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Posted: January 28, 2013

Killer executive interviews

Tips for surviving the process -- and snagging the job

John Heckers

With the economy in most of the nation on life support (I still do not believe Colorado is or will be in a recession), I’m getting more and more questions about executive interviews and tactics. Here are a few tips that have helped my clients.

1) Survive HR.  Human resources is your enemy!  I once had the CEO of a major insurance company point to a gun he had mounted behind his desk.  He told me it was for HR, and it took special silver bullets.  While that view may be a bit extreme, HR is certainly not a friend to executives interviewing.  These people are gatekeepers, not decision-makers. Be humble. Tell them what they want to hear (without being dishonest, of course). Don’t bristle openly at their petty little power games (which almost all HR people love to play!). Just grit your teeth and get through it. And avoid HR entirely if you are able.

2) Be prepared for group interviews. It is possible and even likely that if you are at a VP Level or above, you will be given a group interview of some sort or another. These are the most difficult interviews, but they are survivable. Understand that you’ll have certain predictable players, and, unless you’re careful, you’ll behave in damaging and predictable ways.

You’ll always have the disgruntled employee who wanted the job but isn’t getting it. You’ll have at least one enemy on the interview board who is rooting for a competitor. Make these people your friends insofar as possible by directly, honestly, and openly answering their questions without defensiveness and with a great deal of friendliness.

Then you’ll have people who seem like “friends” on the interview board. They aren’t. They are simply very good interviewers who are not tipping their hands. Answer them exactly like you answer the perceived enemies on the board. Resist the temptation to “play” to these people. Give everyone equal time, and your perceived enemies a bit more.

Many times there is a “click” with one or more people who are interviewing you. There may even be physical attraction between you and one of the people on the board. Of course, avoid “flirting” at all costs (you’d be surprised how often I see this), and don’t let down your guard with the people with whom you “click.”

Finally, there will be someone who is clearly a true friend… perhaps the person who recommended you. Again, resist the temptation to be extra-nice to this person. Treat everyone with friendliness, competence and professionalism.

3) Don’t get desperate. Even if your house is about to be foreclosed on, acting desperate will only cost you any chance of the job you’re interviewing for. I’m seeing more and more executives who are terrified, most with no reason to be. There really are plenty of jobs in Denver. You don’t need to leave. And you aren’t going to starve, etc.

My suggestion is to turn off CNN and other news stations. Remember, these people make their living on gloom and doom so that the “talking heads” can keep their jobs. They love a crisis, real or perceived. Their reporting often has little to do with your individual reality. You’re in the very best place in the nation right now for becoming employed. We have industries that are poised to receive billions of dollars of government money very soon. So chill out, and take anxiety relieving medication if necessary. Your fear and desperation can be felt by hiring authorities.

4) Don’t get impatient with stupid questions. Yes, you might be asked what kind of tree you’d be if you were a tree. Five of my clients have been in the last six months. You might be asked to describe negative feelings that have held you back and a dozen other really stupid questions that have absolutely nothing to do with your ability to do the job. Tolerate it and don’t show your natural impatience at these childish games. When you’re in a position of power you can strongly recommend that a consultant come in who can teach your managers to ask useful questions. But you aren’t there, yet. So relax, answer their stupid questions, and don’t get impatient. This is a game. The point is to get an offer (that you can turn down if you want), not to critique their interviewing style.

5)  Know the company you’re interviewing with. I’m not talking about doing the net research.  I’m assuming that, if you’re an executive, you’re bright enough to do that in your sleep. Get on LinkedIn and call up your network and find out the inside story on the company. What problems do they have that you could solve? What opportunities have they missed because you weren’t there? Be ready to show how they need to hire you instead of one of the other 10 people they just interviewed.

6) Realize that each interview must count. While there are jobs, there are fewer of them. Each interview must count. Eliminate every mistake that you can in an interview. What is left is beyond your control. You might remind the interviewer of his Uncle Ned who dropped him as a baby. But failing that, you should be able to eliminate virtually every controllable error with careful thought and by practicing and consulting with people who can help you prepare.

7) You’re not a good interviewer. The biggest mistake my clients make is to believe that, because they’ve been interviewing people all of their careers that they are a) good interviewers and b) good interviewees. Neither may be true. But, in all my years of transition work, I’ve never met a person who actually is “an above average interviewer.” Most executives are abysmal at interviewing. Get help if you need it, but hone your interviewing skills. Admit that, in this area, you probably do not do well. Practice, practice and practice some more.  Get someone--a professional, a colleague, or a former boss--to give you honest feedback… and listen to what they say!

Good luck on your upcoming interviews.

John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC was an Executive, Relationships, Life and Spiritual Coach in Denver with 30 years of experience  helping people with their lives, relationships and careers.

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Readers Respond

On point. We all need to remember this everyday. By Jeffrey C. Fischer on 2009 03 31
John, fantastic article and I love your candidness. One of the best articles I've read about interviewing. Kimberly, did you work for HR? I agree with John 100% on the HR issue; they ARE the enemy, at least in interviewing. An HR person can completely blow your chances for a second interview for reasons totally unrelated to your abilities. I have met only one HR person in my entire career who was useful in screening candidates. I have experienced many who played power games and were completely worthless when it came to understanding who was best for a position. Typically they don't spend any time outside their office actually getting to know the employees, so they're clueless as to what people even DO. John is absolutely right; try to bypass them entirely. He's not advocating alienating them forever; you can make friends with them AFTER the interview process. Documenting your work status is not rocket science, and I would personally be much more concerned with actually landing the job. By Michelle on 2009 02 05
John, You are a talented writer and pretty insighful, I enjoy reading your articles. Much of the advice in this piece is on target for executive interviews. However, you really missed on item 1. HR is not the enemy. Everyone in an organization has a role - the HR role is to make sure that hiring is done in accordance with company policy, governmental regulations and in many cases to get employees paid. Alienating HR is not a good idea at all - after you are hired you will need them to be the keepers of documentation and to perhaps keep the hired executive out of court. I coach candidates to take a multi-pronged approach during pursuit of a company/position. Go through the HR channel to make sure that your information is recorded appropriately, AND approach the hiring manager directly with your value proposition. Be kind to HR - you will need their help after your hired. By Kimberly on 2009 02 04
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