Getting through the first thirty seconds of a job interview is critical. In the interviewer's mind it gives you the "right to advance" (whatever that means). However, preparing for the main body of the interview is equally as important.
At our recent "Career Advice" offsite (hosted beneath the Grand Tetons), the Sneaky Business team distilled our own thoughts on interview success. The following represents our collective advice on how best to survive the five most likely curveball questions that will come your way during the interview.
Question 1: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Likely implication: Don't even think about saying you want to be in my chair.
Advice: Stay realistic in your response. Aiming for four promotions and a shot at general manager is unlikely to happen (unless you are coming in at GM level). However, you should also convey some sense of ambition. "I'd see myself well established in the role I'm interviewing for" probably won't cut it. Candidates should avoid value driven / aspirational responses at all costs. For example, "I'd see myself as a more well rounded individual" or "I'd like to think I will have created a unique role in the corporate psyche" sound nice, but hopelessly fluffy. Avoid fluff - except as a last resort.
Question 2: What are your key weaknesses?
Likely implication: If you join I will know your weakest points and exploit them wherever possible.
Advice: Pick a low number (not zero, ideally somewhere between 1 and 2) and have a very well prepared answer in hand. Ideally you should practice your response with a trained psychologist beforehand to assess the merits of your chosen words. Variations are possible depending upon location of interview, corporate culture and heritage of the interviewer. For example, Serbian investment bankers would fully expect a "I have no known weaknesses" response; the merest hint of culpability will likely result in a forcible ejection from the interview room.
Question 3: What makes you our ideal candidate?
Likely implication: Nobody's perfect. Don't even think about saying that you are.
Advice: Having an intimate knowledge of both the role you are interviewing for and the interviewer is critical for this question. Talking to friends in the hiring company, reviewing publicly available information on the hiring group and analyzing the job posting word by word are important first steps. However, the serious candidate should go at least one stage further. Understand why the previous holder of the open position moved on. Talk to them and their family to assess their own failings and weaknesses. Above all else, understand what the hiring manager would like to see in that role. And then start your response with the timeless entree of "Well, nobody's perfect, but......"
Question 4: Describe a failure or setback in your career.
Likely implication: I want to know why you really didn't get promoted.
Advice: The standard advice here is to pick an example of a limited failure where you can demonstrate your ability to turn around a situation. The stock answer would should convey some sense of humility, and then describe a positive attitude in building a better future. Sneaky Business believes this approach is safe, but rather dull. An alternative stratagem involves choosing a business-related setback, and placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of other individuals. This Cheney-styled approach clearly explains the outcome of the setback, but offers up no sense of guilt and no reason to take correctional steps. The best example would demonstrate how you subsequently tracked down the responsible individuals and placed career-limiting obstacles in their way.
Question 5: How do we know you will be committed to this job?
Likely implication: You and I both know that if you get this job you're only going to be passing through. But let's see what kind of lame gloss you can put on your answer to make me believe in your loyalty.
Advice: If you have a track-record of staying the course in previous roles then leverage this fully. However, many candidates nowadays have spent the last ten years flitting from company to company like a malcontent gypsy. Understanding the culture of the hiring company can help. As can having a detailed knowledge of the interviewer's own career history. "I expect to be as loyal and committed to this role as you have been during your last five years" is guaranteed to raise an eyebrow. "I expect to stay loyal until a better offer comes along" followed by a pause then a confident laugh is a much riskier response.