Interview skills from preparation to listening

In part two of his advice on job hunting in Covid times, Coach Oliver Hansard covers the interview process, including the importance of listening.

Job interview


Coach Oliver Hansard continues his advice on job hunting in difficult circumstances with a focus on interview skills.

Be up to date

If, like me, you work from the premise that performance in an interview is indicative of how you might operate if you got the role, be prepared to do just that at the interview.

Start to operate like someone already in the business. Gen up on the industry, know what the hot topics are and understand the latest performance of the business you are talking to.

More than anything, try to know as much about the people you are meeting. Check them out on LinkedIn; find some common connections; find some common ground. I still blow hot and cold in this area: I look silly when it’s obvious I haven’t done my research; I look much better when I open with common career observations with the person I am meeting.

Case study – Movements in share prices can really impact a conversation. I vividly remember making a sales pitch to a US tech giant the morning after their share price had taken an overnight battering. We didn’t know this because we hadn’t done our homework. The paper value of some of the potential clients in the room had literally fallen by hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight. It was top of mind of everyone in the room except us, and we were not prepared or able to contribute to the conversation. Not a great start.

So, what’s the lesson? Make sure you do your homework and, in particular, check the news that morning for relevant information. You need to be equipped to show you are as interested in their business as much as they are.

First impressions really do count

When I interview, one of the key questions I try to answer is, will the interviewee really fit in here? There are many different indicators as to whether or not this will be the case, but if you really like the opportunity you can make it clear that you are the right person from the outset.

Firstly, understand the interview process and play to their rules. Then, do your research and come prepared on the day. Work out what the dress code is and fit in (if you don’t feel comfortable with the dress code maybe it’s not the right place for you). Know the industry and the business, and check them out that morning in case they are in the news.

And then be present all the way through. Be confident with and polite to the receptionist [if it’s not a virtual interview], look for clues and talking points in the reception and have eye contact with everyone. Be part of the business from the start whilst always being yourself.

Case study – I really enjoy presenting to schools and students at career events. Pre-Covid, my warm-up was always to teach the group to start and end any interview with a quality hand shake. Look the person you are meeting in the eye, get a good interlocking grip with their hand and then press firmly (not too hard; not too soft), confidently saying,“really pleased to meet you”. Same at the end of the meeting, except now you say with confidence: “Thank you for your time”. Maybe one day hand shaking will become the norm again.

But, of course, remember they need to make a good impression on you too. If the interview process is a shambles, or their culture and behaviours don’t resonate with you, be sure to take this on board. They need to demonstrate that they care about you just as much as you need to show you care about them. If that isn’t the case then maybe you are not meant to be with each other …

Listen, actively

I believe the art of listening is massively underrated. Too often we are so eager to talk, to share our opinions and win the argument that we fail to listen and learn from those around us.

Never is listening more important than at an interview. Of course we need to do our share of talking so they know who we are, but I’d always encourage the interviewer to talk early on. Why? Because it shows you are interested in them and their business, and demonstrates modesty and empathy. In some ways, more importantly, you are being given some great intelligence on the latest status of their business which you can adapt your answers and your narrative to. You can also use what you hear to demonstrate how interested you are in them, the role and, of course, to ask great questions.

The harder you listen, the more you learn and the more clues you will get about your potential employer. I’ve always been surprised at how little I’ve known about a prospective employer and what their business is really like. A good friend of mine is a fantastic listener. She proudly tells me about the clues she was able to pick up from one interviewer about the financial position of a business she was keen to join. Some question marks arose which made her dig deeper into the business and she decided not to take the role. Within a year the business was in administration.

To listen well, always be attentive and in the room. Always be curious by asking strong follow up questions. Observe how your interviewer responds; their discomfort may give you a clue that you really do need to dig deeper. Don’t be afraid to to reflect back what they have been saying to clarify your understanding. Great listening drives great questions which leads to a deeper understanding. Don’t be shy and miss the opportunity. Listen hard and learn well.

Guide the conversation to your safe places

The best interviews I have been involved in, be that as interviewee or interviewer, are those that flow as normal conversations. The less stilted and structured an interview is, I would say, the more successful it will probably be. The more likely it is that the real, relaxed you comes through.

In such circumstances, this will offer the opportunity for you to start to guide the conversation. Indeed the more senior you are and the role you are being considered for, the more likely it is that this will be expected of you. Here’s the opportunity for you to take the conversation to safe spaces where you will be strong and have plenty to talk about. So, prepare these zones beforehand and refer to them in your cv; additionally your research on the company should identify relevant spaces that your interviewer might like to go and take them there. Be subtle, but play to your strengths.

Case study – some of the coaching work I do involves interview preparation. Often my client will be spending much time and energy sweating the questions that they might be asked and what hypothetical answers to these hypothetical questions might be. I always encourage this to be turned on its head. Either guide the conversation to where you want it to go (try dropping in phrases or comments to enable this), or ask questions en route to safe places. Remember most employers are looking for agile thinkers and leaders; demonstrate this from the off in your interview.

So, as best you can, be relaxed and treat the interview as a normal conversation. All the prep work you will have done in speaking to a wide range of people beforehand will leave you well prepared for the new conversation. Focus on the areas where you are strong and show yourself in your best light, and if that type of light is not right for them then that’s good to know; because the chances are the job is not right for you.

*Oliver Hansard is a Business Coach and Founder of Hansard Coaching. [email protected]. His first four tips can be found here. Look out for his last four tips tomorrow.

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