Whether ten people apply for that job posting or two hundred, the fact remains that only one applicant will be successful. Ask recent university graduates (many with master’s degrees and quality internships in hand) or seasoned professionals and they will all confirm the competitive nature of the current job market.
With thousands of executive interviews in my professional background, here is my list of ten factors that will help you hear the magic words: “Congratulations, you’re hired!”
Do not apply for positions you are not fully qualified for unless you have a compelling reason to do so (e.g., an insider is championing your candidacy). Remember that about 90% of applicants won’t even make it to an exploratory interview. The interviewer is going to only choose the applicants who can demonstrate they have done, and done masterfully, what the employer needs doing in the available position.
This is time to seek out and reflect upon the most brutally honest feedback you’ve received from family, friends, and coworkers for years. If math was never your forte, don’t apply for the management position that clearly states financial aptitude is among the requirements. If the job asks for experience in government relations, don’t apply because you were a volunteer for a local candidate or frequently watch the political roundtables on Sunday morning. The former Chief of Staff to the member of Cabinet is going to edge you out, and if he does not, the experienced CEO of the national business advocacy organization likely will.
2. Research, research, research
There are many places to gain insight as to the organization's history, where it's heading, and its current performance. The basics you need to know before the final interview include:
- The history of the organization
- Its value proposition and strategic goals
- How it is perceived by stakeholders
- Its structure
- Its financial situation
- The priorities the employer expects you to accomplish
Know the prominent players and the people involved in the hiring process and address them by name.
3. Demonstrate vision and leadership
This applies to senior management roles in particular. Project what you hope to see done with the organization (based on the research, your vision, and what you know to be right) and specifically what you’ve accomplished in the past, but be measured and positive about opportunities. Even if the organization is weak in certain areas, too much honesty may be interpreted as a criticism of the people interviewing you. Choose words wisely: challenges are opportunities. Think as a [good] consultant or legal counsel would – base your recommendations on good practices in the sector and always be the consummate professional.
4. Project the part
The employer needs to imagine you in the role and have confidence you will represent them well. Be mindful of any pre-set timelines (be punctual; if they ask you to speak to a point for five minutes, don’t take ten). Look the part and dress appropriately. Avoid eccentricities (the odd hat or the barefoot sandals included).
5. Communicate effectively
Make eye contact and project a friendly demeanor (don't slouch or sit with arms crossed). Speak clearly and succinctly. If you have known traits such as speaking rapidly or softly, be sure to work on this so it doesn’t undermine your candidacy. Written work should be professional – don’t use images that you don’t own and check for spelling and grammar. Don't use acronyms that the interviewer won't know.
6. Cool. Real kewl.
Many interviews have intentional and unintentional “curve balls” from illegal questions (Are you married?), to awkward ones (What are your compensation expectations?), to challenging ones (How many planes are currently flying over Canada?). The interviewer may ramble or sit too closely. Be prepared, be flexible, be calm. What happens is meant to be (really). Honesty, with a good touch of diplomacy, is the best policy. Preparation also matters, including some basics such as not scheduling an interview the morning after a late concert and four hours of sleep. Of course, always put your own safety first in situations that are untenable.
7. Prepare, rehearse, and practice again
Many employers, from global companies to small community nonprofits, will ask candidates to prepare and deliver a ten-minute presentation, with the candidates reminded to respect the time. You’d be surprised how many arrive with a 20-slide PowerPoint deck (good luck with that in ten minutes). Interview coaches earn big money helping senior executives land the blue chip jobs and they do so by coaching, practicing, and simulating. You can save thousands by setting up a video camera for a practice interview or asking someone you respect (read: you will listen to) to observe and give tough-love feedback.
8. The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You (if unfamiliar, check out the Giant soundtrack)
If not the eyes of Texas, the eyes of the employer (or their representatives, the headhunter). Those eyes are watching and those ears are listening carefully throughout the process. It is not just how well you perform in an interview. I had a candidate secure the job only to lose it when negotiating the salary because she now thought the employer was over a barrel and would be reluctant to walk away when faced with a higher salary demand. The employer did walk away. In every interaction with the employer by email, in phone conversations, or at formal meetings, remember tip number four.
9. You have no secrets
You may well have secrets but if anyone else knows about them, guaranteed they will find their way back to the employer. If you have an education credit on the resume you did not earn, go change your resume right now. This is more than the returns on a Google search. LinkedIn and Facebook will give others information about who else knows you, and the network will start to work whether you want it to or not. Former coworkers will be called. Whether one-too-many-drinks at the political fundraiser, or the impatient, sharp words for the director who always seemed to be too difficult, if others observed it then it will probably surface.
This is a risk management tip: Be proactive. Shape the message and be open. You needn’t disclose every detail of your life but be realistic and pre-empt the surprise. If you lost your prior job because of a personality conflict or did something you will never do again, then admit it: "I made a mistake, and it was a learning experience. I learned..." (fill in the blanks in a positive manner, for example, to never lose my cool no matter how much provoked).
10. Embrace every opportunity to learn and acquire experience
Volunteer to help colleagues at work when they are overwhelmed. Ask a friend or neighbor in a nonprofit how you can help their favorite charities. From CharityVillage to the community announcement banner that runs across the local cable TV channel, there are always advertised opportunities to volunteer and learn. Volunteer experience alone may not land you the job, but these experiences may push you from being a B+ candidate to an A. While you may not acquire actual experience in a particular skills et, you will demonstrate something about character and being team oriented, both highly valued attributes in executive leadership.
Now, go get that job!
Content is © Jack Shand and is reprinted with permission.
Jack Shand, CMC, CAE, is president of Leader Quest, a management consulting firm providing expert advice to not-for-profit organizations since 1997. Leader Quest specializes in executive search/staff recruitment, strategic planning, governance, and organizational reviews. Jack can be reached at 905-842-3845 and 1-877-929-4473, or jack-at-leaderquest-dot-com.
Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.