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Preparing for a High Performance Interview

by Michael O'Leary

No doubt you have interviewed many candidates for positions in your function over the years. Perhaps even some undertaken remotely using online video communications. However, being the subject of the interview is remarkably different, it brings different pressures and at executive level, takes significant pre-work to achieve optimal outcomes.  

Preparing for an executive level interview is very similar to the preparation you undertake for a business presentation. In fact, using PowerPoint or another similar presentation application to work out your notes during the preparation phase is better than using Word or another word processing package. It forces you to be more concise but makes it easier to let ideas flow. Similarly, any form of mind mapping software works equally well.

Before we look at your interview content and how to present it, it is important to know what the interview is about. If you have been psychometrically assessed, the interviewer already has a sense of what occupational behaviour they might expect of you. If the interview format is competency based, then the organisation wants to evaluate the depth of your experience and responses in certain set situations. In general, however, the most important question being asked is What are you like to work with? Firms call this “fit with culture” or “organisation values alignment” or “could I sit and have a pint with him/her”, but what they really want to know is, will you show up when the pressure is on, will you manage yourself well in those circumstances and will we get along during those and other times. Interviews are less about test and more about audition. The four C’s you need to project are Communication, Collaboration, Collegiality and Capability.

Content Preparation

Seen in the wider context of the role for which you are interviewing, there are five “blocks” of content that you should prepare, reflecting five essential competencies of a leader today and as follows.

Block 1. Technical Expertise – Whatever field you are in, your technical capability is why you are first invited to interview. As you rise in leadership terms through your career, this reduces in importance to be replaced by the importance of content in blocks 2 to 5. Always present your answers in terms of the outcomes achieved and never overstate your ownership. Better to share that you have some exposure to a technical area and that you are a lifelong learner, than claim more and get found out, undermining your entire interview presentation.

Block 2. Communication – Preparing your content helps to make your response to any question clearer and more concise. The ability to communicate complex information in a manner that can be understood by professionals in other areas is particularly important, given leadership teams are made up of such. What aspects of your work might be difficult for non-practitioners to assimilate? There is a scale using newspaper brands that communicators use to describe this. “Financial Times” means too complex for a general audience. The Sun means can be understood by all comers. Aim for The Sun!

Block 3. People – Consider your success and failures in all manners of interaction with stakeholders. Employees you may have led, colleagues with whom you collaborated, vendors or customers with whom you have managed relationships. Where did the power in that relationship lie? If it was with you, when did you show compassion and understanding? If the power sat with the other person, what steps did you take to influence their perspective on an issue important to you? With either, what happened the last time you experienced conflict, how did you manage that and what was the outcome. The interviewer is interested in how you succeed but also what you learned from failing. In some ways the latter is more important at interview, it shows reflection and a commitment to learning. It also demonstrates humility, which is one of the most compelling attributes to see at interview in a candidate.

Block 4. Change Management – write down any experience you have of change. If you were the change agent, what were the drivers? What outcomes did you achieve and what obstacles did you have to overcome? How vested in that change were you, what were the consequences for you personally if the change process failed? Note in your preparations, the approach you took with others, was it demand led or empathy led? What were the circumstances behind the decision to adopt that approach? If you were the subject of change, how did it make you feel? What steps if any did you feel you need to take to address that? The interviewer is interested in your curiosity, adaptability, and responsiveness to change. Remember, they have been through it all before also, so they want real answers, not perfect pitches. They want to understand what it is like being in the trenches with you and do you ever roll your sleeves down.

Block 5. Concept to Concrete – Leadership at any level requires the ability to create a vision and bind others to it. It also requires that you can break this down into a series of initiatives and scheduled tasks to achieve it. Many operational leaders are excellent at the latter part, driving for outcomes, often achieving great results in challenging circumstances. Likewise, some leaders can live in the blue sky, create compelling visions but have little or no ability to take this into reality. Concept to Concrete describes the necessary journey for an idea to travel but also two types of thinking. In considering your career to date, if you are the former, identify situations where you have managed to work with others to get ideas into action. Discuss the importance of the role these colleagues played. Many effective leaders develop coping mechanisms for their gaps, drawing on team members is a great example. If you are a concrete thinker, reflect on times when you have had to plan or take actions, the outcome of which would not have been seen until 6 to 12 months’ time. What process did you go through to understand what the outcome needed to look like at that time?

A good interviewer reads between the lines and picks up on the nuances of how, and not just what, you are saying. They want to hear “I” statements for your answers and not “We” statements, what you did versus what you would like to portray. Organisations would rather hire and work with an executive who has strong foundations and is eager to learn, over someone they are not sure they can trust. Prepare well and you will achieve a high performance at your next important interview.

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