Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eight Job-Interview Wins for the Record Book

A former human resources director recalls some applicants who impressed their way into getting instant job offers

After revealing tales of job applicants who disappointed, disconcerted, or generally weirded me out in my last column, I thought it only fair to share stories about prospective employees who surprised me in positive ways. Even in lean times, job candidates who show that they know what an employer is up against and have insight into how to make things more effective are always in short supply. Here are eight stories of job-seekers who made good by standing in their power and helping employers see their value.

1. A Bit of Free Consulting
I'd already interviewed a half-dozen contenders for director of internal communications when Diane arrived. Her professional background included stints at top-tier consulting firms, but I wondered whether our company's breakneck pace and "Ready! Fire! Aim!" leadership style would throw her. "Traditional top-down communication will not do the trick in this environment, in my view," Diane told me. "What other alternative is there?" I asked. To my delight, Diane launched into new-client-consultation mode—right in the job interview. By the time we finished our chat, we had a rough communication plan outlined and Diane had consulted her way into the job.

The lesson: Use your interview time to learn the business conditions, not passively answer questions. People hire people they believe can help them, not the most-groveling or most-docile applicant in the mix.

2. Up From McDonald's
Twenty-plus years ago, I interviewed John for a client-service job. We were both 21; John had just graduated from college, and was working as a crew member at McDonald's (MCD). "Tell me about McDonald's," I said, and John jumped into an explanation of the company's supply chain: "It's incredible," he said. "They know exactly what each store sold on each shift yesterday, so the distribution center sends us just the items we need, based on projected sales for today. The feedback mechanisms are impressive. It's an incredibly efficient information flow." John used his ringside seat to study the operation in a situation where many of his colleagues merely flipped burgers. He saw the bigger picture, paid attention to the critical points where service and profitability were made or broken for the restaurant, and used the job interview to share what he knew. John got the client-service job, and today runs a research organization.

The lesson: You can get altitude on your business from any vantage point. Don't just complete the tasks assigned to you. Use your perch as a place from which to learn the business, and be able to talk about what you know.

3. Showing How You Do It
This story comes to me from my old friend Alice, who was interviewing for an admissions coordinator job at a tony prep school in central New Jersey. The admissions director liked Alice's down-to-earth communication style and her administrative background, but wasn't totally sold. "We multitask here every day, under tight deadlines," said Alice's prospective manager. "Let me show you what I can do," Alice replied. The admissions director said: "Go to the desk out in front of my office, and put together a spreadsheet of information on the competitive private schools in this area." Alice jumped online, got on the phone, and went to work. One hour and a dozen phone calls later, she had compiled a detailed spreadsheet on the prep school's competitive set, showing everything from year established and student/teacher ratios to after-school programs, tuition costs, and class sizes. She got the job.

The lesson: Don't be afraid to show, rather than tell, what you can do for your next boss.

Lessons 4 - 8 and Complete BusinessWeek Article

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