I can certainly sympathize with all of you out there who have been looking for a job and are now facing an interview. It’s a situation I found myself in more than once over the years. Here’s one of my stories.
Some time ago, I decided to look for a new job. I wasn’t unhappy in my job at that time but had reached the maximum salary for that position.
This meant I’d have to be promoted for my salary to keep growing. Trouble was, there was only one higher position in my division and that position would likely not open up for several more years.
After much soul searching, I decided to look for a higher and better-paying IT management position.
I Found My New Dream Job
It took several weeks, but I finally found an opening for what appeared to be an ideal position.
I filled out the online application and submitted my resume. There was an option to attach a cover letter, which you can bet I did!
I always keep my resume up to date (you just never know when you’ll need it) and so it was not too difficult to modify it to highlight the exact skills and experience in the job posting. Here’s how I did it.
I took the job posting and divided it into each of the required and desired qualifications. I then rewrote my resume to mention each of these qualifications, making sure to show specific accomplishments for each one. As much as possible, I used the exact wording, straight from the job posting, for each qualification.
I did the same thing in my cover letter. I specifically mentioned three of the most important required qualifications and gave my experience and accomplishments for each one. To keep the cover letter at one page, I didn’t mention all of the desired qualifications but referred the reader to my resume.
I then waited. And waited. And waited some more!
It was over six weeks before I got a response. That’s right – six weeks! Some organizations are just very slow to respond, particularly if there were a large number of applicants. This was a very desirable upper-level management position, so I knew I’d have to be patient.
But six weeks? I almost forget about it and was looking for other openings.
Finally, I received an invitation to interview from the HR department and the process then proceeded quite fast.
My Interview Preparation
Having interviewed hundreds of candidates myself as a Hiring Manager, I knew that the most important thing about an interview is making sure you properly prepare and this is where I devoted the most time. And believe me when I say it was a LARGE amount of time.
My first step was to research the company. This was a bit easier for this position than for many positions because it was a public sector organization.
This meant that extensive information was available on their website. This is common for government organizations because it’s all information open to the public. This also meant there was an extensive amount of information on the web from other sites.
Since my interview was a week away, I had some time. I spent over 25 hours researching and reading everything I could find online, including every recent news event and news release.
A lot of this time was spent becoming familiar with information and news about the specific department in which the position was located. I also made sure I was well versed in the goals and strategies of the organization itself.
My goal was to become as knowledgeable as the people on the interview panel about their challenges and strategies.
I wrote and practiced my “60 Second Marketing Message“, prepared several anecdotes about my skills and experience as they related to that job, and wrote a list of 10 questions to ask, based on my research.
I also practiced my answers to several of the common interview questions I felt were likely to be asked. After all, I had asked all these many times myself when interviewing applicants.
My Time at the Interview
The day arrived and I was off! I made certain to arrive 45 minutes early to ensure that I wouldn’t be late due to an unexpected circumstance.
When I arrived, I sat in my car going over last-minute notes. I then walked into HR ten minutes before my scheduled time.
I was pretty sure this would be a ‘panel’ interview and I was right. Panel interviews have become common, especially for management positions.
They are more nerve-racking for the applicants, but companies like them because they feel they are more objective. Plus, it tends to reduce the number of interviews required.
In my case, there were seven people on the interview panel. As is usually the case in these types of interviews, they went around the table firing questions at me.
But since I had done so much research, I was able to answer most of the questions by relating how my experience, skills, and accomplishments specifically applied to their organization. This helped to decrease my nervousness. It also made the interview go much smoother than it would have had I not done the research.
Toward the end of the interview, as I knew they would (because I would!), I was asked if I had any questions. Since I already had 10 prepared, I chose three that I felt most applied to the things I heard during the interview. I saw several of the interviewers nod as I asked the questions.
As the interview ended, I asked for business cards from each panel member, shook everyone’s hand as I thanked them for the interview, and walked out hoping I made a good impression.
Seems that I did, as I got a call later that day inviting me to a second interview. I hadn’t even had time to send thank you notes!
The Second – and Final – Interview
In this case, my second interview ended up being the final interview, where the hiring decisions are made. It was four days later and HR informed me there would be only two people at this interview.
This position had a dual-reporting relationship: one to the Chief Information Officer, and one to the Director of the specific organization in which I would work. These were the two people with whom I would be interviewing.
I therefore had to impress two bosses! Doesn’t get more stressful than this.
As I waited outside the interview room, I heard voices and laughter from inside. In a few minutes, a man – who I assumed was another candidate – walked out. He was dressed in a suit, like me, and looked at me sideways as he walked past.
He looked good and I figured I had a tough act to follow, especially based on the loud voices and laughter. I sighed to myself and waited to be called in.
Once I walked into the room, I shook hands with my two potential bosses, one woman, and one man. Both had faces that were hard to read and knew I had my work cut out as I introduced myself.
And it turned out I was correct.
The interview began with them asking a few questions without adding much comment, as if they were somewhat at a loss for words. I almost got the impression they were losing interest in the interview and me as a candidate. This was especially concerning after the laughter and loud voices I heard from the previous interview.
Did I really stumble that badly after such a short period of time? I was a bit confused at the turn this interview seemed to be taking.
Since they weren’t talking much, I figured what did I have to lose at that point and decided to take a more active role. Just like the approach I used in the first interview, I used each next question as an opportunity to frame my answer in terms of things specific to the goals and strategies of their organization.
As I talked about my experience and skills, I made it a point to always finish by saying something like this: “And this is similar to a problem you faced.” I then talked about how I approached that problem.
My advance preparation was so thorough that I was able to include in almost all my answers some sort of comment or comparison to something they faced.
They started nodding their heads after the third or fourth answer I gave using this approach. They were surprised and appeared to be somewhat pleased with how much I knew about their organization.
But what really nailed the interview for me was this. While answering a question, I happened to mention in passing that most of my experience was in the business side of the house, not information technology.
Since the position for which I was interviewing was for an IT manager, not a business manager, this would seem to be a high-risk strategy.
But it wasn’t.
You see, I did my homework very well. My research told me that the background of the CIO was also originally in business. Over time he moved into IT, correctly surmising that it was the future of most businesses.
That is exactly why I made certain to include somewhere in the interview that my background was in business before transitioning into IT management.
Once I made that point the CIO’s eyes lit up and he said: “My background was also based in business and you know, I’ve always believed that made me a better Chief Information Officer.”
From that point on, it became more of a discussion about how I’d handle the job, rather than an interview.
That’s the power of thorough research of the organization.
When asked at the end of the interview if I had any questions, I asked two or three questions from the list I prepared in advance, basically asking for clarification of some of their goals and objectives. The purpose was to reinforce the fact that I was familiar with their organization.
The funny thing was, neither of them smiled once during the entire interview. I left not really sure how I’d done, even after my home run with the business background comment. After all, they seemed to be laughing and joking with the previous candidate!
As a Hiring Manager, I will tell you this was a pretty humbling experience.
So I was somewhat surprised the next day when I was offered the job, at a higher salary than I anticipated.
It seems after all that my research and knowledge about their organization, along with my business background, won me the job. After I started, the CIO told me that I was not the most experienced candidate but was the most well-prepared by a large margin. He said that’s why I was hired.
Two things are most important to take away from my interview experience.
Be Sure to Rewrite Your Resume and Cover Letter for Each Job
When I read resumes in my role as a Hiring Manager, the ones I put in the “consider for interview” stack are those that show the closest match to the stated job requirements.
This is the reason I carefully took apart the job posting for this particular position. I then rewrote my resume and cover letter to customize them to match the requirements for that specific job. Since I only ever apply for jobs that match my experience and skills, this was relatively easy to do.
This is why I was selected for an interview. Believe me, it works!
When You Think You’re Prepared Enough, Prepare Some More
Do your homework. I can’t stress this too much – it’s a must!
Research the organization thoroughly. You should be able to find online most, if not all, the information you need. Your goal is to be able to frame your experience, skills and accomplishments in ways that exactly match the requirements for that exact job. You need to be familiar with the challenges faced by that company and be able to show how you’ll be able to help.
The only way to pull this off smoothly and with no hesitation is if you have done your research thoroughly. I know for a fact that is why I got the job.
Coincidentally, as a result of my interview, they added the question “Tell us what you know about our company” to the list of standard questions to ask. I’ve sat on many interview panels since then and I chuckle to myself every time it’s asked.
I’ll tell you that probably 95% of the applicants I’ve interviewed over the years knew little or nothing specific about my organization. This means that if you are one of the five percent who are knowledgeable about the purpose, goals, and challenges of the company, and can give answers demonstrating how your skills and experience can help, you greatly increase your chances of being a finalist for that position.
Never, ever underestimate the power of preparation.