Ace a job interview with 3 clear messages

Having interviewed over a thousand leaders, here are my takeaways on 3 key messages to balance in a job interview.

ace job interview
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The worst job interview I ever had was with a gentleman from a well reputed Fortune 50 company, many many years ago. Within the first 5 minutes I knew it was a mistake, but I stayed, out of respect for the company and the person who referred me. It only got worse. We spent the better part of an hour circling over and over on what exactly my role was. He seemed to vacillate between incredulity and confusion over what role ‘I’ had played, specifically, in the significant work my team had delivered. Frustrated and annoyed, I left the meeting, upset with myself, and angry with him. Over the next few days, after I had calmed down, and was able to be more honest with myself, I tried to figure out what happened. My aha moment was when I realized that; his ears, just not accustomed to the use of the collective ‘we’, when meaning ‘I’ was perplexed and overwhelmed, and unable to make sense out of what he was hearing. I learnt my lesson!

I have interviewed hundreds of leaders over the years, and there is one thing that differentiates those who are successful in a job interview, but interestingly are also often successful in the jobs the get into. It is the ability to balance 3 critical messages:

Balance between generics and specifics

The best leaders are able to paint the vision and strategy, cover the big picture as well as the key initiatives and tangible outcomes. They can rocket to 30,000 feet and beyond, and yet get laser focused and delve into the nuts and bolts of how things work. If you get into too many details, it sounds like you are in the weeds and unable to think big picture. If you talk too high level, it sounds like you haven’t actually got anything done. It is equally important to balance actions and results. If you only talk about initiatives and plans, it comes across as myopic and not business oriented. If you only talk results, but not how you got there, it can come across as lacking credibility. 

Balance between ‘I’ and ‘we’

It is critical to balance individual accountability (what was your specific contribution) and teamwork (what did your team achieve) in your narrative. If you beat your own drum too much, you risk coming across as a narcissist. If you only use ‘we’ for everything, then you risk coming across as if you were a passenger, not an active contributor. 

Balance between answering and asking questions

Answer questions generously, but also show curiosity and a desire to understand fit. Yes, the interview is your moment to communicate who you are, your leadership style, your work portfolio, and what you value. It is also he time to assess if the opportunity is right for you. Thus, asking questions and showing curiosity helps communicate your seriousness about the role and company.

The most memorable interview I have ever had was with this ridiculously smart, talented, diverse leader. We struck up a great rapport, and conversation flowed easily. And then, thoughtful, looking down at his notes, he asks me “as you look back at your experiences with company A, what would the company have lost had you not been there?”. It made me reflect and see my experiences and my contribution in a new light. He got a better answer out of me, than I knew to articulate, at that moment. 

A good interview makes you reflect, it brings out the best in you , and showcases who you are on your best day.

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