Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, July 31 2012
It’s no secret. The current workforce has more qualified women vying for top jobs than ever before. All things being equal on paper, how a candidate performs in a one-on-one interview can make or break her chances of snagging that plum position.
Sharon Hall is a consultant at Spencer Stuart, one of the world’s leading executive search consulting firms. In addition to being a top executive herself, she consults with some of the world’s most prestigious companies, helping them identify the cream of the crop when it comes to senior executives. Hall knows people, and years of experience on the interviewer’s side of the desk have given her valuable insight into the dos and don’ts of successful interviewing.
Hall recruits both men and women in her job, and most candidates sport impressive resumes, have a polished personal presentation and are adept at interviewing. Nevertheless, she is able to rattle off a number of mistakes she routinely sees during her interview process. At the top of her list: talking too much.
“Interview questions should be answered in 60 to 90 seconds,” says Hall. “If you’re taking longer than that, you’re giving information you don’t want to impart; either answering the wrong question or giving the recruiter a trouble spot they otherwise might not have heard.” And taking too long to answer questions cuts into the interviewer’s time.
“There’s only so much time,” she says. “If I have 10 questions to ask, and you’re talking too much, what if I only get through four?”
Talking too much also imparts a level of nervousness and lack of focus to the interviewer — even if that perception is incorrect.
“You have something you want to say, but if it takes too long, the interviewer thinks, ‘This person can’t focus,’” says Hall.
On the reverse, Hall says many candidates don’t give enough detail in their answers.
“It’s almost unfair,” she laughs. “I’m saying don’t talk too much, but we want detail. When an employer asks a question, they want to hear detail in the answer. People will typically err on the side of keeping it brief, keeping it high-level, attempting to show they’re a high-level person, but their answer will often not include enough detail.” The antidote is found in another common mistake -- not clarifying the question being asked.
“Clients complain about this, too,” says Hall. “For example if I ask, ‘How did you launch the digital platform at IBM?’, rather than rattling off the answer like a student would do on a test, ask me what I want to know. For example, ‘Are you trying to get a better sense for my expertise on the digital platform, or do you want to know how I navigated the politics of a large corporation?’ Clarify the question.” Hall says this technique demonstrates a couple of important qualities.
“You’re thinking about what I’m asking, and you’re engaged,” she says. “You’re part of this dialogue we’re having.”
Taking a moment to clarify the question also means the candidate is taking time to think. Not thinking about how to answer a question is a frequent mistake.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Let me think about that question,’” Hall says. “People don’t feel they have permission to take the time to think, but when you do it, you’re showing me that you’re putting your brain in gear before you put your mouth in gear. You’re showing me that you have the gravitas to gather yourself - allowing that the question requires some thought that you want to take.”
Another mistake, especially for women, is being overly formal.
“We sit there with our hands folded like we’re in a classroom being grilled,” Hall says. “Men are more (of the mindset) that ‘this is my interview, and I’m taking over too" -- asking questions, imposing my style, being more animated. It’s better to share some of yourself in the interview situation: a quip, a smile, adding something personal.” Body language, one’s posture and the ease with which a person moves, falls into this category as well.
“All people have challenges with these things, not just women,” she says, adding that part of the problem is that many of these tips are diametrically opposed - don’t talk too long but get some detail in your answer; make sure you’re answering the question asked, but impart some of your own personality. Much of what a candidate does is balance the tension between the two extremes, which is difficult when you know you’re being scrutinized.
“By definition, if you are being interviewed for a job, the person across the table is assessing you. That is true. You are being assessed,” she says. Hall likens the process to being back in the classroom with the interviewer in the role of teacher and the candidate playing the role of student.
“The problem with that (scenario) is that in an interview situation, one way I’m going to know you’re good is how you engage,” says Hall. “If you engage by sitting there, allowing me to ask all the questions and giving me the answers, I’ll know that you engage like a subordinate, not a thought leader. We’re looking for thought leaders at the senior level.” Even though it’s a natural tendency to sit back and allow the assessment process to occur, Hall says engaging — asking questions, taking time to think — are great ways to present a professional demeanor.
Hall suggests every interviewee bring the right paperwork with them.
“Bring two copies of your resume and a copy of the job description as well,” she says. “If there’s been a sensational article about the company that you want to ask about, bring it.”
If questions arise about information on the resume, both the interviewer and candidate can refer to their copy. And regarding resumes, don’t make the mistake of trying to cover up information, such as age, by leaving out dates.
“This is the age of data,” she says. “When we ask for your year of graduation, cough it up — immediately. We’re going to check it anyway, and it should be on your resume. We verify all degrees. We verify everything, so don’t try to hide anything.”
Being less than truthful is one of the biggest mistakes a candidate can make. If you had a tumultuous departure from the last job, be up front.
“Whatever it is, we’re going to find out. The best interviewees will just say, ‘It was not a good fit, and they asked me to leave,’” says Hall. “As high level recruiters, we’ve called references before we’ve even talked to you; not references you’ve given us, people we know in those companies. If I’ve heard one thing and you tell me another thing, I’m not buying your story for a minute.”
“Find a way to tell the truth with enough detail that you’re clear in your communication,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with adding some of your perspective to it, but don’t cover up embarrassing reasons for job transitions. If one job in a 20-year career didn’t work out, don’t lie about it. That just damages your credibility for anything else you say.”
Engagement is the key to a good interview, and nothing says, ‘I’m engaged,’ like taking notes.
“It’s a big mistake almost everybody makes,” says Hall. “In fact I would say out of 20 interviews I conduct, only one person would get this right: bring pencil and paper and take notes. It’s your meeting too.” Taking notes allows candidates to answer questions more effectively or becomes a memory jog for questions they may have about the company.
“When people come to interviews prepared like that, I see them as more senior,” says Hall. “They present themselves as professional, more engaged, with a better command over the conversation. Good interviewers are taking a whole bunch of notes, and if I have time to take them, so do you.”
With so much to think about in an interview, and often so much riding on it, Hall says candidates can forget one very important thing.
“Smile,” she says. “People are so serious and intense about answering the right question. They can be a little too formal. We’re trying to hire a real person here so don’t forget to smile.”
In addition to doing (or not doing) everything previously mentioned Hall has a few more recommendations for women.
“Be prepared to provide details around the accomplishments you’re going to claim,” she says. “I know you launched the digital platform at IBM. When I ask how you did that you don’t just repeat it back to me. I want to know how, when, the circumstances and what was unique about it.”
Don’t go to an interview assuming this is the job you need to have.
“You may find out it’s not,” she says. “Come with a posture that says ‘I’m engaging in dialogue about a potential opportunity that may or may not be right for me. The good news is that I’m going to meet with this recruiter, and they’re going to like me for this job or the right job.’” That type of preparation and confidence makes exactly the impression you’re trying to convey.
If you’re dealing with a recruiter who sets you up for a client interview, ask for feedback prior to the client interview, something Hall does as a matter of course.
“You don’t want to ask ‘Am I good for the role?’ or ‘Are you going to recommend me?’ but there’s nothing wrong with asking, ‘Have I answered all your questions? Do you see me as a credible candidate? What might the next step be, if any? What advice would you give me about the way I interview; have I done too much, too little? Is there something about my style I should be aware of?’”
Experience has taught Hall that no matter what the paper says, the personal interview is essential.
“That’s why I see each and every person I recommend to a client,” she says. “The things that jump out and make an impression right away usually have to do with the cultural fit (within the company). I often know right away whether a person will not fit with a company.” But the reverse also happens.
“The other day my associate found and screened a person for a job,” recalls Hall. “I believed the person was too junior for the position we were trying to fill. I was shopping for a senior vice president, and the person’s title was senior director with 20 years’ experience. I felt there’s no way this could be my person, but I was desperate. I went ahead and met them, even though I wasn’t buying it. This person is slammin’ good! I was up until 2 a.m. writing the report!”
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Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.