Knowledge Center: Article

Leadership Talent Strategy

Every interaction is an interview


How I hire

When I wasn’t long out of college and still trying to get a handle on what I wanted to do, I set up some informational interviews with various companies. They were networking opportunities really, though you never know where they might lead. One stands out clearly in my mind: An executive who had been kind enough to meet with me, asked me if I had any questions. I scrambled, and came up with a few simple and generic questions. Nothing insightful, and certainly nothing that demonstrated a real interest in her or her organization. I had scheduled a lot of meetings in the previous days and had not had time to do my homework and it showed.

Halfway into my third question, she stopped me and announced that her next meeting was starting. But I knew the truth – I had not shown what I was capable of. I had not taken a few extra minutes to think about real, insightful questions. It was one of the most embarrassing and consequential moments in my early career. Somewhat later, I heard the saying that every interaction is an interview and, boy, had I learned that. It remains a powerful reminder to me, even today!

Surprisingly perhaps, mistakes in job seeking aren’t confined to recent graduates or people just moving up the career ladder. Even the most seasoned executives sometimes stumble — in casual interactions and formal interviews alike. In both situations, prospective employers and their executive search partners are looking not just for experience and skills but also for ‘the little things’ – the qualities that differentiate you from everyone else in the market and speak to who you are as a person.

Here are a few that, over the years, I have seen become more and more important in the hiring decision. They include:

Conscientiousness. You would be surprised how many people don’t prepare well. Before your first encounter with anyone from the company you should have read all you reasonably can about the business. If possible, talk to people who’ve worked there. Be prepared to engage at any time in informed conversation about the business. But remember that the goal is not to demonstrate perfect knowledge but to show that you are the sort of person who cares enough to prepare and, even more importantly, can synthesize and analyze what you know.

Intellectual curiosity. If you’ve done your homework and synthesized the publicly available information about the company, questions rooted in genuine curiosity about things you don’t know should arise naturally. Approach the conversation as if you were a consultant the company had engaged: What are the most significant opportunities and challenges the company faces and how will that change the company in three to five years? What competitors do they see emerging — and which are unexpected? What are the biggest obstacles they face in achieving their goals and how are they combatting those? Such questions also demonstrate your humility — you’re there to find out about their business, not tell them how to conduct it.

Passion. Without going overboard, show that you are excited about the possibility of joining the company. I am amazed at how many individuals are afraid to look too excited and come across as uninterested. You may still have questions about the fit, but those questions shouldn’t come across as ambivalence. Be prepared with a good answer to the question: why are you interested in this role? And why you? Also, note that first encounters and early interviews are definitely not the time to talk about money or vacation time (neither of which is a good reason for taking a job anyway).

Authenticity. “Be yourself” is easy to say but sometimes hard to do — especially when a coveted position is at stake. Nevertheless, clearly communicating who you are now can save you and the company many future headaches should you turn out to be a poor fit. As I often tell candidates I’m presenting to clients, don’t try to be the person you think the interviewer wants you to be, but the person you are. In the long run, you want to be somewhere that fits your style and where you fit the culture. Further, you have more leeway to be who you are than ever before. Smart companies know that to succeed today they need diverse personalities and perspectives and they value difference — diversity is good for business. (See our related article, Harnessing the Power of Diversity of Thinking.)

Self-Awareness. Whether you’re applying for your first job or seeking a seat on a corporate board, you will almost certainly be asked about your shortcomings. First, don’t hesitate before you answer, as if you were thinking about it for the first time. Or worse, as one candidate did recently, hem and haw before concluding that you can’t think of any shortcomings. Second, answer honestly. Don’t insult the interviewer’s intelligence by identifying weaknesses that are really strengths: “I work too hard;” “I care too much about what I do.”

Values. Many candidates possess the requisite skills for any given job, but not all of them have the requisite values. Conscientious companies will probe for those values, not simply ask you to declare them. For example, you might be asked what you’ve done in your working life that you’re proudest of. Citing your promotions or compensation says one thing about you. Citing the colleagues you've helped mentor or the solution you helped find to a seemingly intractable business problem says another.

Interestingly, a lot of companies also look at how you treat people during the interview process — and I don’t just mean the executives. They will observe how you treat their support team. Clients will sometimes even ask me how the candidate has treated my executive assistant. Not too long ago, I was working with a C-suite executive who was perfectly fine with me but dismissive with my team. My client observed the same thing — and that was it — the candidate didn’t move forward.

No matter where you stand on the career ladder, your ability to demonstrate not only your skills but these personal qualities can help you take the next step up. Opportunities to demonstrate them occur in virtually every interaction you have with a prospective employer. The signals you send in terms of preparedness and passion, your punctuality, your responsiveness to communications, your treatment of a waiter at a dinner meeting — or an executive assistant in the office — are all answers to the fundamental question in any hiring decision: Who are you?

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of our “LinkedIn Influencers” series. For more articles by this author, follow Bonnie Gwin on LinkedIn by clicking here.