Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Get "Offensive" In Your Interview

I Thought I Had the Job “In the Bag”
Justin was heading into final round of interviews for a VP of Services role at a hot Silicon Valley startup. He was very confident since his future boss-to-be, the General Manager, had indicated to Justin that he was her first choice. You see, Justin had worked with both the GM and CEO of this new company at Hyperion Solutions before it was acquired by Oracle. He approached the interview thinking that it was his to lose. It sure was.

The CEO greeted him. “Hey Justin, it’s great to see you again!” After they finished getting reacquainted, the CEO proceeded with “I knew you at Hyperion as a Marketing guy, and never thought of you as a ‘VP of Services,’ so what do you do you really want to do?” Without a hitch, Justin responded “Yes, my early career was well grounded in technical services and the latter part of my career in marketing.” Delivering what he thought was his power position, Justin completed his response with “so as you can see I have a wealth of experience across different business functions and therefore can do anything you or the business needs me to do!” Justin didn’t get the job.

Offense vs. Defense
Most people are familiar with the phrase “bring your A-game.” However, in the competitive job search game and interviewing, that A-game needs to be offense-minded. You’ve got to compete for the job with the perspective of the interviewer - what are her top pain points and what needs to get done? Instead, Justin made the common mistake of playing defense. He told them what he thought they wanted to hear and delivered a generic response to a pointed question and by doing so, closed the door of opportunity. The company was hiring for a very specific role, VP of Services. However, Justin presented himself as a “Jack of all trades.” He assumed that his broad “wealth of business experience” would be viewed as a valuable asset but instead he was viewed by the CEO as someone who was “confused” and uncertain about his career path, and not committed to the VP of Services role. Offense employs deliberate action of attack with the intent of scoring (i.e. competing for a job on your own terms). Defense, on the other hand, involves tactics that prevent scoring (i.e. reacting to the questions and going along with the interview process “not to lose the job”). The difference, while subtle, will make all the difference in whether you will impress the prospective employer and get the offer or not.

3 Keys to Execute Your Offensive Attack
The longer you go without having a job, the more emotional and financial stress can undermine your confidence. The pressure of landing a job together with one rejection after another can erode your poise and positive attitude. And before you know it, you’ve slipped into “desperation mode” without even realizing it. This is the root of becoming “defensive” in your job search and interviews. It’s crucial for you to turn this around because these signs are more obvious to the interviewer than they are to you! Remember, they’re not evaluating whether you can competently perform the job, they’re evaluating whether you’re the best among the many candidates they’re interviewing. So “not blowing it” in the interview is a losing strategy. Here are some points to consider that can make you much more effective in your interviews:

  1. “Need a job” vs. “Want that job” – When you act like you “need a job,” any job, it’s impossible not to project negative attributes like anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Justin had been out of work for over 6 months. His previous job was VP of Marketing at a well-established SaaS leader. At this point, he was willing to take any job so he opened up his job search to Services roles, falling back on his experience and professional track record from 10 years earlier. Justin needed a job and he unintentionally projected that very clearly to the CEO. However, Justin didn’t really want to go back to Services, he wanted to pursue his career in Marketing. Once he changed his mind set to “want that job” (i.e. Marketing), he was able to focus on what made him an excellent marketer, what kinds of companies and environments he’d thrive in, and he pursued those marketing roles with new-found confidence (which he leveraged to effectively negotiate his next role). Put another way, interviewing for a job you don’t really want makes you far less likely to get it.
  2. Reactive vs. Proactive – Another symptom of being defensive is not wanting to “rock the boat.” When an interviewer takes you through an endless list of questions, it’s hard for you to do anything else but to fire back with your answers.  The best interviews are when 2 people are having a dialog, not a one-way “interrogation.” Interview dynamics are very tricky and the worst thing you can do is to be reactive and just respond to questions that are thrown at you. This is even more true when interviewing for senior roles. How can someone hire you to manage a team, a project, or a product line if you can’t “manage” an interview? So when you find yourself in this situation, take control. Be proactive by asking questions to disrupt the Q&A pattern. Find a way to up-level the discussion with an insightful question that will get the interviewer to share more about his pain or needs. Then you’ll have an opportunity to promote your experience and skills in context, directly mapped to the interviewer’s needs. Otherwise, you’re just guessing and hoping that something in one of your answers resonates and “sticks” with your interviewer. Speaking as an experienced hiring manager, I appreciate when candidates ask smart questions and turn the interaction into a dialog. I dislike interviews where I’m pulling reactive answers out of a candidate one-at-a-time.
  3. Eliminate the Guessing Game – All too often, people tell me that they think the interview went fine and are later surprised to find out that they were not selected to go further in the interview process. Before you end any interview, you should ask the interviewer “How do I fit with your expectations for the role?” or “Do you have any concerns about my ability to perform well in this role?” Not only will you find out exactly where you stand, but most importantly, in the event that there are any reservations about your qualifications then you’ll still have a chance to address those concerns and to convince them that you can do the job better than any other candidate.

Having the discipline to stop looking for the “wrong job” and start focusing all of your efforts on getting your “ideal job” will pay off by giving you self-assurance and poise that are contagious. You may surprise yourself in how direct and bold you can actually be, and better yet, those traits will be viewed as valuable leadership attributes. In fact, once Justin made the shift from defense to offense he got his swagger back landed his VP of Marketing role within one month.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with comments.

For more information on leadership development and career management, please visit ExecCatalyst.


  1. good points...I am going to disagree a bit on the part about actually asking the interviewer how you did. I think you can gather quite a bit about how you are doing/did from the body language and comments during the interview. I would wonder why someone is so nervous that they are immediately asking for feedback rather than being confident.

  2. Thanks, your comment is appreciated. I think we're completely on the same page. Very good point that you should be gathering as much verbal and non-verbal information as you can. Delivery counts a lot on this one. If someone were to hesitantly ask, "Did that go OK?" or "Did I do all right?" it would definitely come off as nervous, self-conscious, and seeking affirmation rather than real feedback. If instead he said "I think we had a great conversation. Do you have any concerns about my ability to do well in this role?" it will come across as confident. Therefore, if the interviewer still has doubts then you can nip it in the bud and address it directly BEFORE he voices that concern with anyone else in the process! -Lance

  3. I just interviewed with a startup last week and thought all 3 interviews went well. The CEO even said I should be meeting with several other execs. Then I got the call from the recruiter and said they didn't think I was a good fit. I should have asked "the question"!

  4. I like to ask "the question" because it's a reinforcement exercise for the interviewer. I think that once they've actually said out loud "I think your background is a good fit and you could do well at this job," they're convincing themselves more. I also believe that people are more likely to advocate for you when they de-brief with other interviewers if they've already said out loud that they think you're a good candidate. -SD

  5. SD, that is an excellent point. Thanks for sharing! -Ron

  6. Having been on both sides of the interviewing table I have found it true that in many cases the hiring manager is just as nervous or unsure as the candidate about the process and what they are really looking for and actively listening and asking good questions really makes interviews go much better for both.

    I have also learned that I want to be able to make an informed decision on whether or not I want to continue seeking any specific position or spend the majority of my time at an environment, if offered, and that it is my unilateral responsibility to gather that information.

    Even if you don't get this position you never know what kind of a bridge you may have built.

  7. Very good points have been raised here and I'm in compete agreement except for the part of seeking out feedback at the end of the interview. You can ask those questions all you want and no recruiter would give you a straight negative answer. Even in cases where it is obvious that you just flunked the interview everyone acts 'politically correct' only to have a 3rd party do the honors of calling or emailing a rejection note. However what I do suggest is to always call or at least email and request a feedback (that's assuming you weren't shortlisted) to better help you prepare for the next interview.

  8. Thanks for your comments i.e. "I have also learned that I want to be able to make an informed decision..."

    Please also refer to our 7-27-2011 blog post "Avoid Career-Damaging Job Transitions - Part 1: Seeing with 20-20 Vision." We cover exactly that point "Look Before You Leap". -Ron

  9. Thanks for your comments i.e. "You can ask those questions all you want and no recruiter would give you a straight negative answer."

    You're absolutely right. Recruiters hold their cards very close. The "question" is best intended to interviewers that work IN the company. -Ron


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