Interview Selfishly and Selflessly

I'm often asked, "Hey, Mike, what's the biggest mistake you've seen someone make in an interview?" Honestly, there is really only one true mistake I see people make in an interview. Before I answer this question, though, let's think about the weirdness that is interviewing, which frequently predisposes you to make this mistake.

You and another person, who (possibly) don't know each other well (or at all), agree to take a large percentage of time to sit down with each other and discuss a potential commitment that will greatly affect both of your futures.

You will disclose some of your highest priorities, volunteer information about your brightest hopes and dreams, all while trying to assure someone that they can count on you. You represent, to them, either a huge opportunity or huge pain ... and likewise. 

The oddest reality about this exchange is that you will each enter into this conversation without any guarantee of a commitment because you rightly hope to find out how this person can fill the opportunity/pain void in your own life.

And think about the time you will invest. For a one hour interview, add at least another hour to include prep time, post-interview debrief time, follow-up action item(s) time and time needed to decide what to do next. That's five percent (5%!) of your paid work week. And that's for what is likely a short introductory interview. For one person. You'll need to invest a higher percentage of your next week's time if you decide to continue the conversation.

If you remove the variable of meeting an unknown person by interviewing with someone who is a friend or former colleague, it only removes some of the risk. People change. Life brings new opportunities and challenges that affect everyone differently. Lost amidst the stories you will discuss to break the ice over before getting to the real questions is the added dynamic of a relationship that needs to be honored once the interview is over. At least meeting someone you don't know carries little future baggage.

Obviously, it's paramount that you make the most of every interview opportunity. That opportunity is tied to great dreams, goals achieved and challenges met. In my experience, there is only one mistake made in an interview: 

Attempting to "create" an impression.

This impression can be made in a few ways:

  • Trying to demonstrate experience in all requirements.
  • An air of bravado or supreme confidence.
  • Unwillingness to disclose your own priorities.
  • In a misguided attempt at assurance, attempting to downplay possible mismatches between experience and qualifications.

We've all heard the saying "You only get one chance to make a first impression." Baloney. If I could give interviewees one piece of advice, it would be this:

Interview selfishly and selflessly.

Ask all the questions for which you need answers. Display a willingness to talk through areas where you may fall short. Believe me, if the hiring manager is taking his/her time to discuss the opportunity, it is driven by a hope that you can do great things for them.

In other words, be yourself instead of the person you think the company wants to hire. If you are the hiring manager, avoid describing the position as the candidate's dream job. (Too often, starry-eyed descriptions of skills and achievements and company benefits are the best news you'll hear. The other person is giving you the good stuff in advance so it softens the fall when they tell you you're not a fit or that they don't want your job offer.)

If you're an engineer, ask about team weaknesses that the hiring manager hopes you can complement. Avoid selling skills that may not be a priority.

If you're a sales person, ask about the company's biggest unfulfilled opportunities. Avoid dropping names until you know who matters to the company.

If you're a marketing exec, ask about specific examples that illustrate the company's struggle in communicating its brand. Wait to discuss your amazing conversion ratios until you know that's a major pain point for the hiring manager.

Above all, remember that the person you're talking with is just that: a person. They will leave work and live their life as you will live yours. They will go home to excited children, catch drinks with friends, or wipe the sweat from their forehead as they run their last evening mile.

And then at some point they'll read your follow-up thank you email with one question: is this person really who they paint themselves to be?