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31 Jan. 2012 | Comments (0)

People have different natural talents at interviewing for jobs. But even the most talented can fail to get offers if they don't prepare. This goes beyond arriving on time, dressing professionally, being polite, and preparing to discuss every detail of your resume. Of course, these things are important. But get ready for interviews in a way that makes you stand out. Adopt a different mindset — theirs.

An employer's purpose is to help determine who best fits the job opening and who will improve the organization's capability in that position. The interview is a test. To stand in the shoes of the people who are interviewing you, imagine what they need to know to decide whether to make you an offer.

Consider these six steps to align your interview skills with an employer's mindset:

1. Learn all you can before you meet. Interviewers bring their experience to the interview. Nothing can substitute for knowing where they're coming from. Master the available information on the institution. Read everything you can find about the company and the job — from public sources, the company web site, and anything they send you. Study the written job description and the requirements for candidates. Interviewers expect candidates to know this material. It's the admission ticket.

But you can do better. Try out their products. Meet people who once worked there, as well as suppliers, customers, or others in the industry. Ask about the company and how they think the job would work. If you know similar jobs at other companies, consider how they might differ.

This foundational knowledge leads to all the other steps.

2. Prepare your own questions. Thoughtful questions show the interviewer you're thinking deeply about the job. They show you're a serious candidate. Among the most impressive lines of questioning are those that address how the organization operates. Get beyond the basics. If you're interviewing at a company known for consumer marketing, for example, don't ask, "Do you do much market research?" If they're known for marketing, you can be sure they do market research. Instead, perhaps this: "How do market research findings influence product design?" Or this: "What are the differences in careers involving market research compared those in brand management?"

3. Make your case. Link yourself to the interviewer's needs in the job. Come to the meeting with two elevator speeches — one if you have one minute to describe yourself and another if you have four or five minutes. Start with your personal value proposition (PVP) and tailor it to the job. Ask yourself this question: "If I get this offer, why might that be?" The answer includes your elevator speech.

Imagine questions interviewers may ask and how you'll answer. Some may be about how well you match the job requirements. Others may be prompted by your resume. Are there gaps against their criteria? If so, how have you overcome gaps in the past, or how would you in the job?

4. Show how you'd succeed. Especially in later interviews, help interviewers judge how you'd do in the job. Show how you'd deal with the job's challenges. Don't suggest you have the answer to a complex situation they undoubtedly know better than you do. Introduce your ideas as a way to imagine how the job would be, and ask for their reaction. ("I assume the situation's like this...If that's right, then I'd need to do this to succeed...") Do this well, and they'll be thinking more about how they'd work with you than whether to make you an offer.

This line of discussion is important for everyone, and it's essential for senior roles. CEOs and boards expect new senior people to hit the ground running.

5. Prepare for special interview formats. Consulting firms and others use case interviews. Interviewers at some companies use imaginary problem-solving situations, asking questions like, "How many marbles could fit in that jar?" If you're pursuing these jobs, you must do well in these formats. The only way to build those interviewing skills is to prepare and practice. Several books show how to do that, including Are you Smart Enough to Work at Google? and Case in Point.

6. Synthesize along the way and adjust. You'll prepare for the first interviews from an outside-in perspective. In later meetings, interviewers will assume you've learned from earlier discussions. They'll expect more sophisticated insights and questions.

What more have you learned about the company? Have they suggested that you think about anything? What have you learned about your strong points and soft spots? Reset your elevator speech. Prepare a new set of questions.

A winning PVP will set your direction, and your network can surface good possibilities. But you still must get the offer. The best way to do that is to think like the interviewers do and prepare in that light.

What do you do to prepare for interviews?

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/26/2012.

  • About the Author:Bill Barnett

    Bill Barnett

    Bill Barnett led the Strategy Practice at McKinsey & Company and has taught career strategy to graduate students at Yale and Rice. He now is applying business strategy concepts to careers.

    Full Bio | More from Bill Barnett


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