Job Interview? The Most Important Prep You’re Not Doing

I’ve hired a lot of people over the years. The candidates and roles have changed, but one thing hasn’t. Most candidates come to the interview with little to no knowledge of the company or the industry. Why do people skip this vital piece of preparation?

 It can’t be from lack of information. Article after article cautions on the danger of late arrivals, of stained ties and ripped tights. Others stress the power of a strong – but not crushing – handshake. Of asking good questions and being sure your weaknesses are framed as strengths. “I work too hard. I care too much.”

But most of these articles don’t include doing your research on the company, its mission, growth plans and industry outlook. Even at an entry level job, researching the organization and bringing those insights to the interview is an important thing you’re probably not doing.

Help Me to Hire You

A few years back I took an interim director role at a university two weeks before the start of the semester. I needed to hire five instructors in two weeks. A tough enough task on its own, to be sure, but amping up the stakes was a sweet pre-semester vacation. No way was I missing that.

And so began the interviews. I won’t lie to you. If you had a human shape, you got an interview. This was no time to be overly judgmental. I had been trying a new “give people a chance” attitude, some Oprah thing. This seemed like good practice.

It was summer and campus was lifeless so I held the interviews in a local café. How cool I am, I thought, as I ordered my mocha latte to help with, you know, tolerance and fortitude. As candidates streamed in, I quickly switched to decaf.

Nobody Cares About Your Strengths and Weaknesses

I met a dozen or more applicants that first week. Beyond the relatively shabby interview garb – academia has its own rules – I was met with blank stares when I asked, “Why do you want to work with us? What can you bring to our student population?” Ummm. Hmmm. Well, I really love to teach. Love to help students succeed.

Ah. There’s a saying in marketing: If the opposite is ridiculous, don’t say it. Would any interviewee up for a teaching position say they hate students and want them to fail?

I fantasized about saying something like “Okay, let’s put aside your five-year plan and why don’t you tell me what you know about our students and our school culture?

I did say that to one candidate who told me he was applying to work for us because his other school was cutting his course load and also, where exactly was our campus?

Oh my.

Know and Respect Your Audience – It’s Not About You

In my field – communications – you’d call it not knowing your audience. When we don’t know about the company we say we want to work with, we’re giving a preview at how we will behave on the job. Holed up in our safe office or cubicle, doing the precise bullet points of our job description, hoping we never get called on to do anything in the “other duties as assigned” category.

In another time, when jobs were plentiful and the industries were not being disrupted, it was probably okay to send that resume with the applicant-focused objective of “To find a position that will showcase my skills and allow me opportunities to grow.”

No longer.

As Daniel Pink says in To Sell is Human: “…one in nine Americans works in sales. But so do the other eight.”

This is never more true than in a job interview. The company needs not only to buy your skills, but to clearly see how you will add to the organization’s success and fit into the culture. A candidate who focuses only on their own needs will be passed over.

What Works

Before my journey into academia, I worked in the travel industry. As I sought to move on and up, I came across an ad in a newspaper. A paper paper. This was back in the day. The job was with a prestigious cruise line. I knew they paid well and my island upbringing made the sea enchanting.

To prepare, I went to the library and looked up company information in travel industry trade journals. No Alta Vista search or Googling for me. Again, back in the day.

The company was in the middle of some exciting growth. Four new ships in the next three years and a sparkling new tagline announced a “Tradition of Excellence.” I wrote my cover letter congratulating them on the fleet expansion. I ended with a promise that I was the candidate to contribute to and continue their tradition of excellence.

This may sound over the top, but company executives generally have solid egos, or to put it more kindly, they are proud of their culture and achievements. Why wouldn’t they want employees who share that philosophy? Indeed, in the era of behavioral interviews, it’s vital.

I got the call and flew to Seattle for a Sunday morning panel interview. Answering the usual battery of questions on work experience and achievements, I made sure to weave in mentions of company growth strategies, as well as comments on the state of the industry at large.

Showing you know about the company and the industry tells the interviewers a few things about you:

  1. You care about the place and industry, not just about the salary
  2. You’ll make life easier for your boss
  3. You soon will be the boss

As we say in communication, marketing and storytelling: show, don’t tell. Anyone cansay they’re a team player with a strong work ethic, able to juggle multiple projects and the like. It’s far better to show your strengths and fit for the position by establishing yourself as a thought leader – both about the company and the field. These are the people who get interviews, jobs and promotions. And isn’t that worth a little Google time?

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