The Art of the Being Interviewed
By Seth Cohen
What you know is important. But in many cases how you express it, can be even more critical. There’s no place where this is more evident than in an interview. Executives moving from the C-Suite to a portfolio of activities in a second career are at risk of finding that out the hard way. That’s because the first step in getting the type of short-term engagements second career experts are looking for is the interview. And, if their communication skills are not on point, they’re not going to get hired.
The “Rusty” Interview Dilemma
Many highly regarded executives got the job that launched their career decades ago. Then, almost like Tarzan catching different vines, they kept grabbing a new better vine as they worked their way through the career jungle either within one company or moving from one company to another. Early on in their careers, there were probably traditional question-grilling interviews but after they became accomplished, the number of times they had to sit down face to face and experience any real competition were few and far between. But as they move into their second career and start interviewing for various positions, this can be a problem. In our experience at Eleven Canterbury, clients tend to hire consultants, advisors, and board members on more than their overall expertise or knowledge. We see too many smart and accomplished people — sometimes with the reputation of being the best in their field — lose an engagement because of how they handled an interview.
Build Trust in That Personal Brand
An interview introduces a potential employer to an expert’s personal brand, which is, in effect an exercise in creating a portfolio of unified communications. That means making sure a resume is relevant and accurate, the conversation during the interview is on point, and their expertise matches up with their history. At every step in the interview process, it’s critical to line up communication skills with “the product.” And in a second career, the expert is the product. Not being able to maintain this alignment undermines trust quickly. For example, how a person answers questions provides a good picture of their communication skill and style. But, more than that, it gives the interviewer a glimpse into that expert’s ability to express their reported expertise and knowledge. If they can’t compellingly convey their experience, how can the listener trust what’s on their resume?
Stay Focused on The Engagement
It’s certainly essential to communicate knowledge as an expert in your field. But remember to keep the conversation focused on the engagement at hand. About a month ago we had one of our most prominent people interviewing for a very high-profile advisory position. He didn’t get it. Why? The client who interviewed him said he probably knew more than anyone else about their business, but the problem was he talked too much. The expert’s mistake was that he tried to overwhelm the client by telling them everything he could about himself. It backfired. Instead, by oversharing, the candidate’s exuberant communications overshadowed all of his positive attributes.
Is This the Right Role?
It’s a given that asking relevant and informed questions provides an interviewer insight into how candidates think. But what many people forget is that an interview is a two-sided conversation — especially when you are in your second career. Candidates are not there just to be evaluated; they are also there to gather information and assess the potential opportunity both for its value as an immediate next step as well as for its value as an asset in their second career portfolio of work. I like to explain it like this. Each question you ask helps you peel away another layer of the proverbial onion until you get to the core. You can’t make an informed decision until you get to that core. Similar to a networking conversation, asking questions is a way to build trust. Listening, which is a form of empathy, can reinforce this trust.
Engage in Active Listening
A conversation is a give and take. Listening is an integral part of that equation. Using verbal and non-verbal cues including eye contact, nodding, smiling and responding shows that a candidate is giving full attention to the interviewer. This may seem overly simplified, but again it’s about building trust, which is what happens when an interviewer feels heard. I’ve had clients tell me that they passed on a candidate just because they didn’t listen enough. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. After all, an interview is an entrée to a business relationship. And no one wants to be in a one-sided relationship.
Know You Can Say “No”
Interviewing is a process. And, as I tell experts in our network before they go out on an interview, they are probably going to have several interview-like conversations before a decision is taken on whether or not anyone will be retained. I remind them that at Eleven Canterbury we don’t want either party to feel trapped at any point during this process. Before anyone commits, everyone needs to be comfortable it’s the right engagement. At any point along the way, if it feels like a bad fit, they can always say no. Reassuring our experts in this way relieves the pressure and allows them to go into their meeting with an open mind seeking truth in terms of what the right engagements are.
Communication Style Trumps Substance
The fact is that if two experts have the same work skills, employment longevity, and even success criteria, but one knows how to interview that person will get the role. In the end, being successful at being interviewed is contingent on a little self-awareness and a little practice to reinforce those vital communications skills. And if you are moving from the C-Suite to pursue a second career, it may be the case that a bit of brush up will go a long way. The bottom line — having great credentials is half the battle and, in most cases, it will get a candidate a seat at the table. But it’s what happens at that table, that makes all the difference in the end.
Seth Cohen is the Managing Partner of Eleven Canterbury. He was a member of the Group Managing Board and Head of Group Offshoring at UBS AG.