Monday 10 March 2014

Preparing for the job interview (1)

If we see the job interview as a problem-solving discussion (my previous post refers), it can be helpful to define the problems to be solved, and also consider the likely dynamics of such discussions.

What’s the problem?
The problem is two-fold. The interviewer’s problem is to find the best available person for the job. Your problem is to decide whether this job is the best one available for you.
Your task at the interview is to help the interviewer to make a good decision about your suitability, and also to discover anything you need to know to make a good decision about the job.
To do the first, you need to understand both the job and the person specifications, and how you relate to them.
To do the second, you need to be clear about your aspirations, and the conditions under which you would be happy to take the job. That will normally include doing some research about the organisation.

The Job Description and the Person Specification
The job description explains the purpose and context of the role, the tasks to be undertaken, and how they will be evaluated. 

 The person specification outlines the necessary skills, qualifications, experience or other attributes needed to carry out the job.

The interviewer will be seeking to satisfy himself or herself that you are competent to undertake the tasks required, by checking that you meet the person specification.
However, there is something else going on here. The interviewer will also be looking for various personal qualities. Some of these may feature in the person specification (‘dynamic’ and so on) but others will not. They normally include things like honest, confident, and likable. Whilst these may not be strictly necessary for the performance of the tasks, any interviewer faced with two candidates who could both do the job well is far more likely to choose one who also exhibits these (and similar) characteristics.
So your task is to convey your competence, based on your experience, in a way that also communicates your personality in a positive way.

A Confident Approach
A strong foundation, which enables you to take a confident approach, is sound preparation. In particular, it is valuable to start by focusing on the achievements of which you are proud in your current or recent roles (and your life beyond work). 
List these achievements, and explore how they demonstrate the strengths to which you are laying claim. For each strength or area of competence, choose the example that best illustrates it. Ideally, that will be one where you can demonstrate a measurable success. That becomes the basis for your story to tell at interview, when that issue comes up.

Strong Stories
Good interviewers will ask you for examples from your experience that illustrate the qualities they are looking for. Poorer interviewers will ask you hypothetical questions (‘What would you do...?’). In either case, answer with stories which illustrate your approach. 
A strong story has a beginning, which sets the context and the challenge (briefly), a middle, which explains why it was all rather more difficult than foreseen, and an ending, which resolves the situation. 
The middle section, which tells of the increasing difficulties or conflict, is the heart of the story, and it is that which makes the ending satisfying. It is also that which allows you to illustrate the particular qualities you used (and some implicit ones, such as determination, tenacity and so on).
The power of such stories is three-fold. Firstly, people enjoy and remember a good story, so you will have more impact than if you give ‘management text-book’ type answers. Secondly, it is more convincing to say ‘I have done that’ than ‘I could do that.’ Thirdly, if you are talking about examples of which you are genuinely proud, you are more likely to come across as confident, energised and honest.

If you have a weakness, in relation to the person specification or the job description, there are a few of things to consider.
One is to be sure that you are not exaggerating something which may be annoying to you, but on an objective basis is very minor. For many people, their own imperfections loom rather larger than they should.
A second consideration is whether it is something you have sought to address, or are addressing. A good answer to the weakness question is sometimes: “I have had feedback that I... so what I have done about that is...
However, you may feel that the issue is potentially significant. The best approach then is to be quite open about it. That has the virtue of honesty; and that in itself will be well-regarded by the interviewer. But it also serves the end of helping the interviewer to make a good decision. 
It may be that, once it is in the open, the organisation can see a way to mitigate it, and it is not a problem.  Or it may be that it is a significant problem, which would mean you would be a poor appointment. It is in your interests, as well as theirs, for that to be identified now rather than later.

Asking Questions and Making Demands
As well as presenting yourself in a way which helps the interviewer to reach a decision, you also need to ensure that you get what you need to make your decision.
This is an area where interviewees often miss an opportunity, but it is very important, for a number of reasons. One is the very obvious one, that there may be things you want to know, to inform your decision. But there is also something else going on here.
An interviewee who fails to ask questions is also communicating something to the interviewer. It may be interpreted as a lack of deep interest, or a lack of confidence; it is unlikely to be interpreted positively.
On the other hand, an interviewee who asks pertinent, and even difficult, questions will position himself or herself as somebody to be taken seriously, who is not afraid to ask tough questions. It creates a stronger psychological link with the interviewer. 
Taking that one stage further, it is sometimes an appropriate, and a powerful, strategy, to make demands of the organisation at this stage: ‘In order for me to accept this job, if offered, I would need to be assured that...’ If there are pre-conditions that apply, this is the time to voice them.  
These might be things like support for completing a professional qualification; or a salary review after an agreed period of time; or adequate support staff; or many other things. It is important to identify these before the interview, and it is both psychologically more powerful, and a better negotiating approach, to raise them at the interview, rather than later.

Emotional Self-Management
Job interviews are potentially stressful occasions, and as we don’t tend to go through the process very frequently, we may need to pay particular attention to emotional self-management, to make sure that we are in the best possible state for them.  
In broad terms, make sure that you are looking after yourself in the run up to the interview. That includes physically (eg diet, exercise, and rest); mentally (eg preparing intelligently, and refraining from worrying); emotionally (eg spending relaxed time with people you love or like); and spiritually (eg taking time to re-connect with your deeper sense of purpose and meaning).
Some particular approaches which can be helpful include:
  • Rehearsal: there is a huge difference between preparing on paper or in your head, and actually practicing the answers you plan to give, and the stories you wish to say. Find a friend who will ask you some questions, and rehearse your answers. They will come out much more fluently if you do this. The best rehearsal is genuine interviews: it is sometimes wise to be interviewed for a job you don't really want, before going for the one you are passionate about!
  • Visualisation: sports psychologists have used this for years, and neuroscience has now caught up demonstrating why it might work. The discipline is to play the interview through in your mind in advance, like a movie, seeing yourself relaxed and confident, giving good answers to questions.
  • Positive cues: immediately before the interview, have some stimulus available to you that will help put you in the best frame of mind. Some people use a photo of spouse and children; some listen to a particular piece of music on an iPod; some relive favourite memories; some pray or meditate. It is worth giving this some thought, rather than sitting outside an interview room getting increasingly nervous. 

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