THE FINAL INTERVIEW was just a formality. The new position as vice president of database marketing with a marketing solutions firm was in the bag. All of the preliminaries had gone well. The general manager was impressed with the management roles Ken had had at several well-known financial and information services companies. And based on phone conversations, everyone had very good personal feelings about one another.
Ken was flown in for face-to-face interviews. He was already imagining the new house he and his wife would now be able to buy.
Things started unraveling when the general manager asked Ken why he had stayed at each of his positions for only about two years. Ken impulsively responded, “I guess management didn't understand me.” This sent up a red flag. The general manager then asked, “Who was your last boss and what would he say about you?” Ken became a bit anxious and awkwardly provided an answer. “Well, Jim and I were never close but I guess he would say that I was a good worker.”
Ken didn't know that his former boss was the general manager's golfing buddy. Five minutes later, the interview ended. Ken was thanked for making the trip and told that “someone would be in touch.”
Ken didn't know what hit him. How could something so sure turn on a dime like that?
Ken had been cavalier about this final interview. He had not prepared well. He did not recognize that the short tenures in his career needed a serious explanation. His flippant responses made him appear arrogant and dismissive. Instead, he could have talked about how he had been able to provide value in his assignments to his superiors, but in each case yearned for greater responsibility and more opportunity to learn and grow.
Ken ignored Rule No. 1 for managing a successful job interview: Think through all of the potential negative aspects of your career performance and practice a response that projects assurance.
Many people have been fired, left positions after a few months, been laid off and out of work for a long time or had some other potentially negative “black mark” on their career record. That is usually not the problem. What's important is how you feel and talk about it.
Ken also ignored another rule for managing a successful job interview: Get to know as much as you can about the person who is interviewing you. Also, assume that everyone knows someone.
It's a small world after all. Whether the general manager knew Ken's boss or not, Ken erred by saying, “He and I were never close.” Ken painted a picture of himself as someone who was not a team player, wasn't receptive to being managed, and was possibly a hothead.
There are many other ways that people sabotage themselves during an interview.
Dressing for an interview has now become one of the trickiest aspects of the job hunt. Candidates often mistakenly assume that they should be attired for their first interview according to what they know about the company's dress code.
Every firm Robert had worked for had allowed employees to dress casually. Then he got his chance to interview for a plum creative director's position with a big new media company in Silicon Alley. He'd done his homework on the firm, prepared an impressive portfolio of creative projects to show, and was confident he'd make a fabulous impression.
Dress? He had heard that this company allowed casual attire, and decided to buy a business casual outfit at Barney's.
When Robert met with the human resources director, he noticed that she looked him over from head to toe, her face almost expressionless. “What I thought would be a slam dunk interview turned into 38 of the longest minutes of my life,” Robert said. The HR director's final words to him: “You know, we're interviewing a lot of people for this position.”
What was Robert's downfall? He forgot to consider that an important aspect of the creative director's position is involvement with new business pitches and meeting prospective clients. The HR director expected Robert to know the interview would be a dress rehearsal for those meetings.
The rule regarding clothing is pretty straightforward: Wear your best business attire — a suit and tie for men, and a business suit or tailored business dress for women. For follow-up interviews you can ask the HR director, “I understand that your company promotes casual dress. I was planning on wearing a business suit. Would that be appropriate for our meeting?” Better safe than sorry.
Another candidate for a marketing director position in a catalog company looked perfect on paper. She was in her mid-30s and had worked at a couple of other large catalog firms, progressively moving up the career ladder. She had an MBA, was single, competent, had an apartment instead of a home and would be easier to relocate to Detroit.
What happened on the interview? She became shy and passive, responding to questions but not initiating any of her own. The resume was everything they wanted, but she had not done her homework. She didn't ask anything about cost per order or margins. She had no analysis to offer about what the competition was doing or questions about the company's game plan. End of interview.
What's the rule? Do your homework on the company. Know its product or service. Ask well-thought-out questions.
In the final analysis, it's mainly about chemistry. The candidate needs to be calm, self-assured, friendly, enthusiastic and upbeat. Do whatever you need to do to get into this frame of mind. Exercise vigorously to expel some of that extra tension. Meditate.
Most importantly, remember that every “no” is one more interview closer to a “yes.” Learn from your mistakes. Interview blunders are just steppingstones to success.
VICTORIA JAMES is president of Victoria James Executive Search Inc., Stamford, CT.
CONNIE LaMOTTA is president of LaMotta Strategic Communications Inc., Upper Nyack, NY.