Monday, April 11, 2011

Interviewing 101

I haven't had much time to blog the last few weeks: work has been super-busy, and most nights I simply come home and crash. However, I'm hopeful that my workload will be lightened a little bit within the next month or so, as I'm in the process of interviewing summer interns, and am thrilled about some of the candidates that have applied. Most of the students I've spoken with are smart, well-spoken, and eager to roll up their sleeves to get that coveted "real world experience" (and trust me, the experience will be plenty; even with an amazing executive assistant, I've got plenty of projects waiting in the wings). I've interviewed seven candidates over the last two days, and have several more meetings planned for this week. With all of the discussions swirling fresh in my head, and prime interviewing season upon us, I thought I'd share a couple of tips for interns and new grads.

Look the part. I work in marketing. I don't wear a suit, and I don't expect you to wear one (though I think that candidates who do choose to wear a suit look very sharp). But please, look professional. If you're wearing a rumpled, casual shirt, I'm concerned that you're going to show the same disregard for your work. First impressions count. 

Know why you're there.
I asked one candidate what had attracted him to apply for the position, and he said, "Nothing in particular." Though he might have thought that his honesty would have won me over...it didn't. I'm passionate about what I do, and want to work with people who feel the same way. It's okay if you respond that you're looking for some real-world experience: that's what an internship is for. And if you mention specific parts of the role that piqued your interest, you get extra points, since you've shown me that you either have expertise that you're willing to lend, or that you're keen to learn more. Both are outstanding attributes.

Be prepared to talk about your past jobs, internships and volunteer experiences.
I've already read your resume, so I have some sense of your accomplishments. As a manager, I want to know what aspects of your previous jobs you liked, what you didn't, and (most importantly) why. Yes, I realize that it can be difficult to relate summer jobs to life in a corporate office, but if you can't tell me what aspects of a job appeal to you, or what you learned from a particular role, I won't be able to give you work that you find compelling. I waited tables for a few summers while I was in college, and I can't think of a better job to test out your multitasking and communication skills. Don't believe me? The next time you go out to dinner, watch the wait staff. Are they friendly and engaged, or are they terse and frazzled? At times we all have assignments that we may find tedious or boring, but if someone asks you what you like, seize that opportunity to express your enthusiasm. The "why" factor of your likes and dislikes is especially important, since everyone relates differently. One candidate might quake in terror at the thought of having an unpredictable day; another might have a strong distaste for monotony. There is no wrong answer to the question, "What did you like, and why?" Hiring managers simply want to know how you work.

Ask (smart) questions.
The old saying, "There's no such thing as a stupid question" isn't really true when it comes to interviewing, in my book. Spend some time researching the company that you're interviewing with, so that you have a basic understanding of what your future manager deals with on a day-to-day basis. Read through the position description several times, and ask for clarification on things that you don't understand. I don't expect you to have all of the answers. When candidates ask things like, "What exactly do you mean by 'market research'?" and "How often do you write press releases?" I want to cheer: it means that particular candidate has done their homework, and that he or she is genuinely interested in the position. That interest, in turn, makes me more interested in the candidate. On a related note, make sure that you DO ask at least a few questions. If a candidate says that he or she doesn't have any questions after we've only talked for fifteen minutes, I find that disappointing; it shows a lack of curiosity and motivation. Trust me on this: hiring managers want you to ask questions. 

Every question we ask has a purpose. Early in my career, I was interviewing for a role via video conference (this was before the days of Skype). The interview seemed to be going really well, and then the interviewer said, "Tell me how you'd make your perfect ice cream sundae." I had absolutely no idea what to say, and I'm sure I gaped into the camera. Fortunately, I recovered quickly, was able to answer the question, and was later offered the role. Once I became a manager myself, I realized that this type of question reveals a lot about a candidate: Can she think on the fly? How creative is she? How detail-oriented? I fully understand that off-the-wall questions can shake even the most prepared candidates. Rest assured, our goal isn't to stump or embarrass you, but rather to see how you respond under pressure.

If you want it, ask for it.
I'll be honest: this is a pretty hard thing to do, especially if you're new to interviewing. Out of the seven candidates I've spoken with so far, only one has written me a post-interview note expressing her interest in the role. (In case you're wondering, she is one of the top contenders.) Know that your enthusiasm is contagious: if you're smart, and competent, and qualified for the role, and you tell me that you want the position, I'm going to take that at face value. If you offer me a limp handshake and walk away, I'm going to assume that perhaps you're not that interested after all.

I'll keep you posted on our search. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what other hiring managers see when interviewing, and what candidates think of managers' interviewing practices. Please weigh in with your comments below.