The Three Pillars of Interviewing

In a recent conversation with a long-time friend, we got to talking about interviewing. He’s not in sales and he’s not in technology. However, like me, he’s at a stage in his career where he finds himself pondering his next career move. During our conversation, it occurred to me that even though the jobs he was interviewing for were in a totally different discipline (environmental science), the fundamentals of interviewing are the same. Having experience with the interview process in my career, I thought it would be valuable to share with him (and you) what I consider “the basic pillars of  interviewing.”

Before we jump to the pillars, it’s worth noting that very little information is taught about “interviewing” in schools. They don’t teach you “how to interview” at the university-level, probably because the professors themselves have only interviewed for a desired position a couple of times in their careers. And if they do have a course on this subject matter, you’ll often find the approaches dated because, just like sales-training, it’s taught by someone who was a rep 20 years ago, but is no longer on the front lines themselves. There is a dearth of information on the subject because so many people do the interview-exercise so infrequently.

First pillar: drive the conversation. Remember: the interviewers only have a few minutes to judge whether they want to potentially spend a good portion of their work-life with you. If you wait for them to carry the conversation, you will lose the opportunity to let your personality, your skills, your passion, and your desire for the job shine through.  Moreover, most people are not trained to interview---except being instructed by HR on what NOT to say. So, don’t walk into an interview and smile and then wait to be interrogated. Carry the conversation to them.

How one might carry the conversation is dependent on the role you’re interviewing for. However, you can borrow from the great Dale Carnegie, and think about topics that the interviewer is passionate about. For example, you might start by asking about their role. “Nice to meet you Marsha, now tell me what is your role here at XYZ?” If you did some research ahead of time, you might mention that: “I got your name before the interview and read from the website that you joined recently. What inspired you to join XYZ?” By starting the conversation about them and their role, you get to interview them as much as they interview you---which is exactly what you should be doing!

Second pillar: understand the questions being asked. Often, especially in sales interviews, the interviewer will try to make the interviewee uncomfortable to see how they handle pressure. Rapid fire questions are a prime example of this. Another is when someone asks a very broad question, leading to a larger, more important question. This happend to me once, when the interviewer asked me “what happened there?” referring to one of my former companies. Being less experienced on the interview circuit, I answered nicely and briefly. However, he soon followed up with his real question: “why did you leave?” At that point, he was trying to take control of the interview, and my sloppiness in not clarifying my answer to his first question had put him “in the driver’s seat,” forcing me to play “catch-up.”

Upon reflection I should have handled the conversation in the following way:

Interviewer: “so what happened there?”

David: “What happened at XYZ company? That’s a big question. What are you looking to understand exactly?”

Interviewer: “How come you left?”

David: “Oh, that’s easy. I left because…”

By asking for clarification, I could identify what his real question was and provide a direct answer. I also regained control of the conversation, because the anxiety that he tried to toss my direction, I was able to send directly back to him, forcing him to ask his real question. This helped keep me in control and to continue driving the conversation.

The third pillar: Closing. The interview process is a sales process. As much as my friends in product and engineering bemoan sales, they also get very excited when they hire a new candidate. And the vernacular they always use when a new hire has signed on---often after a lengthy interview process ---is “we closed her/him.”

Closing is a big part of interviewing. For a sales-position, it’s imperative. At the very least, you need to close at the end of the interview. As sales folks know, you use different closes for different positions. For example, closing a hiring manager is different than closing an individual contributor. That said, here are two closes that work for the interviewee: “Based on our conversation here, do you want me on your team?” And “Given our discussion, do you have any reservations about bringing me on?”

There are many benefits to closing in an interview. One of the biggest is the feedback that it elicits from the interviewer. For example, if you are scheduled to speak with four people one-on-one and during the first interview, your close inspires a response like: “well, I’m not sure. We’re a pretty outgoing bunch of people here and you seem a little reserved.” Then you know that your enthusiasm-level must be turned up for the following three interviews. Without closing with each person, you rob yourself of getting critical feedback necessary for you to shine in the total process.

Interviewing can be stressful, especially for people who haven’t done it in a while. You spend time preparing, you focus yourself mentally, then you go into the interview and have no idea what the interviewer might ask. Relax, we’ve all been there. Think about these three pillars. By driving the conversation, clarifying the questions, and closing the interview, you’ll help demonstrate the confidence and the skills that you can bring to an organization.