Questioning your Interviewer – Guidelines + Qs.

There are two types of interviewer in this world: HR and The Business. These are two distinctly different people. They typically come from different spheres of interest.

Grasping this notion will allow you to pose appropriate questions at appropriate moments that will both provide you with as much pertinent information as is needed to make a career decision and help you further engage with your interviewers and assessors.

Why is asking questions important?

Astute questioning not only conveys a keen interest and mental curiosity but also demonstrates, however seemingly unnoticeable, an ability to understand how to interact with your interviewer. Some may clock onto this and some may not, but to elucidate, think about what you as a graduate might be tasked to do or even think about what consultants generally do.

They interact with clients and often have to gather information and requirements from various stakeholders each with their own issues, styles and agendas. It is therefore paramount that the right kind of questions are posed and in the right manner depending on who is being interviewed; you wouldn’t ask a techie person about finance stuff and you wouldn’t ask a finance person about techie stuff, at least not in the same way.

Therefore, think about what kind of impression you create by asking irrelevant or imprecise questions; a Partner will not be impressed by a question about holidays or how expenses works. Sure you won’t be rejected just because of this and some may not even bat an eyelid, but it makes sense to bear this in mind as there is an opportunity here to add to an overall great impression by asking good questions, which is simply too easy to pass up.

So what is HR interested in?

HR is usually somewhat divorced from the business. I apologise to those HR functions, resource managers etc. who are very much embedded in their businesses, but typically, questions about culture, day-to-day work activities, working styles, business strategy etc. should be saved for a consultant. HR is likely to regurgitate the info on the website.

Instead, questions around how graduates and consultants get resourced onto projects, salaries, expenses, benefits, logistics and practical matters are far more relevant. Also feel free to probe into the recruitment process: how many positions they have, how many have they filled, do they have a lot of people in process.

-An interesting curve ball is to ask also about why people leave the organisation [HR often conduct exit interviews]-

And the Business?

Funnily enough, this is your opportunity to ask anything relating to the business: working culture/ style; long-term vision; market position; recent projects and client work; why they joined the company; what keeps them there; where they see themselves in 3/5/10 years time; what they don’t like about the company etc.

-don’t be afraid to turn some of the questions posed to you, back on to the interviewer-

Any final questions?

Sometimes, before moving on to broader questioning, it is worth asking if the interviewer now has enough information to make a decision or if there were any areas or competencies they would find it helpful to revisit. Phrased differently, you can ask if they have any concerns about your performance at this stage that you might be able to address. A further spin might be, whether the interviewer has any concerns about your ability to do well at this company.

You might get prompted to provide more evidence or dispel an impression, but sometimes you may just get the ‘that’s fine, I’ve got all the info I need to process and evaluate’ stock answer.

In Summary:

  • Consider who the interviewer is and what their domain is, ie. know your audience
  • Ask relevant and interesting questions
  • The quality of the question will determine the quality of the answer and therefore the impression you create
  • Be precise and confident, not flimsy and lackadaisical in your questioning
  • A good question is an opportunity to be memorable and outshine the competition

Competency Corner – Commercial Awareness

A Little Knowledge goes a Long Way

A significant part of business rests on the notion of credibility. Credibility then leads to trust which leads to deals and ends in riches. Although you will need to exercise some social aptitude in winning over your interviewer on a personal level, the main thrust of this article concerns itself with how to establish credibility through commercial acumen and how to tackle the often onerous task of research.

In recruitment parlance, this is the Commercial Awareness competency.

1-3 hours spent researching a company and current affairs is mandatory for interview success. But although this may seem like a fruitless and maybe even futile endeavour as there is simply too much to know, there are some guidelines which can be followed to make this genuinely effective and efficient.

The Company

  • Many consultancies have quite complex organisation structures. Know the main services offered. Simplify them and don’t bother drilling down into the numerous sub-divisions (unless you’re applying specifically to one specialism). A quick sketch will suffice to order your thoughts and make it stick.
  • Jot down some client names and client examples of projects – the detail is usually unnecessary. 5mins spent memorising 5 client names and project types (outsourcing/ shared services programme/ IT implementation etc.) will be very impressive when rapidly regurgitated. Make sure you know at least one project in some detail to cover if you’re asked to elaborate.
  • Find out how the company is doing, whether they have ambitious growth plans or have made any sales or acquisitions lately. Search for the firm in one of the news sites, BBC or Times Online etc. Also have a look at consulting news.

Current Affairs

  • Consultancies tend to have a couple current business concerns/ issues highlighted on their home page. Skim through these. You now have a good overview of the current commercial landscape. Use these as an anchor for your broader reading.
  • The Times Online is a wonderful resource. The ‘need to know’ heat map is quite useful too. Skim the titles to develop a broad picture and formulate some generic phrases to summarise eg. The Financial services sector, specifically retail banking is still quite volatile [insert headline – for eg. RBS is blah blah blah].
  • Make sure you know at least one major news story in detail. A merger or acquisition is usually a good candidate for healthy discussion in interviews where you’re asked to talk about this kind of thing, as you may then be asked to suggest how xyz consultancy could help.

You’ve spent a couple hours doing research, now try and group all the info and headings into themes or sectors or big issues. You’ll be surprised at how learned you come across when you produce the fruits of your research in an interview.

A couple news articles and some neat packaging is all you need to create a credible impression. Initially of course.

It Helps to be Good with Names

Using someone’s name is arguably the easiest and most basic means of initiating a relationship and establishing a rapport. The sooner you use someone’s name and the more often you use it initially, the quicker you break through the fundamental fog of unfamiliarity such that strangers rapidly become acquaintances and acquaintances potentially become friends.

I often expect people to not remember my name, perhaps because it’s not a conventional one or sadly because I’m not especially memorable or a bit of both, so when someone who I’ve just met supplements a question or prefigures some snippet of conversation by using my name, I naturally warm to them. Maybe I even feel obliged to reciprocate. I’m fairly certain, or rather hope that this feeling is not utterly unique and peculiar to myself revealing some sort of low self-esteem insecurity.

Therefore, as I mention under tips in ‘Group Exercises’, when you’re thrown into an assessment centre or group situation where a familiar face is often lacking, take real stock of people’s names and use them. The warmth will flow and you’ll feel more comfortable for it. I can’t make people necessarily remember my name and use it, but by knowing and using others’ I almost feel like I’m establishing a bond whether they like it or not which ultimately contributes to a feeling of ease and familiarity which hopefully translates to confidence.

In addition to creating that rapport, from an external perspective, if you are using people’s names assessors are more likely to adopt an impression of you that leans readily towards a team player, a facilitator and someone who quickly builds relationships; especially if you’re confidently using 4+ people’s names in a group exercise when you only met them an hour ago. If everyone’s bandying names about, then great, this is a confident and comfortable team. If you’re the only one putting names to faces, then you’re a strong confident binding agent. Obviously, using names is only one aspect amidst all the other great team-working skills, but it is nevertheless a simple and very effective ‘tool’ that’s just too easy to leave unused.

But I’m rubbish with names!

Yes, because you choose to be rubbish with names. I used to be rubbish with names. The one change I made, was to make a conscious effort to remember names. Simple. Too often you’re worried about saying your name or shaking hands that you completely blank out the other person’s. Just by concentrating on the person’s name, you’re likely to remember it. Try also repeating it as soon as you hear it. Maybe write it down. Use it when you ask that person a question. Repeating the name 2-3 times within a short space of time, you stand a better chance of remembering it as it typically logs itself quite nicely in your mind from then on.

So don’t neglect the simple power of using someone’s name. Just don’t overdo it and don’t take any liberties with nicknames unless given permission.

[As always, please share your thoughts]

Dealing with Rejection – 3 Easy Steps

You will be rejected. The worst thing you can do is just accept the fact and shrug it off. You need to confront the rejection and own it. Once you recognise your weaknesses and shortcomings you will then be able to positively address any gaps or weak points in your knowledge, experience, skills and technique.

Phase 1 – Ego Recovery

Although it is far easier said than done, you need to deal with rejection and move on as quickly as possible. Half a day to a full day seems to work for me during which time I do something to take me away from the whole affair – a few rounds of modern warfare on the PS3/ gym time/ food all seem to do the trick. Once you’ve calmed down and rediscovered your self-worth, it’s then time to analyze and improve – attack refreshed.

Phase 2 – Gather Feedback

Always take the opportunity to gather feedback even if you were successful. What did you do particularly well and were there any areas that you could improve upon. If you contact someone from HR over the phone, be sure to probe them on their feedback. If they say you lacked problem solving experience, ask for specifics: was it a poor example, what were they looking for etc. Ask them how you can improve.

Phase 3 – Keep Notes

Finally, you must meticulously record your experience and the feedback that accompanies your performance. After 3 months of intense job-hunting I had compiled a small pukka pad of notes around competency questions, company info, case studies, team exercises and tips for improving my performance. It may be tougher to confront your rejection rather than brashly shrug it off and forget about it, but when you’re preparing for your 5th interview you will sorely regret not having made those notes.

Just remember, failure is a necessary stop on the path to success:

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
– Michael Jordan

Source: Famous Failures

The Power Tie – With great power comes…

Great Responsibility.

The power tie. Typically a solid colour, plain or with mild patterning. Said to be a sign of immense confidence and even virility, endowing its wearer with the ability to command respect and attention. Find the right tie and the rest will follow.

The colours tend to be red or blue though a striking yellow or gold can work equally well, coupled with a crisp white shirt. George Bush and Obama have favoured the light blue in recent times though both have opted for a deep rich red on occasion. Two extremely powerful men who have and are set to do very profound things.

However, the majority of us will be taking weekends in the country rather than taking countries in the weekend so lets look at exactly what a power tie does and when it should be used. The power tie, is meant to be perhaps the business equivalent to a peacock’s plume – subtly dazzling confidently, making a presence felt and oozing professional confidence. However, it is arguably more about how this bold understated display of power harnessed and controlled in a neatly constructed manner can make the wearer feel as opposed to what effect it has on those transfixed within its sphere of influence.

Theoretically, when equipped with a power tie you can complete any task that calls for confidence, impact, authority and assertion. For example, delivering an explosive presentation, commanding a meeting or blitzing an interview.

So, should you invest in one? Definitely.

(One time I actually changed a punctured tyre without a jack while wearing my power tie…)

I’ve got the power! (tie)

Just make sure you don’t burn it out. Only use when needed.

Interview = Client Meeting + Consultative Selling

Beyond Reaction

Don’t come away feeling like you weren’t able to show your best. Treat the interview as you would potentially approach a client meeting, cold-call or sales pitch. Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and what you want to demonstrate to the interviewer that will make them want your product, you.

As a recruitment consultant coaching and guiding experienced professionals for interviews with the Big 4 especially, I would often tell them not to rely on being asked the right questions but rather react accordingly and aim to have two or three main examples or anecdotes or selling points that you want to leave the interviewer with knowing regardless, so that the dreaded feeling of ‘yeh it went ok, but I’m not sure if I really had a chance to impress them’ is averted.

Indeed, sometimes the sentiment post interview is so indistinct and inconclusive that feedback from a candidate struggles to get beyond ‘it went ok, yeh it was fine, it went ok’. At least even a ‘it was a grilling, I was really under pressure and I’m not sure it went so good’ is preferable to the devastating mediocrity of ‘ok’.

Too many times I’ve had this feedback and indeed felt this myself after interviews where things have progressed smoothly enough and there were no big cock-ups or faux-pas yet there is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction that persists. Maybe it’s because the interviewer didn’t ask challenging or sufficiently probing questions or perhaps because one’s answers were too narrow and lacked depth.

Especially within consulting and arguably more towards the higher end of recruitment, interviews are often about sussing people out, understanding how they work and what kind of person they are and whether they will fit in and be a real ‘value-add proposition’. [This was a favoured stock phrase of a colleague of mine].

It is not enough to be responsive; act with initiative

You almost need to treat the interview as a client meeting and the interviewer as a potential client (minus the flip-chart or powerpoint). This means three things:

  1. that you’ve researched the company and know exactly what competencies and attitudes they’re looking for; if you have spoken to contacts or employees, then you may also know what really impresses them
  2. you have compiled examples from your experience that emphatically demonstrate these sought-after qualities
  3. you know exactly what your strongest areas are, relevant to the competencies and whittled down to 2-4 points, that you will aim to communicate during the meeting

Eg. I list my strengths as: building strong relationships; communication; team-work and problem solving. So when a question like, what can you bring to the company, or what are your strengths comes up, that’s an ideal place to tick some very important boxes easily.

In order to sell well, don’t be afraid to regurgitate your in-depth knowledge of the company in preparation for the delivery of a relevant and precise competency answer. This is ideal for questions around why you want to work for xyz or why consulting etc. Sometimes a client needs to be reminded about what they want or what they’ve said on their website so that when you give it to them it’s all the more pertinent. For example: from my research into xyz it’s clear that you place a keen emphasis on client relationships and this is something I’ve greatly enjoyed in my previous roles where I’ve delivered to various stakeholders and built relationships with a diverse array of people at all levels, therefore this is an extremely appealing aspect etc etc.

Finally, NEVER go into an interview or an answer half-heartedly. You need to sell passionately because PASSION SELLS. And above all, be confident and KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SELLING.

KPMG talk about Dressing the Part

Perhaps not quite as good as my article Stylin’ & Profilin’, since KPMG N. America talk about ‘slacks’ (whatever they are), but the fact that a Big 4 has produced a video on the topic is a fantastic affirmation of how important it is to take looking good seriously (but not tooo seriously):