Interview Preparation

Any job interview is a big event and requires appropriate preparation to make sure you get the desirable outcome. There are hundreds if not thousands of do’s and don’ts when preparing for an interview, but the one rule that overarches all others is: it is impossible to be overprepared.

For me, there are 3 core imperatives to successfully preparing for an interview:

  1. Frame the interview in the right way

  2. Research 

  3. Prepare responses 

Queue all the clichés: ‘it’s a two-way street’, ‘it’s as much for you as it is for them ‘, ‘just be yourself and if it doesn’t work out, it wasn’t meant to be’ – however, and this may be slightly against the grain of what I’ve read online, they all seem to fall short of being wholly true and feel a little more like a pre-emptive defence mechanism, to me anyway.

I really like the way Liz Ryan described an interview process as being like a ‘recon mission’ in an article in Forbes magazine a few years ago. It implied the need to prepare militantly and to remember that you are attending the interview in order to learn more, but to do so subtly and in a way that ensures progression to being offered the role. It is not entirely an equally balanced meeting, candidate to interviewer, and there is something genuinely off-putting about a candidate approaching the meeting in a manner that reflects a ‘what’s in it for me?’ mindset and absence of trying to pitch their strengths for a role.

In order to frame your preparation in the right way, It is important to ask yourself two questions before even starting research: ‘how can I get the most from this meeting?’ and ‘what do I want to leave the interviewer(s) thinking about me?’.

First thing to do – ask the recruiter/point of contact what you should research to put you in the best position for the interview…this can save time and offer really useful insights (they should have been briefed directly by the hiring manager and they ought to want you to do well), but do not rely completely on this. Make sure you cover the following:What is the format? What will the general tone be like? What style of interview to expect?

What type of questions likely to come up? (sensible to consider what does the panel need to know to ensure you are suitable for the role and for the organisational context and culture)

Assess your strengths and weaknesses for the role – ask yourself/the recruiter: ‘what areas do I need to reassure on?’. I mean this beyond explaining the 6 month gap in your CV or the fact it took additional time to complete a qualification normally obtained in 3 years; for example,  if it is your first move from the commercial sector into a charity, you will likely need to reassure on motivations, transferability and adaptability. In this instance, you ought to prepare a response and make sure you consider reassuring on when you have generally demonstrated these aspects in your career/life, but also then be specific in what you have done so far to ease the transition specifically to the organisation at hand (have you met with those already in the sector to gain advice and build a helpful network/completed a relevant course on sector specific technical requirements?).

Learn about the company and the climate of the sector – understand how macro events might impact the organisation you are applying for (Brexit is a sensible starting point…).

Google the panel members and look them up on LinkedIn; financial and strategic documents (both are readily available for public sector and most charities); NAO reviews on government departments/arms-length bodies (most arts organisations fall into this category); the Board; the Executive Team; who is/was in the role and why are they leaving? The CEO…

Explore the option of meeting people who have worked in the organisation – to build a useful network for further down the line as well as the immediate benefit of getting tips and a heads-up on hot internal topics.

Review the JD/candidate pack and go through in detail, taking particular heed of any ‘welcome letter’ from the hiring manager/CEO.

Again, ask the recruiter where to focus on, but make sure you think about your responses

…to the following questions: 

-what do you know about the organisation?

-what is the financial health of the organisation?

-what are your motivations for applying?

-why this organisation in particular? It is one of the many great things about the not for profit and public sectors, you ought to be passionate and care about the organisation you are applying to.

-what gives you confidence you can be successful in post?

-what areas would you need to develop in and how would you do this?

-what is completely new for you in the role and how can you get up to speed quickly?

-what are your longer-term aspirations/how does this role fit into your career plans? It is important to think this through and be totally honest – it is not a trick question and I have seen it actually sow the seeds for later progression. If you get the role, any good manager will want to know how they motivate you and it is rare that someone lacking ambition is hired for a competitive role.

If the format of the interview is evidence-based or competency-based, you need to prepare specific examples of your experience to the likely topics (ask the recruiter and for central government, make sure you review the competency-framework). The best way to do this is to use the STAR technique – no matter how senior the role. Here is a helpful link and it is easy once you practice:

It is great to get into the habit of answering interview questions by backing up the ‘how’ you would approach to a scenario with a practical example of ‘when you have done so’ using STAR, the ‘R’/results element being the most impactful part in a response.

It is also important to think about what you want to get out of the ‘recon’ mission and prepare your response

…to the ‘what questions do you have for us?’ part:

Typically, there ought to be time set-aside at the end of any interview for the candidate to ask their questions.

Make sure that you prepare well thought out questions for the panel and tailor these to the people you are meeting (i.e. It could be a wasted opportunity to ask the CEO about the proficiency of the new system, as opposed to asking what the biggest challenges were to the organisation over the next 2 to 3 years). It is utterly critical to avoid asking a question that you could have found out the answer to yourself in research.

Examples of questions

  •  ‘how would you describe where the Finance Team is currently versus where you want it to be?’ (or you can make it specific: ‘…with regard to: stakeholder engagement/internal reputation/talent management/retention/producing useful data’ etc.)

  • ‘How would you describe the culture of the organisation/what type of person tends to be successful here’?

  • ‘Is there anything that you gives you reservation on my suitability for the role?’ Then you can politely reassure just before the end of the interview 

  • ‘How would you describe the financial health of the organisation’?

  • What are the biggest challenges to sustainability/achieving growth?

  • What type of person have you found best works for you in a role like this and why?

NB. Limit this to 2 or 3 probing questions and 1 or 2 small questions maximum – remember to frame it as recon and not an equally weighted ‘two-way street’ – you need the panel to know why you are keen and why you are well suited to the role. It is shocking how frequently clients decide between two candidates on the basis of who seemed to want it more.

Useful interview tips

  • Ask what to wear (particularly true for arts organisations – smart casual, versus the suit and tie approach for central government)

  • Logistics – make sure you know where you are going and plan the journey early. The ideal is to get there 10 minutes early and make yourself know to reception at 7 mins before the start time.

  • Google yourself and do all that you can to avoid your online presence making a bad first impression 

  • Take time to practice delivering responses out loud but never try to memorise

  • Find the statement the CEO gave when they took the role online – often available and provides a useful steer on their agenda

  • Meeting with a recruiter is an interview – I know that I have successfully championed candidates who I have met as a result of how well prepared they were, how committed to the process and professional they had been. Hiring managers often ask for the recruiter’s point of view on who to offer when it is extremely close.

  • Respond to the mood in the interview, if it develops into a conversational style then great – this is a very good sign and go with it, but still remember what you want to leave the panel thinking about your application.

  • An informal meeting with a hiring manager, is an interview exploring something beyond competency – typically is a combined agenda of testing of your ‘fit’ whilst also offering you a chance to ask any residual questions. 

  • Do not commit to a salary in the interview, no matter how tempting– always direct the question to the recruiter stating: ‘I have discussed this with the recruiter and (they or I) would prefer that they be the channel for this subject, but I can reassure you now that I am keen on the role and confident we can make it work if you feel the same way…’ – this is not to hand over control to the recruiter, god forbid – it is the best platform for you to negotiate from and avoids being put on the spot in an unbalanced context.

  • Always ask the panel what the next steps are at the end of the interview.

  • It is far more credible to admit a weakness/are to develop and explain what you would do to get up to speed, than trying to blag your way through a response. Whilst most people fall into this trap, if you do, you really won’t be fooling anyone.

Good luck in your interview and I hope this is helpful