Posted by: Francesca Di Meglio on May 15, 2009
With the economy in turmoil, many MBA graduates are finding the job search tough going. To give readers some insight into the strategies they’re pursuing and the difficulties they face, BusinessWeek has recruited four out-of-work MBAs to write about their experiences for a new feature called “The Hunt” that will appear periodically on the Getting In blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
By Michael Janger
No interview is the same. It depends on the interviewer’s personality, the culture of the company where you’re interviewing, your level of interview preparation, and the skills and qualifications you bring to the prospective job. I may have different responses in different interviews to the same question. But, in my opinion, the most important part of an interview is an intangible element that should always be consistent, and which will greatly determine whether the interview is a success or failure, especially in the business world. It is what some call “executive presence.”
During an interview for a job just before I enrolled for my MBA, the interviewer – a senior executive — was not aware in advance of my deafness. She quickly noticed, at the beginning of the interview, that I was reading her lips. She became extremely self-conscious and the left side of her face started twitching uncontrollably to the point that I could not understand her. As she sat down and attempted to introduce herself and discuss the job opening, the tic made it almost impossible for her to continue. Realizing that she had a chronic face tic that was flaring up, I told her, as calmly as possible, that since I have a hearing loss, she should try to slow down a bit and just articulate the words, and then I would easily follow her. I thought my delivery was awkward, and I felt very disappointed in my uninspired choice of words for the start of the interview – what a bad beginning!
Still, she calmed down, smiled, and while her tic continued, it became less frequent over the course of the interview. Somehow I was still considered for the job and, in an extremely competitive application process, ended up being the runner-up for the role. Months later, I asked her for her reaction to my words at the beginning of the interview and why I was still in the running at the very end. She said, “It was not the words you chose. You showed a sense of calm professionalism, confidence and reassurance. You made me feel so comfortable in what was a very embarrassing situation for me. I could tell you were going to be a really good leader, and I trusted you right away.” In other words, my one-minute impression (to borrow an interviewing cliché) worked.
Until that point, I had been undecided on whether to pursue an MBA and was not sure my communication skills would cut it in the brutally competitive post-MBA business world. Her comments truly inspired me. If I could demonstrate a high level of professionalism, confidence, and charisma not only in an interview, but in a job, then interesting opportunities would open up for me.
A landmark study on communication by Albert Mehrabian of UCLA drives home this point. In Mehrabian’s study, the effects of the verbal, vocal and visual components on the impact of a person’s message are measured. It found that the verbal component – the actual words – only represented 7% of the effect on the message’s impact. The vocal component, or the tone and intonation of voice, was much greater, at 38%. The greatest effect on the message, however, was the visual: what the person’s body is doing and saying while the words are being spoken. It represented 55% of the impact of the person’s message.
So, my vocal delivery was important in that interview. How I presented myself visually was the most important. When moving up the corporate ladder, skills and prior accomplishments are apparently critical, but what sets most senior executives apart from those below is, among other factors, an “executive presence” – which includes mastering of the vocal and visual components that support the actual words being spoken. An excellent book, Leadership Presence, by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, explains how to develop this presence in more detail. It is one of my favorite business books, and I refer to it constantly when preparing for interviews or, for that matter, presentations.
When preparing for an interview, I do plenty of homework on the company, go over possible interview questions, and rehearse how I would answer these questions – but they do not matter much if I do not project the right kind of “executive presence” throughout the interview. To prepare for the kind of presence I desire in the interview, I visualize the potential questions that an interviewer would ask, and run through possible answers in my head without writing them down – not to make sure they sound right, but to gauge the interviewer’s possible reaction. I imagine how the interviewer would react to the way I communicate these answers verbally and visually. It’s all mental practice. Without the kind of visual presence and inner confidence I need to pull off a successful interview, all the work and practice I have done will be for naught.
There have been interviews where I failed to demonstrate the confidence and charisma needed to win over the interviewer, even when I prepared as much for the interview beforehand as I could. It is just what it is. In these cases, I persevere and move on to the next opportunity.
In the current economic crisis, it is very easy to lose confidence in the whole job search process, when interview after interview fails to produce the desired result. The danger with this attitude is that it will show through in the next interview. If a prospective candidate can make the effort to really knock the interviewer over with solid answers and, more importantly, demonstrate an air of confidence and purpose during the interview, then he or she will not only win the job, but also stand a very good chance of moving up in the company in this recession. A strong executive presence in an interview is always an excellent indicator of strong executive presence on the job.