The Sure-Fire Job Interview Strategy

[Editor's Note: This two-part story is the latest installment in an ongoing series that highlights unique career strategies for navigating the jobless recovery.  Part II appears tomorrow (Friday).]

Congratulations. You just got the call, or the e-mail, confirming that you've been selected to interview for that new job that you want so badly.

You've just beaten the toughest part of the entire job search process.

Getting the call means that you crafted a resume that grabbed their attention, and also made a solid first impression - mostly likely via a "pre-interview" telephone call with your prospective new boss. With unemployment at its highest level in 26 years - and countless numbers of hungry unemployed workers swarming every promising job opening - that was no small achievement. Make sure to give yourself some credit - and maybe even celebrate a bit.

At the same time, don't lose focus - the "brass ring" is now in sight. All that's keeping you from landing this job (and putting an end to the need to regularly take cash advances against your credit card, if you've been out of work awhile), are the three, four or five other job candidates who've also been called in for interviews.

Working against you is the fact that each of them is at least as desperate as you are to get a job - especially now, in the toughest job market any of us has ever seen. One of your rivals may even be the so-called "internal" candidate that we all dread competing against.

But here's the good news.  You're about to learn the one real secret of the interview process that's going to give you a huge advantage over your competition.  It's the key to focusing everything you do before, during and after the interview - and that will make you the clear-cut, No. 1 best choice for this job.

It's not enough to demonstrate that you're a perfect candidate for the open job. You need to show that you'll be a perfect fit in the organization's corporate/company culture.

The Toughest Competition You'll Ever See

With entire industries gone belly up, and supposedly rock-solid icons of American business bankrupt, the competition for available jobs is more vicious now than ever before. By the time a company has narrowed down its list of job applicants to the handful that warrant an actual interview, all of them are going to be very, very qualified - so qualified, in fact, that the chance of one person having significantly more experience or skill or knowledge than the others is remote, indeed.

Most folks go after a job interview like a hammer goes after a nail: They hammer away at the interviewer, doing the whole "hard-sell" drill, going on about their achievements, their education, their work ethic, their qualifications and their skills. They talk about why they're better than anyone else who could walk through the door.

The upshot is that all the candidates sound the same, and in the end do little to distinguish themselves.

As demoralizing as it initially sounds, that's not enough.

You see, with so many potential candidates out in the job market, it's really a "buyer's market," meaning the company clearly has the upper hand. It can wait to pick and choose the very best person available. And that's what it's going to do.

That's why you need to go about this whole interview routine in a very different way than normal.

Because of your preparation, you're able to demonstrate precisely how you're the best fit for the position, the company and the corporate culture. In short, you're showing the interviewer that he or she has a problem (a job that needs to be filled) - and that you are the solution.

That gives you a huge competitive advantage.

Hit the mark here and what you pursued as only a new job could well burgeon into a new career.

Connecting With Your Prospective New Boss

Initially, you might think this approach is too touchy-feely for today's jagged-edge recession. But here's something to consider: Not only is this the right strategy, it could well be the simplest.

While the other job candidates spin their wheels hard-selling the information that's already spelled out on their resumes, you have a much-easier task: From now until you receive an actual salary offer from the company, you're going to need demonstrate your ability to fit in with the culture. But don't have to worry about embracing 1,500 people, or convincing all of them at once that you're the best fit for the job. You've only got to connect with the person in front of you - the interviewer. Make that connection and you'll be miles ahead of your competition.

Two strategies will get you to that point:

  • Turn your interview into a "Highlight Reel" - thanks to intense preparation.
  • And close the deal with impressive follow-up questions.

Let's look closely at each of these strategies.

How to Turn Your Interview Into a Job-Candidate Highlight Reel

As unfair as it might seem, the reality is that your interviewer will form a strong opinion about your potential to do the job - or your ability to fit into the corporate culture - within the first minute or so of your initial meeting. And as the old adage says: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

Your appearance will play a dominant role in that first impression. So, it's up to you to make sure that you're communicating exactly what you should be with the way you look.  Here's how: 

  • Do the Research (I): To make this strategy work, you have to know your subject. Do all the research you can on the company, its products or services, its markets, its current finances, and it's corporate (if it's a big firm) or company (if it's smaller) culture. Especially if it's a big company, make sure to check out stories in Fortune, BusinessWeek, Bloomberg News, Reuters, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and That'll get you all the "official" news. Make sure to read the comments below the stories; many times, there will be some left by employees. Check out some of the investor chat rooms for big companies, too: You'll often find that employees have (anonymously) left comments. Here's something else, too: Many big companies have Web sites (both official and unofficial) in which workers congregate and talk about their employer. These sites aren't always open to outsiders. But these sites, as well as the afore-mentioned "chat rooms" are the source of some great "dish" on your prospective employer's true company culture.
  • Do the Research (II): It will be hugely beneficial do devote some of your ever-increasing research prowess on the person you expect to be interviewing with. Do a general Web search (especially if they're a higher-level exec with a public company, he or she could well be quoted in some news stories about the firm). Don't forget to see if he or she has a site on Facebook, or Linked In (which is the more-business-oriented of the so-called "social-networking" sites). Finding out what they are interested in will help you "connect" - especially if you find out you share some common interests.
  • Dress for Success, But Consider the Context:  Make sure you're not under or over-dressed, and make sure to keep in mind the job and the company that you're applying for. If it's an hourly position in a production environment, for instance, consider a sport coat, tie and nice slacks, instead of a full-on suit. But an opportunity in the uber-professional financial ranks might require you to break out the diamond-studded cufflinks.
  • Don't Get Derailed by Details:  Pay attention to the basics, for you never know what your interviewer will value. For instance, if you plan to wear a suit, make sure it's been cleaned and pressed. Take along an extra shirt or blouse "just in case." When it comes to accessories, don't overdo the bling - it can be distracting, and you want the interviewer to remember you, not the dangly bracelet that hypnotizes him. Good grooming - hair, nails, polished shoes - is worth the time.
  • Be Punctual: It goes without saying that you don't want to be late. On the other hand, you don't want to be too early; we've heard horror stories of late about a number long-out-of-work job-seekers whose desperation became apparent when they showed up for their interviews several hours before the appointed time - and just kicked around the office lobby until it was time for their appointment. Sorry, but that comes across as weird.
  • Practice Makes Perfect:  Come up with a list of questions and have a friend or family member run through them - a number of times. Lists of interview questions are easy to find on the Internet. Make sure to include some tough ones. And, if possible, have your "helper" come up with some tough ones that you aren't expecting - it'll be good practice. Though you'll clearly face some new questions in the actual interview, just going through this routine will help you feel more at ease. It's worth the time invested.
  • Make Sure to "Ask" for the Job: In the business classic, "Liar's Poker," author Michael Lewis recounted his experience during his interview for an entry-level job and Wall Street bond-market heavyweight Salomon Brothers. The interview just seemed to go on and on. Then he remembered the counsel of a friend who said that the interviewer wanted to hear the candidate "take the job." Once he had that epiphany, Lewis turned to his interviewer and said: "I accept the job." His interviewer smiled, shook Lewis' hand, and welcomed him aboard. That's a bit of an extreme example. But you will score points by telling the interviewer that you're "excited about," or "jazzed about," and "really want" this job. Don't be afraid to say that you see it as "a great opportunity." That said, don't go on and on about the bills that are piling up, and how badly you "need this job." In fact, that leads us to our next - and final - interview tip.
  • Always be Positive:  As obvious as this sounds, it's the tip job-seekers forget the most. And, unfortunately, it's the one misstep that can negate all your good, hard work, and that can make your prospects disappear like they were part of a David Copperfield trick. In fact, it's so important that you have to adhere to it from the outset - from the very first call you get from the company until after you sign and deliver your acceptance letter. Avoid being negative. For instance, if you were laid off you're your previous job - as so many people have been as a result of this recession - don't "bad-mouth" your former employer. Even seemingly innocent comments - "yeah, I think they're really headed downhill," or "they need to value their people better" - can make you appear petty, mean, or even a bit unstable, emotionally. Just keep your comments positive (but realistic). If they ask about the layoff, for instance, tell your interviewer that you "prefer to look forward, not back." If the interviewer presses you, consider such replies as "I can't tell you how much I learned while working there," or "I worked with some incredibly talented people."

All this preparation will get you the interview, and will make a memorable first impression in the first 60 seconds of your first meeting with your prospective new employer. After that, it's all about closing the deal. In Part II of this story, we're going to detail just how to do that - how to conduct the "perfect" interview (as the "interviewee") and then how to seal that deal with a virtuoso follow-up performance.

After your interview's passed that initial 60 second mark, your interviewer will have already formed his first impressions of you.  As critical as they are for helping you send the right message to the interviewer about your ability to fit into the culture of the company, they're really just setting the stage for to shine.

During the rest of the interview, whether that's 59 minutes, an hour and 59 minutes or longer, you'll be closing the deal.  That is, you'll be solidifying your claim to the position by asking the right follow up questions.

[Editor's Note: Part II of this story - "How to Take Control of a Job Interview and Make Yourself a Winning Candidate Every Time" - will appear tomorrow (Friday).

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