“How long have you been working here?” I tried to make small talk with the technician.
“Almost 20 years, ever since this place opened,” responded the man.
“Wow, that’s quite a while,” I commented. “Do you enjoy your job?”
There was a slight pause. He turned and sighed. “Not anymore, but it’s what I know.”
This situation is tragically common. Two-thirds of U.S. employees are unengaged at work and 63 percent are open to leaving their employer. Many feel “stuck” in their jobs, due to social or financial pressures.
Whether you’re planning a career move or seeking your first full-time job, you’ll likely have to do an interview at some point. Success is measured not by landing every job but by discerning the right opportunity. There’s no magic formula to acing every interview. Your thoughtful preparation, however, will speak volumes to employers. Below are several pointers I’ve found helpful.
1. First, cover the basics.
Be on time, dress the part, follow instructions, rehearse your answers to common interview questions. If it’s a phone interview, go to a quiet place without distractions. These tasks require zero skill. You don’t earn points for doing them, but neglecting them could be a deal-breaker. Don’t give employers a reason to dismiss you before you’ve had a chance to present yourself.
2. Cultivate self-awareness.
Recent graduates often say, “I don’t know what I want to do.” Relax. You aren’t interviewing for a lifelong commitment. Pick a career, research it, shadow professionals, do an internship. Experience will help clarify your passions. Wherever you are, choose a goal and move toward it.
In addition to career interests, consider what you value. Job stability? Growth potential? Work-life balance? Something else? Consider also the type of environment in which you will thrive. With all things equal between two candidates, an employer will select the one who wants to be there.
What drives you to pursue this career? If your best answer is, “I want to help people,” I suggest you spend more time in reflection. You can help people by washing cars or delivering mail or training puppies or doing myriad odd jobs. Be honest first with yourself. This is not about crafting a persuasive response. It’s about communicating your passion.
Know what you offer. An executive once told me, “It doesn’t matter if you have degrees from head to toe. What can you do?” Explain specifically what you bring to the organization. Being a “hard worker” or “team player” is a given. There are a hundred other hard workers and team players applying for the same position. What differentiates you from the competition?
3. Research the role, organization, and interviewers.
At a minimum, peruse the company website. Understand their mission, vision, values. Familiarize yourself with their products and services. Read their annual reports and press releases. Reach out to your LinkedIn connections at the company. Check Glassdoor reviews. Browse a couple pages of Google search results.
The more you know, the better you can discern whether you want to spend 40 hours per week there. Plus, thorough preparation makes you appear polished and boosts your confidence.
4. Tell a compelling story.
You are not a collage of disconnected skills, degrees, and prior jobs. You are an individual with a past and a future, with rationales and motivations. You know where you came from and where you’re going. Connect the dots for interviewers. Communicate with conviction why the current opportunity is your next step, given your career journey thus far.
5. Leverage your network.
Ask a mutual connection to put in a good word for you—when possible, before the interview. A warm introduction frames how interviewers will perceive you, especially if it comes from an internal leader. Ensure that you have strong references (keyword: strong), who can speak to characteristics you wish to convey. A weak reference is worse than none.
6. Remember that everything is an interview.
Think about the image you want to portray and align all your actions with it. The interview is not just the time you spend answering questions. It’s how you treat the receptionist. It’s what you do while waiting (e.g., don’t fiddle with your phone). Accurate or not, employers will judge the snapshot they get of you. So make it a good one.
7. Use every interview as a learning opportunity.
Better interviews resemble dialogues, not interrogations. Ask questions, as appropriate, throughout the interview. Learn about the hiring manager, company initiatives, and industry challenges. Find out discrepancies between the advertised job and the actual role. Focus on gathering information, not impressing interviewers with clever questions.
A former mentor advised me, “If you get an interview for a so-so position, consider going anyway. First, you get interview experience. Second, you may become interested as you learn more about the role.”
You don’t know what you don’t know. But what you can, you should know. Know what you want, why you want it, and what you offer in return. Know about the role, organization, and interviewers. This preparation gives you both confidence to excel at interviews and awareness to choose your next step—one that will allow your response to “Do you enjoy your job?” to run deep with meaning and overflow with joy in the future.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.