Wednesday, August 7, 2019

How to Ace an Interview

 Intended for New Graduates 

Ceteris paribus, meaning other conditions remaining the same: Read a book or two on interview strategies, watch a few video clips on do's and don'ts, and skim through several trend-setting articles on the subject. This blog post, by no means, attempts to compete with them. Instead, it's strictly complementary. Having sat on both sides of the table, I will share my humble but slightly different take on interviews. I will, however, describe my experience by combining both, i.e., how I used to approach interviews as a candidate and later what specific qualities I used to look for in candidates when I interviewed them.

1. Try Match Practice before Interviewing with the Targeted Companies -- Just the way teams play a number of exhibition/warm-up matches before the start of a major tournament, it's always healthy to interview with several second-tier companies within the industry before starting with the targeted companies. For instance, even if you are targeting the major investment banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan Chase, etc., it's a good idea to start the interview process with several second tier investment banks, followed by the actual targets. It will immensely enhance your confidence as you begin interviewing with your targeted companies. If the question comes up during the interview, make a generic statement like "I am focusing on investment banks only" or "Yes, I am interviewing with some of your competitors as well," etc., without making any specific name reference or categorization (1st-tier, 2nd-tier, etc.) whatsoever.     

2. Right at the outset, Ask the Interviewers if you could use your own Notepad (or if you could Borrow one) -- FYI, the vast majority of interview questions have multiple parts and it's generally by design. Simply put, they try to test that you are capable of retaining and answering them in the right sequence. By having a notepad in front of you, you can simply jot down the different parts of the questions and the sequence they are being asked. Obviously, this will help you concentrate on the answers, without having to remember the different parts and juggle with the sequences (which, needless to say, carry no extra points). Even if you disagree with any sequence, do not take the liberty to alter them. A candidate who does not write the questions down often expresses, "Let me start with the last part first" and rarely addresses the rest as they often fail to remember the prior parts. Again, as a candidate, you have absolutely no right to alter the sequence. The interviewers are in charge and you just follow their instructions. There is no room for any arrogance.

3. Be Polite while answering the Opening Question, usually about Yourself -- Generally, the first question is about yourself (e.g., introduce yourself; describe your achievements, etc.). The interviewers usually throw the ball into your court, thus allowing you to "set the tone." Even if you had aced the SAT and then maintained straight A's in college, do not harp on that string. Instead, politely answer that you managed to "do well" in high school and college, moving on to the specifics of your college major, leading to the thesis of your internship. In any case, since your achievements are already bulleted at the top of your resume, there is no need to double down on them. Instead, set a polite tone which will immensely impress upon them, so much so that it will have a serene carry-forward impact throughout the interview. Smart people try to minimize the use of the braggadocios personal pronoun "I" and consider its overuse morally hazardous. 

4. Be equally Polite while addressing your "Strengths and Weaknesses" -- This tends to be a common question for the new graduates. Again, instead of parroting a laundry list of strengths from the Internet (most of which may not have anything to do with the new graduates), politely specify a handful of diverse and meaningful (especially related to this job) attributes saying, "These are some of the strengths that have been pointed out to me over the years" or another polite expression along this line. By the same token, do not make up weaknesses just to create an answer. Instead, politely and confidently say, "Nothing has ever been pointed out to me." If you make one up, the conversation will take a negative turn, often with a snowball effect. Remember, "Goods well bought are already half sold." The fact that you are being interviewed (and I'm talking about a real management interview, not just an HR interview) bumps your point of origin up to 50 -- it's not 0 anymore. So, continue to ride on the rising positive momentum, without the need for any negative emotions, which may only act to your detriment.

5. Show very Positive Attitude while Describing your Knowledge and Impression of the Company -- This is another very common question for the new graduates. As a candidate, you must have this answer well-prepared and properly practiced. Instead of spending too much time and effort on company's headcounts, ultra-modern real estates and global footprints, emphasize on what attracts you about this company, e.g., how they became the best in class, world-class training, perennial growth prospects, cutting edge marketing initiatives, top-of-the-line yet highly diverse workforce, proven and consistent room for growth, etc., but staying away from the obvious like excellent salary, benefits, physical work environments, etc. Also, refrain from getting bogged down to balance sheet nitty gritties. Needless to say, hold back all of your questions till the end or until you are asked to do so. At this point, just focus on addressing their questions as politely, precisely and thoughtfully as you professionally can.     

6. Avoid any Negative Talk/Opinion about your Current or Prior Employers and Bosses -- If you completed an internship or held temp/part-time jobs during the college years, do disclose all of them in your resume. If you are asked to talk about them, try to keep the narrative as positive and perfect as is humanly possible. Smart people do not enjoy negative talks or tones. If you do, they may sympathize with you superficially, but rest assured you will be pushed down to the bottom of the list. We all know life is not a bed of roses, so smart people do not waste time dwelling in the past; they move on and work towards a brighter tomorrow. At an early age, I learned from Lord Buddha to live in the present which always helped me to stay positive and focused. Positive people are inherently more productive and tend to make great corporate leaders. Their positive energy helps create very positive work environments. No doubt, it's a true blessing to be able to work with a boss who is perennially positive.

7. While answering the Main Questions, try to Walk Away from the Herd -- Remember, for two or three openings, the shortened list may still comprise twenty to thirty highly qualified candidates. So, while answering the main questions use your knowledge (depth) and intelligence (ability to get to and stick to the real issue) to narrow the competition down. In doing so, whenever you can, try to walk away from the herd so you stand out -- in addition to conventional thinking, present outside-of-the-box solutions, preferably with the help of some real examples from your internship, work/study programs, etc. Soon, you will be solving enterprise-level challenges so make an emphatic case in front of them that you are capable of rising way above the occasion and, thus, you rightfully belong there alongside those brilliant minds.  

8. Save the Best for Last. Show off your Mettle with some Awe-inspiring Questions -- The main interview has ended. Now, it's your turn to ask them some questions. Remember, this is the only part of the interview you will control so it's your time to show off your mettle. Bang away with questions they have never heard of. Bang away with questions that will leave them wanting more. Bang away with questions that they themselves will ask one another later. Bang away with questions that will prove you are the super-human they have been waiting for. Anything less will greatly reduce your chances. Whatever answers you get, accept them politely. It's impolite to ask them follow-up questions; instead, move on to the next question. Again, this is not the forum to ask any HR questions. Even if the topic comes up, politely decline it by saying, "If I have any HR questions, I will contact the HR Department later. Thank you anyway." 

9. Rejections must Inspire you to Prepare harder and smarter for Future Interviews -- While you should take rejection as a passing show, it must also inspire and impel you to prepare better for future interviews. Steve Jobs used to say, "You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards." Every time I was rejected (after having interviewed), I told myself I was not prepared enough to get the job. Then again, I knew quite well the mistakes I made and promised myself I would not repeat them. Of course, one of the best ways to reduce the incidence of classic or run-of-the-mill mistakes is to allow yourself some meaningful match practice (#1 above). A rejection is not a let-down, rather a reminder of better opportunities ahead, taking advantage of which requires slightly better preparations. You are almost there!

A few years ago, I was (phone) interviewing an overseas candidate for a Senior Analyst position. I was so impressed with his answers that I had to give him a perfect 10. Then it was his turn to ask me some questions. The first question he asked pertained to his work hours. I had no choice but to mark the 1 off from his score. The point is, when you are interviewing for a career job that might lead you to be the future CEO of the company, the last thing you should think about is your work hours. When you are starting out, you have to be flexible. If you are looking for a 8 to 5 job, you lack that CEO mettle.

Thank you,

Sid Som, MBA, MIM
Homequant, Inc.   

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