Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Nov 23, 2009

The On-site Interview: Insider Tricks

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Congratulations on achieving the on-site interview!   There are many resources that will outline the basics of interviewing for you: extra copies of your resume, thank you notes, etc.  The Finishing School digs a little deeper. 

This is the Poise section of your war on talent.  Little things can help make you memorable (or prevent you from it), and give you some extra information about the organization that the interview itself may not reveal.

Put these in your databank:

1.    Practice the drive if you don't know exactly where you are going
Do not rely on GPS, which will not know that the parking lot is closed, or that left turns are not allowed between 7am and 4pm.  Ideally, practice this on a weekend, when you can take your time and get a good lay of the land.  This will remove a lot of the stress of your arrival.

2.   Arrive early
Planning for an early arrival gives you a cushion, of course, but it can also give you more information.  With enough time, you can explore the block a little, see what else is in the vicinity and whether this is a neighborhood you are glad to travel in after-hours.  (You know you are not leaving at 5.) 

Are there amenities like banking, restaurants, dry cleaning?  Seating areas outside?  Places to walk?  While not deal-breakers, these are quality of life features that can help you choose between competing companies if you are so fortunate to be in that situation.

3.   Be nice to the front desk
S/he is the director if first impressions, right?  Give her or him one to remember.  Call them by name -- it is probably in front of you -- which drops a hint they may have spoken to you before and/or you might be someone important. 

Apologize for being early, and be very glad to wait.  You will be able to observe a lot about the natural order of business from this seat.  You'll hear the incoming calls, spot some executives, and observe how many people express concern that you are "being helped."  You will see how co-workers relate to each other and feel the aura of the place.

4.   Accept water only
Coffee is high maintenance, it's hot, spills, and stains.  Soda will make you belch.  But by all means stay hydrated.

5.  Understand the org chart as best you can
If your day opens with your recuriter or an HR rep, use this time to understand who will be meeting you, and their relationship to the position in question.  Classier organizations provide you with a schedule (preferably in advance, so you can do some Googling of your own.  more on this later). 

But this step is often missed, or incomplete, so ask if you are not sure.  It is important to understand which of your interviewers will be junior or senior to your role, which receive the output of your work, and which provide inputs.  Not only does this guide your questions, it informs their answers as well.

6.  What can you tell me about...
You are familiar with the "Tell me a about a time..." interview style.  You may use it as well.
"How did that campaign come about," "what can you tell me about the successes of the previous Account Manager?" "How is the pipeline right now?"  Narrative does make for better conversation, and that street runs both ways.

Miss Bender's tip of the week is that it is fine to ask staff to describe their superiors ("How would you describe Tim's management style?") but it seems unfair to ask superiors to assess their subordinates ("What is Barbara like to work with?")  You are bound to hear some awkward performance review stuff you will always regret having heard if you become workmates.

7.  Try for corroboration
Don't fence yourself in with one set of questions you feed everyone, but a few key questions should be asked of people in different roles.  "What's the top priority," and "Who drives that effort," are the kinds of questions that may produce different answers from different groups -- something worth investigating.

8.  Name drop, but subtly
If you have been able to do some digging on your interview team, you have probably discovered some people and places you have in common.  Keep these in your brain, and watch for cool places to use them.  That is, not "Nice to meet you; I worked with Lauren too."    But, when the interviewer says, "Back at BloatCo, when I was there..."  you can play "Oh, we may know people in common.  Lauren Macovoy was at BloatCo, wasn't she?"  This shows your recall and networking skills.

If your interviewer says "Did you work with Jack Jackson at Previous Inc?" and you didn't, pretend to consider it, then say no.  If you did, the answer is, "Yes, I knew Jack very well."  This works for any relationship you had with Jack.

9.  Fish for rivalries and alliances
This is some underhanded play, but we are on point 9, so Miss Bender assumes a certain student advancement at this point.  Quoting something your previous interviewer said will elicit body language, and often some "free exchange of ideas" that no one expected.  It works like this.

Candidate: (picking up on thread of conversation): Eric talked about that as well.  I was interested in the way he described the procurement process.
Interviewer: (leans back, hands behind head):  Eric really understands that process.  He trained me when I first came here.

Candidate:  Jeni was saying that the spring layoffs have been difficult to recover from.
Interviewer: (long pause, nostril sigh) There was a lot of excess on the Sales team.  They are learning to work leaner.

10.   Watch your lasting impression
If you are more enthusiastic than ever about this match, say so.  Professionally and confidently, please.  No begging.

If you are not at all interested, keep it to yourself.  Write your thank you notes and wait for the follow-up.  You might change your mind.  A wierd exit is a great story for everyone to remember...for years.

If you are on the fence, keep it together.  There are probably more interviews to come, and the offer conversation is still a negotiating opportunity.  On your way home, and later with your personal board of advisors, you can sort out what you still need to ask, so you can prepare for the next time.

Keep striving,

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