How to Nail Your Interview

No Trophy for 2nd Place

I was leading our monthly Job Search Advantage workshop and most of the attendees voiced frustration and discouragement that they made it all the way to the final rounds of interviews numerous times but always got beat out. They came to the realization that being “good” or even “very good” was just not enough in this job market. Those of us who’ve punched our career ticket with a couple decades worth of rides on the up-and-down high-tech rollercoaster know that the laundry list of “experience” on our resumes alone are not enough. Interviewing, or better yet, selling-yourself skills make all the difference from being “The Chosen One” vs. the proverbial “runner up.”

Surely, if you knew what you were “missing” then you’d have a great chance at making the necessary course-corrections for the next job interview. Ah, if it were only that easy. One of my clients (we’ll call him Steven) made it to the “final presentation” stage twice, at both a disruptive startup and a SaaS giant. He didn’t get an offer from either. And as it typically goes, he never got the crucial feedback telling him why they didn’t feel he was the right fit. Unfortunately, the cold hard truth is that hiring managers are way too busy with their day jobs and working through the interviewing process with numerous candidates that they don’t have time to provide people like Steven with the simple courtesy of feedback. So left to his own devices, Steven’s best guess was that he needed to get coaching on his “interview and presentation” skills to ensure that he didn’t flame out again.

It’s an Employer’s Market

Although unemployment is improving slightly, 1 in 10 people in Silicon Valley are out of work and still looking. Just last week Oracle’s fiscal year earnings failed to impress and its stock price paid dearly the day after. Earlier this year, Cisco announced major restructuring, which resulted in killing off the Flip camera business (500 jobs lost instantly) and forecasted additional job cuts of around 4,000. My friends who’ve been at Cisco for 10+ years are still “waiting for the other shoe to drop” as the management restructuring works itself through and while HR tallies up how many people take the early retirement package. Even though these two Silicon Valley tech giants are showing signs of weakness, there are indications that hiring is picking up. That means more interviewing opportunities but still too many candidates for too few jobs – giving hiring managers and their companies the upper hand with interviews and candidate selections, offer terms, and more.

While Silicon Valley appears to be leading the comeback in California, the job market in the Valley has never been more competitive. So how do you make certain that you stand out from the crowd of hundreds if not thousands of other professionals who seemingly have the same experience that you have? But that’s really the point isn’t it? Those who are able to find key areas of uniqueness and to present and sell themselves in a way that distances them from everyone else will be viewed as the most valuable asset i.e. The Chosen One.

On face value, people really aren’t that different in the things that headline their resumes. If yours is anything like the thousands of resumes I’ve reviewed as a hiring manager, you’re putting a lot of focus on things that may not make you as unique and special as you might think. For example:

  • You’ve worked at Oracle? Good for you. LinkedIn shows nearly 12,000 former Oracle employees in the Bay Area.
  • Maybe you think Oracle is “old school” – you’re a Alumni. Congratulations to you and the other 1,200 of you living in the Bay Area.
  • What if you worked at Google, the one company known as a major internet innovator who generally hires only top-quality talent? Well, there are more than 5,000 ex-Googlers in the Bay Area job market.
  • But you’ve got a degree from Stanford, one of the elite universities in the world? You and the other 45,000 Stanford grads in the Bay Area would more than fill the seats at AT&T Park in San Francisco!

So the question is: what really makes you unique? What can you bring to a potential employer that no one else can? The examples above are all things to be proud of, but those alone aren’t enough to make you truly stand out from the crowd.

The answer comes in how you tell “your story.” Does your resume read like a laundry-list of roles and responsibilities? No one has the same combination of skills, experience, and accomplishments that you have so you must position your unique professional assets as your competitive advantage. Construct key messaging points to explain how you are different. Formulate well thought out themes together with your “career lessons” that are essential in shaping your story and explaining your career trajectory.

“I Nailed it!”

One of my prior clients (I’ll call him David) was in the “job search” stage. David has a stellar track record as VP of Engineering for over 15 years at large as well as startup software companies. In the first week of our engagement, we focused on preparing him for CEO and founder interviews with startups. But the following week he had an interview with the EVP of one of the largest companies in the Valley. As you can imagine, those company environments are totally different which required us to tune his “story” in ways that were very targeted and relevant to those business scenarios. As a simple example, consider how managing a team of 20-30 developers trying to get its first product to market is worlds apart from managing an army of 200+ developers that are releasing the next version of a mature product to an installed base of 10,000 production customers.

Well, David and I spent 2 hours preparing for the EVP interview. Fast-forwarding, David called me hours after the interview and his 3 words made my day: “I nailed it!”

Which “Nail” Are You Going to Use?

So how do you “nail it?” Preparing for an interview requires much more than reading up on the company, its website and competitors. You need to have a very clear understanding of problems that need to be solved and what challenges still exist that others have not been able to figure out. In other words, your unique skills and experiences are the “nails”. You need to pick the right nail according to the situation, and aim it squarely at that organization’s need.

The very first thing David and I did was to understand and categorize the business scenario with respect to the company and department he’d be managing i.e. Startup, Turnaround, Realignment, or Sustaining Success. For a deeper understanding of these stages, I’d recommend Michael D. Watkins book “The First 90 Days.”

The business stage dictates the internal and external drivers of what needs to get done and what specific tactics (drawing from your experience) you must use. We also made sure that he used the right business language associated with the business scenario.

Here’s a series of questions that you should be asking yourself:

  • What are the hiring manager’s business pain points? There are some hidden pains that may not be readily disclosed. Try to find people in your network on LinkedIn who are willing to give you the inside scoop.
  • Where, when, and how did you solve those similar problems? Get your success stories ready and make sure they are convincing and relevant.
  • What makes you uniquely qualified and different from anyone else who has the same “on-paper” experience you have? You’d better make sure this passes the “me too” test! If anyone else could say “me too” to your story, it fails the test and needs more work.
  • What insightful questions can you ask to elevate the conversation? You need to get out of the “defensive Q&A” death trap ASAP. Asking thoughtful questions about business challenges will get you off the hot seat, let you gain insight that you can use in the next interview, and make for a lively, strategic business discussion.

Answering questions like these force you to dig much deeper and below the surface. It gets to the core of your skills, experience, and abilities.

Whip out your hammer and take a good firm whack:

Once you know which nail to use (i.e. what you want to say), you need to get ready to drive that nail in. Making little taps won’t get you very far. In every interview, you only have 3-5 minutes to make a great impression. And remember, you only get one shot at a first impression. You need to come in and make a strong impact and a strong connection, or you’ll be spending the rest of the interview trying to recover.

Here are the keys to make sure you “hit the nail on the head”:

  • Match your energy to the company culture and management style – The question that every interviewer asks without asking is “Is he a fit for this environment?” If the environment is intense and internally competitive, they’re not going to like a laid-back, measured, collaborative style. If the environment is entrepreneurial and non-conformist, they’re going to screen out anyone who seems like a “pattern-matcher” or a big company political gamesman. Also, what is the personality of the interviewer? Matching or complementing his ego is key for good communication. Again, use LinkedIn to find people in your network who know your interviewer and can give you clues about what makes him tick.
  • Describe how you operate vs. how you think – too many people approach an interview with an intellectual and philosophical mindset. Give concrete examples of tough decisions you had to make instead of starting off with “I think…” For example, saying “I once allocated my entire bonus pool to only three of my six employees” (i.e. making a tough decision to only reward my top performers) sends a lot stronger message than “I think it’s important to reward top performers.”
  • Project confidence with an edge – The higher you go, the bigger the stakes in your decision making. They expect you to have an opinion. They’re hiring you for a role where you’re going to need to convince and lead people who don’t agree with you. So coming off as overly-sensitive or wishy-washy with a lot of “that depends…” answers won’t serve you well. Don’t ramble. Rehearse so it flows naturally.

In addition to extensive role-playing, David and I carefully deliberated on how he’d handle tough questions like “You’ve been in startups for the last 7 years, so why ‘big company’ again now?” We closely examined the specific political and organization dynamics that existed within his target companies. Having a strong network to complement his also enabled me to reach out to a contact that had recently worked in the organization where he was interviewing and I found out that one of the key issues was lack of collaboration across different development teams.

The stakes are too high not to be fully prepared for final round interviews. Getting yourself organized in both content and form is most efficient and productive when you do it with someone you trust. Fumbling through your practice sessions will only help you to get better. Be prepared, because a misstep during game time could mean “game over.”

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst What techniques do you use to prepare for late-stage interviews? Please share your thoughts.

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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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