No matter how expert or experienced you are, when you are applying for a promotion in your own organization, or a post in another organization, being fully prepared for the interview is critical. Your expertise, knowledge, reputation, experience, and appearance, will help you, but it is highly likely that the other candidates will have similar attributes.
Here is a list of actions that you should carry out in order to be fully prepared. Gather information about the recruiting organization (this includes your present employer if it is an internal interview): before you decide whether to attend the interview, it is essential that you gather information about the organization and analyze this. You need information on its recent and forecast performance, the condition of the business sector in which it operates, and the post that it is offering. If the organization and sector are healthy, and the post looks secure and has potential, then you can move on to the next stage. If your findings are negative then it is almost certain that the best decision would be to reject the opportunity. You need to gather information about the condition of yourself, looking at how your personal and career plans are progressing, focusing on how the prospects in your current job match with your personal and career objectives, and then how the new post could help you to achieve those objectives.
Decide to attend or not to attend the interview. You need to make an objective decision as to whether taking up this new post is the right decision for you, at this time. Armed with the information that you gathered earlier, you can assess the merits of being appointed to the new post, against staying in your current post, albeit perhaps until a more appropriate opportunity arises, and make your decision confidently. It is, of course, tempting to apply for a job which appears to offer a higher salary, more responsibility, more status, and new directions, and if this is so appealing that you are confident that you can adjust your development plans to match it, and be happy with that decision, then yes, attend the interview and perform to the best of your ability. However, be warned that the interviewers may well reject you because it will become obvious to them that the position they are offering is not a natural fit with your career to date, and worse, they may well ask you how this new opportunity fits with your future personal development plans, and be disappointed with your unconvincing response.
Gather details of the job itself. You need as much information as you can gather about the nature of the job, the role, responsibilities, reporting relationships, location of the workplace, working conditions, and conditions of employment such as working hours, holidays, and corporate policies and procedures that apply to the position. Some of this information will be given to you in the information pack sent to you by the interviewing organization, or department, but often, sadly, the quality of information sent out is poor. Most professional organizations will have HR departments that will answer your questions on these issues, or pass you on to the appropriate line manager.
Research the interview format: you need to do some basic but essential research on the practicalities of the interview. Again, some of this information will be sent to you. You should be clear about: how to get to the organisation and the specific interview location (don’t rely on asking for this information when you arrive, as this adds to the stress of the occasion); who is on the interview panel (their titles will give you important clues as to their relationships to the post); what format the interview will take (there is nothing worse than arriving expecting a traditional face-to-face interview and finding that it is a day-long series of tests, group activities, and interviews).
Timing of arrival. Make sure that you arrive in good time, allowing time to tidy your physical appearance after your journey and sufficient time to become calm before the actual interview.
Your appearance. Do not make the mistake of thinking that it is only your history, qualifications, skills, and knowledge that will win you the job. Most other candidates will have similar attributes, so you need to make an impression, to look professional, smart, and appropriate for the post. In many cases, there will have been a previous holder of the post that the interviewers may be using, albeit subconsciously, as a benchmark. You can’t guess what the interviewers want, or don’t want, in terms of physical appearance and personality, but don’t for one second believe anyone that tells you this doesn’t matter (it shouldn’t, perhaps, in certain circumstances, but you are being invited into their world, and they will be looking for someone who they will be comfortable with (even if the role requires you to be an aggressive change-agent). Yes, in some countries there is legislation that says the job should be offered to the most appropriate person, regardless of appearance, but in real life, this isn’t what happens. The answer to this dilemma is to research the culture of the organization that you are joining so that you are aware of how people, in positions similar to the one you are being interviewed for, dress and behave, and you can comment on or ask questions about this during the interview. However, don’t go to the interview in jeans and a t-shirt, even if that’s the day to day standard. You need to look as professional, as serious about obtaining the job, as possible. For men, that almost certainly means a business suit, or jacket and trousers, with or without a tie. For women, a business suit or business outfit. For both sexes, smart-casual can be acceptable, if, but only if, it is that type of environment. In most situations, for most posts on offer to professionals, specialists, managers, experts, consultants, a business outfit is expected at the interview, even if, after appointment, they would never again expect you to come to work in anything remotely as formal.
Your approach. In a word, think positively. You are offering your talents, your experience, your time, effort, and energies, to this organization, and you need to give the impression that you would be a valuable asset that they would be foolish to reject. This doesn’t mean being aggressive, over-enthusiastic, pompous, or pretentious, but it does mean showing the interviewers that you are a confident, assertive, pro-active, flexible, professional who would perform successfully if appointed.
Prepare for, and practice answering, the interview questions: think about questions that you are likely to be asked. Brainstorm this with a colleague, friend, or partner, and practice answering. Practice using the interview questions to strengthen your argument that you are the best person for the job. For example, you will be almost certainly be asked about your experience and qualifications, even though this will be shown in your CV. Your response should be phrased in such a way that you relate your experience, knowledge, and qualifications, to the role and responsibilities of the new post, showing how these existing attributes will give you the confidence and skills to successfully handle the tasks that lie ahead. With luck, you will not be asked questions such as – What do you think are the main benefits that you could bring to this job if appointed? However, it still happens, so you must be prepared for them. Again, practice responding in a way that links your experience and existing skills to the demands of the new role. If you are asked – What would you say are your biggest strengths and worst weaknesses? then talk mostly about your strengths, giving examples of how these have been effectively used, and be very, very careful talking about your alleged weaknesses. Choose a relatively harmless weakness that could be interpreted as a strength, such as being over-zealous about quality criteria being met, or insisting on deadlines being met which can upset some team members. Don’t, under any circumstances, negatively criticize your present or past employers, or colleagues. Even if the organization that you work for is known to have faults or bad practices, don’t criticize it or any personnel within it. This is almost always a fatal mistake. You will almost always be asked some questions about the interviewing organization. Again, use these as an opportunity to show you have researched the organization, but also to explore what the organization is planning (at least in the area that you will be working in), and-or what they are expecting of you. For example, you could mention new markets that the organization has recently entered and asked if that will impact on the post that you are being interviewed for. If you are asked about hobbies and interests, don’t give a list of twenty, keep it simple and don’t try to impress with esoteric hobbies that you don’t actually have. Imagine saying that you enjoy watching French films and then being asked a question about this, in French, by one of the interviewers who are fluent in the language!
Questions asked by you. Most interviews will close with the interviewee being asked if they have any questions to ask. The answer should always be – Yes. Have two questions ready, and either ask these or ask one of them and one that has arisen because something raised in the interview. Make sure that your questions are ones that reinforce your suitability for the post. You could, for example, ask questions about personal development opportunities, explaining, briefly, what you feel would be a potentially useful development activity (of benefit to you and to the organization) if you were to be offered the post (this should be an area that you have considered whilst researching the organization and the job itself).
General behaviour: remember, you are being assessed at all times, possibly from when you enter the building and approach the receptionist, certainly from the moment you walk into the interview room to the moment you leave. You must be as natural and relaxed, physically and mentally, as possible, but also professional, polite, and courteous. Never argue, unless you have been given a direct instruction to give your opposing views. Be alert, show an interest in each interviewer as the ask questions, and answer directly to that person, but occasionally look at the others during your answer. In answering questions, don’t be evasive, be confident, and use your answers to demonstrate how you would make a good match for the position on offer.
Final word. As the interview ends, thank the interviewers for their time and questions. Say that you would be very pleased if appointed to the job and that you look forward to hearing from them. Even if you have doubts at that moment, this is a courteous and wise way to end the interview. You may later decide that you would like the job and if you have appeared negative as the interview ended you will have reduced your chances considerably.
In summary, the key to being successful at an interview is to treat it as a project that needs to be planned and executed in as professional a manner as possible. Changing jobs, moving into a new position, changing organizations, changing the direction of your career, perhaps moving into a different business sector, leaving behind friends and colleagues, meeting, working with, managing, new colleagues, is a major change in your life. The interview is your doorway into a new world, into the next stage of your personal development. It is a major event, a major opportunity, and must be treated as one.