This is the sixth and final installment of the Career Path series. If you haven’t read parts 1-5, consider starting there. The series is my attempt at sharing observations and mistakes I’ve made throughout my career which may be helpful for others on the same path.
I have plenty of thoughts on the flaws or limitations of making hiring decisions based primarily on how well someone presents in a job interview, but that’s not what this post is about. For better or worse, interviews matter, and the further you want to go professionally, the more you have to improve and refine your approach to these meetings. Not to sound overly dramatic but your ability in this area can be the difference in a career, which is why I chose to cap off this series writing about it. The good news is, if you have been doing the things I’ve highlighted up to this point, you’ll already be in a terrific position. Now it’s just about presentation.
There are no magic tricks being sold here; I can’t share any shortcut to success or a method guaranteed to win every time. I just hope this post inspires you to reflect on how you might prepare for the next opportunity, and perhaps you’ll glean something useful as I break down the interview process from my perspective.
I should start by saying, nothing about interviewing came naturally to me and I’ve learned as much or more from my failures as I have from my successes. Interviewing can be such a unique process; I’m sure there are folks out there who possess qualities that make the interaction itself easier but I certainly wasn’t gifted them. The important thing to keep in mind is that no matter where your starting point is, you can absolutely improve.
I failed to break into this field on several occasions, and not just because I didn’t have experience. Many of the positions I applied to were entry level and in some cases, I had actually built more experience to that point than the person who went on to be selected. It was early in my career but I can still recall the sting of being passed over for one half of a job share position in a department I had been working in as an on-call employee. That’s right, I couldn’t even win an interview for half of a job. I thought I had done everything right as far as positioning myself to take the next step but when it came down to it, someone else had a better interview and they deserved the job.
It’s easy for me to say the other person deserved it now, many years later. At the time, I remember feeling very bitter and resentful, as if I had just been beaten in a one-on-one competition. But with a little time and reflection, my perspective on this topic changed. Interviewing may still be a competitive process, but the competition isn’t you against the other candidates. It’s between you and the process itself.
I like the game of golf as an analogy here. Yes, professionally speaking there are winners and losers, and interviews are a zero-sum game in that one person must be selected over others in the end. But I’ve found comparing yourself to others has never served me well and ultimately, it doesn’t matter who else has applied or what they do in their own process because all of that is beyond your control.
Whether Tiger Woods sinks a birdie on the 9th hole or shanks one into the water on the 12th, the only things that truly matter to any other golfer is where they’re at on the course and whether their next stroke is their best. Wondering how much better or worse the other candidates are faring will only distract you from your own preparation and performance.
Your approach to interviewing absolutely matters. You can get better and your focus should alway be on your own process, not who you perceive to be your competition. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts I hope are helpful if you are thinking about pursuing the next growth opportunity in your career.
The interview starts now
Interviewing is a process, not an event. Yes, there are usually multiple rounds, along with an extensive background investigation and psychological evaluation (depending on the agency and position you are pursuing), but I’m not talking about the hiring process following a successful interview. I mean the process of positioning yourself to have the greatest odds of being selected. The final meeting is simply the culmination of your efforts.
Embrace your every day challenges as an opportunity to practice dealing with adversity, working through conflict, and leading others. Trust me, that experience is going to come in handy some day. You may be incensed by the person causing you problems in the moment but if you manage to find success and resolution, you’re going to have a great story to share during your next interview. With a little time and perspective, you may even end up thanking that person for helping you grow.
Seek the guidance of others
I was given sound advice by two people close to me while preparing for an interview years ago. The first told me “Speak the truth, say what you know, and be yourself.” The second gave me a list of questions I would likely be asked and helped me prepare for the stress of an interview by conducting a role-play exercise. While these two approaches were very different from each other, both were equally valuable to me and I would have been far less prepared had I attempted to go it alone.
How you prepare matters
Being yourself and saying what you know is important; it will save you from flubbing a scripted line and authenticity is always attractive. However, you still need to be able to communicate how awesome you are with polish, in a way that woos your audience, and improvisation may not be your strong suit. There may also be times where the position you are pursuing includes certain aspects that simply do not match your experience. As you think about how to marry the concepts of authenticity and preparation together, consider developing mental bullet points anchored to your truth (experience/knowledge/ideas), not artificial statements that don’t belong to you.
While a certain level of confidence can be gained with memorization and practice, there will come a time when you meet a question or problem you did not anticipate. In those moments, saying what you know can be a lot easier when you have developed a well of experience and narratives, flexible enough to fit into just about any scenario.
Lastly, don’t expect everything to go smoothly. Expect the unexpected. It doesn’t mean you can prepare for anything and everything, it’s just a way of reducing your level of surprise and the strength of your emotions in the moment.
Internal, external, who cares?
If you are an external candidate (you don’t currently work for the organization you are applying to), right or wrong, it’s likely those in charge do not want to hire you. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they have people they already trust, and they want to hire them. As an outsider, it’s not enough to leave your interview panel with a sense of wanting to hire you. You have to leave such a strong impression, they are left with the conclusion that they have to hire you over the person they wanted. It probably won’t be the most popular decision inside the office, but you want to leave them feeling like they can’t afford to not hire you.
It’s not all bad though. There are circumstances where the playing field may be a little more level, or you might even have an advantage as an outsider (they don’t know all your idiosyncrasies, after all). Through networking, you can increase your visibility and be less of an unknown commodity. There are some leaders who value diversity of thought and look to bring in outsiders to infuse new ideas into the organization. I’ve just found embracing this underdog mentality has helped motivate me throughout my own process.
If you are an internal candidate, you can’t assume your path will be easier. If you don’t have a higher level of education or unique qualifications, you may find yourself not even qualifying for an interview in today’s market, even if you have the advantage of existing relationships and organizational knowledge.
Assume you aren’t the most qualified person for this job, because you probably aren’t. This should inspire you not only to take more time preparing for your next interview, but to examine your resume and make decisions about what qualifications or education is worth pursuing to make you more competitive in the future.
Don’t get complacent just because you have some inherent advantages as an internal candidate. Understand that for you, the interview has already begun. How you behave, how you interact with others, and how you communicate is already on display – so act accordingly.
Prepare for structured interviews
Today’s public employee interviews are for the most part, highly structured. That means you shouldn’t be asked random questions by a single person. Instead, initial rounds are generally conducted by a panel and the questions you will be asked were determined far in advance by someone other than who will be asking them. Your responses will be scored by each individual panelist according to set criteria, and although bias still may exist, this approach has been widely adopted.
The style of your questions are typically going to be either behavioral (asking you to provide a real example in response to the question based on your experience) or situational (hypothetical – asking what you would do in a given situation). This is why it’s critical you spend time reflecting on a variety of different experiences you’ve had to this point, so you can either share them exactly as they occurred or draw inspiration from them as you respond to a hypothetical.
There are bound to be some non-industry specific or general questions sprinkled in (identify your strengths and weakness, where you see yourself in 5 years, and tell the panel why they should hire you). The good news is, there are plenty of places on the internet where you can find a more comprehensive list of these common questions and experts willing to share their advice on them. Just be sure to spend as much time thinking about your own answers to these questions as you do searching for someone else’s.
While some offices opt to provide candidates with their questions ahead of time, most do not, and some at most will only give you a few minutes before the interview begins to look over them. For the most part, you cannot predict what questions you will be asked. However, you can control two aspects of the interview. How you introduce yourself, and how you choose to end the interview.
Almost every interview I’ve ever done began with an offer to introduce myself. While I always use this prompt as an opportunity to present some aspects of my personal life, I mostly spend it reviewing my career highlights and offering an explanation as to why I’m pursuing the position. I can tell you from being on the other side of the table, I’ve seen some people waste this opportunity, especially internal candidates who may take it for granted.
Prepare questions for the panel as you will be given the opportunity to ask them at at the end. To be clear, I do not mean some variation of “What happens next?” or “When should I expect a call?” These are questions I honestly never ask because
a) They do not matter
b) They do not make my case to be hired any stronger
If you’re at the point where you’ve been given the opportunity to ask questions, this is your next-to-final chance to leave an impression. Show not only how much thought you’ve given to this opportunity but how much research you’ve done on your potential peers and the agency itself. If you can find out who will be on the panel, or at least what level of employee will be on it, use that to your favor. Craft open ended questions only they could answer. Some examples might be:
How would you describe the culture here?
How do you define success for this position?
How could someone fail here?
How would I be supported if I was hired into this position?
Nowadays, I think of the interview really beginning when I get the chance to turn the meeting into a conversation. To have a back-and-forth with a panelist is really important to me because I want to hear their own thoughts, not just see them read scripted questions and write down notes. I also want to show my character and personality, which can be more difficult to do when you are solely focused on providing a response they are looking to score. So don’t just ask one of the questions above and move on. Use their response as an opportunity to truly converse with that person, dig more into their experience and opinions. Keep them talking and before you know it, you won’t feel like you’re the one being interviewed anymore.
Personally, I memorize mission statements, review strategic plans and check social media if the organization uses it. Anything I can use to show how interested I am is worth doing the research. If I know who specifically to expect on a panel ahead of time, I will try to find out what that person’s favorite song is and be humming it on my way in. OK, that last part is a bit much, but seriously, do some research, it may help you decide if you even want the job!
Lastly, prepare a closing statement. This is it. This is how you drop the mic and leave your final impression. Don’t just get up and say thank you on your way out. Remind them again why you are pursuing this opportunity, why you would be a great fit and let them see your personality.
The best practice I can think of comes from being on the other side of the table. If there is ever an opportunity for you to be on an interview panel for your organization, I’d strongly encourage you to volunteer. Not only will you gain some perspective by seeing how others perform, the metaphoric curtain will be rolled back and you will get to see the process for what it truly is. People just trying to get to know each other. And as you sit calmly alongside your fellow panelists, knowing what questions will be asked and what constitutes a good answer, you are (perhaps for the first time) emotionally detached from the situation. Armed with that newfound clarity, you will be better prepared for the next time you are on the other side of that table.
In the absence of an opportunity to be on an interview panel yourself, find a partner and role-play. I know it sounds cheesy but it really helps to borrow someone else’s brain and hear feedback on your performance. I’ve always found practice sessions affect my mental preparation but it also eases my physiological responses by creating familiarity in certain scenarios. When I see/hear/feel something I’ve experienced before, I am able to better maintain my composure when I meet that adversity. If you don’t have a partner, use a recorder, use a mirror, use your cat, just get some mental reps in before the day arrives.
Get your mind right
I have always had a bit of social anxiety and the few minutes before an interview usually invokes a strong physiological response. My pulse begins to rise and it feels like my heart is about to beat out of my chest. I tend to get a little sweaty, especially in my palms, and all I can think about is how grossed out the panel will be when they have to shake hands with a slimy-palmed weirdo.
On one occasion, I took a final look in my car mirror before walking into the interview and suddenly realized I had forgotten to shave that morning. In another instance, I went to wash my hands in the restroom just moments before the interview was to begin and the soap dispenser exploded, spraying specks of oily foam all over the front of my suit jacket. In each of these interviews, I figured out a way to get my mind right. For as upset as I was in the moment, I was able to focus on my breathing, slow my pulse, and walk confidently into the room no matter what I looked like.
I tend to use an app on my watch to help ease my racing mind and relax my tense body, but this is one of those things where such a deeply personal issue really needs to be developed by the individual, using whatever tools are available to them. The thing is, I know plenty of folks who are ready for advancement, but really struggle with this aspect of interviewing.
It’s not just about outward appearances. When you aren’t able to regulate yourself in these meetings, it makes it extremely difficult to think clearly. If you are not in a calm state, the things you have mentally prepared to this point will be less accessible in the moment. I know I’m starting to tread into a completely different topic here but if you haven’t spent time exploring yourself to better understand your emotions, their roots and how you respond to them during times of intense stress, I’d strongly encourage taking that first step.
The interview isn't everything
There are no guarantees; not in life and certainly not in the hiring process. I’ve had some success in my career but the best interview I ever had did not result in an offer. There is always room for improvement but sometimes, another candidate is just going to be a better fit for the position, and that’s OK. All you can do is present the best version of yourself, leave it knowing you did your best, and continuously try to improve.
I hope I was able to share at least one thing that inspires you to think about your process or approach to interviewing. There is so much out there on this topic and I want to wrap up this post simply by encouraging everyone to seek out the guidance of others, whether it’s through your existing network or reaching out to someone new. There are a lot of resources and people out there who want to help and if you go looking, you’ll find them.