continually allows me to figuratively check off items as we proceed through our conversation.  A less perceptive candidate continually gets sidetracked, wanting to talk in great detail about toothpaste when I am looking for shampoo.  As often as I drag this candidate back to the topic of shiny hair, he/she continues to veer back to the benefits of white teeth.

For example, you might be proud of your great knowledge of SAP or another complex software program.  This company doesn’t use it.  In a job interview, tell but don’t dwell.

Or you might want to boast about how you motivated a whole sales department to unprecedented success.  Unfortunately the current opportunity doesn’t involve any people management.  Mention your achievement, then move on to something more relevant to your interviewer.

But if, two jobs back, you were in charge of reorganizing your small company and are interviewing with a small company in need of reorganization, describing the details of that experience is your first priority.

In summary, prepare for your interview and mentally outline your presentation, but be flexible enough to adapt to the situation at hand.  The candidate who manages to bend and shape the elements of his/her background into the mold fashioned by the interviewer may well outperform a seemingly more qualified but less perceptive candidate who refuses to stay on course. 

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