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The Formula for Interview Success

Tattoo this on your wrist: Match Needs Now
Editor's note: This month, columnist Douglas Richardson answers a common job-hunting problem.


I choke up at interviews…really choke up. I know my strengths. I know what I have to offer and I really do my homework in preparing for interviews. But the moment someone starts grilling me in an interview, I can feel myself tighten up and get defensive. I try to give the right answers, but I can tell they often aren't coming out right. How do I turn the tables on the interviewer so I can deliver when the chips are down?
A: As the ancient Zen master would say, "Un-ask the question." Or as Paul Newman playing Cool Hand Luke was so succinctly told the prison boss. "You've got to get your mind right." In other words, your letter strongly suggests the need for a "paradigm shift" - another way of looking at the whole situation.


While you're probably beset by some anxieties unique to your personal psychology, your letter also reflects the type of feelings felt by many interviewers, young and old alike. Look at your emphasis on "the right answers," on "turning the tables," on getting the upper hand…on winning. Evidently you approach each interview as it it's a test. An adversarial proceeding. An inquisition. A desperate quest for a passing grade. When it comes to interviews, you perceive yourself as relatively powerless. The interviewer is driving, you're being driven. He's the decision-maker, he's in control. No one likes to feel out of control, so your natural tendency is to try to hide your sense of powerlessness. But that can be nerve-wracking: You might get found out! Your slip may show! Your answer to an important question may trigger gales of mocking laughter!

Grab 'Em by the Lapels

I've seen articles that urge the opposite tactic: Take control! Grab the reins, "manage the interview," make them play by your rules. I can't agree. This approach almost bombs out, even for aggressive risk-takers. With your worries about presentation style percolating just below the surface, a show of bravado would look forced and ring hollow. Practice your swagger a hundred times and it still won't convince. So what's the alternative? Try to change your basic mindset. Think of it this way: A successful interview is more than just a sales pitch geared to getting an offer. It's a collaborative process intended to provide both parties -- employer and employee-- with the information they need to make an informed, intelligent, accurate decision about whether they should work with each other. I've seen a lot of people who "won" an interview, only to find themselves in jobs that differ horribly form their expectations. In short, these people got so caught up in selling themselves that they forgot to buy.

Don't start selling your virtues before you know what the person is buying

Everyone wants a job that's a good "fit." But what is "fit," anyway? How do you convince the interviewer that you would be more productive, easier to manage and more enjoyable to work with than your competitors - particularly when he often isn't doing such a hot job of communicating his own needs and wants? Unless you are in a skillfully-executed screening interview conducted by a trained human resources expert, chances are you'll have to field some dumb questions, vague questions, questions to which the interviewer himself doesn't know the desired answer. It sometimes is hard to "connect" in a hiring interview-- not because the interviewer is out to give you a hard time, but because he often isn't any more skilled at eliciting and providing information than you are.

The Magic Strategy

A simple bit of strategy can foster a collaborative tone in almost any interview. Forget the rehearsed answers and canned, planned responses. Instead, remember these three words: MATCH NEEDS NOW.

In other words, FIRST do all you can (preferably before the interview, but, if need be, during the interview) to find out about the interviewer's most immediate needs and priorities. THEN, match your skills, background, aptitudes and personality to his needs. Don't start selling your many virtues before you have the best possible information about what the person is buying. As one recruiter I know put it. "If you're a smorgasbord and I want a grape, sell me a grape."
If your whole attitude reflects a determination to identify and meet the interviewer's needs and priorities (rather than simply to give polished answers to his questions), you will engage his interest. A dialogue may ensue. A discussion. A conversation Gives and take, instead of pitch and hit. Even before it's "your turn to ask questions," you may find yourself spontaneously asking for information and clarification to pinpoint his needs better so you can match yourself to them better.

Consider the classic dumb question that starts off many interviews: "Well Len, tell me about yourself." Gulp. You have no idea what he wants. Your philosophy? Your priorities? A description of the time you won the swim meet when you were eight? Clearly, there's at least one bad answer: "What do you want to know?" (Translations: "Your question is so stupid I can't even attempt to answer it.") Or you can try a "Sominex" answer: "I am a civil engineer with over 14 years of diverse project management experience in building water systems."
Or you come to him with the "Match Needs Now" type of answer: Probably the most relevant way to answer that, Mr. Jones is in terms of the priorities suggested in your ad. Now, as I understand it, you have an immediate need for someone who can manage your desalinization project in Saudi Arabia. This looks like a particularly good fit for my skills and experience. It's a lot like the project I handled in the Sudan, Where we built a water treatment plant using local labor under difficult political conditions.

See? Don't talk about your priorities. Talk about your ability to help the interviewer out with his priorities. If you don't have enough information upon which to build your match, ask for more before you try to create that sense of fit: I'd like to tell you about myself, Mr. Jones, but I think the most relevant way to do that is to describe my skills and potential contributions in terms of your needs. The problem is, I don't have a clear understanding from your ad of what the job is all about. So that I can give you a better answer, could you first tell me a little bit more about the needs and priorities this job will address?

Let's try another question "Okay, Elmo, out of all the applicants, why should I hire you for this job." Mr. Jones, what the recruiter tells me about this job, I gather that first and foremost you need someone who can get into the field, troubleshoot problems with slumping sales and morale and provide practical leadership. Of all things I've done in my 10 years of sales management, fighting fires in the field is the thing I've enjoyed most and achieved the best results doing. That's why I was so enthusiastic about this opportunity when the recruiter called. Your needs really match my greatest strengths.

Managing The Match

My experience suggests that it's almost impossible to overuse the word "match" in an interview. I don't recommend giving exactly the same answer to every questions you're asked, but you'll be surprised at how consistently responsive your answers sound if you focus on selling those attributes for which the buyer has suggested an immediate need. (And by the way, expressing your enthusiasm never hurts; a number of interviewees seem to think it's illegal to crack a smile or state that this looks like a neat job that they would really like.)
Finally, Match Needs Now is a good strategy for fielding those unpleasant questions about your shortcomings: "Well, Ned, you seem to have many strengths. Tell me, what do you think are your weaknesses?" "I've heard a number of techniques for handling this hot potato. For example, the candor and confession approach:
Well, to be frank, Mr. Jones, I don't manage time very well, I have trouble delegating, I can't relate to authority figures and my handwriting stinks. But I want to be honest with you because we're being so collaborative here.

No doubt your candor will be praised highly as he shows you the door and ushers in the next candidate. Or there's the technique of describing strengths as if they were weaknesses.
Well, Mr. Jones, my staff would tell you that when the stakes are high and the deadlines tight. I really tend to get tough and demanding. Not unfair, but I insist on performance. Yes sir, I can be a real hard driver.

Why run the risk of provoking a contemptuous snort when Match Needs Now provides a far more satisfying answer? Mr. Jones, I think I have a pretty clear understanding of what this job calls for in terms of skills and experience. I suppose we all have some shortcomings, but I honestly can't think of any I have that would affect my ability to perform this job extremely well. This looks like a great match and that's why I'm so excited about it.

It helps, of course, if this last answer is true. I see no point in claiming a match simply to help you get a job you suspect may in fact not be a good match. The truth underlying Match Needs Now is that it addresses an interviewer's core concerns (Can you perform? Are you motivated? Are you easy to manage? Should I worry?). It doesn't merely supply pat answers to questions that may or may not accurately reflect those concerns. The idea is to help someone interview you, to foster sharing of information, to clarify vague points and to make the interview a prototype for the candid and collaborative relationship you and the hiring manager would enjoy if you were hired.

Author: Douglas B. Richardson
Article courtesy of: National Business Employment Weekly