I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked:
“What are some of the most important things you look for when interviewing candidates?”
But what I can tell you is that my answer is always the same…
1. Their ability to improvise
2. The self-awareness they demonstrate
3. Their ability to be proactive and innovative from their learnings and experience
You’ll know what I mean in regards to improvising if you’ve seen the hilarious film, The Internship.
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s characters are interviewing for intern positions at Google, excited about the prospect of both working for the almighty tech giant, when one of the interviewers hits them with an abstract, think-on-your-feet question:
“You are shrunken down to the size of nickels and dropped to the bottom of a blender. What do you do?”
Without hesitation, both answer confidently:
“You take it flat on your back just like this,” says Vince.
“Right, right, right,” adds Owen. “Just lay back and enjoy that breeze.”
It’s a funny parody of your typical tricky interview scenario.
However the main takeaway we get here is that both characters show they are able to roll with the punches with an openness and admirable self-assuredness.
And it’s all in their attitude.
They aren’t knocked back by challenges or complex scenarios; they don’t furrow their brows, or seem inconvenienced by the question - or have ‘how am I supposed to answer that?’ written all over their face.
They simply accept what is - and know there is no right or wrong answer.
They have an enthusiasm and willingness to play ball.
And while I certainly don’t believe these left-field abstract questions are necessary for every type of company to use in their interviewing process, I do believe injecting spontaneity somewhere does give you an insight into assessing how candidates deal with difficult or unpredicted situations - and their ability to come up with creative solutions.
It also allows an opportunity to see a bit more of their personality.
The other two key things I look out for are: self-awareness and whether the candidate can innovate from their learnings and experience.
What are their values and how do they align with my organisation’s? How switched on are their internal antennas? Will they own their mistakes, acknowledge, rectify and move on? Or will they play the blame game? Will they be perceptive to the needs of our members and team or will they blindly push their own agenda?
These things are hard to gauge in an interview.
After all, if you simply ask someone: “Are you self-aware?” the answer is almost always going to be a yes.
So how do you really get a feel for someone’s self-awareness levels? You look out for their ability to tell their story.
Last week, I spoke about how important it is to change your narrative when it comes to looking back at 2020 - and how this then impacts your self-concept and future potential.
Well, it absolutely applies to interviewing as well.
Storytelling is so key when it comes to making a solid impression.
It is a powerful way to connect with the interviewer (who, remember, is also human!) and to build up trust and demonstrate your credibility, whilst keeping them engaged.
It’s also a great self-branding exercise which connects the dots of your experience, so the person in front of you can see your career path and learn exactly how you can fit into their organisation.
It’s also incredibly helpful if you perhaps lack the exact technical experience, or years in the industry that the interviewer is looking for.
Overall, the main thing is how you present yourself - and your ability to resonate with the interviewer - that matters.
Here are some of my favourite tips on how to tell your story with skill:
- Choose the right story
It’s best to be very strategic about the story you choose, rather than just choosing any one - in order to portray yourself as the best candidate for the job.
To do this, firstly familiarise yourself with the job description, everything you can about the company including their mission statement and core values, in addition to your interviewer’s career and background.
Next, brainstorm the main concepts and keywords that come up.
Circle the most important ones.
Then, with your CV in front of you to jog your memory, reminisce about your past career experiences to select a story or anecdote that best demonstrates how you have enacted these.
This works particularly well for the question, “So, tell me about your career to date.”
For example: “12 years ago, I was working as a software developer in a small team of 50 in a very remote location. We had just created a cutting-edge piece of technology that we wanted to show to the world, but the sales team were incredibly low on numbers.
I was so used to sitting in front of the computer screen, but I really believed in our product and wanted it to get the attention it deserved.
Without the support at the time, I decided to take the initiative to cold-call businesses and discuss how our tech could solve their real-life problems.
As a result, I ended up getting through to the CTO of MX Electronics and we realised that our software could save them X million dollars per year. We ended up signing a 1 million dollar contract - and it was at that moment, when the deal closed, that I realised I wanted to be in selling much more than software development.
I haven’t looked back since!”
You can then fill in the gaps of specific jobs and dates should this become the flow of the conversation.
- Tell the punchline early
You definitely want to build the story up to a crescendo, but remember, you aren’t telling a joke.
Therefore, when the interviewer asks the question, such as “tell me about a time when you’ve dealt with failure?”, answer the question first, before launching into your story.
Otherwise, if you jump straight into your story, which might include some twists and surprise results and take the interviewer on a journey, they may get confused and think you haven’t quite understood the question.
Give the main takeaway first.
For example, “A recent time when I experienced failure was when I was really eager to please a big client at my previous company and over-promised on the delivery time of a project, which they were very disappointed with [Then go into the story here].
Be sure to weave a learning or positive into this and how you worked to improve as a result. You don’t want them to think you’re incapable - but you do want them to know you’re a human who learns and grows from failures.
Importantly, you want to add how you identified the issue yourself, how you rectified it, and how you managed the relationship after the ‘failure’ occurred.
The gold here isn't about being honest about the fact that you failed (spoiler alert: we all fail at things from time to time!). No, the real gold is how you recovered and learnt from it.
- Focus on your specific role
It’s so easy to slip into using ‘we’ when storytelling.
I’m sure your team may have played a key role in your story, however, the more you can highlight what YOU contributed, the more the interviewer will see you as a standout leader.
They’ll then be more likely to think more about how you can bring those skills of yours to THEIR team - particularly if you emphasise these when recounting your story.
-Practice makes perfect
Think of your interview as an audition.
You want to be well-prepared to stand out and deliver your performance with confidence, conviction and the right pacing.
So while it might be tempting to simply read your notes and practise everything in your head, rehearsing your stories out loud will help burn them more strongly into your memory and properly work out the energy and tempo you want to articulate your stories with.
Even better, practise with a friend and ask for feedback so you can really hone your technique!
With these ideas in mind, remember that you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to painting a picture of yourself and what you represent in your interview.
Having an ability to improvise, knowing your values, what you bring to the table and how these are reflected throughout your career trajectory can give you a real advantage over your competition.
To calm your nerves and slow your heart rate before the big day, try this breathing technique recommended by our friend and psychologist, Charlotte Handford in one of our EmpowerHer sessions earlier this year:
Take an inhale in for 4 counts, hold for 2, then exhale for 6.
Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
You can even do this during the interview while the interviewer is talking - if you need to steady yourself (subtly of course!)
Remember - you’ve got this.