Taxonomy of an Interview

A first-round interview typically has five distinct phases:

  1. Breaking the ice
  2. Asking questions of the candidate
  3. Probing or circling back to areas for more in-depth information
  4. Directing questions to the recruiter
  5. Following up and going over next steps—the close

Be sure to visualize and prepare for each phase, but not so that you come off sounding over-rehearsed or fake. Here are some thoughts and tips on each phase.

  1. Breaking the ice. Start with a firm handshake and a smile that convey your enthusiasm and energy. Then, either wait to see what the recruiter says and follow his or her lead, or start by saying something that connects you quickly. This can be something as simple as, “How are you?” or “Nice to meet you” (or “It’s good to see you again—we met at your information session last month …”). Though talking about the weather seems a bit trite, it’s universally accepted icebreaker material—for example, “It’s been raining the past few weeks, but it’s nice that it finally cleared up today.”

    Of course, if you’re more of a risk-taker and can think quickly on your feet, you can try something bolder. Maybe you’ve observed something on the recruiter’s desk—a magazine you subscribe to or a high-tech gadget that you also have. You can break the ice by mentioning some clever fact or piece you read in (if a magazine) or about (if a gadget) that item.

  2. Asking questions of the candidate. Know your resume cold. Anything on it, including the additional information or hobbies and interests are fair game. Also, make no mistake: You need to have a thorough knowledge of how your career goals and aspirations relate to your background in advance of your interviews. This means clarifying for yourself what your values, purpose in life, and job/career goals and objectives are. Ask yourself: What are the key themes about yourself you want to get across to the recruiter? What motivates you? Why did you return to get your MBA, and so on. Knowing who and what you are about will provide a strong foundation. It will help you speak from a position of strength and confidence.

    Just because this is the time when the interviewer is asking the questions, doesn’t mean you should let him or her take over, thus allowing the interaction to be lopsided. Instead, make every effort to actively engage the interviewer by using facial expressions and nodding your head in understanding or agreement. This is a surefire way to communicate your positive energy to the interviewer. By all means, ask for clarification concerning a question when you really need it; this way, you can buy some time to frame your thoughts and compose yourself before you respond with an answer.

    No matter what, you’ll want to listen actively. Don’t think about what you’re going to say in answer to a question while the recruiter is talking because you may miss an important nuance or qualifier to the question. After listening to each question, take a few seconds to organize your thoughts, think before you speak, and answer succinctly and directly.

  3. Probing or circling back to areas for more in-depth information.
    I will keep on probing an area if a response to one of my questions is too generic or not substantive enough. In both instances, I am unable to get a read on whether the candidate possesses the quality required for the job. Also, if a job requirement is absolutely essential, I will ask multiple questions around that requirement to make sure the candidate has what it takes to succeed in the job. For example, if managing people is a key requirement, I may ask something like, “Tell me what your direct reports would say about you” or “How did you motivate your team?”

    If the candidate says something generic like, “My team would say I was a great manager and that I managed them by example,” I would probe further. Questions might include: Give me two or three examples of difficult people or people in difficult situations whom you have managed; what did you do, what was the outcome? If the candidate gave me examples of when she had to fire someone; do a painful layoff; manage people who were older, more experienced, or cynical about MBAs; or had to take on a new group after a beloved manager had left, I would have a strong sense that this candidate has the ability to manage and handle people with care. You get the gist. A recruiter will either keep probing while on the topic at hand or wait until the end to circle back. Sometimes if a recruiter is convinced the candidate just doesn’t cut it in a certain area, he will either move on or forgive it—only if there are so many other redeeming, overwhelmingly positive attributes to let that one area go.

  4. Directing questions to the recruiter.
    This is your chance to shine—to show how much you’ve research the company and prepared for the interview. If you’re not sure how to put together a solid list of questions to ask your recruiter(s), take a look at  “What to Say When It’s Your Turn to Ask Questions in an interview.”
  5. Following up and going over next steps—the close.
    A good recruiter will thank you and then let you know about next steps such as when he or she will get back to you. The recruiter might say, “A next step will include second rounds in X month at our offices in Y city.” If the recruiter doesn’t tell you about next steps, it’s your responsibility to inquire. Simply asking, “Could you tell me about timing and next steps?”  is effective.
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