You have found the job of your dreams in a transformation team that is just getting off the ground. They have a great leader and team, and a broad mandate that will end up touching the entire company. They also have the full support of the CEO and leadership team. How do you get in?
Your main task is to get ready to tell your stories in a compelling and engaging way.
Let me share a secret with you: most resumes suck. And even the best ones are not that differentiated, which makes it easy for recruiters to pass on them. While it is important to invest time making your resume shine, I also think you need to be proactive to secure an interview (vs. simply hoping your resume will do the job). Use LinkedIn, websites, or even your network to find someone who works in the company you want to apply to and find out who the HR person leading the search is. Get in touch with them and show that you are excited about the company and the position. Doing so puts you on the top of the candidate list and significantly increases your odds of being considered for an interview.
Let’s assume you’ve done that and secured the interview. How do you prepare for it? Your main task is to get ready to tell your stories in a compelling and engaging way. I can’t stress the importance of this step enough. So, let’s get tactical:
Identify critical skills for the job you are applying to. Usually, for transformation positions, the interviewers will be looking for evidence of: leadership, influencing, teamwork, communication (written and verbal), problem solving, and analytical skills. You will also be evaluated on your ability to organize your thoughts during the interview.
Identify your “hero” stories. Start by creating a “story matrix,” listing all your relevant experiences in the columns (divided into academic, professional, and extra-curricular) and all the skills you’ve identified above in the rows. Then, populate the matrix with everything you’ve done that might be relevant. Depending on your experience, it may take you a few hours to complete this exercise, but I guarantee it will be worth it. Go through each row and select your top 2-3 experiences for each skill. Very likely, there will also be at least 1 to 2 stories that stand out and that you are proud of - those are your “hero” stories.
Rehearse out loud. You may be very confident about how to tell your stories, but believe me, once you start saying them out loud, they will sound very different from how you had imagined them. Rehearse your hero stories and the top 1-2 stories per skill (you don’t want to run out of stories nor tell the same story to the interviewers in the same company). Also, you should practice telling the story in a structured way: start with the reason why you chose the story, briefly explain the context, explain what you did, and the impact you had. If you want to go the extra mile, think about what you could have done differently and the lessons learned from each experience.
There are two more steps for you to prepare:
Learn about the company. Unless you are interviewing for a big company that is constantly in the news, it is hard to truly understand what the company is going through. That said, you should still do your homework and review basic financials, major trends, main product and service lines, and possibly interviews with the top executives.
Learn about your interviewers. You should ask the HR search leader for a list of the people you will be interviewing with (and their bios if available). You should do basic research and prepare a list of 5-7 questions relevant to each of them (knowing their background will help you write more targeted questions).
The day has finally arrived! You are ready to rock and roll. Before I share a few suggestions on what to do in the interview, let me start by telling you what not to do:
Tell me what you think I want to hear. There are some people who believe that the best way to be liked is just to say what the interviewer wants to hear. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason you are being interviewed is so that I can get to know the real you, not a fake version of yourself. I want to know whether I would like to work with you and whether you can stand your ground with me and other leaders. The moment you start flattering me and telling me what you think I want to hear, you get a “no” on both questions.
Go into long explanations without checking with me. Some candidates will go on and on and on about their experiences. I’ve had situations in which the candidates spoke for over 20 minutes before pausing for the first time… I don’t know about you, but I usually disengage rather quickly when I am not part of the conversation. You are much better off by periodically checking with me to see if the level of detail you are providing is good enough - or if you need to adjust in any way. This has the added benefit of allowing me to steer the conversation to areas I want to probe, which increases the chances of success.
Exaggerate your contributions. I know it can be tempting to make your contributions sexier, to say that you’ve led a major project when indeed you were responsible for one of the workstreams. Please don’t do this. Experienced interviewers can spot this from miles away, and it can turn a potentially good interview sour. It also raises the question about what other aspects of your story are real vs. exaggerations.
Be defensive. Did you accept a demotion to have more time with your family? Were you laid off twice in a row? Did it take you 2 years to find a new job? Did you graduate from a school no one has even heard about? It doesn’t matter the perceived issue, you should own your story and be proud of it. Don’t try to defend or explain what happened to you; honor the choices you’ve made and your experiences, explain your rationale, and move on.
Provide generic “weaknesses”. Contrary to what you may have heard, being impatient or working hard are not weaknesses (unless you can make a strong case otherwise). I also don’t consider it valid to name things you have never done before (e.g., managing people, presenting to large audiences, etc.). When I ask this question, I want to gauge your maturity level. Everyone has weaknesses. The question is whether you have enough self-awareness and maturity to know yours and discuss them with me. If you want to ace this question, you should also point out the steps you’ve already taken to improve on those areas to show a “continuous improvement” mentality.
Now that we got that over with, let’s discuss what you should do to ace the interview:
Connect with me before we start. Some people are naturally great at making “warm up” conversation before the interview. If that is not your case, you should still try to make some small talk, asking about how my day is going or lightening up the mood with an interesting comment about yourself. Practice this if you must. Also, please try to smile a bit. These situations can be tense and uncomfortable, which makes your effort even more appreciated.
Verify what I am looking for at the start of the interview. Before you jump into what you want to share, validate that your understanding about the position is correct. You can say something like: “I understand you are hiring for a position to do x, y and z, and that the critical skills for someone to succeed are a, b, and c. Is my understanding correct?” Hearing the answer from the hiring manager is much more helpful than from a job description or anyone else. It will also help you choose which stories to share.
Help me understand why you chose that story before you start telling it. If you prepare well, this is going to be very easy to do. Before you jump into your hero story, explain why that story is important and the impact that you had. Otherwise, I will spend part of the time trying to guess where you are going vs. paying attention to what you are saying.
Engage with me during the interview. Feel free to ask me questions and interact with me as we go along. Doing so makes for a much more interesting time together. For example, you can ask whether I need more details in your answer, or make a funny comment to break the ice, or share a quick, relevant experience in the form of a “parenthesis”. Really, you should strive to have a conversation with your interviewer instead of going into it expecting an interrogation.
End enthusiastically. As we prepare to end the interview, show your excitement for the opportunity. Thank me for my time and reinforce that you really want the job and the reasons why you think you are the best candidate. You will leave a great (and lasting) impression.
I am confident that if you follow these best practices and combine them with your most relevant experiences, you will ace your interview.