Interviewing: Step 1 – Know Your Audience to Win the Job

This is the second of a multi-part interviewing series. As usual it’s going to run longer than I thought! As a friend and mentor taught me; everything takes pi times longer than you think.

Too many people I have interviewed and coach see the interview as something dictated by the interviewer – to whom they simply respond when prompted with a question like Pavlov’s dog; question stimulus, scripted answer response (hopefully you don’t drool).

I completely disagree with this perspective. You are looking to make an impression and cut through the clutter – to be memorable (in a good way). You need to assert a degree of control to make sure you deliver your message.

So how do you be Goldilocks and assert just the right amount of control to impress and communicate your message without seeming to try and take over?

Step 1: Know your interviewer (or at least make some smart assumptions)

I don’t care what the context; the first step in planning any communication is to know your audience. Who are they? What are their motivations and interests? How will I look to them on paper?

In some cases you may know who will be interviewing you in advance. In others you may not, but we can still make some broad assumptions in these cases. I will list a few (not mutually exclusive) categories to consider when assessing your audience. My observations here are focused on things you may be able to anticipate in advance or right at the start of the interview to help frame your answers.

Note: These categories and observations are obviously generalizations that may be more/less true in any specific situation. They are intended to help you plan. DON’T fixate on them as “truths”. Rather use them as guides to help see patterns and plan more effectively.

Interviewer’s Organizational/Experience Level

Executive or Extensive Experience

Big Question: “Will you be an asset to the firm?”

Motivations: Build firm, identify talent for organization, long term view based on experience

Risks You Represent: Poor hiring decision, long term difficulty in letting go if weak

I’ve found that the more senior an interviewer, the more relaxed they are generally. This may be confidence, more experience and perspective or something else. But in general, senior staff will feel more comfortable diverging from scripted questions, will often probe deeper on interesting stories and may share more of their experience. They will also be better able to spot “diamond in the rough” answers as they have a deeper professional background. They are also more generous, but harder to read. They’ve also usually done a lot more interviews in their day. They can also provide a broader perspective on the industry and company.

Junior or Inexperienced Staff

Big Question: “Do you fit the template?”

Motivations: Build firm, identify talent for organization but based more on written/template criteria

Risks You Represent: Looking foolish for advancing unconventional candidate or candidate who bombs later in the process

Junior staff fall into two categories. Those who really want to help you and those who are generally more buttoned up and scripted.

They have less experience, so hue closer to the formula. They are also more risk averse and are less likely to go out on a limb. They want to show how tough they are and don’t want to appear to be “wrong” or push somebody that isn’t a clear fit. A mistake for them can be perceived as lacking judgment. They can also be more distracted by “bright shiny resumes” and well scripted answers. This is partly because they are less experienced and don’t have the same level of judgment as more senior staff.

Think about it. A partner at a consulting firm is an owner. A second year analysts isn’t positionally able to be as confident. At a typical consulting firm, the partner interviews are consistently much less structured and more wide ranging. This is because the partner (rightly or wrongly) is more comfortable with their judgment and is looking for fit, drive and other leadership capabilities in candidates who are all over the “are they qualified?” hurdle.

Interviewer’s Role in Process

Are you interviewing in a large scale process run by corporate or is this a process where there are a small number of people involved and the ultimate decision maker is the hiring manager?

Hiring Manager or Co-worker

Big Question: “Will you improve my quality of life?”

Motivations: Improve MY business

Risks You Represent: I have to live with you if this is a bad decision, (if a potential peer) Are you threat?

It’s all about me baby!

I have a need and have decided or been approved with budget to hire someone to fill a role deemed necessary. This could mean make me money, take things off my plate or any other number of improvements. But in the end, it’s convincing me that you will have an impact that is measurable to me or my organization.

If interviewing with a potential co-worker, the measure is still improving their life. But the risk becomes making your self not seem like a threat to them. This means balancing how great you may be with appropriate humility and emphasizing teaming etc.

HR or Corporate Recruiting Team

Big Question: “Do you fit our corporate or program model for high potential employee?”

Motivations: Build firm, identify talent for organization, meet hiring quotas, “win” over competing firms

Risks You Represent: Will you be easy or hard to get?

If you are dealing with people some degrees of distance from the actual work group, the decision-making psychology changes. The process becomes more formulaic and people typically have less direct experience and so rely more on scripts, company defined skills-based job descriptions etc.

Frankly if you don’t meet the template you aren’t likely to even get an interview. But if you do, you need to understand the company’s view of itself pretty well and answer accordingly. A recruiting team may have people that understand the business and even run one, but they don’t have to live with you once you’re hired.

You also may have people interviewing you who don’t know the nature of the work as well and thus need you to clearly signal certain skills as they may not be deep enough on the subject to understand your skill set without the right key and buzz words.

These people don’t have to live with you, regardless of how well or poorly you do. So their personal risk calculation is quite different than an operating executive. They may be more focused on “leadership” and “teamwork” and relatively less concerned with actual results.

This isn’t because they are dumb or irresponsible. It’s because if you are staff HR, your metrics and world aren’t based on “delivering the number” in the same way as a P&L managers. Your schooling and professional discipline sets you up to think this way. Both drive you to a “competency model” view of the world that is a little more conceptual and academic.

Functional/Education Background

This category is multi-variable and based on your background and the interviewer’s. The higher level point is to try to understand the interviewer’s background to help shape answers. Both language and the specific examples you pick can matter in subtly signaling competency and fit.

For example, let’s say you are interviewing for an entry level marketing position with a b2b company. Would you expect the same questions and answer in the same way to a marketing director with 20 years of experience as you would to a P&L manager with 20 years of finance experience? I hope not.

Even the language you pick to answer questions signals whether you “are one of us” functionally and whether you “get it”. For the marketing exec you’ll probably shade more towards core marketing analytics examples and want to show depth there. For the finance exec, a focus on budget management, efficiency and broader sense of the business may help.

Company or Industry Expectations

This is a quick one. Many companies or career paths have clear expectations of you. So know them.

If applying for a public accounting position, there are pretty well defined expectations and career paths. If you don’t know them by the time you are interviewing then you are a knucklehead.

I still cringe at a friend who asked a management consultant if they had to travel much. YES is the publicly available answer.

Tenure at Company

Similarly, a person’s tenure tells you a bit about their view of careers and whether they are a “company person”. It also tells you something about how diverse their experience is.

So when answering about your goals, don’t tell someone with 20+ years at a company anything that could be interpreted as “I really just want your company name on my resume for 2 years so I can do better in my next position!”

Again none of these are absolutes, but use your brain. People want to hear what they want to hear. So at least try to anticipate them.

What have I missed?

I hope this helps you think a bit about pre-planning. Next time I’ll focus on Step 2: Planning for Success.

3 thoughts on “Interviewing: Step 1 – Know Your Audience to Win the Job

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  2. Phil,

    This is great information that I would completely agree with from my 3 years of interviewing as an undergrad. It would be great to hear your view on how to get the interviewer to like you. I think many small tricks have helped me break the ice in interviews. They have also helped the interviewer to loosen up and not stay so focused on the interview template, but really get to know me.


    • Perfect set-up for coming attractions. I’ll be talking about planning your message and managing the interaction in my next few posts.

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