Preparing for the technology executive interview: the right way vs. the wrong way

Job interviews create stress and performance anxiety in even the most senior technology executives. With the right mindset you can level the playing field and determine if you're right for the company and, just as significantly, if they're right for you.

Far too many of us approach job interviews with the wrong mindset. I should know. I’ve conducted thousands of interview preparation sessions with technology and global markets executives during my 20 plus years in retained executive search and coaching. 

Self-sabotage during an interview?

I used to assume that the polished executive sitting in front of me with the killer resume didn't need any interview guidance, other than a few insights into the personalities of the hiring manager and the company culture. Wrong assumption! Over time I realized that these highly accomplished people — and especially the ones in transition — were frequently capable of self-sabotage at critical stages of the interview process. 

What is your interview mindset?

You may have had a similar experience at some point in your career. I know I have. However, successful interview strategies don't boil down to diligent preparation, knowing the "right people," or good old serendipity. As inveterate overachievers, you’ll do your homework and master the hiring company’s facts and figures. But, if you don’t approach your interviews with the right mindset, you’re less likely to perceive and properly react to the cultural cues and personality signifiers that are broadcast throughout the assessment and selection process.

The wrong mindset won’t prevent you from asking questions during your interview but it will hamstring your ability to ask the right questions. Asking the wrong questions, or too few questions, could result in a bad interview. And by bad interview I’m talking about both sides of the bad interview coin: the not landing the job of your dreams side as well as the landing the job of your worst nightmare side.

Are you there to help or to please?

I coach technology executives to adopt a "consultative mindset" during their interviews. The consultative mindset means that the foremost question in your mind is "How can I help you?" vs. "How can I get this job?" Regardless of whether you’re sitting in front of your potential boss, or the HR partner, or the business leadership team, or your potential employees, your interviews will be far more productive if you're there to help.

First let’s look at the more common interview mindset: "How can I get this job?" It’s a perfectly logical question to enter your mind but letting it dominate your thinking will likely leave you feeling subordinate and vulnerable during your interviews. And if you’re interviewing with those feelings then you’re more likely to feel nervous, more likely to seek the other person’s approval, and more likely to talk too much and listen less as you try to prove your worth.

The benefits of the "consultative" mindset.

If, however, you adopt a consultative mindset then the questions and answers that flow from, "How can I help you?" are more likely to uncover whether your background and accomplishments are suited to the company's challenges. They'll establish good rapport, keep the conversation balanced, and help you establish your credentials from a position of strength.

Good discovery questions lead to good interview outcomes

The consultative mindset levels the playing field for you and helps you develop what every good consultant, salesperson, and executive needs in their toolbox: great discovery questions. Ordinary questions will typically encourage ordinary answers. Discovery questions, however, are designed to uncover the other person’s pain points. And if you don’t know the pain points then you’re less likely to gain a clear understanding of the company’s and the technology organization’s challenges.

Discovery questions also help you in other ways. The job in question may carry the title you’ve always dreamed of having or it may be in a company or an industry that you’ve always wanted to work in but you could be joining a dysfunctional management team or a company culture in which you’ll never feel truly comfortable or welcome.

Even if it’s a great looking job today, you might find yourself growing mentally unemployed within a year or so if the company’s leadership team doesn’t have a good plan in place. Another good discovery question is, "What will success look like to you in one year? 3 years? 5 years?" It almost looks too simple to some people when I suggest they ask it, but it helps you understand the other person’s goals and helps you gauge whether the goals are achievable and, more importantly, if they’re the kind of goals that will motivate you for the long term.

The consultative mindset not only helps you determine if the role and the company are a good fit for both today and tomorrow but it also helps you eliminate as many unpleasant surprises as possible before you accept an offer. If you’re too focused on trying to please the other side, then you’re less likely to discover the 'challenges' that are insuperable problems in disguise. I can offer examples but I think it’s safe to assume that everyone reading this column has a few stories of their own.

Lastly, if you choose a consultative mindset for your interviews and you land a job that’s a great fit with a great company, then do yourself a favor and keep that mindset throughout your career. If you can maintain a balance of insatiable curiosity with a healthy dose of skepticism then your company’s leadership team won’t be referring to  you as the technology executive who loves to run fancy technology projects but never seems to develop solutions that solve to the problem and advances the company’s growth.

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