It’s too bad you’re awful at interviews

I spent the last month as part of a search committee at the university where I work. Like the hiring process in any industry, it was tedious as we read through applications, conducted phone interviews, and met candidates.

That the process within academia is so similar to the process outside of it continues to surprise me because aside from keeping applicants in the dark for tortuous amounts of time and the incessant hoop-jumping necessary to get the required signatures to make the hire, the steps are basically the same.

And from my experience, all too often so is the interviewing incompetence of those being asked the questions, creating perhaps the largest roadblock standing in the way of a qualified candidate actually getting hired.

No matter your experience, your accomplishments, or your degree, if you are bad at interviews, you do not have much more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a job, even when your résumé and cover letter are flawless.

And this is coming from someone who has not only hired people, but who, looking back on it, has probably shit the bed on my own interview or two.

With both perspectives in mind, here are a few tips to follow as you both prepare for and go through the interview process. It is my hope that this insight will inform your experience and not allow a bad interview to stand in the way of you getting the job you deserve.

(1) Do your research and know your audience. This is perhaps the most important component of a good interview. Showing that you understand what an organization does, the things an organization values, and the components of an organization’s culture will allow you to more naturally articulate how you would fit in and how you would add value.

Research the organization and its stakeholders. You want to feel comfortable in your capacity to answer any job-specific questions that come your way, plus, knowing a bit about the people interviewing you provides an opportunity to establish rapport.

Now, there is a fine line between interest in interviewers and over-enthusiasm. I suggest making reference to similarities serendipitously. Rather than saying “Oh Sam, I saw from your Facebook page that you enjoy binge watching Netflix. I too love wasting my Saturdays on Gossip Girl,” say something like “I like to decompress from time to time and watch some Netflix.”

In other words, avoid making it obvious that you’ve been creeping on someone; rather, let the similarities arise “naturally.”

(2) Practice with someone who is going to give you honest feedback. Develop a long list of questions you think you might be asked during your interview. Include the standard questions most everyone gets asked, but also come up with several job/company-specific questions.

Your answers need to be about you and your skills, but they must clearly explain how you can fulfill the duties of the position and add value to the employer. Be specific in your references to the company and show the interviewers you have done your research because as much as the answers are about you, they need to pay homage to the company considering hiring you.

Lastly, when you practice, do so with someone who is going to give you honest, constructive feedback. If your answers are lame, find a person who will tell you that.

(3) Dress the part. You need to look professional. The adage “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is a touch cliché, but it works here on many levels. If you are trying to land a corporate job, proper professional attire is expected. However, if you are interviewing for a job as a brew master, the interview attire might look a little different because if you come into a brewery wearing a pants suit and blouse, it may appear that you won’t fit into the organizational culture.

Scope out the employer if possible and see what others are wearing. Do some internet research and look for photos to get a bead on what you should put on for your interview.

No matter what you find, be sure to look the part.

(4) Get yo’ mind right. Maybe you mediate. Maybe you go for a run. Maybe you put on some Outkast. Whatever it is, you want to get your mind in the right place to kick some ass.

DO NOT chug a beer or do a shot. I’m 100% sure I have done interviews with one or two people who have done that and can assure you it does not work out well.

(5) Be polite. Maintaining politeness should be a focus throughout the interview, but when you start considering your answers and trying to show confidence, this might give way to more contemplative emotions.

 However, no matter what, when you introduce yourself, do so with warmth and politeness. This is your chance to make a great first impression before flexing your technical and/or intellectual muscles.

(6) Answer what you have been asked, not what you wish you would have been asked. Listen to the questions and attend to them. Too often I have asked someone a question only to have them give a completely unrelated answer because they wanted to put something out on the table they thought made them sound smarter or more qualified. This is a bad move.

Process the question and if you need to take 3-4 seconds to consider your answer, that is fine, but make it obvious that you are thinking.

Lastly, be concise in your answer. Do not ramble. Long-winded answers tend to occur when someone does not know what they want to say or thinks they are brilliant and loves to hear themselves talk. Either way, you sound bad.

(7) Make eye contact. There is no better way to convey interest and emotion than good eye contact. This does not mean wide-eyed, laser-beam eye contact, but thoughtful, well-paced eye contact that moves from eyes to windows to eyes to paper, etc.

Like good speaking, good eye contact requires good rhythm. Think about what your eyes do when talking with a friend. Pay attention to what comes natural in this situation and work to emulate during your interview.

Your eyes can do so much to generate attachment and in interview situations, you want them to work in your favor.

(8) Be authentic, but professional. You want to convey an authentic self, giving authentic answers to the questions being asked. Practice will help this, but so will a relaxed demeanor during the interview. Take a deep breath and slow things down.

With that said, you should maintain professionalism. Use appropriate verbal and nonverbal language and know the setting and actors. This is not a conversation over beers. Maybe it will get to that point, but until it does, remain focused on the situation and the level of professionalism it requires.

(9) Be confident, but likable. No one likes a pompous asshole, but no one likes someone who’s desperate either. This might be the toughest thing to nail down in an interview because we are prepared to talk about ourselves. We have done that in our résumé and cover letter and want to repeat that in the interview.

But the interview is different. You have already sold yourself as an employee, now you want to sell yourself as someone the interviewers can have a cup of coffee with. Make it clear you are someone they want around. Do not be arrogant and cocky. Do not name drop and talk about all the cool things you have done.

Imagine you are on a first date and you want a second one. Start there.

(10) Have questions to ask. Few things make an interviewee look worse than not having 2-3 questions they want to ask the interviewers. During your research, write down a few things you would like clarification on or questions you want to ask the interviewers about their experience. Things like “What do you enjoy most about your job?” or “What is it about this place that keeps you coming back?” are fantastic questions. They do not have to be deep or cerebral; they just need to convey that you are interested in them as much as you are interested in talking about yourself.

You got an interview because you are qualified. Don’t let a bad interview stand in the way of you getting hired.

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Your emails are annoying.

There are few things that shake my confidence in humanity more than email.

This is not solely the fault of poorly-spelled, grammatically-unsound student emails, but is equally due to the poor email etiquette I see in emails from colleagues and career professionals on a daily basis.

One immensely aggravating example of such misuse occurred this week when the athletics department at my university created an email list that automatically added all faculty and staff members. I found myself not annoyed as much by the email list as by the faculty and staff taking the incorrect steps to be removed from the email. Rather than emailing a designated address with the subject line “Please Unsubscribe” as had been directed, dozens of people, most with graduate degrees, hit “Reply All” to say “Please Unsubscribe.” As a result, for three solid hours hundreds of university employees were receiving unnecessary emails, undoubtedly getting nudged from more important tasks and wasting time on communication that did not pertain to them.

In the midst of this afternoon saga, I could not help but think that Wired’s David Pierce was spot-on when he opined, “The problem isn’t email. It’s our relationship to email that’s broken.”

We email users are dumb.

Knowing that freshly-minted college graduates and seasoned professionals are equally apt to misuse the technology, below are 10 observations/lessons about email usage that may pertain to you and/or to someone whose emails often trigger the desire to throw a stapler through your computer monitor (please forward this to those folks).

(1) Your email address is awful. This one is mostly intended for college juniors/seniors and recent graduates, but I have seen plenty of questionable email addresses from people who have been in careers for decades. Last week I was working with a client who had run his own multi-million dollar business in Washington, D.C. for 20 years. His email was something to the effect of voodoodaddy69@nunya.com.

Make sure your email address is professional and that it is clearly represents your name. For college students, make the change now; don’t wait until you graduate.

(2) You sent an email to the wrong recipient(s). Double-check the email address(es) you are sending. You never know who you may incorrectly send an email to and what ramifications that could bring.

Last week I received an email from an administrator at my university that was not intended for me. I found the mistake to be very unprofessional, especially considering the money this person makes.

Anyone can make this mistake, but it can be very unbecoming.

(3) Not everyone in the office needs to know you are unable to attend tomorrow’s meeting because of laser hair removal. Sorry, I should clarify: I imagined someone sending an email about tomorrow’s meeting to which you sent a Reply All with information about your unwanted arm hair.

If you want to respond to an announcement with a “Congratulations” or an “I’m so sorry” do not send it to everyone on the email, only to the person for whom the response is relevant. The vast majority of Reply All messages I see are just electronically-delivered packages of self-importance. It’s really great you think you are a fantastic person for sending “thoughts and prayers” to Nancy, but let Nancy know that, not the rest of us.

In short, use Reply All on a need-to-know basis. If the person(s) to whom you are sending your email DO NOT need to know, take us off the email. Please!

(4) Your subject line is too long and says nothing of value. Subject lines with ALL CAPS or in all lower-case go to Spam folders. Subject lines that are too long and void of important information are annoying.

Keep your subject line clear and concise (ex. “Question regarding tomorrow’s assignment” or “Information about our 12/5 meeting”) as a courtesy to the person receiving the email. If it’s important they need to know it so they can open, read, and respond. If it is not, they need to know that too so they can attend to the email when they have a free moment or two.

(5) Keurig cup refills are not a priority. Use your email’s priority flag function sparingly. Not everything is a ticking time bomb. If something is in need of immediate attention (and calling on the phone is not an option), a priority flag could be in order. If that is not the case, do not use it.

As for the Keurig cup refills, that was an actual email sent to department faculty and staff.

(6) Your greeting is completely unprofessional. Know your audience. If the person you are emailing is more important than you or your relationship has not evolved into anything close to a friendship, a nice “Hello Ms.” or “Dear Dr.” or “Hi Mr.” are in order. Even if the relationship is more casual, “Hi Maria” or “Dear Dan” are more courteous than “Yo Phil” or “Sup Dawg.”

No matter where you are in your career, be polite with your greeting and respect the person who you are emailing.

(7) Your email is way too long. You may have the greatest idea or plan in the world, but if it takes 10 minutes to read about it in an email, most people are not going to give a shit.

Get to the point, tell the reader what they need to know, what needs to be done, and do not use the platform as a way for you to show off your vocabulary or work ethic If either are deserving of praise, trust that you will be recognized for it at some point.

(8) Your using uncorrect grammars. (FYI: Those mistakes were intentional.) Few things make me immediately think less of someone than poor grammar and punctuation in a professional email. This is not because I think I am smarter than other people (that’s an objective truth), but because it shows me you have not taken an extra 30 seconds to read through your email to make sure you have spelled things correctly, that grammar is on-point, and that punctuation is where it needs to be.

From now on, when you write an email, take an extra minute to read and revise. It’s the least you can do to stop yourself from sounding like a dumbass.

(9) Your email will be forwarded so consider the content. When you are writing an email, consider the content and imagine that whatever you type will be forwarded. This is another way of reminding yourself to leave out the personal stuff, the problematic language, etc. Anything that could come back to haunt you should be kept from email.

This relates to both content and tone. Make sure the words you use convey what you really want to say and that the tone that comes from those words matches the tone you want the receiver to perceive.

Lastly, emails do not go away. They form a digital paper trail. Consider this when typing and when in doubt, call the person or meet with them face-to-face.

(10) You need to respond in a timely fashion. If someone emails you and it looks important (i.e. they’ve followed the insight of No. 4), you need to read and respond within 24-48 hours. This does not include the weekends or if you are on vacation, but if you are in the office, you need to respond.

Otherwise, you are just adding to the growing population of dumb email users.

10 simple observations and you are on your way to becoming less annoying to work with.

Nice job.

 

The Value of Knowing When to Shut Up

For golf caddies to keep their jobs they either need be skilled at the technical stuff (reading greens, giving advice, etc.) or good at recognizing what kind of small talk is wanted during a round, i.e. knowing when to talk and when to shut up.

hinske and hammel

As a lifelong Cubs’ fan, caddying for Eric Hinske and Jason Hammel during the 2016 World Series run was a highlight of my caddying career.

I like to think I have collected sufficient evidence to prove this claim during the last 11 summers I have spent as a golf caddie at some of the best clubs in the country, seeing more caddies fired for bad communication than for bad golf advice. And while I have witnessed plenty of caddies canned for the same shenanigans lampooned in Harold Ramis’s 1980 classic Caddyshack, arriving to work hungover, still drunk, or stoned are often forgiven if you know how to talk.

I am not good at the technical stuff and there is a long list of disappointed golfers who can attest to that. However, I know how and when to talk to members and their guests, often über wealthy and über powerful titans of industry. This ability to assess the communicative potential of these interactions and to act accordingly have led to the development of professional connections and friendships I value greatly. For example, before launching Jay Communication Solutions. I spent 18 holes picking the brain of one of the most successful CEOs in the United States who suggested I go all-in on my idea. Even now I continue to call him up for advice.

In the professional world, knowing when to listen, when to talk, and what to say are invaluable skills not everyone takes the time to develop. As a young professional and/or someone trying to climb the organizational ladder, being able to evaluate what kind of conversation your colleagues and superiors want is even more valuable considering the faster you can understand the power dynamics the less prone you are to put your foot in your mouth.

I know firsthand this can be difficult, especially when people are wrong or rude. When I first started caddying, I was temporarily fired for yelling back at a golfer who screamed “Find that f*cking golf ball, caddie” at me. Apparently, “Find your own f*cking golf ball” was not the most prudent response. Luckily, the member who yelled at me was disliked by most of the membership and club management.

Being able to assess what you can get away with saying and to whom are key, whether that means speaking your mind when someone is wrong or chiming in on a conversation to which you have something to add.

Here are some general rules for communicating with others above you on the power hierarchy (professionally, this means your superiors, but personally, I guess this might help with your in-laws as well):

  1. Listen first, talk second. Observe and evaluate your audience. Collect as much data as possible. Figure out what information they respond to and what approaches they ignore. The more you know about your audience (of one or of many), the more effective your message can be once you ask for a promotion, suggest an operational change, or offer your perspective.
  2. Build rapport before mining for data. It is important to build a relationship prior to asking questions that require candid answers. If some C-suite executive has no idea who you are, asking her about her approach to leadership might be fruitless. Listening and showing respect while waiting for the opportunity to ask such a question will offer more valuable answers. I cringe when I hear a caddie ask someone like Peyton Manning or Jay Bilas a personal question on the driving range; give the relationship some time to establish itself before even considering asking a question that is not anything but superficial or task-related.
  3. Never get too comfortable. Stay on your toes even if it feels like things are going well. I have caught myself getting too comfortable by the seventh or eighth hole and talking too much, turning members off by offering too much information they don’t care about or asking too many questions. Always be mindful of the power dynamics. The people above you on the hierarchy have the freedom to talk when they want; if you want to get to this place, be cognizant of the flow of conversation. Self-awareness is a revered personality trait.
  4. Exit with confidence, respect, and authenticity. Take the opportunity to end a conversation on your own terms, rather than waiting for someone else end it because it’s getting awkward or time is running out. Being aware of when an interaction is drawing near a close is a capacity not everyone has, but if you can highlight this ability, it shows others that you recognize and respect the value of their time. It is also a good way to accentuate confidence and in showing gratitude, you can convey authenticity.

In closing, the abilities to listen to and communicate with others will strengthen over time, which means by the time you have reached a more powerful position, you will have the experience and be able to leverage your fine-tuned conversation skills in more valuable ways.