Preparing for a job interview can be absolutely overwhelming. Job seekers have to anticipate questions about their work experience, compensation, career goals, personality, work style, management style, successes, failures, strengths, weaknesses…you get the picture. In fact, if you searched for a list of common interview questions and rehearsed concise answers to all of them (or even half of them), you’d never have time to do any research on the company or the hiring manager with which you’re interviewing.
It’s time to simplify the process of preparing for a job interview. One principle should guide all of your preparation and serve as your strategy for acing the interview. Your goal—as you prepare for the job interview and as you field the hiring manager’s questions during it—is to get inside the hiring manager’s mind. That means understanding what the hiring manager is fundamentally trying to ascertain during the job interview, and tailoring your responses to the hiring manager’s questions accordingly.
Tracy Cashman, partner and general manager of staffing firm Winter Wyman’s information technology group, explains why understanding the hiring manager is a winning job interview strategy: “Companies and managers are being extremely picky about who they select these days. The more you can make connections [between the hiring manager’s needs and your experience] and sell yourself based on their vision for your role, the better your chances of getting a job offer.”
Getting inside the hiring manager’s mind really isn’t difficult. Ultimately, the hiring manager is trying to answer two questions: Can the candidate sitting before me do the job? And, Is the candidate a good fit with my organization? That’s it.
In some cases, the hiring manager may already be confident that you can do the job, based on your résumé or if you have an existing relationship with the hiring manager. If that’s the case, then the sole purpose of the interview is to help the hiring manager determine whether you’ll mesh with the company and team.
Getting inside the hiring manager’s mind also means understanding his or her specific challenges and key goals. To that end, job seekers should ask hiring managers about their pain points, the ideal candidate for the job, the work environment and culture. The trick for job seekers, then, is to address the hiring manager’s needs and concerns as they make the case as to why they’re the ideal candidate.
An even better strategy than waiting for the job interview to learn about the hiring manager’s goals and challenges is to uncover these insights before the interview. That way, job seekers can prepare pointed pitches explaining how they fit with the organization and how their background and style meets the hiring manager’s needs, rather than having to think on their feet (not that that’s a bad thing). Job seekers can learn about a hiring manager’s needs (and personality) during initial phone screens and by talking with people who know the hiring manager.
Getting inside a hiring manager’s mind can be difficult when the hiring manager doesn’t know how to ask questions, notes Cashman.
“An interviewer may have an agenda, but if they’re not skilled at interviewing, the questions they ask may not give the candidate a clue as to what they want,” says Cashman. “The candidate may then answer the interviewer’s questions thinking they’re giving the answer the interviewer wants, but if the interviewer doesn’t know how to ask questions, the candidate may miss the boat.”
In situations where a job seeker is meeting with an inexperienced interviewer, it’s even more important for the job seeker to get inside the interviewer’s mind. In fact, adds Cashman, it becomes the job seeker’s responsibility to help the hiring manager figure out what he or she really wants to discuss.
For example, if a hiring manager kicks off an interview by asking the candidate a vague question, such as, “Tell me about yourself,” as many of them do, Cashman advises job seekers to respond with their elevator speech, which in 30 to 60 seconds should touch on who they are, their key skills and background. Then, she says, job seekers should ask the hiring manager where they want the job seeker to focus next, whether on their resume, skills or past work experience.
If a hiring manager asks another vague question, such as, “Tell me about your management skills,” Cashman recommends a response like this: “I’ve been responsible for managing people for 10 years. In my last position, I managed 10 people on a project and freelance basis. Then stop there and ask the hiring manager if they’d like you to talk about your philosophy on management, your management style or specific people or projects you managed,” she says.
“The right thing to do is to ask clarification questions, rather than go on for 10 minutes answering a vague question and risk losing the interviewer’s interest,” she adds.
Offering a short answer to a vague question, then tossing a clarification question back to the hiring manager has several benefits. It allows the job seeker to figure out what the hiring manager wants, enables the job seeker to effectively pitch him or herself, and most important, says Cashman, it turns the interview into a conversation and builds rapport with the hiring manager.
“Trying to get someone to like you in 45 minutes is hard,” she says. “The more you take the onus off the interviewer and make the interview a conversation, the easier you make their life. Subconsciously, if you make their job easier, they’ll like you and hopefully you’ll win them over as a person.”