Knowledge & Insight

Interview preparation - fail to prepare, prepare to fail!

Thu 3 May 2018

I've recently come across a number of well-written articles published by other executive search firms that focus on the importance of maintaining a strong 'brand' profile on social media sites. It's a valid point, and this type of activity can certainly increase your exposure across the wider employment market. But I've seen very little advice on what is probably the most important part of the entire recruitment process - how to prepare for interview and differentiate yourself from the competition.

So, in the interests of providing a balanced view, we'd like to offer some advice of our own. As Cicero once said, "before beginning, plan carefully". And we agree wholeheartedly.

1.    Arm yourself with the key facts

Before attending interview it's important to acquire three pieces of critical information. Firstly, in addition to getting the names and titles of the hiring manager(s), try to find out precisely what they expect the successful candidate to deliver within the first few months in the role. E.g. any projects to be completed, any re-structuring to be managed, or any specific targets to be achieved. This will enable you to tailor your expertise to the tasks they have in mind, and to prepare your answers in advance. Plus it saves having to second-guess during the meeting what you think the interviewers are looking for.

Secondly, find out what format the interview will take. For example, will you need to prepare a presentation, perhaps answer a series of structured questions, or will it be an informal meeting followed by a tour of the department? This information will not only help you prepare for the interview, it can also avoid the drama of arriving for a meeting in your lunch hour only to find you're expected to complete a 2 hour interview followed by a series of psychometric tests.

Thirdly, you should always get precise details of where the venue is and how long it will take to get there. This may sound an obvious piece of advice but it's surprising how many candidates turn up late for interview and blame traffic problems for their delayed arrival. So plan your route beforehand and include all eventualities in your timings. It can even be worth doing a dummy run so you know exactly where you're going and what time you need to set off. Otherwise you may have to resign yourself to the fact that a better prepared candidate will end up with the job you wanted.

2.    Professional dress code at all times

Irrespective of the role you are being interviewed for, always dress professionally. Even though certain types of jobs within particular industry sectors don't require formal dress, it is always appropriate to dress formally for interview.

Gentlemen should wear a business suit (preferably dark blue or black) with a light coloured shirt (preferably white or pale blue) with dark shoes and neutral tie. For ladies, either a formal business suit or a blouse and trouser combination. Again, it may sound like obvious advice, but always check your appearance in the restroom prior to the interview. This not only ensures you will look professional, but will also give you the confidence that comes from knowing it. Also, avoid having a last-minute cigarette prior to your meeting. You may feel it settles the nerves, but there is nothing worse for a prospective employer than to be greeted by the odour of smoke on your hands and breath.

These points may sound trivial but it's worth bearing in mind that most decisions regarding new hires are made within the first 10 minutes of meeting someone - so it's critical that you control as many variables as you can within that all-important initial period.

3.    Enthusiasm sells

It is a well known fact that people who are enthusiastic and passionate about what they do generally make the most productive employees. Yet it's very common for us to be told by a client that a candidate has been ruled out because of a lack of enthusiasm. Irrespective of whether you have been approached by a head-hunter and you weren't actively looking for another job, or whether you responded to an advertisement, you should always approach the meeting with the intensity and seriousness it deserves, which means being enthusiastic. Of course every individual is different, and for some people being enthusiastic requires a shift in their personality, but remember this is only for the purpose of interviewing and creating a strong first impression.

A good way to demonstrate your enthusiasm is to focus on what you can do for the company, the expertise you can bring, the knowledge you have gained within your specialist field, and the value you have generated for your existing employer by implementing changes/projects/new ideas. This approach will contribute enormously towards a positive meeting and cannot fail to produce the enthusiasm needed to win over any potential new employer.

4.    When should you talk about money?

A first interview is your chance to demonstrate the expertise and qualities you can offer a prospective employer. Of course it is also an opportunity for you to learn more about the role and the company. To talk about anything else can serve only to divert the conversation from these two objectives. So whenever possible, you should always avoid talking about remuneration at this stage. But what if you're asked what salary package you're looking for? This question gets brought up so regularly it's worth examining the options.

Firstly, if you go too high you can effectively rule yourself out straight away. Go too low and you risk damaging your credibility, or alternatively you might end up receiving an offer but at a salary you're not willing to accept. Of course you might hit upon the precise figure the hiring manager has in mind. But it's a long-shot. If the salary is between £80k-£100k you effectively have a one in 20,000 chance of picking the right figure.

So what do you do if you're asked about salary expectations? A good solution is to respond by saying "I haven't given salary any due consideration at this stage, but would expect a position of this nature to be paying commensurate with market rate". By responding in this way you have given an adequate answer to the question asked, but you haven't directly placed yourself in the situation of trying to second-guess the appropriate figure. Alternatively, if the hiring manager presses you on what that figure would be, tell them what you are currently earning, but also indicate that you would expect an increase on that in order to make the move.

Talking money in any situation is always a delicate topic. The best solution is not to put yourself in this situation to start with. But in case you're pressed on the issue, practise your answers at home until you are confident in your ability to respond without attributing a monetary value. Remuneration will always be negotiated at a separate meeting, or even after the recruitment process has concluded, so don't rule yourself out of contention prior to this point.

5. Practise interview role play

It’s simply not possible to overestimate the importance of rehearsing your answers to common interview questions. They pop up in almost every interview scenario, so there’s no excuse not to be ready with the perfect answer. “Tell me a little about yourself.” “How much do you know about our organisation?” “What is your greatest strength?” We’ve all heard them before, and even if these specific questions don’t come up, planning your response is great background preparation.

It also helps if your preparation has a touch of realism to it. So if you can find a willing partner or friend to help you out, it’s a good idea to perform an interview role play. When you’ve recruited a willing volunteer, write down a number of stock interview questions and prepare your answers in advance. Then set up the role play and make it as true to life as possible. Have your stand-in interviewer ask the questions, and brief them beforehand to focus on key areas so they can provide useful feedback afterwards. They should be able to comment on your level of enthusiasm, your eye contact, and whether you answered succinctly and coherently.

You should also ask your volunteer interviewer to throw you a “curve ball” question, one you’ve not prepared for – because you should always expect the unexpected and be ready to deal with it. Trying to respond intelligently to surprise questions is excellent practice for the real thing, plus knowing you’ve covered all your bases and done your homework will boost your confidence for the big day. So when that curve ball comes at you, you can hit it out of the ground.

6. Finish on a positive note

Have you ever come out of an interview and thought “I’m not entirely sure I want this job”? If so, that’s fine, and it’s a natural part of the selection process. But if you are genuinely interested in the opportunity, then you should say so. Most candidates leave an interview with a “thank you, I look forward to hearing from you” attitude. But that’s not always sufficient to communicate to the interviewer that you’re genuinely interested in the opportunity.

So if an interview goes well and you feel there is a clear synergy with the people you would be working with, and you believe the opportunity presents a good long-term career move, then share your thoughts with the interviewer! Finish the meeting with a “thank you for your time today, and by the way, I’m very interested in this role and I would relish the opportunity to work with you.” Conclude the interview positively, and gain some competitive advantage.

You should prepare thoroughly for every stage of the selection process, from first interview, to second interview, and final meeting if applicable. Every meeting with a potential new employer presents an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the other candidates, so you should apply sound preparation techniques consistently from start to finish. Fail to do so and you risk missing out on a great new role that should have been yours.

And whilst we appreciate there isn't any magic formula for ensuring good performance at interview, those candidates who have taken the time to fully prepare generally have a far higher success rate than those who haven't. In the words of Napoleon, "wars are not won on the battlefields, but in the tents of the generals beforehand".

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