How To Handle First-Round Interviews As A Candidate

First of anything is when the pressure is greatest. First day of school. First date. First interview. These events are all filled with tension until you get there and find that everyone wants the same thing, and that it really isn’t so bad.

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On an interview, the goal is for both sides to paint a quality picture so that decisions can be made based on what is real rather than what is intuited. It isn’t about getting the job, or making the hire—not every fit is right, and a hire should be an absolute win-win for both parties.

So, what are the expectations and the roles for the first interview—from both the employer side and also the candidate side? In Part I of this series, we explore the latter.

For the candidate, the objective is simple: Give the interviewer a thorough picture of what makes you special.  This sounds daunting, but in truth, the candidate simply needs to identify what it is that the employer needs in the role they are interviewing for, and convey what they have done to master that domain. 

I advise my candidates to determine what they MUST tell the client—separate from what they would LIKE to tell the client—to give the interviewer an accurate sense of what the candidate brings to the table. Candidates must then communicate how these must-tell capabilities have positively impacted previous workplaces.

How do you determine the “must-tell” topics? Simple—you need to examine the job requirement and determine what the employer “must have” in order to make an optimal hire. You cannot just sell yourself—you need to draw the lines to express why you are the perfect match and you need to express, with more and more substance the higher level the job is, the benefits you can bring with you when you join the team.

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Examining the requirement means understanding what truly will drive the hiring decision. For example, if a VP of Marketing role is up for grabs, the company wants someone who has strong, broad marketing skills, experience managing a marketing organization, and general business and leadership skills that will work around the senior management table—plus someone who fits into the culture from a behavioral and values perspective. The last part you can’t rehearse, but you know your own value system, so be prepared to illustrate it with examples. (Just saying you are “collegial,” by the way, does not cover that topic. “How did you build a high functioning organization that was not competitive and allowed for collegial cross-functional participation?” Now that is a must-tell story!)

Once you, the candidate, have evaluated the position from the employer’s perspective and have a list of, say, six “must-communicate” benefits with stories that demonstrate how each has improved previous organizations, and you have an hour interview scheduled, you now know how much time you can spend on each one. As the candidate, you have to take responsibility for the navigation of the time as best as you can. I advise clients and candidates that for a first interview, the employer should speak no more than 15-20 minutes, leaving the candidate 40-45. If you have 6 must-tell topics, and you assume the interviewer will ask other questions as well, then you can’t spend more than three or four minutes discussing each one. Don’t spend 20 on one, and then find you ran out of time. 

The worst ending to an interview is when I get a call that says, “I could have done better but I didn’t get to tell them enough about me.”  Manage your time and your “must-tell” topics, but don’t force them in if the interviewer is going somewhere else. If you get to your “I’d-like-to-talk-about” topics and questions, consider them gravy—don’t be disappointed if you don’t get there.

Keep in mind that for a first interview, your objective is NOT to have all your questions answered—it is about being invited back for a second interview. You need to make sure the employer understands why you fit, what you can contribute, and why you will make a difference. Come prepared with questions of course, but if you never have the chance to ask any on that first interview, don’t worry about it. The time will come when you will get your chance to have all your questions answered—if you make it to the next round.

The first interview is a time to gather information; you do need to figure out if these are people you want to work with after all. But keep your focus simple—educate, inform, convince the interviewers that you are what they are looking for, and the choice then becomes yours. That is your goal, to give yourself the opportunity to say yes, or no, to a career-changing opportunity.

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Don Zinn is a managing partner of Exigent Search Partners Inc., which provides employee search services for early- and mid-stage small and medium sized businesses, family businesses, and other companies that are growing rapidly and need to pursue the talent that will help them scale to the next “operating level.”

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Westchester Magazine editorial staff.

Don Zinn, managing partner of Exigent Search Inc.

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