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Liz Ryan: The Workplace

Winning Over an Interviewer

A while back, my office mates and I experienced a recruiting situation that was equally sad and funny. (We didn't laugh about it, although we wanted to). A charming young man came to talk to us about a job that had just been created in our organization. The person hired would be running an important new service area for our business. As CEO, I was the last person to chat with the young man. "Here's my suggestion," I said. "If you are interested in this role, please write to me and tell me how you'd approach this job, in some detail. I don't want you to spend hours on this assignment—a one-page summary will be plenty. I want to understand your thinking about the job and what it will involve, especially in the first three months. You can talk about the estimated required investment, your marketing ideas, or anything else you'd like to cover. I'm interested in getting a sense of how you would break down the business challenge." The young man left our office full of energy, and I was eager to see what he'd produce. Three days later a letter arrives at our office. It said: Dear Ms. Ryan,

I am very interested in the job we discussed last week. I know I could do a great job for your company. I bring energy and six years of experience in marketing and leadership to the table. I am eager to move to the next level in our discussions. I was floored. Did he send me a letter intended for someone else? Sadly, no. I called the young man to check in. He simply missed the boat. I asked him on the phone, "Remember when I asked you to share your planning process with me, to tell me how you'd approach the job in the first three months?" "Yes, of course!" he replied. "That's why I wrote to you in my letter that I'd approach the job with gusto." As Dr. Evil would say (pinky to lips): "Riiiiiiiiiiight." The young man in the story may have lacked several things—business judgment, for starters—but I suspect that in addition, he isn't (or wasn't) the world's greatest listener. In a job-interview situation, it's typically less important what we convey about our own business experiences and skills than what we can pick up on, and respond to, in the interviewer's description of the employer's business need. In this way, a job interview is very much like a sales call. In a good sales call, the salesperson steers clear of the "Show up and throw up" approach, by saving his spiel until he understands what the buyer is looking for. The last thing the buyer wants to hear is a monologue describing the product's many benefits. The buyer has bigger fish to fry—specifically, his or her own business problem. If no problem existed, the salesperson would never have gotten in the door for the meeting. A salesperson who can first listen, and then respond with a solution based on the buyer's pain, is way ahead of the pack. We can apply these elements to the job-interview scenario. When we prattle on about our marketing prowess, our communication skills, our Quickbooks ( (INTU)) wizardry and our other talents, we lose the opportunity to ask another insightful question. "What do you see as the biggest challenges for the person hired into this job?" is a logical interview question from the candidate's side, and the earlier we can get that information, the more informed and confident we'll be for the rest of the interview. A follow-up question arising from our thoughtful listening will only improve our ability to match the employer's needs with stories from our own background. In a job interview, just as in a sales call, the best listener is often the person who wins the day. Here is a short script that illustrates the sorts of questions a job candidate might ask during an interview: Interviewer: So, after you left XYZ Plastics, you went to Acme Dynamite as marketing manager. Can you please tell me about that job?

You: Most definitely. That was quite an explosive growth period for the company. Since we're talking about my position at Acme Dynamite, a role I suspect was highly relevant to the marketing director position we're discussing today, I could use your help deciding which bits of my Acme Dynamite story to share with you. May I ask you a quick question? Interviewer: Shoot.

You: At Acme, I was dealing with a series of new product launches and discontinuations, and I understand that's a feature of life here at Smith Manufacturing, also. Would you say that managing product releases and updates is a major issue for Smith Manufacturing and its marketing team? Interviewer: Yes, definitely. One of the biggest challenges in the job is undoubtedly dealing with the high volume of product-line shifts. Last year we released 35 new products in seven product lines, including two new product lines. That's a common situation for consumer-products marketers but often not as familiar to B-to-B marketers.

You: And are the challenges associated with those product-mix changes typically related to aligning your distribution channels, or with manufacturing issues, or something else? Interviewer: Very often, we have to be creative about planning launch dates so as not to cannibalize an existing product—but without waiting so long that our competitor beats us to market.

You: Can you share one of those close-call stories with me? When you have an opportunity to interview the interviewer, grab it. Notice that the candidate in our example above doesn't use his valuable airtime yakking about his gifts and talents. He accomplishes more by zeroing in on the employer's pain, and at the point where our fictional mini-dialogue ends, above, the applicant has a good sense of where the employer's pain lies (and his knowledge level is about to get much higher). If the job interviewee listens carefully and asks insightful, informed questions, he won't need to stress about missing the chance to share one more of his many triumphs. The interviewer won't care about that, as he or she will be too busy thinking, "This fellow really understands what we're up against." Listening may be a more important job-search skill than talking, in today's job market. Wouldn't that be a nifty advantage for all the non-salesy, great listeners of the world?
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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