Note: This is a long post and there’s quite a bit to digest. Please read it through and see if you can apply my suggestions to a recent interview. Thx… ~Steve
I mentioned on last night’s #megajobhuntchat that a “better” way to interview is to be a consultant. Everyone knows the standard regurgitation interview practiced by nearly all recruiters and hiring managers – these are the ones for which the experts have you prep for such stellar questions as “What are your strengths and weakness?” and can last for as short as five minutes. Look folks, I’m a reasonably engaging person and the last thing I want when I interview are soulless bobbleheads. Gimme some meat! Or TVP…
The inherent problem with interviews is that by playing it by the book (could be a parachute book) you’re simply one of the twelve blind men touching then describing the elephant; interviewing like a consultant allows you to be all twelve and come away with a description of an elephant.
While I might be seeking a position that is higher on the corporate totem pole than the one you’re seeking, I believe that by incorporating consultant-focused interviewing principles into your strategy you’ll see your interview “open up” into a more fruitful conversation – rather than a stress inducing, stomach grinding activity.
When a company hires a consultant, there are three overarching questions that the company uses to gate the person selling their expertise:
- Do they understand my business?
- Will they offer me a unique point of view?
- Can they demonstrate how they can deliver “economic value”?
These should sound very familiar to job seekers, recruiters, and hiring managers – sort of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of talent acquisition.
To make an impact you’re going to have to address these three areas; no matter the position, at some level, you’re going to have to understand some element of the business, you’re going to have to offer solutions that make higher-ups say “Wow”, and above all, you’re going to have to demonstrate your impact on the balance sheet. Doesn’t matter if you’re a co-op student or the new CEO, these questions need to be answered for that offer to be extended. Incidentally, my first exposure to even the lowest person on the totem pole having an impact on the bottom-line was when I read Jack Stack’s The Great Game of Business, his story about SRC and one of the drivers of open-book management. SRC’s story and results proved that everyone in an organization has bottom-line impact; the challenge is to find the connection. Seque…
Now…what are the questions for which you require answers?
- What are the problems of the company that you hope to resolve/solve?
- What are they presently doing to resolve/solve the problems?
- What has been previously tried and why did these methods succeed or fail?
- What resources – internal and external – will be available to resolve/solve the problems?
- Do they have a vision for the work that you will perform?
- What are the time constraints to resolve/solve the problems?
- What budget has been allocated to resolve/solve the problems and what factors would cause this budget to deviate?
- What risks are you and the company willing to take in resolving/solving the problems?
- Who are the customers and how do they measure satisfaction?
Notice that I haven’t numbered these; I can’t tell you “when” these questions should be asked during the interview. Every recruiter and hiring manager has their own blueprint for how they want the interview to proceed but I can tell you that at points in every interview you’ll have the chance to ask every question. Let’s break each one down a bit more:
What are the problems of the company that you hope to solve? Easiest question to demonstrate interviewing like a consultant. Whereas the job description you read that sparked our interest in the first place was task oriented, you’re hired to solve problems – and these are only rarely on a job description. You’re going to have to fish for them… “I’m very curious about the underlying group or organizational issues that I will be asked to work on if we both agree that I should join the company. Can you describe the most pressing short-term – inside 90 days – and longer term – perhaps 12 months out – problem that I would be responsible for solving?” Whatever is given as an answer, drill down and ask questions about things that are unclear to you. Offer up mini-solutions but as you drill down, re-visit these mini-solutions and update your point of view.
What are they presently doing? This can be woven in with the first question. “My first impression is that you should consider doing [something]; where are you at this point in time in identifying and implementing a solution and what are these?” Again, another opportunity to play consultant and drill down into their response. If their path towards a solution is one that doesn’t appear obvious, ask them how and why this path was selected. Your ultimate goal here is to understand how the managers, people, and culture blend. Better to ask than to go over the waterfall in a barrel!
What has been previously tried and why did these methods succeed or fail? Fact: The company might have a mixed history of attempting to improve a problem; you need to identify and assess their successes and failures during the course of the interview. There isn’t one company on the planet that hasn’t experienced peaks and valleys so don’t believe it when someone tries to sell you that all is hunky dory; since failure teaches, be prepared to ask, “What did you learn from your failed solution?” and be ready to offer your own frank of how you might have fared.
What resources – internal and external – will be made available? Will you be an individual contributor with no one but a team of three (Me, Myself, and I) asked to build the entire social media program or will you be part of group of similar wonks and wonkettes? Will your external resources be limited to what you can Bing or Google, or will you have the tools and brainpower of an external marketing agency? Each will color how you approach a solution and engage in a conversation with the recruiting team.
Do they have a vision for the work that you will perform? Careful here folks – because if they do, then they might already have a plan of action in place and your input might not matter. Ask that this plan be described in drill down in the areas where you’re unclear of the underlying assumptions, logic tracks, tools to be used, ad nauseum. Would you be willing to work under these circumstances? You’re going to have to be honest with your core needs because if you and the company/hiring manager aren’t in agreement (perhaps agreement is too VP of me but it’s sufficient to be uncomfortable with the path to be taken), you can be sure that future roads will be very bumpy.
What are the time constraints? Based on your questioning and the paths taken during other parts of the interview, you discover that the company is convinced they can roll out a new system in a period of time that makes you queasy. “That seems to me to be quite aggressive. What are your assumptions? What if something unforeseen happens? For example, what if…” If you’re not comfortable with the critical path requirements, I’d suggest you let them know while still offering alternative points of view.
What budget has been allocated and what factors would cause this budget to deviate? Vendors will frequently sell killing-the-cockroach-with-an-atom-bomb solution when a BB gun would suffice (in recruiting, we see this with applicant tracking systems). Getting a handle on how the budget for a project was created will offer insight into how the existing team “thinks” about allocating people and product. Asking about factors would cause these allocated resources to change will provide you with roadmap of sand traps and steep embankments that were considered…or not. If a discussion of budget deviation produces “Hmmm” and “We didn’t consider that” then you have an opportunity to discuss the items or scenarios that might derail a project and impact your ability to succeed.
What risks are you and the company willing to take? This area is one that is probably based more on personal ethics than risk management. I like running up stairs; you might prefer the elevator. We get to our destination but we differ in how we do it. As you drill down into the problems and solutions you also want to begin forming your sense of how receptive the company might be to outside-the-box thinking and solutions – if that’s you. “Steve, I might approach the problem like this but I’m uncertain as to how you would react to it; would it be too over-the-edge for you or the company?” Better to ask, engage, and discuss than to be labeled an outlier in your thinking.
Who are the customers and how do they measure satisfaction? Consultants know that their performance is gauged against both a dashboard that is quantitative and subjective. Subjective satisfaction is more about alignment with goals and while good scores (smile sheets) feel good, they frankly are limited. The quantitative portion is easier to assess but more difficult to nail down; when identifying the problems (first question), the investigation naturally falls into a line of questions and answers that speaks to desired results. Face it, when you’re solving problems, you’re effectively improving performance from one state to another. If the company’s social media strategy has only generated 100 Fans of their Facebook page, they really believe the proper strategy can generate 1000, and your input helps them gain 2500 fans, well that’s a home run in any ballpark. In this case, your performance-focused questioning discovered that 1000 Fans would make the customer really happy but 1500 would make them orgasmically happy. 2500? Oh my…
In the end, consultants collect data before proffering a solution…an educated solution. How frequently have you left an interview without knowing the real parameters of the role? A consultant is not afraid to ask questions that on their face, sound simple or just plain silly. I don’t care how little experience you have – be curious, be inquisitive, be engaged.
Think about the parable of the twelve blind men touching then describing the elephant…as you’re leaving the interview, do you know it’s an elephant?