Spetner on interviews: How to get your next job

Don Spetner on how to handle your next interview, what to remember, and what behaviors to avoid.

I interviewed a candidate recently who almost put me to sleep. And this was during the icebreaker, before we’d even gotten to the hard questions.

She was unfocused and inarticulate; at some point I realized I was thinking about my dry cleaning and hadn’t heard a word she’d said for at least two minutes.

I’m sorry to report this is not an uncommon occurrence (the droning, not the dry cleaning).

I was an executive recruiter for 12 years, so I’ve interviewed a fair share of candidates, primarily at the senior level. What amazes me is how ill-prepared so many people are for the one question that is certain to come their way. It’s the classic opening setup, when the interviewer says: "Could you please quickly walk me through your background."

When I worked for Korn/Ferry, the behavioral scientists there often told us that the work-history question was a waste of valuable interviewing time. Since the résumé provides the necessary career details, the best use of time is a series of structured interview questions designed to probe for specific competencies, experiences, and skills.

But I love hearing a person’s life story, and more important, I’m eager to see how they tell it. Sadly, most people do a lousy job. Many simply plod through their background even though the "life story" question is an opportunity to engage and excite.

I learned this the hard way from a crucial interview with a powerful CEO, for a job I really wanted. I underplayed my accomplishments, and I didn’t get the job; the headhunter later told me I was perceived as "too laid-back." What I thought was humility turned out to be boring.

I get intrigued when a candidate shares a formative event from childhood, sprinkles interesting insights about a past employer, or reveals a unique personal interest or accomplishment. I actually do care if you played collegiate sports, love to fish, or grew up only speaking Russian until you were 6 years old. I’m looking to discover who you really are, what excites you, and where your passions lie.

I’m also impressed when a candidate has clearly studied the job description and knows what the employer is looking for. They use their work history to reinforce the experiences that are being sought and to drive home the relevance of their background. When a candidate does this effectively, I’m often sold on them after the first 10 minutes.

Then there are the whiners, who manage to say something negative about former employers or bosses. Negativity begets negativity and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I like candidates who share what was learned from a difficult experience, or how it made them a better executive.

But my biggest pet peeve is long-windedness, especially in response to the opening question. A senior executive at Microsoft once told me that she wanted her direct reports to "Be smart, be brief, and be gone." Similar advice could be applied to the discussion of your work history. It’s an opportunity to engage and excite the interviewer, not to slog through the minutiae of how your days were spent.

Here’s the final thing I have to confess – you’d be surprised how often the people on the other side of the table are not prepared for your interview. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve scrambled to dig up and review someone’s résumé while they sat in the lobby.

Remember this the next time someone starts the interview process by lobbing you a softball question about your work history, then knock it out of the park. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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