Archive for the ‘Interviewing’ Category

The Ebb and Flow of the Interview Cycle

April 23, 2014

In the last two weeks, one of my candidates was in the throes of closing on a new home. Do you remember going through that major life event? I surely do. The process involved multiple specific milestones that had to be accomplished within a stringent schedule – everything from getting an attorney to review the P&S, getting a home inspection done, and compiling stacks of paperwork – bank statements, tax returns, paychecks, etc., required by the mortgage company. All parties involved operated with a heightened sense of urgency. I even recall those specific words being emphasized at the beginning of the process.

Needless to say, my candidate has been completely unavailable. I’m sure that in his few spare moments, his mind was consumed with this home-buying checklist, let alone contending with the angst of making such a monumental financial commitment. I remember those sleepless nights like they were yesterday. Actually, they were yesterday, but were not talking about spousal snoring.

The home-buying/home-selling process is not unlike the job interview process. The difference, however, is the two parties – candidate and hiring company, are rarely in sync on the urgency front and don’t have legal documents and accompanying attorneys formalizing and pushing the process. Candidates have their current workload, family emergencies, planned vacations, and unplanned illnesses. Hiring managers have their current workload, fires to put out, Board of Directors and senior leadership meetings, quarter-end push, business trips, planned vacations, and unplanned illnesses.

There are simply too many reasons why the interview and hiring cycle can get delayed or completely derail. And behind the scenes, companies slow down the process for all kinds of reasons that candidates usually aren’t privy to. Here are the most typical examples I’ve seen:

* An 11th-hour candidate came into the fray and the company needs that candidate to catch up to the other candidates who are farther down the interviewing road

* The position’s scope and requirements have changed midstream, requiring all involved to take a step back and re-evaluate the candidates currently in the running

* The position itself is being called into question – is this the right role, right time to hire, right priorities organizationally?

* The company delivered poor operating results for the past two quarters, necessitating a halt to new headcount and reassessment of current roles and future hiring

* The company discovered an internal candidate who could potentially take on the role, making for a more cost-effective alternative than hiring externally

* The company decided to make a strategic shift in direction that renders the position irrelevant

* Product release date slipped, causing a domino effect that impacts new hires needed to support the product

* The company can’t get their act together on committing the time needed to manage the entirety of the interview cycle – due to being overbooked, unforeseen all-consuming situations, being poorly organized, or some combination thereof

While it is a widely accepted truth that time kills all deals, a lack of urgency/prioritization and sustained momentum on the part of both hiring companies and candidates hits more to the point. When I, the recruiter, find myself operating with the greatest sense of urgency compared to the candidates and hiring managers involved, I know there is likely trouble ahead. Inevitably, most interview cycles succumb to some hiccups throughout the process. After all, this is not a legally binding, formalized process like buying and selling a home. Yet, the more all parties involved operate with urgency and dedication, the more likely mutually acceptable results will occur.

 

Action items:

1. While it is unfortunate that the world doesn’t stop for candidates and hiring managers to get through the interview process, prioritization is key to a successful outcome. Don’t commit to hiring if you and your interview team cannot carve out the time and attention needed. Don’t commit to throw your hat in the ring for an exciting new position if you cannot make yourself available for phone and in-person interviews, let alone the time to research and prepare for them.

2. Hiring companies can delay or stop the interview process in its tracks for seemingly no legitimate reason. As a candidate, be aware and wary if such delays occur. Ask your recruiter or trusted contact for the inside scoop as to what’s really going on.

3. Hiccups do occur. Be careful not to overreact or read too deeply into them. With the first or second occurrence, give people the benefit of the doubt. If hold-ups and cancellations keep happening, then consider it emblematic of a more deeply-rooted issue.

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Interview Preparation for Both Sides

March 28, 2014

This last week, one of my candidates did a dry run drive-by to the hiring company’s headquarters a day before her interview. On the surface, this may seem needless, but on several levels, I see her taking that extra step as brilliant. It got me thinking about the secret sauce both candidates and hiring managers use for effective interview preparations. Let’s talk about candidates first.

For better or worse, the interview is like a dance. If you don’t follow the right steps, you’re not doing the dance correctly and your dancing partner will be thrown off and frustrated. As silly as it may be, many hiring managers assess candidates on how well they do the interview dance (i.e., follow interviewing protocol). It’s rather unfortunate that despite their best intentions, these interviewers end up hiring people who can get the job instead of those who can do the job.

Regardless, there’s much candidates can do in preparation for the big dance. First, there’s the matter of having answers ready for those all-too-trite interview questions, such as “What is your biggest weakness?” or “Where do you see yourself in 3 years?” I’m not going to spend time on these and the other typical interview questions. Candidates can Google “interview questions” and in short order, see the common ones appearing on multiple lists. The point is that it’s important to have well-thought-out answers ready to be recited on a dime.

More importantly, candidates need to conduct deep dive research into the company. They need to take the time to fully understand its solutions and associated value prop/key differentiators, the markets it targets, the competitive landscape, its people, its financials, and latest news/press releases. When an interviewer asks, “So, what do you know about our company?” candidates should be ready to provide a clean and crisp response.

Moreover, it behooves candidates to research the interviewers. It shouldn’t be hard to find their LinkedIn profiles or executive bios. Speaking of LinkedIn, candidates should see who in their network or extended network is connected with employees at the company. Those people could potentially give the inside scoop on both the role and hiring manager. And of course, candidates that have the benefit of working with a recruiter should tap that resource to gain insight into the interviewers’ personalities, interviewing tendencies, past hiring decisions, and current hot buttons.

After all that research, the next step for candidates is to anticipate role-related interview questions and prepare specific examples that substantiate a solid job fit. After all, a candidate’s job is to help the interviewer envision a fit, both with the role and with the company’s culture. For example, for a technical support position, the interviewer may ask, “How do you diffuse a frustrated customer?” Instead of answering with generalities or philosophies on handling irate customers, candidates would be better served to give a specific example from their past. Briefly outline the situation, explain the task, point out the specific actions taken, and give the result (hopefully a turned around happy customer).

Finally, candidates should prepare poignant, thoughtful questions to ask interviewers. Questions should vary from day-in-the-life inquiries about the role, to current events (e.g., latest news about the company, current financial performance, company culture, biggest company challenges, etc.), and on to forward-looking matters such as company direction, product roadmap, anticipated growth, and career advancement opportunities. I always recommend that candidates print out these questions in advance. Not only does this demonstrate preparedness, forethought and organization skills, but since candidates tend to get at least a little nervous in interviews, it’s helpful to have a cheat sheet. Naturally, other questions will likely come about from the discussion itself. Yet, it’s nice to have plenty of questions ready to go, if needed.

Speaking of nervousness, it’s imperative that candidates really tune in to their demeanor. The more self-aware, the better control. Generally, nervous people tend to talk too much. Thus, I regularly advise my candidates to keep their answers concise. They can always ask the interviewer if they’d like additional detail. My rule of thumb is if it feels like your answers are too short, then they’re probably about the right length. Nervousness can be channeled into enthusiasm and positive energy, if properly harnessed. And as for the candidate who did the day-before-the-interview-drive-by, that left her with one less thing to be nervous about. On the day of the interview, she knew precisely where to drive and where to park. The building was familiar, too, making it appear less intimidating.

Interviewers are not exempt from preparation, although many seem to think they are. Viewing the candidate’s resume 5 minutes before the interview does not constitute preparation. I recommend taking the extra time to fully examine the candidate’s credentials. Beyond perusing the resume, review the recruiter’s synopsis and visit the candidate’s LinkedIn profile to spot any additional (or conflicting) information as well as seeing if there are any contacts in common.

Next, interviewers should formulate specific questions to help flesh out any concerns, holes in the story, or simply areas that need probing for greater detail. Use experience-based behavioral interviewing questions to explore how the candidate dealt with relevant situations. This also helps to give insight into a candidate’s thought process.

Ask them what they love to do and take note of their heightened enthusiasm. Generally, people cannot fake passion…and they can’t hide it well, either. Ideally, the things they love doing tie in to the position they’re interviewing for. Ask about times they received critical feedback and what they did with it. Along the same lines, explore their self-development goals and what they’re doing to achieve them. These kinds of questions help to shed light on intangible qualities, such as self-awareness, personal drive, initiative, coachability, and positive mental attitude.

For candidates and interviewers alike, preparedness doesn’t foster staleness or over-thinking. Rather, it signifies that considerable care and thought have gone into the interview, making it clear that this is a high priority event. And who wouldn’t want to feel like the person on the other side of the table considers this meeting to be a high priority? Progressing one’s career and making a critical hire are right up there in the pantheon of major life events. To progress through the interview with the desired outcome, effective preparation is the not-so-secret sauce – a lot of little things add up to increased focus, greater organization of thought and bolstered confidence.

 

Action items:

1. Interviews are by nature unnatural, contrived and protocol-ridden events. The more candidates and interviewers conduct effective preparations, the more productive and less nerve-racking interviews will be.

2. I’m amazed by how little research is done on the people with whom both candidates and interviewers will be meeting with. Between LinkedIn and other online resources, there’s a wellspring of information and potentially valuable insight to be gained about the person. Aside from the professional implications, this can also help with the personal side insofar as helping to establish rapport.

3. Preparation can make a big difference, helping to diffuse nerves while bolstering both poise and confidence. That extra bit of research about the company, taking a bit more time to anticipate interview questions, and printing out thoughtful, poignant questions ahead of time, can help to give an edge.

Your Demeanor Speaks More Than Your Words

February 25, 2014

As we all know, air travel isn’t so glamorous these days.  Between extra fees, long lines, enhanced security measures, minimal legroom, maximum germs, and frustrating delays, our expectations for an enjoyable trip seem virtually nonexistent.  Yet, against all odds, I had an enjoyable flight the other day.

Oh sure, all those inconveniences were still there in the forefront, but something quite powerful put their ill-effects at bay.  The flight attendants appeared genuinely happy, exceedingly helpful, available when you needed them (without being intrusive), and humorous.  They weren’t control freaks, overly serious, or obviously dying to get off the plane more than us passengers.  Quite the contrary, they were loose, engaging, and funny.

Over the P.A., they said little things to get people to chuckle, such as “Should your flight become a cruise, your seat bottom can be used as a flotation device” and at the end, “Thank you again for flying with us.  We hope you enjoy your stay here in the Boston area or wherever your final destination may be.  This is a recording.”  A six-year-old boy was celebrating his birthday.  The flight attendants let him announce over the P.A. that it was his birthday.  Everyone sang Happy Birthday to him.

At any given time, I saw a flight attendant smiling or laughing.  And we all know that at 30,000 feet, those tiny packages of mini pretzels magically transform into 18 karat gold nuggets.  The flight attendants kept coming around to offer extras along with multiple cookies and drink refills.  Jackpot!

Their ebullient nature was infectious.  People seemed at ease, even upbeat.  I didn’t pick up on any of those customary stuck-in-a-plane stress vibes around me.  And when it came time to deplane, everyone was incredibly helpful and courteous.  So many smiles, laughs, and assistance pulling down luggage from the overhead compartments.  We had all become those flight attendants.  Except for one jerk, who didn’t wait for his turn and just barreled his way out before others.  What do you expect?  There’s always one.

The point is your demeanor carries an immense subliminal impact on others around you.  Some of the greatest sports teams won championships because they were loose and had fun doing their job.  This certainly applies in the interview setting.

Having been both a candidate and hiring executive, I’ve seen how the power of favorable mannerisms can sway the person on the other side of the table.  Hiring managers who exhibit charisma, conviction in their beliefs, candor, an upbeat disposition, and some humor, have a way of making people want to come work (hard) for them.  They signify the existence of a strong, constructive and enjoyable culture, not to mention a winning team.  Similarly, candidates who are engaging, strong listeners and exude a positive mental attitude seem to have an innate leg up on their competition.  Positivity breeds positivity.

No doubt, this is not easily done…especially on those days when nothing seems to be going right.  Yet, I’m sure those flight attendants deal with all kinds of hassles day in and day out, including pompous and rude passengers, scheduling problems and the same delays you and I face.  But you’d never know it from their demeanor.  They genuinely appear to like their jobs and that’s infectious.  Their outlook and approach carried more weight than their words.  Keep that in mind the next time you partake in an interview.

 

Action items:

1.  For difference reasons, interviewing can be a stressful experience for both candidates and hiring managers alike.  Yet, their positive demeanor can diffuse an otherwise angst-ridden setting while favorably impacting the impression one gets from the other.

2.  Word choice and thoughtfulness are paramount in a successful interview, but so is the delivery of them along with positive non-verbal cues.  When you have a moment, watch yourself in a mirror as you practice asking and answering questions.  How are you coming across?

3.  On your next plane ride, listen to the flight attendants for a change.  You just might be surprised at what you hear over the P.A.

What Happened to Consistency?

December 22, 2013

One of my friends and longtime recruiting colleague posted on Facebook a cartoon of a recruiter at his computer with his hands outstretched.  The caption says, “No!  I think it’s a great idea to interview four people before deciding what your real hiring requirements are…said no recruiter, ever.”   Hmmm.  Hits a little too close to home for me.  This happens more times than I care to recall.

From where I stand, consistency in direction, action, thought process, and communications seems increasingly lacking in the interviewing world.  And yes, this applies to candidates as well as hiring executives.  It rears its ugly head across all physical and electronic venues, too.

What happens when someone, either consciously or subliminally, picks up on someone else’s inconsistency?  Very likely, it leads to tinge of doubt. Questions of trust arise as an air of disingenuousness permeates from such divergence.  It’s these subtle (or in some cases, not so subtle) undercurrents that can lead to a “not a cultural fit” verdict.

I see all kinds of inconsistencies between candidates and hiring managers.  Let’s look at a few of them.  Have you ever received an email from someone that was friendly, warm and thoughtful…only to speak with that person on the phone or face-to-face and find that they’re not so personable after all?  It also happens the other way around, in which their emails are terse and seemingly put together with no thought or care, only to meet with that same person and find them to be expressive and considerate.  Granted, email is not the optimal venue for furthering a relationship.  It is an efficient means to convey data.  Yet, there’s something to be said for consistency of style.  If you send a lackluster or snippy email to a hiring manager, that person may wonder what you’ll be like when you’re emailing colleagues or customers.

Inconsistency comes in many other forms.  I’ve seen highly talented candidates, with exceptionally organized thought processes and strong subject matter expertise, go into an interview shooting from the hip.  Suddenly, they’ve lost prioritization of ideas, focusing solely on one facet of the role at the expense of other components, or running on and on with their answers to interview questions when in prior conversations, they exhibited control in staying on point and landing the plane.  In this case, inconsistency reflects a lack of preparedness or at a more fundamental level, lack of self-awareness.

Look at all the inconsistencies within resumes and LinkedIn profiles.  First of all, the two should not conflict with each other.  Content, dates, and over messaging should be very similar.  And there’s always that tried and true chuckle-worthy disconnect, seeing candidates tout their attention to detail, only to sport typos and formatting irregularities.

Getting back to my friend’s Facebook cartoon, hiring managers must take the time to truly define the role and its associated responsibilities.  They need to formulate a profile of what the optimal candidate looks like for that role and determine which attributes they can be flexible on and which ones are must-haves.  It is a colossal waste of time for everyone involved, hiring executives included, when the job specification turns out to be a moving target.  Sure, company direction will change and roles tend to evolve, but not during the few weeks earmarked for interviewing and hiring.

I’ve seen inconsistency amongst the interview team, too.  This is why I counsel candidates that amongst the array of questions they plan to ask the interviewers, reserve several key questions to ask all the interviewers and see what kinds of discrepancies take shape in their answers.  While it’s perfectly fine for interviewers to offer additional perspectives and visions on the same issue, answers that directly conflict with other interviewers’ answers could spell challenges with organizational cohesion and objectives alignment, decision-making, internal politics, and communications effectiveness.  Any one of these issues could have a deleterious impact on the role the candidate is vying for.

Finally, consider the interview process itself.  All too often, candidates come out of an interview amped up and excited to proceed with the next step, as outlined by the hiring executive.  Then a week or two goes by because Mr. Buzzkill hiring manager isn’t prioritizing interviewing and hiring the way he appeared to be during the interview.  Of course, even without interviewing, hiring and onboarding, hiring managers already have a full plate.  However, not following through in a timely manner between interview rounds will likely spark questions in candidates’ (and recruiters’) minds – Does this company have their act together and how important is this role they’re looking to fill?

Consistency in approach, demeanor, messaging, decisions, and actions has everything to do with credibility.  And credibility is key throughout the hiring process.  Candidates need to see consistency in the way hiring companies conduct the interview process as that may be a harbinger of things to come as an employee.  Hiring managers need to see consistency in how candidates think and communicate.  Consistency requires effort.  Yet, any effort that breeds credibility and trust is effort well spent.

 

Action items:

1.  Whether a candidate or hiring manager, walk the talk without major variance.  Be the same person all the time, through all venues and methods of communications.

2.  As a hiring executive, solidify the position you’re looking to fill and meet with the interview team you’re putting together to talk it out.  Make sure you have everyone’s buy-in on the role and its impact in the organization.

3.  Consistency is synonymous with integrity.  Without it, people will be hard pressed to overcome the inherent lack of trust.

The Interview: A Mental Test Drive

July 31, 2013

What was the last major purchase you made?  A car?  A house?  New kitchen appliances?  A trip?  Something happens just before you make that bold decision to purchase.  Your mind’s eye takes over and you envision it working out and fulfilling your wants and needs.  If it’s a car you’re considering, you take a moment to envision yourself driving around doing errands, meeting up with friends and family (and seeing their reaction to your new purchase), making the daily work commute, and on the highway for a weekend get-away.  Your mind is conducting a mental test drive through those various scenarios, helping you picture how the car fits in with your lifestyle and sense of style by anticipating how you’d feel behind the wheel throughout your everyday life.

Your mind is considering many aspects of the car.  First, there are the tangible elements – its handling, responsiveness, noise, fuel economy, storage space, operating features, safety, cost, and mmmmmmm…new car smell.  At the same time, you’re assessing the intangible attributes as well – ergonomics, comfort, how it matches your personality and sense of style, and the extent to which it brings fun, excitement and pride to driving.

When interviewing for a position, candidates are the cars and hiring managers are the car buyers.  Through either a conversational approach or an interrogational method, the hiring manager is trying to learn about the candidate – both the tangible and intangible elements.  Ultimately, they’re trying to establish the extent of a fit.  Here are the primary decision-making factors that many hiring managers are contemplating while interviewing candidates:

  • Job fit – Does the candidate have aptitude, resourcefulness and wherewithal to be successful in the role?  This may be answered by probing into the candidate’s past, ferreting out examples of where the candidate excelled under similar kinds of challenges and workloads.  It can also be determined by giving the candidate hypothetical situations that are reflective of the role and seeing the candidates thought process in discussing how they’d deal with such situations.
  • Cultural fit – Would the candidate and the attitude they bring thrive in the company’s environment and act as a positive force?  Once again, delving into the candidate’s past to explore where they’ve worked and the types of work atmospheres they did well in will help to establish a potential fit.  Aside from the overall environment, the hiring manager will want to get a glimpse into how well a candidate would interact with prospective colleagues.  This can be achieved by expanding the interview team to include people who would work closely with the candidate as well as those who seem to embody the company’s culture.
  • Ramp-up – How quickly can the candidate get up to speed in the new role?  No matter the position or company, it seems that nearly every manager is under the gun to build their team and get people productive in their roles as soon as possible.  After all, project deadlines, new initiatives and customer needs don’t take a time out, waiting for managers to bring on board new hires and get them fully trained and indoctrinated into the company’s way of life.  As a candidate, you should assume that this is a hot button for every hiring manager.
  • Grow with the company – Candidates are not just hired to address the company’s current needs.  They should be looked at as the future of the company as well.  To that end, hiring managers need to plan ahead and think about how a candidate will evolve as the company evolves.  They’re assessing the extent that the candidate can adapt in an ever-changing environment, take on additional responsibilities and positively impact the direction and future performance of the company.

Each of these decision-making factors requires the hiring manager to take a mental test drive and envision what it would be like to have the candidate on board.  Yet, the most compelling candidates innately understand that their ability to influence the hiring manager’s vision will have everything to do with the final result.  In the interview process, the onus is on the candidate to make sure the hiring manager can effortlessly envision their being hired and doing well in the role.

For example, in tackling the decision-making factor of Ramp-up, this is why so many hiring managers make the cardinal sin of prioritizing domain experience over other candidate attributes.  They figure that someone who is familiar with the space will get up to speed considerably quicker and be credible in the role compared to someone from outside the space.  Of course, hiring someone from another company in the same space is no guarantee that the individual will bring the same aptitude as others.  In fact, there is no guarantee that other companies in the same space are hiring the best and brightest individuals.  Candidates, especially those who come from another space, must show in no uncertain terms how they entered new spaces in prior positions and successfully ramped up quickly to become effective and productive contributing members.

At the heart of the interview process, hiring managers are trying candidates on for size.  Based on many data points gathered, they form a vision of what it would be like to have the candidate on the team.  The most effective candidates understand this dynamic and through their own research, preparation and questions, can position themselves optimally by helping hiring managers fine tune a vision of their coming on board and working out well.  They proactively touch upon the decision-making factors, making sure hiring managers discover the data points needed to establish a vision of a strong fit.  By better equipping hiring managers to envision a strong fit, candidates raise the chances of a favorable mental test drive and ultimately buying the car.

 

Action items:

1.  Helping customers create a vision of buying, owning and loving a product is one of the fundamental tenants of sales.  While a hiring manager may form a positive vision on their own, the candidate must put on their sales hat and with a proper understanding of the hiring manager’s decision-making factors, proactively provide the data points needed to help a hiring manager envision a strong fit.

2.  Do the research and preparatory work to understand which decision-making factors are the greatest hot buttons to the hiring manager.

3.  During the interview, ask the hiring manager questions to help pinpoint what matters most to them in their quest to make the right hiring decision.  As a candidate, you need to tie a correlation between their hot buttons and your strengths.

Think Twice about Interviewing Advice

June 19, 2013

Whenever a couple announces they’re expecting a baby, an interesting phenomenon occurs.  It seems that everyone and their mother rushes to the couple’s aid, providing a deluge of unsolicited advice.  All topics are fair game:  names, diaper brands, breast milk vs. formula, bathing, sleep strategies, cures for colic (FYI – there are none!) – you name it.  It’s enough to make your head spin.

This leads to the only advice I ever give expecting parents:  Take all the advice you receive with a grain of salt, because invariably, half the advice you receive will directly conflict with the other half.

The same thing happens online when researching product reviews.  No matter the brand or price point, there’s bound to be someone who hates the product and advises you to consider other brands, counterbalancing those who swear by the product.  It’s gotten to the point where online reviews no longer carry much weight.  It’s too easy to get overwhelmed and paralyzed by the rival factions of pro and con.  I couldn’t believe the angst I experienced researching which stupid lawnmower to buy.  It almost came down to which brand and model had the fewest knocks against it.

Such diverging advice holds true in the world of interviewing as well.  Between job hunting blogs du jour, well-intentioned family and friends, and social networking sites, candidates are peppered with conflicting suggestions every day.  Here are just a few examples:

Don’t wear a suit to an interview if the environment is less than formal.  –  You’ll never lose points for dressing up for an interview.

Body language is important, so always sit up straight and on the edge of the chair to show that you’re engaged.  –  Body language is important, so always mirror that of the interviewer.  If they’re relaxed in their chair, you shouldn’t be sitting up straight and appearing stiff and unnatural.

If the interview has been going well, use the presumptive close, “So, when would you like me to start?”  –   If the interview has been going well, let the interviewer discuss any next steps.  And whatever you do, don’t try to close with the highly presumptuous, “So, when would you like me to start?”

Always come to the interview with a prepared list of questions already printed out.  It will demonstrate forethought, initiative and preparedness.  –  Do not show up to the interview with a list of questions.  It comes off as contrived and gives the impression that you can’t think extemporaneously.

Always follow-up by sending a handwritten note in the mail.  It’s a more personal touch.  –  Always follow-up by sending a concise email.  It’s immediate and to the point.

The list of conflicting advice goes on for miles.  Yet, in many cases, there is no one right answer.  However, there will always be one right answer for you.  In other words, the more you stay true to yourself and do what feels natural – all while keeping in mind the many traditions, protocols and best practices inherent in the interview process, the more likely you are to choose the right course of action.

Not surprisingly, conflicting advice makes its way to interviewers as well.  For years, a recruiting mentor of mine always said, “An effective interview is an interrogation, not a conversation.”  His point was that the interviewer’s goal is to gain information and do so in a consistent, controlled manner.  Just today, however, I came across an interviewing best practices article written by an Inc. Magazine columnist.  In it he states, “The best interviews are a great conversation, not an interrogation.”  OK.  I get it.  As an interviewer, you want to establish rapport, keep your candidate comfortable, and see how well they conduct themselves with back and forth dialog.  So which side is right?  As is often the case, perhaps a melding of the two suggestions could bring us to the promised land.

The bottom line is, whether you’re a candidate or an interviewer, research and preparation will serve you well in determining how to conduct yourself.  I’m amazed by the number of candidates that don’t research the people with whom they’ll be meeting.  There’s plenty to find out about someone.  Even a quick perusal of the interviewer’s LinkedIn page can give you some clues.  Is their profile’s content succinct and to the point or is it fairly descriptive?  What do the people who recommend the interviewer have to say about his/her style?  Do you know anyone who either works at the company or knows someone who does?

You can find out a lot about the company’s environment, culture, people, and interview process.  If you’re going through a recruiter, then they should know their client company exceptionally well and in turn, provide you with valuable insight.  There’s nothing wrong with turning to those you trust and asking for help.  However, at the end of the day, you’re better served to seek out data points, not advice.

Action items:

1.  Advice is usually not based on objective thought processes.  Someone’s advice to you could very well be based on an experience that is unique to that person and may not apply to you.  Thus, take advice with a grain of salt and consider the source.

2.  Research and preparation will help you give yourself the advice you need.  But if you really need advice from others in preparing for an interview, seek out trusted members of your network, your recruiter and mentors for their perspective.

3.  Remember, if given enough advice, half of it will likely conflict with the other half.  Don’t let that paralyze you.  Seek out data points, not opinions.

Beyond the Money

March 22, 2013

As noted in this blog’s past articles, the market has been swinging back in the favor of candidates.  I’ve seen this manifest itself recently by significantly increased incidences of multiple suitors for a given candidate, resulting in multiple offers.  With all things being equal (which is never the case), candidates typically accept the offer with the highest base salary and total compensation at plan.

This week, however, I witnessed a candidate accept an offer that did not boast of the highest salary and total comp.  Why did he do this?  Because he’s smart.  He did his due diligence on the companies, got introspective to assess his career aspirations and looked well beyond the shiny penny of cash compensation.

When putting aside the money, there is a bevy of variables to consider in assessing opportunities.  It is for this reason that no two opportunities could ever be equal.  Let’s take a moment to venture beyond the blinding flash of the cash and look at the intangible, yet vitally important attributes that must be factored in when making a thoughtful career decision.  For each of the following attributes, consider the list of questions and use them as a template for gaining as many data points as possible to make an intelligent career decision.

Position

  • To what extent does this position draw upon your strengths while offering up new and interesting challenges?
  • Will you be picking up additional skills that could bolster your marketability down the road?
  • Are you genuinely excited about the role and its responsibilities?
  • How will your performance be measured, both in the first several months as you ramp up and then on an ongoing basis?
  • How much latitude would you have in determining the future direction of the role and its day-to-day activities?
  • Who does this position interface with and what are those people like?
  • What are the work arrangements (e.g., cube, office, work from home, travel)?

Company Space and Solutions

  • To what extent is the space the company plays in a growing one?
  • How innovative are their solutions?
  • Are they viewed as the thought leaders in their area of expertise?
  • What is the company’s reputation in the industry?
  • How do they stack up in the competitive landscape?
  • Is the roadmap for the company’s products/services and the application of these products/services pointing to growth in their current market and/or making entry into expansive, new markets?
  • What is their prioritization on R&D and Marketing?
  • What do analyst firms say about the company and the space they play in?
  • Is their solution a vitamin or an aspirin and is it deemed a drop dead, must have or a nice to have?
  • How effectively is the company differentiating itself, communicating a compelling value proposition and establishing brand equity?
  • What do customers have to say about them and what are the metrics around net new logos as well as existing customer retention/expansion?

Leadership Team

  • How battle-tested are the leaders?
  • Have they done this sort of thing before…and with successful results?
  • Do they appear to be in alignment on vision, strategy and tactical execution?
  • How approachable and accessible are they?
  • What do people, who have worked for them, have to say about them?
  • What do your own contacts, who know of the company and its team, have to say about them?
  • What is their philosophy around company culture and how important is it to them?
  • How forthcoming are they about the challenges the company faces?
  • How natural was it to communicate with them in the interview process?
  • How passionate are they about the company and its solutions?
  • Why did they join/form the company?

Culture/Work Environment

  • Aside from how the leadership team describes the culture, what does the general employee base think of it?
  • What kind of vibe do you get when you’re in the office?
  • Is there energy, activity, collaboration, humor, fun, open communications, passion, intelligence, urgency, and overarching sense of purpose?
  • To what extent do you fit in with these attributes or lack thereof?
  • Does the environment fall on the micromanaging or autonomy side of the management spectrum?
  • Are meetings convened purely on an as needed basis or are they held regularly and deeply ingrained in the company’s operations?
  • To what extent is creativity and ideation valued, encouraged and acknowledged and how often are new ideas acted upon?
  • How politically charged is the environment?
  • Does the company appear to fall on the process-oriented or results-oriented end of the bureaucracy/agility spectrum?
  • What is the company’s take on work-life balance and does it align with yours?

Investment in You

  • Is there any equity component to your offer and if so, is it substantial enough to make a material impact on your life down the road or is it more of a token gesture?
  • How discernible and achievable is the career advancement path?
  • Granted, there are no guarantees for promotion, yet is the leadership team committed to rewarding stellar performance with greater responsibility, salary increase or additional equity allotment?
  • Do they have a track record of doing so or can they articulate the specifics of such an advancement?
  • Will they provide or pay for career development programs that are relevant to your role (e.g., certifications, training)?
  • How generous are the benefits – healthcare, vacation, 401K, etc.?

Financials

  • How well capitalized is the company?
  • What is the condition of their cash flow, money in the bank, burn rate, and rate of top line growth?
  • Are they profitable, on a road to profitability, in pure high growth mode, turning things around, or possibly headed for a downturn of fortunes?
  • Who are their investors?
  • How much investment have they taken in and what has been the purpose for each investment round?
  • What is their exit strategy and timeline?

Naturally, the cash component has to make sense for the opportunity to be a viable option.  After all, it’s the primary form of remuneration that fuels our personal lives.  One of the biggest mistakes candidates make is to choose a career opportunity based on tangibles (compensation and benefits), only to leave that company shortly thereafter due to issues associated with intangibles.

When you take a full, holistic view of an opportunity, it’s these intangible attributes that will ultimately determine the viability and longevity of the career move, the degree of gratification, the chance to thrive and achieve sustained passion, the likelihood of success, and the ability to further your career.  If these outcomes align with your career goals, then do yourself a favor and look beyond the money.

 

Action items:

1.  Make a list of all the important attributes in a job and then rank them by importance.  Make sure to include intangible elements.  Don’t just focus on compensation and benefits.

2.  In the interview process, make sure you’re given plenty of time to ask all the questions necessary to help gain insight into the intangible elements of a company’s being.  Outside the interview, ask people in your network about the company, its products and its people.

3.  Money can buy you short term infatuation, but it can’t buy you long term love.

Focusing on Focus

January 21, 2013

When I engage with candidates for a specific opportunity, I’m trying to ascertain the extent of a fit.  There was something about that candidate that initially caught my eye.  Yet, like most recruiters, I’m seeking more specific information beyond the data dump that makes up a LinkedIn profile, resume or phone call.  In its simplest terms, search professionals are chartered with identifying, engaging, qualifying, and presenting candidates.  Granted, the way they go about it, let alone the level of quality and effectiveness, varies widely.  Nevertheless, despite the full spectrum of recruitment competency, search professionals are try to focus on determining the match with their hiring client’s needs.

As a candidate, your job is to help the recruiter understand the fit with the opportunity in question.  How can you do this most effectively?  First, take notes on the key distinguishing points the recruiter provides you when detailing the opportunity.  Make a list of the unique aspects of the opportunity.  For a Sales or Sales Engineering candidate, here’s a sampling to consider:

  • The space the company plays in (i.e., the type of solution and the corresponding problem it addresses)
  • The key verticals the company sells into, or, if a horizontal play, the business demographics of the company’s target audience
  • The types of contacts and contact levels the company usually targets
  • The nature of the company’s solution and how it’s delivered
  • Selling method and model
  • Deal sizes and sales cycle process/length
  • Company size and state of evolution (e.g., small early-stage A-round funded vs. mid-sized public company)
  • Specific technologies employed or integrated with
  • Specific selling methodologies

After I present the details of an opportunity to a candidate, I typically ask them to walk me through specific aspects of their background that map to the opportunity.  What I get back can be all over the map.  Many times, candidates take this as their cue to spew out every nook and cranny of their career history.  Lovely.  Thanks for playing “This is Your Life.”  The more polished professionals make a list of distinguishing points while I describe the opportunity, and then use it as a springboard to focus on connecting the dots with the relevant facets of their experience.

How well a candidate connects the dots gives me several clues about the strength of their candidacy.  It demonstrates strong listening skills, organized and effective thought processes, solutions selling savvy, and capable communications and presentation skills.  This is not to imply that people who know all the “tricks” of interviewing will come out ahead.  This has nothing to do with tricks, but rather actions and attributes that a sales professional would naturally employ on a regular basis throughout their sales career.

In most cases, a given opportunity calls for a subset of your career’s body of work.  For example, right now, I’m working on a Sales Engineer opportunity with an innovative, high growth company that sells predominantly into highly regulated industries with healthcare being front and center.  My hiring client and I do not expect sales engineering candidates to have done this and only this through the entirety of their career.  What I do expect is for candidates to be able to offer up details of the parts of their career that are directly applicable…without skipping a beat.  In this particular case, this means walking me through several points in their career where they sold into healthcare accounts, including name-dropping successful marquee deals, the types of solutions sold, size and scope of the deals, quota attainment numbers, and the exposure to regulatory compliance issues.

Whether you’re discussing an opportunity with a recruiter or in the throes of the interview process with a hiring company, help them envision the fit by bringing focus to the picture.  Sure, the other parts to your background will likely be covered and could bear some relevancy as well.  Yet, the more you spotlight the pertinent points of your background and skills, the stronger your case of a fit will be.

 

Action items:

1.  Focus, focus, focus.  For every one aspect of your background that applies to a given opportunity, there are likely a good four or five that need to be de-emphasized so as not to dilute the positioning of a fit.

2.  When you’re first learning of an opportunity, jot down a quick and dirty list of the differentiating factors so that you can concentrate on those when making the case for your candidacy.

3.  Don’t leave it up to recruiters and hiring managers to discover the fit.  Help paint the picture for them, just as you would in any selling opportunity.

Interview Questions for Both Sides

December 22, 2012

My daughter made a new friend.  I’m overjoyed.  Her new friend is warm, engaging, considerate, and communicative.  Pretty impressive for a 10-year-old!  The day after they hung out together (I’m no longer allowed to call them “play dates”), I asked my daughter what new things did she learn about her new friend.  She gave me a few good ones:  “She loves to dance, she likes seafood, and she loves pillow fights.”  Good start.  Then I brainstormed with my daughter on potential questions she could ask her new friend down the road to learn more.  After all, what better way to show you care about someone than to ask them questions?  We came up with several good ones that cover travel, music, food, and favorite activities.

Questions are the key to gaining intelligence.  The more inquisitive and the better your listening skills, the greater the edge in life’s labyrinth of human interaction.  This is especially significant in interviews and applies to both interviewers and candidates.  Yet, rarely has either party been taught specific questions to ask and what to look for in answers.

Let’s start with interviewers.  Your aim is to ascertain both the job fit and organizational/cultural fit.  Try asking situational and behavioral questions.  These are requests for specific instances in the candidates past in which they dealt with a particular type of situation.   Candidates – don’t go to sleep during this section.  Be on the lookout for these types of questions and be prepared to answer them effectively.

Let’s say you’re interviewing someone for a role that involves managing tight deadlines.  You want to see how they’ve handled such pressure in the past.  Ask them, “Give me an example of when you had to deliver a project within a very short timeline.”  At this point, you’re looking for specifics from the candidate:  A synopsis of the situation; what they were up against; the action they took; and the results.  If the candidate answers in generalities and hypotheticals, (i.e., “Usually, I would…”), ask them one more time for a specific instance.  Even if they give a specific circumstance, look for the extent of detail provided.  If they’re using 10,000 foot broad brushstrokes, they’re either making it up or their example isn’t all that relevant.

Another key to asking effective interview questions is to ask open-ended questions.  You’re seeking information and a simple yes or no answer won’t provide much color to the picture.  Here are just a few examples of general open-ended questions:

  • What were the key take-aways from each position you’ve held and how have you applied them to successive positions?
  • Why are you interested in this position and what do you expect this role to do for your career?
  • What are your favorite parts to the job?  Least favorite?
  • When you get stuck, how do you get unstuck?  When someone else is stuck, how do you help them get unstuck?
  • What have been the biggest failures and/or frustrations in your career/current position?
  • What are some things your current employer could do differently to be more successful?
  • Think of someone you have had problems with in your career, as we all do, who you would NEVER use as a reference. Tell me the adjectives they might use to describe you and why they had this perception.  How did you deal with the situation?

Pretend you’re writing a business article about your interviewee.  What kinds of information would you need in order to flesh out the article?  At the very least, you’d want to learn about their choice of career steps — why they made them and what they learned along the way.  You’d want to learn about their achievements and associated business impact.  You’d certainly want to understand the challenges they faced as well as missteps and how they overcame them.  From these data points, you will be able to weave together common themes and from that, gain insight into how this person is special, what their foibles are, and what kinds of roles make for a great fit moving forward.

In addition, it can be helpful to have members of the interviewing team to ask the same question, perhaps rewording it slightly, to see what variance there may be in candidates’ answers.

For candidates, it is important to come prepared to the interview with specific questions already printed out.  This demonstrates preparedness, forethought, initiative, and organization skills.  Make sure to ask relevant and poignant questions about the company, people, market, etc.  Do not ask the “What’s in it for me” questions, such as compensation and benefits.  Here’s a small sample of good open-ended questions to ask:

  • What are the three main factors you will be using to determine the right person for the job?
  • What are the greatest challenges associated with this position?
  • How would you describe the company’s culture and what kinds of people seem to fit in best?
  • Every company has its share of warts and pimples.  What are some of those with your company?
  • I read your recent press release (or article) regarding ______________.  How do you see this impacting ______________?
  • Why did you join the company?
  • What is the strength of the company’s financials in terms of profitability, working capital, cash flow, and debt?
  • What happened with the person who had this role previously?  Why didn’t it work out?  (Or, if it’s a newly created position…)  What was the impetus for creating this new position?
  • How will my performance be measured, initially in the first few months and then on an ongoing basis?
  • We’ve covered many topics.  What reservations do you have regarding my candidacy?  (This is good to ask so that if they do have any concerns and are willing to share them, it gives you a chance to address them right there instead of have them fester.)  Will you recommend me for the position?
  • I’m very interested in moving forward in the process.  Where do we go from here?  What are the next steps?

As with interviewers, candidates should think about asking the same question to multiple members of the interviewing team.  Just last week, a candidate asked each member of the interview team about their strategy to branch out into other verticals besides the primary market the company is currently targeting.  Interestingly, the candidate got conflicting answers, raising a red flag about the company’s vision, strategy and cohesion.  Better to know this now than after joining the company.

“The truth shall set you free.”  Great words to live by.  Whether you’re making a new friend, meeting a new business contact, or engaged in an interview, the best way to gain the truth is to ask questions.  Granted, in an interview that is flowing along with two engaged people, all kinds of questions will arise naturally.  Yet, to grease the skids, it’s especially useful to have questions prepared and at the ready.  It signifies professionalism while helping both interviewer and candidate keep on track and ensure that all salient points are covered.

 

Action items:

1.  Prepare questions in advance.  Even if you don’t get to them all, it’s helpful to have them printed up and in front of you.  In an interview, the discussion can go along at breakneck speed, and it’s all too easy to forget to ask an important question.

2.  Ask open-ended and situational questions to gain more detailed information and greater perspective.

3.  Always be curious.  One of my favorite follow-up questions to many answers is:  “Interesting.  Why is that?”  It’s amazing how following up with a simple “Why?” can reveal so much more than you ever imagined.

Scary Stories from the Dark Side

October 25, 2012

All I need to do is walk down my street to realize it’s that time of year.  As I duck from a low slung gargantuan spider web, my heart skips a beat when I suddenly set off a motion detecting battery powered skeleton, yelling something forewarning yet unintelligible.  Ah yes, Halloween.  The festival of shaving cream, poor manners and noise.  Actually, it’s not that bad.  Besides, the wide-eyed wonderment and innocence emanating from those little kids with their cute costumes more than makes up for any unsavory activity.

Do you like horror shows?  In the spirit of Halloween, let’s review several real world scary stories from the dark side of recruitment.

An ideally suited candidate interviewed at a boutique technology consulting firm.  The fit was quite apparent to everyone.  Indeed, the candidate fared well in the interview process and it was quickly on to the offer stage.  The hiring company was duly prepped on the candidate’s compensation level and what it would take to get him on board.  So what does the hiring company do?  They produce a low-ball offer that not only comes in considerably lower than the candidate’s current comp level, but also lower than the market currently commands for this specialized and in-demand skill set.  Needless to say, the candidate was sufficiently spooked and didn’t even bother coming back with a counteroffer.

Next up, a security company has been trying to hire a pre-sales engineer.  The internal recruiter functions as a gatekeeper, forbidding external recruiters from speaking with the hiring managers.  That’s enough to scare me away from working with them.  One of the recruiters in my network decides to work with them, only to find that the communications between the internal recruiter and the hiring managers is all too lacking.  In terms of the role and its responsibilities, compensation plan, and org structure, they can’t seem to get their story straight.  Thus, the job spec is a moving target.  As a result, several strong candidates were presented and interviewed, only to find that what was initially deemed a fit suddenly morphed into a role with different prerequisites.  Then, three weeks later, they change their tune and the candidates they mishandled and disposed would now make for potentially strong fits again.

Now it gets ugly and frustrating.  Two sales candidates go into the same software company for interviews.  One did all the research and preparation you could imagine.  Yet, for some inexplicable reason, he apparently drank a witch’s brew and transformed from a confident sales professional to a spineless apologist.  The other candidate went into the interview with plenty of confidence, but hardly spent any time researching the company, figuring the topic of discussion would be himself.  I’ll bet he does 10 times the research investigating which front load washer to buy.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!  Put these two candidates into a blender and switch it to high!

Another candidate did very well in the initial interview.  He came off as articulate, professional and engaged.  Unfortunately, he had one too many skeletons in his closet.  The hiring manager called a few contacts in common, including one the candidate brought up.  Unfortunately, these back-channel references painted a Jekyll & Hyde scenario – seemingly impressive on the surface, but with a less than stellar performance, suspect work ethic and negative attitude.

Ready to scream?  The hiring manager of a software company has finally found the right candidate for his team and decides to move forward with reference checks and an offer.  His HR organization denies him the ability to move forward with this hard to find candidate because it was sourced through an external recruiter.  They suddenly institute a new rule, proclaiming that hiring managers can only go with candidates sourced externally after 60 days of working with candidates sourced from the HR team’s internal recruiters.  According to the extremely frustrated hiring manager, this position has already been open for months and none of the candidates presented by the internal team came close to fitting the spec.

Please change the channel.  This show gives me nightmares!

What do all these scary recruitment stories tell us?  Myopic decisions, mixed up priorities and inconsistent approaches aside, the common thread is we’re dealing with human beings.  Qualified candidates are not akin to commodities on the store shelf that are easily replaceable, readily substituted, or able to wait three months for it to go on sale even though it’s needed now.  In a similar light, prioritizing protocol and stringently budgeted headcount over progress does not make for a sustainable growth strategy that centers on building teams with top talent.

These recruitment stories are scary because they’re real.  And what makes matters even more terrifying is the thought that those at the center of these stories will likely repeat their errant ways, producing more tricks than treats.

 

Action items:

1.  As a hiring company, what message are you sending out to the talent pool when you mishandle the interview and offer stages on a regular basis?  What does that say about your company’s communications, organization, priorities, and value placed on people?

2.  It’s true that hiring companies shouldn’t treat candidates as commodities.  Yet, candidates shouldn’t treat themselves as commodities, either.  Your resume is not a soup can label, providing ingredients and nutritional information.  Go into an interview with the mindset that you are special.  And special candidates go the extra mile, such as conducting extensive research about the company and its market, preparing salient questions to ask each interviewer and drawing upon prior experience to demonstrate the fit and value to the organization you’d bring.

3.  Everyone’s their own worst enemy when it comes to both hiring and job hunting.  Take a good introspective look in the mirror and be afraid of what you see.  Be very afraid.  And use that fear to be honest with yourself while seeking input to become better.