Interviewing to Take Home the Gold

By Chandra Fox, Vice President,

Interviewing is like being selected to compete in the Olympics: you have outperformed hundreds or thousands of competitors and are down to the final round. You are now competing with the best of the best. How can you leave with the gold? Here are keys to making your interview a day for the champion.

Research your company. How can you convincingly show interest in a position that will take approximately 25% of the hours in your week with no knowledge of the general job description, the company, its goals, or its current events? You can’t. Here is how to understand the company with which you will be interviewing:

  • Get the company’s annual report from its Web site, if available
  • Visit its Web site to read about the direction of the company and any current media coverage
  • Look over the Standard and Poors Corporate Records
  • For smaller companies, call the city’s Chamber of Commerce

For every company, you want the following company information checklist:

  • Services and/or products
  • Competition
  • Sales: any large increase or decrease and why
  • New products/services available from the company
  • International operations
  • Any media information on the company in the last year

The Handshake. It tells a story about each person. Do you come from the top and give the power handshake? Do you shake hands very lightly? These examples may seem simple, but it is easy to start off poorly with a bad handshake. Avoid the light delicate handshake and the powerful over-the-top controlling handshake. Give a firm, full-handed handshake with members of both sexes.

Prepare yourself but do not memorize. If you try to memorize a response to the question, “What is your biggest strength?” you will blurt it out, privately congratulating yourself on your memory while the interviewer stares in disbelief at how quickly you answered that question without seeming to give it much consideration. When your interviewer follows with “Why do you consider that your biggest strength?” you realize that you were not prepared for that one. Instead, think of some challenges in your work background — positive and negative — and tie your answer to those challenges, your response, and the results. For example,

Challenge: Your sales division’s productivity decreased, and it seemed your division would not meet/exceed annual goals.  Response: Observed the staff to see where bottlenecks were occurring.  Determined a need for additional employee development and training. Focused on employee development through intense training.

Results: Hit corporate budget at year-end and was noted by management for exceptional problem solving and turnaround capabilities. Now when asked “What is one of your biggest strengths?” your response might be: “My biggest strength is my ability to identify potential problem areas, solve the problem, and produce results. An example of this would be when my division’s productivity decreased and it seemed as though we would not meet/exceed our annual goals…” and continue with the story above.

This same scenario would also work if the interviewer had asked, “Describe a difficult situation and how you handled it” or “What would management say about you?” Thinking through specific situations will allow you to choose scenarios most appropriate to the question.

Have questions for the interviewer. Here are some good ones:

  • How does my job fit with the mission of the organization, corporate performance, or profitability?
  • What will I be contributing to the organization?
  • What makes your company different from others?
  • What is your corporate culture?
  • What differentiates your company from your competition?
  • What significant changes has the company experienced in the past couple of years?
  • How would you describe the most successful employees in your company?

Mental Preparation. This may seem hokey, but it is proven to be a good tactic in any high-stress situation. As you arrive early for the interview (at least 15 minutes), and you are waiting to be called in, mentally prepare for your interview. Picture the interview going smoothly, the interviewer asking questions, and your answering them perfectly. Imagine the interviewer telling you that you seem perfect for the job as you leave even more excited about the position. These are some of the things that should be going through your mind. If you are nervous, start your mental preparation by taking deep breaths and thinking “You are” as you inhale and “relaxed” as you exhale. Repeat this procedure until you are relaxed. Avoid thinking, “What if they don’t like me?” or “What if I get stumped?” and focus instead on relaxing. Just try it –- mental visualization worked for the Bulls and Phil Jackson, and it will work for you.

Close of the interview. You are ahead of the competition and on your way to the gold medal, but you get a cramp. Do you stop? Not a chance. You have to cross the finish line, just as you have to close the sale of yourself in the interview. The end of the interview is your time to close with “a positive, very interested in what you have learned” close. When the Interviewer is closing with “Well, if you have no further questions, then we are done,” that is your cue to say one of the following:

  • Actually, I’d like to know how I should proceed from here. Should I contact you or will you be in contact?
  • How soon will I hear from you?
  • What is the process from here?
  • What would distinguish one potential candidate joining your company from another?
  • How do I prove my commitment to the organization?

Follow-up. You leave the interview and feel good about the position. Now go to your car and write down what just happened. Write the topics discussed, the characteristics the interviewer described for the position, and other details. This will help you write a thank you letter that shows both your interest and that you are a perfect match for the position.

There are, of course, as many ways to succeed in an interview as there are Olympic gold medal winners. The best advice is to relax and be yourself.  Remember that your interviewer once interviewed for his/her job and understands the intensity of the interview process. By being as prepared as possible for your interview, you will enhance the qualities that have already made you a great candidate. Just remember that it takes preparation and knowing how to play the game with strategy and excellence to win.

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