Interviewing: Step 2 – Plan for Success

To deliver a killer interview, you have to know what you are trying to say.

Like in my “know your audience” post, I want to make the point that you need to take some measure of control over the interview. Being interviewed is not simply a “call and response” pattern like in choral singing. If you let the interviewer assert complete control, then your odds of fully delivering your message go down.

So how do you plan effectively to maximize your chances of delivering?

Step 2 – Plan your message

Know what you are trying to communicate to the interviewer.

Remember that in any communication you are trying to convince me of one thing. There may be a lot of detail, but in any well structured communication there is a main point.

In the case of an interview, I’ll suggest a few potential main points:

–       You’ll be incomplete without me.

–       I will make your life so much better.

–       Your boss and family will love you more if I work for you.

–       I will make you sooo much money.

Whatever it is, you are trying to frame an overarching message that will resonate with the interviewer based on your sense of their motivations. Remember this is an overarching impression you are trying to make, NOT a specific message you are trying to say out loud.

To do this, you have to build a logical framework of sub-messages and examples that support your case. This is the same as writing an essay, you’re just delivering it verbally. What is your thesis, what are your main points and what is your supporting evidence?

The sub-messages are typically:

1 – I can do the job. This means demonstrating technical competence and meeting specific functional requirements. If it’s a financial analysis job, have you built similar financial models in the past, have you had relevant course work etc. I’ve had MBA students have to take tests or do mini-projects to demonstrate their skills.

This is typically a solid barrier. You either are convincing or not. If you get past this, then the softer elements come into play. But you have to get over this hurdle. Depending on your experience, schooling and resume this may be easy or hard. Just don’t forget to be convincing.

2 – I am a good fit. This is about two things in my experience.

A – Are you one of us? This is sometimes referred to as the “airport test”. Based on our interaction, do we want to live with you either in the company or in our work group? Questions around style, values and interests all probe on this. It’s important to understand the company’s values and culture to plan and answer appropriately.

B – If I make you an offer, do I think you’ll take it and be happy here? This is about competition and relative interest. I have a limited number of offers to dole out. Have you convinced me that you really want to be here doing what you’re interviewing for?

Don’t overlook this. As a hiring manager at 3M, I looked for “best fit”, not “best overall” candidates. It was a waste of everyone’s time for me to fall in love with candidates who would accept a strategy consulting offer over mine in a heartbeat. There are only two outcomes for me as the hiring manager in that scenario and they’re both bad. One is you get consulting and jilt me, having taken time and resources. The other is you don’t get consulting, but yearn for it and spend 2 years unhappy trying to get back to it.

Generally, people doing recruiting are proud of their firm. (If not, run!) So be sure to present yourself as respectful and understand what they are looking for. So don’t tell a strategy consulting firm you are reluctant to travel!

3 – I am a good leader/teammate/employee…Depending on the firm and their hiring goals, this category can vary. But it’s knowable in advance with a little research. Hiring managers for consulting firms, finance leadership development programs and functional supply chain roles will have a different take on this and have relatively different areas of focus.

Some will want aggressive analytics in a polished package. Others will want dogged problem solvers who are comfortable in a technical environment. Whatever. The point is you need to plan based on who you are interviewing with.


Think of this as the superstructure of your message. ALL your examples should point back to one of these. But how you relate this should be organic, not merely listing the categories. You want to make sure you are hitting examples across each category.

For example – I have often seen engineers get hung up on too many examples of the xx% improvements in process yield they have driven. After the second or third example, I get it. You’re over the competence hurdle. Move on and show me other things.

We’ll discuss “showing” vs. “telling” in my next post.

I have my main and sub messages planned, how do I plan for specific types of questions?

I strongly advise people who are seriously pursuing jobs to do a few tactical things in transitioning from a conceptual general message to specific examples that relay that message.

First, you have to know what questions are likely to be asked and have practiced. It isn’t rocket science to figure out a list of about 20 questions you are likely to be asked. These are all the “tell me about a time when you had to…” questions. Get a list, write them down.

Second, write down all your good stories in a separate list. What have you done? What have you failed at and what did you learn? Comb your resume and memories and list specific examples of compelling experiences. I challenge people to get to at least 10 good stories (more are better). They will be specific to whatever career point you are at.

Then practice them and know them thoroughly. I continue to be surprised at how often interviewees are unprepared to go deeper on the examples that THEY PICK.

Third, line the stories up against likely questions to develop a list of “go-to” examples for each question type. Each story can be spun to answer different questions. The more you practice them, the better you’ll get.

You need to be able to go multiple examples deep on each question because if you use a great example for a “leadership” question, you want avoid re-using it 5 minutes later in a “difficult teammate” question. Re-use makes your experience appear shallow.

Offense & Defense: Plan specifically for communicating strengths you feel differentiate you and defending potential weaknesses.

As a part of your framework above, what are the points you want to hit and defend. Be prepared for both.

When I was applying for consulting jobs coming out of my MBA program, I had been in a History PhD program and had “no prior work experience” in a corporate setting. I KNEW this would be an issue. So I had to make the most out of the experience I did have, think about how to explain it to an executive in a way that would resonate with them and “defend” a perceived gap.

It doesn’t matter specifically what I did, everyone’s situation is different. The point is that there were no mysteries here. Be prepared to toot your horn and flank/deflect concerns with substantive examples.

A few other planning ideas I couldn’t neatly categorize:

Your goal is to get offers. You can sort out what you are happiest with after you have offers, but until you have them you are unemployed. You can’t be too picky until you have options. So take this process seriously.

There will be variation across interviews depending on your target, so you have to plan for each interview. Once you have your base plan in place, it may be only a 20% difference between interviews. But the difference matters.

Frame your comments with the recruiter’s perspective in mind. Remember that it’s not all about you. It’s all about your interviewer and their organization’s needs.

I’m not hiring you. I’m hiring the results I think you can deliver. So while personality and “soft” skills matter, never forget to discuss specific results you have driven.

This all matters more if you have a BAD interviewer. Good interviewers will draw it out.

Related Posts:

“So tell me about yourself…”

Knowing your audience

One thought on “Interviewing: Step 2 – Plan for Success

  1. Phil, the series of posts on interviews are really helpful! Especially, perfect timing during this recruiting season. I can’t wait to read the upcoming posts!

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