Interviews – who’s in charge? (being a successful interviewee)

You are about to be interviewed for a job you’d really like to have and you desperately hope you come across well.  Stop worrying about your performance, you just need the right interviewer to bring it out of you.  Worry instead about their performance.

Interviewing is like sex, learning from watching someone else is unusual, and it’s unusual to get feedback on your own performance.  Not surprisingly, standards of interviewing skills are not high.  So stop worrying about how well you are going to do as interviewee, and start entertaining the idea that you may have to, gently, influence the event.

It starts with the job ad.  Most are so full of guff about how wonderful the organisation is that they tell you little about the job and the qualities of the ideal candidate.  So start researching and imagining.  Not just about the job, and the organisation, but the industry that it is in and the pressures on it.  Anybody going for a job in the nuclear world has to know how beset it is with safety regulations, and for a job in a knowledge business like newspapers or libraries, the challenge of competing with free information from the internet.

Not only does the job ad fall short but interviewers have been so busy with the day job that they haven’t had time to figure out what they are looking for.  ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ is a familiar cry.

So have a list** of things that you would be looking for in a candidate in terms of the job, the organisation and the understanding of the industry.  And then rehearse stories of how you fit them, ready to pop out in the interview for them to see.

The second pitfall for the busy, unprepared, interviewer is that they grab your CV gratefully like a safety blanket and proceed to talk you through it.  During the process, when they will home in on gaps, or short duration jobs, they will be playing Sherlock Holmes – making their deductions – rather than asking you to explain and give proof of your abilities.

The third pitfall, although it often drowns the rest, is that they start to tell you about the job, the organisation and their experiences – and never stop.  A lesser but similar crime is to find something that you have in common and have a really good chat.  In a way, this is the worst crime because it can leave both parties feeling that they have had a good exchange but with little evidence to support your case when comparing you with others against the requirements of the job.

So have your list** and, if you have to, draw the conversation back to the stories of how you fit the bill.  No need to be pushy: ‘I imagine that you find (X, Y or Z)  difficult.  Am I right?’; ‘I’ve had some experience of … Would this be relevant?’

And I’ve mentioned stories a few times.  Most interviewers will just ask you if you know about/have had experience of/what you think about …  They may accept reassuring but empty noises – what you have to do is tell them your ‘War Stories’ :

Pull to mind 12 stories about you: memorable stories that illuminate your strengths, particularly in relation to this job.  Rehearse them until you can deliver a 60 second sound bite for each.  Write them down if this helps.  Include negatives ‘We didn’t see the solution straight away’  ‘It was tough keeping the team together’:  the negatives will make the positives believable.

The ability to deliver a corroborative story succinctly will establish three things about you in the minds of your audience.

  1. You’re smart – the stories themselves convey that.
  2. You’re articulate – they don’t know how hard you’ve practised.
  3. You’ve got strength in depth – if you can come up with one example off the top of your head, there must be lots more where that came from.

And if your stories are memorable your interviewer will be able to recall them when convincing management that you are the person for the job – despite you salary demands!

And remember, from your own times as an interviewer, you actually want the candidate to succeed.

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Heroics At A Human Level

Last month I attended a re-union of the training department of what used to be one of the big accounting firms before they all merged to become the Big Four. People came from Scotland and Singapore (and via Southern Rail) and the outpouring of emails after the event spoke of the warmth and familiarity of a team coming together a quarter of a century after they were closed down.

 

Reunions aren’t normally like that.  They tend to be alcohol-fuelled attempts to regain a bygone age, if you go to them at all.  So what was different?  My sister in Australia recognised it.  She had been one of a bunch of ordinary folk who came together at the setting up of the Swan Brewery in Perth.  Mostly unqualified amateurs, they soldiered together to make it the best of breed in the brewing industry.  People came from all over the world to learn from them.  And then Alan Bond bought it, whose fame and fraud caused its closure.

 

“Camelot” is sometimes used to describe the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Something admirable but cut short.  My sister can tell you about Swan Brewery (and its reunions).  This is about the Camelot of our training department.  What made it admirable?  Well, we did all those things that you read about in textbooks but here’s a bit of what it looked like:

 

As a 30 strong department that wasn’t in the front line we were a soft target for providing summer jobs for the offspring of partners or their friends.  The newbies all got a talk from me which was ‘don’t expect special treatment, make the coffee, man the photo copier, do anything to help until someone notices that you’re OK.  Then you might get something bigger to do.’

 

I got a call from the father of one of our young charges.  He was the finance director of one of our top clients and he was outraged that his son was doing donkey work.  I told him politely that there would be no preferential treatment.  He went off muttering about speaking to someone about me.

 

His son did well with his donkey work, building his credibility with our people and building his own confidence.  Eventually, he got trusted with putting together the boxes of materials for a three day seminar that was to start the following Monday in Beaconsfield.  The course co-ordinator asked him if he would like to go to the hotel on Sunday night and check that everything was in place for the instructors to start the following morning.

 

Filled with pride at his first operational trip he arrived to find that the hotel could not locate the crucial boxes.  Faced with the prospect of failure he turned around and headed back to London HQ – to do the job all over again.  By one o’clock on Monday morning he had finished.  By two o’clock he was confronting his angry parents (in the days before mobile phones).

 

I do not know what he said.  I can only imagine that they could see that this was important to him.  That he had accepted a responsibility and he would not let go.  His dad got up at dawn and drove him to pick up the boxes and deliver them to the waiting instructors.  The seminar started as planned.

 

So the reunions of the Brewery and our training department were full of folk who had the luck to be part of something that helped them on the road to discovering what they were capable of, who they were, and what was important to them.  And when you’ve got that, you’ve got a group of people who are comfortable with themselves and with others.  Small wonder that it was a warm and rewarding evening.

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Tough But Fair

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When I was designing training for one of the big accounting firms, I assembled a group of young managers to be my panel of advisers. “What’s the best advice you’ve received on how to manage?” I asked them. One response remains with me to this day: “find a junior and frighten him”. Back then I was appalled at the barbarity of this advice.  These days I realise that it has value. After any promotion you have to gently separate yourself from your erstwhile peers and establish your authority.

It happens in other fields: there comes a point in every aspiring athlete’s life when they have to decide whether to join the rest of the squad at the pub or do that extra bit of practice and eschew the alcohol. Camaraderie is nice but it doesn’t get you better performance.

Those of you familiar with the Leadership Development Framework (LDF) will recognise this as the graduation from Diplomat (seeking the security of being the same as others) to Expert (deciding what is right for you as an individual). And you don’t need the LDF to recognise that it is one of the transitions that has to be made if you’re going to be a manager.

Does that mean we’ve all got to give up being nice people and become the kind of inconsiderate, arrogant jerk or standoffish bully who plays favourites that we clearly have too many of already? No it doesn’t, and here’s a clue to how to make the difficult transition easier.

Ask anyone who their favourite teacher was at school and most will tell you that it wasn’t the nice ones, it was “Ms Smith – because she was firm but fair”. And we readers instinctively know why. The nice ones sometimes had to turn nasty to control an outbreak that their niceness had encouraged. And the innocent quite often got caught up in the nastiness. With the ones that were ‘firm but fair’ you knew where you stood.

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And “knowing where you stand” is the key.  The good boss lets his people know what he expects of them and what they can expect of him.  He initiates conversations, models behaviour and may even write some rules.  With that understanding in place, being tough is not the same as being nasty.  Being tough is expected.  Being nasty is exercising your boss power without the explanation represented by the box at the third corner of the relationship.  And a remarkable number of bosses continue to operate in binary fashion: partly because it’s easier and feeds their ego to be the sole decision maker; partly because its difficult to decide ahead of time what the rules of the game should be.

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So here’s another  clue.  Most of the important contents of the third corner come from a proper understanding of what’s important to the organisation.  Strict time keeping is a given where everyone needs to be present for the process to work: factories, restaurants, retail etc.  But it has much lower importance in knowledge industries with their patterns of people working to their own schedule or working from home.  Hoseasons, the holiday booking company, will fire staff who are 10 feet from a phone on the fourth ring.  “If we don’t pick up the call a competitor might.”  Lloyds Bank spent millions on a TV ad promising their customers that their calls would be answered by the fourth ring.  But a bank’s customers are largely locked in.  Having standards that are not linked to the purpose of the organisation is worse than none at all.

I am indebted to my friend Alastair Mant for Tough but fair.  The illustrations of it are from his book Intelligent Leadership.

©Brian Chandler

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Golf is a series of mental breakdowns.

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20 years ago I phoned Tim Gallwey, author of the Inner Game books, to see if he could work with me on a client. “Sorry Brian, I’m finishing my next book (The Inner Game of Work) but you could try Pete Shoemaker”. Pete and his brother Fred ran a programme called Extraordinary Golf in Carmel, California. I called and explained that I wanted to use the mental side of the game to get the management team at one of my clients to look at their business differently. “Sure Brian” said Fred “golf is a series of mental breakdowns”. What?

Fred explained: you have expectations for every shot you play, and very often the results don’t match. When that happens you have a choice: get annoyed/blame your clubs/your luck/your partner … and hang on to your hopes for the next shot – or allow your mental ‘set’ to break down, accept reality and allow for some learning.

In the Cold War of the 1950s when the USSR’s nukes were to be delivered by bombers, the defence of the USA was in the hands of fighter pilots guided by radar operators on the ground. The intensive training they were given hit a snag – in simulated exercises they weren’t downing more than 50% of the bombers. Not a bad result in a WW2 setting but not great in a nuclear world.

The USAF called in the famous RAND think tank. They pulled the trainers and any other form of authority out of the war-room and left the operators to be confronted by the results of their actions.

To begin with they indulged in behaviour later labelled Blame-shedding (‘It’s not our fault, we did our bit’). When it became clear that this was getting them nowhere, Blame-grabbing emerged (‘If it will move things forward, we’ll take the blame’). When 50% remained the best that they could do, they began to hunt for a Magic Solution (‘We’re missing something, there must be a trick to this).

Even after rejecting the first two behaviours, the pressures for the ‘quick fix’ of the third are hard to resist, particularly as they often come from the top. One has only to look at the number of ‘initiatives’ launched by politicians to realise this. Only with effort do those trying to solve the problem arrive at a fourth way: Dealing with reality (‘Those are the facts, now let’s all just do the best we can.’)

More than anything else, getting to the fourth pattern of behaviour requires dropping defensive barriers and collaborating in an open and flexible response to reality, Fred Shoemaker’s ‘mental breakdown’ if you like. That done, the 50% barrier melted and fighter pilots and radar operators found their way to levels of performance that had been thought impossible.

Fast forward 20 years and we’re watching four doctors who are running a podiatry (foot) clinic. They have taken themselves off for a couple of days to tackle the problem of their ever-lengthening waiting lists. The walls of their hotel room are covered in flip charts: SWOT and PEST and BCG and, and … nothing looks remotely like solving their problem. Head in hands, one of them begins to cry. This is serious stuff, it’s his life, it’s his patients’ lives. They’ve been at this for two days. One way or another they all break down.

Feet

Out of their despair they come together ‘Why don’t we …’; ‘If we changed … ‘; ‘I’m sure they’d …’. And they begin to see the reality behind the endless waiting lists: they were part of a community that needed their help to take better care of its feet. So began outreach clinics; school visits; secondments from the staff of local gyms. And the waiting lists came down.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t need a mental breakdown from time to time?

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“We don’t do emotion in my family” Were the words of a science graduate I interviewed recently. He reminded me of me.

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Growing up, I watched my mother and father having rows and shouting at each other and vowed to avoid emotion. It helped that Dad was an industrial chemist (we did our own drycleaning with a carboy of carbon tetrachloride we kept in the garage) so I did science at school and university. It helped even more that Mum didn’t believe in physical displays of love. She sent me Valentine’s cards well into my 20s – but hugs were out.

We now know that our growing brains need both the physical and the intellectual experience of love – or the necessary circuits don’t form. So I grew up with a bit missing – and apparently I am not alone.

And it doesn’t have to be dramatic – or obvious, or gender biased. A mum and dad of my acquaintance, reacting to their six year old crying at the departure of his playmate for a week’s holiday:

Her: Cheer up! You’ll see him again soon.
Him: Of course you’re sad. It’s OK to cry. Here, have a hug.

Check out your own reaction to people’s upset-ness. We’re a bit uncomfortable with emotion and try to suppress it. But in its absence our interpretation of the world can be seriously flawed. I asked the science graduate what he did when a situation frustrated and angered him. “I turn the anger into icy logic” he said. “Good luck with that” I said. I didn’t hire him. He reminded me of me.

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“I want to know what love is” is a great song by rock band Foreigner. In my 20s I went through a succession of girl friends, desperate to fall in love but unable to prove to my one-sided scientific mind that this was ‘it’. I got married, still uncertain if this was love. The only proof I had was that Jen could make me madder faster than anyone else in the world.

In the months before and after Jen’s death in 2008, I was working constantly with a therapist. I needed to be in top shape to support Jen beforehand and then to support me after. The earthquakes of emotion broke through my defences, allowed the therapy to reach the parts it needed to, and I started to build the missing circuits.

CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is the NHS’s favourite answer to mental health problems. It works by changing the stories you are telling yourself about life. It works at the beginning when you are probably in a bit of a state. As emotion dies down it works less well and can become just a talking shop. You can ‘get’ why you tell yourself the unhelpful stories that you do but the only thing that will shift them is engaging with the emotion that implanted them.

Trust me. I know what love is.

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‘High status versus low status’ or ‘A long time ago I recognised that my ability to get served in a crowded bar was a lot to do with whether I felt on top of the world or had had a bad day.’

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You pop in to see the boss. “Busy?” you ask, poking your head round the door. You’ve just used ‘low status’ behaviour in the presence of someone you feel to be ‘high status’. You walk into a shop and stand squarely, waiting to be served – you’ve just played high status. After all, you’re the customer.

We live in a democracy. We believe in equality. Logic and reason says that ‘all men are created equal’. Yet our behaviour is based on our heritage as creatures of the herd where a pecking order is the natural state of things. It’s wise to accept that, and other aspects of our heritage as Homo sapiens. Continue reading

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Games People Play: ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’; ‘Boy Wizard’. What’s your game?

Games People Play was a book written by Eric Berne in the 60s. A bestseller, it introduced us to the way that people adopt roles in the ‘play’ of their lives. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and ‘Boy Wizard’ are reflective of our society’s encouraging girls to be endearing and boys to be clever. [If you want more on that find your way to Soraya Chemaly’s brilliant 10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.] But our role-playing goes beyond gender stereotyping.

Continue reading

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