Behind the Interview Curtain
Effective interviewing techniques from an experienced manager
by Joseph D. Conklin
When my Friend Al—an interviewing manager—heard I was applying for a promotion, he sent me some helpful suggestions. He and I met more than 15 years ago while working for the federal government, starting out as coworkers and continuing as friends after I moved to another agency. We’re both statisticians, but Al is more of an extroverted, people person, and his way with people helped him ascend the management ranks.
In his spare time, he performs in a local amateur theater. Being an actor has benefited him on both sides of interviews. Knowing Al as I do, I trusted he’d researched the advice he was offering.
Rehearsing the interview
His first suggestion wasn’t surprising to hear from an actor: Dress appropriately for the interview. Dress one level above the position you’re seeking. Don’t be over the top—stand out, don’t be ruled out.
A successful interviewer has stories ready that substantiate what’s on his or her résumé. They should be rehearsed well enough to sound smooth but not memorized. You don’t want to prepare too much or too little. When I asked him what kind of stories help on an interview, Al offered these questions:
- How did you handle missing a critical deadline when you knew you were going to be late?
- How did you keep a project on track while avoiding scope creep?
- How do you handle people who are difficult to work with or lead?
- When a project seemed impossible and you didn’t know where to start, what did you do next?
- When actual costs far exceeded expectations, how did you handle the situation?
- How did you handle someone trying to undercut or threaten your reputation at the office?
Even if you don’t end up needing it, bring a copy of your résumé to demonstrate you’re organized and prepared—qualities that are always in demand.
If the job requires writing, bring samples: a report from your current job, a presentation given to a professional society or a published article from outside your organization. Bring more than one to show you communicate well in a variety of settings and styles. They don’t need to be more than a few pages.
Even if there’s not enough time to discuss all the samples, they’re good to leave behind to remind the interviewer of your abilities. If the job requires computer programming skills, include samples of code you’ve written.
The right referrals
I asked Al whether he had any thoughts about providing references. He shared a story from his own experience as an interviewing manager, explaining how an applicant’s references ruled him out from being hired and illustrated some important lessons.
The applicant’s first reference contradicted a claim on his résumé. That’s always a no-no. He claimed credit for a master’s thesis that was defended by a full committee of professors. The first reference explained the work was a project completed for one professor—not a full thesis—and he had not taught the applicant in any of his classes.
The applicant was interviewing for a statistician position, and his second reference was an office manager. The applicant created electronic spreadsheets to help him run the business, but he couldn’t speak to the applicant’s skills as a statistician.
The third reference was difficult to track down. The contact information provided by the applicant was outdated, and he hadn’t worked at the company that was listed for more than a year. Al spent hours calling three states to track down the reference.
The applicant was not offered the job. The important lesson about references is to make sure they are from people who know you personally, can address your ability to meet the job’s requirements and are easy to contact.
Are you qualified?
Al boiled down his next suggestion into three easy-to-remember points an interviewer should be convinced of:
- I’m qualified.
- I’m available.
- I want to fit in.
The stories you’ve prepared to demonstrate your experience can explain your qualifications. As you answer the interviewer’s questions, address when you can start and how you would fit in with the new organization. If time allows, summarize any commitments you must complete at your current job before moving on. This speaks to loyalty and finishing what you start.
Standing out from other applicants is your challenge. In Al’s experience, applicants didn’t always ask about the important milestones expected during their first year on the job or lay out a vision for what they wanted to accomplish during the first year or two. Doing this well requires thorough study and consideration of the job requirements. Asking about and suggesting future goals communicates your interest and commitment to the interviewer.
Other questions that demonstrate a helpful and useful curiosity are:
- Is this a newly created position?
- Why did the previous person move on?
- How will I be evaluated after 90 days, six months or a year?
- If I am hired and do well, what other opportunities in the organization might I qualify for?
Al’s final point showed his experience as an actor. He said to not be discouraged if you don’t get a job. That just means the interview was a rehearsal for your next success.
Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is also an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer, auditor, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.