Companies & Industries

How Do I Prepare for a Job Interview?


Preparation is everything. Most important in today's recession: Figure out why the company is hiring and what its real needs are

Dear Liz,

I've got an interview coming up at a Fortune 500 company, and I'm a bit nervous. I've worked in large companies before, but the stakes for this interview are obviously high given the state of the job market. I want to give myself every possible edge. What can I do now, with my interview a couple of weeks away, to make the best possible impression there?

Thanks,

Caroline

Dear Caroline,

When you're buying real estate they tell you to focus on location, location, location. When you're job intervewing, it's preparation, preparation, preparation. The more you can find out about your prospective employer before you show up, the better.

Beyond the obvious preparation you should do (study the employer's Web site, especially management bios, company history and philosophy, investor relations, and press info), here are some interview-preparation tips.

First, use LinkedIn to find profiles of company leaders and read about them. Did many or all of the firm's top brass come from the same set of firms in the same industry? Reading what these people have written in their LinkedIn profiles (not what was written about them by the company's PR department) can give you insight into the types of managers this firm employs.

Next, triangulate on the company by searching not only Web pages but also news items and blog posts about it. Next, set up a news alert on the employer's name (which you can do from any number of sites). By the time your interview date arrives, you may know more about the company than your interviewers do.

Do some research on what salaries the company pays at sites like Payscale.com or Glassdoor.com. You can also read self-reports from people in various positions, perhaps similar to yours, sharing their actual pay data as well as other useful bits of cultural and historical data at Glassdoor.com. And Glassdoor has just introduced a feature that lets you read reports from other people who've interviewed with "your" company. You can't get any more timely or relevant interview advice than the "I was there" stories from people who have gone before you. (Other sites do this, too, but I think Glassdoor is doing the best job right now.) Interview reports include the questions interviewers asked candidates, details on the interview process, and lots more goodies that will help you understand how your own interview pipeline is likely to progress.

You can up your chances of acing the job interview if you can speak not only to the formal requirements in the job posting, but to the underlying "business pain" that led to the approval of the job opening in the first place. In this economy, companies don't advertise openings if they don't have severe pain, whether it springs from cost overruns, the need to update marketing plans, or something else. If you can read between the lines in the job ad, the company's news, external news reports, and your own network's knowledge of the firm to zero in on the pain point, your interview conversation will be much stronger.

Here's an example. A firm has advertised for a global service process manager. That's a person who designs client-service processes used by customer-facing employees around the world. Sounds like a back-room, staff-y position. Why is the company hiring for a staff job in a down economy? Blog posts and a small news item ("XYZ Corp rolls out new customer listening program") may clue you into the existence of thorny—and expensive—service problems. If customers aren't happy, they're not buying, and customer churn is an expensive proposition.

If you're armed with the idea of reducing churn as you walk in the door, you'll talk confidently about ways you've solved similar problems in past roles. If you didn't come to the interview armed with that information, you'd chatter happily about your experience, but wouldn't always point your stories in the direction of solving the employer's specific pain.

Some more advice: Prepare great stories that speak to what is really going on at the company. Even if you're not asked a "story question." such as "Tell me about a time when you showed real leadership," you should try to work some of them into the interview. They tell as much about you as items of your résumé.

You'll want to have a good array of stories in mind. If the interviewer asks "What do you know about trade shows?" you'll be ready to jump into your trade show story, the very same story that illustrates how you overcame adversity. Apart from the adversity tale, you'll want to have one story about how you worked with a difficult person, one about how you learned from a mistake, one about how you had to go it alone without benefit of a boss's guidance, and one about how you worked on a team.

And jot down notes about your stories to jog your memory in a handy notebook that you bring with you (tip No. 2). It's too easy to forget something important that you wanted to say, and you'll want to take some notes for the follow-up/thank you e-mail you send (tip No. 3). In this job market, you can't take any shortcuts or overlook any detail.

And finally, have some fun at the interview and make sure you're on time, or a few minutes early.

Cheers,

Liz

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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