I’ve interviewed thousands of job-hunting hopefuls in my time – here’s what I look for in a candidate.
This probably isn’t the first blog post you’ve read on interviewing tips, and it won’t be the last. Chances are, some of this advice will differ from what you hear elsewhere. That’s because there’s no real right or wrong when it comes to this topic. Everyone has an opinion, and I’m about to share mine with you.
Taking phone screens, skills interviews and cultural assessments into consideration, I’ve interviewed well over 2,500 candidates in my time. So by now I know exactly what impresses me, and disappoints me, from candidates.
Oh, and if you’re reading this post ahead of interviewing with me, well done: you’ve just given yourself a massive head start.
1. Know how to pitch yourself, succinctly
At some point in the process, you will be asked to tell the interviewer a bit about yourself. It’s a given you’re going to be asked this, so have your answer ready.
Write it down, memorise it, practise delivering it well.
It shouldn’t last longer than 3-5 minutes. Keep it short so there’s time for the interviewer to actually interview you, and rest assured, if they want you to expand on anything they’ll delve.
Tailor your pitch to correspond with your seniority and the type of role you’re going for. If you’re a grad, you’re probably going to talk about what you studied, your extracurricular accomplishments, any work experience you have, and why you’re interested in the role. If you’re more senior, skip your studies, and instead talk through a couple of relevant roles. Remember, interviewers aren’t necessarily looking for a chronological walk-through of your CV. They want to hear you draw out what’s relevant, and how it relates to why you’re in the room right now. I talk more about this in part 3 of my hiring guide.
2. Don’t ramble
If that sounds a bit tough, well, it is – I want to be completely honest in all my posts, and this point really matters. I don’t care how talented you are, if you keep talking and talking and don’t let me jump in, or if you cut me off every time I try and speak, then I need to cull you.
Why? You haven’t demonstrated emotional intelligence or good judgement. If you have good social awareness, you’ll spot when someone else is trying to interject (see number 3). You’ll respect that both parties need to get something out of the exchange, and if I haven’t been able to ask a question or say what I wanted to say, then I’m not getting my part. You’re being short-changed too, because you haven’t learned anything from me about myself, the role, or the company.
Don’t go on tangents. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak very eloquently, or if you struggle with English – we come from all walks of life. What matters is your clarity of thought. If I ask you about a difficult project, and as you respond you get sidetracked and start talking about something unrelated, I will begin to question your focus.
3. Observe your interviewer(s)
This goes hand in hand with my last point. When nerves get the better of you, you can miss important non-verbal signals from your interviewer.
Start by giving a short answer, and ask if they’d like you to elaborate. Watch the interviewer’s body language: are they sitting forward with their mouth open? That means they want to interject. If they’re sitting back nodding, maybe you can keep going. If you’re unsure, it’s okay to pause and say “Are you happy for me to continue with this answer?”
Don’t be put off if the interviewer does want you to stop, or if they cut in – it doesn’t mean you aren’t nailing it. Some interviewers just like to get through a fair few questions.
Observing and responding quickly are difficult skills, and if you struggle with them, I’d recommend a few sessions with a coach. They can role-play questions and answers, and teach you techniques to improve your performance.
4. Make eye contact
I encourage you to read my post on confidence, as it includes useful tactics that are very applicable to interviewing.
Eye contact is one of them. It seems obvious, but candidates often fall short when there’s more than one interviewer in the room. It goes from bad to worse when the candidate has subconsciously categorised one interviewer as “more important” than the other, and – probably without realising – is only looking at them when answering.
Regardless of who asks the question, look everyone in the eye while you answer, even if it means turning your head around from time to time.
5. Arrive on time
That’s on time – not late, and not early. I’ve had few candidates who are late to interview. But I do see a trend of candidates arriving very early.
If it’s an online meeting, that’s fine, you’ll just hang solo in the virtual room. If the interview is in person, however, be aware that many startups won’t have waiting areas, and most interviewers are dashing from one meeting to the next. I’d recommend you loiter outside or in a nearby café, and arrive no earlier than 5 mins before the scheduled start time.
6. Bring a notebook
I’m going to sound like a hypocrite here, because I never use notebooks. I hate them, and actually if you work for me I don’t want you to use one either. I want you to make notes on your laptop, organise them sensibly and store them in the cloud.
An interview is the only exception to this rule, unless you’re quite senior in which case bringing a laptop to the interview is perfectly fine in my book (no pun intended).
Anyway, the tool isn’t the point, the point is that as an interviewer, I might say something really important and I want to see that you are attentive and invested enough to note it down. It’s not about my ego, it’s about demonstrating you’re serious.
When I see a notebook, I also immediately think “Oh, they’ve come prepared with questions”.
You might not use it, but bring it and place it on the desk in front of you. With a pen, obviously. I forgot that part once. It was awkward.
7. Initiate conversation
A little small talk goes a long way.
I like to personally collect any candidate who is waiting for me, and have a casual chat with them on our way to the meeting room. This is partly for their benefit, but also because I want to observe their general behaviour before the formal interview begins.
Some candidates struggle to relax and fail to offer up any conversation in return, which makes my job very difficult (and less enjoyable). Depending on the circumstances, this might not matter – ultimately, you’re being assessed against the skills of the role, or the values of the company, not how much I like you.
That said, confident communication is a core skill that most companies will expect from a candidate. I don’t mind if you’re nervous or not especially articulate, but I do want to know that you’re at least going to be able to cope in a workplace environment.
So here’s a tip – when you can see the interviewer approaching you, don’t sit there in silence. Stand up, walk towards them, put out your hand and say “Hi, are you [Cat]?”. Make your handshake short, deliberate and firm.
If the role you’re applying for is a client facing one, or a leadership one, then when you get to the interview room, initiate some small talk yourself. Don’t launch into a monologue, but do show you can hold your own.
And when you sit down, kick things off by saying, “Thanks for this opportunity, I’m really looking forward to learning more about the role and the company. Would you like me to start by telling you a bit about myself?”.
Trust me, demonstrating confidence goes a long way. I’m not always looking for the candidate who has done the job before. I’m looking for the person who thinks they can do it, and is ready to demonstrate that.
You obviously need to strike the right balance between confidence and cockiness, and practising with a coach can be really helpful here – it’s hard to know how you’ll be perceived by a stranger.
8. Research the company in a clever way
Researching the company is interview prep 101, and nearly every candidate I meet finds a way to casually mention that they watched a recent interview with the founder, or read about the company’s latest award wins.
Don’t get me wrong, this is good, but it’s the bare minimum. And it doesn’t stand out.
Demonstrate you’ve done your research in a smarter way. If the company sells a software package, can you download and use a free trial? If they sell gift hampers, order one. If they list out their values on their website, assess yourself against them. Then work that into the discussion.
You’re interviewing for a Product Manager role at a B2C SaaS company. You can anticipate that they’ll ask you about a product you love and how you’d improve it, or how you’d improve their current product. There’s no reason why you couldn’t pull out printouts circling aspects you’d want to tweak, or a list of pain points you’d observed.
You’re interviewing for a Project Manager role. They will want you to talk through how you handled a project issue, so once you’ve given your answer, you could explain how your decision-making does or doesn’t align with their values i.e.
“… It was important we apologised and gave a refund to make the client happy, because one of our values was ‘keep the client happy at all times’. Though I notice one of your values is ‘help make the client successful’, so I wonder if at this company, a better course of action would have been to try and explain to the client that …”
These examples are the difference between simply memorising information about your prospective employer and applying what you’ve learned in a meaningful way.
9. Show your weaknesses as well as your strengths
Building trust with a customer is the best way to sell them something. So if you consider that an interview is selling yourself, you’ll see that focusing exclusively on your strengths and qualities isn’t the way to do it. Instead, show yourself in a real and relatable way which they can believe (trust).
Demonstrate your honesty by touching on some things that have been hard for you, or talking about mistakes you’ve made. It will also show your self-awareness.
You obviously want to do it sensibly though.
Don’t say: “I hate confrontations and avoid them at all costs.”
Do say: “Like most people I don’t enjoy being confrontational, and can find it quite hard. Here’s how I’ve been approaching it …”
Don’t say: “I completely stuffed up that situation.”
Do say: “On reflection I didn’t handle the situation in the best way. Here’s what I’d do differently and why …”
10. Try answering a slightly different question to the one you were asked
I’m kind of smiling to myself as I write this. I use this tactic a lot so I know when people are doing it to me, and whilst I appreciate the quick thinking behind it, I don’t always let them get away with it.
But there are times when it’s okay.
For example, say you’re asked how you’d create a project plan. Maybe you’re feeling stuck, or you think that the answer won’t demonstrate all your strengths. Here’s what you say instead:
“A project plan exists to ensure we deliver a quality result, on time and on budget. But before you create a project plan, it’s important to know every variable and risk, so that you can plan around those. Here are the most common variables and risks I see on projects …”
The question wasn’t “What are the most common risks to take into account when managing a project?”, but the answer above actually shows more advanced project planning skills.
Don’t hesitate to leverage an opportunity to show yourself at your best. Ultimately the interviewer is trying to assess your skills vs your answer to their question.
11. Act interested, not desperate
You want to come across as interested, but not desperate. Much like the dating scene I’m afraid. Send a follow-up email the day after your interview but don’t load it with too much content or pressure.
The following will do: “It was great to meet you and learn more about the role and company. I look forward to hearing from you in due course.”
If you’re invited to the next stage, I’d recommend replying within 1-5 hours. Any earlier and it looks like you’re hitting refresh. Much later and it could send the message you aren’t interested.
Again, show your enthusiasm, but keep it cool: “I’m really pleased to have been invited back, and I’m looking forward to meeting you again and learning more about the team.”
For your own sake, avoid:
- Too many exclamation marks!!!!! It can make you appear less senior!!!!
- Too many words. Most people don’t like reading, and it can look like you’re stating your case (desperately).
- Too much formality. These might be your future colleagues, and startups aren’t so hierarchical.
(Drum roll please….)
12. Ask good questions
People will learn a lot about you from the questions you ask, hence I could write pages on this point alone. I’ll try and restrain myself.
Firstly, for goodness’ sake, if you’ve progressed beyond the phone screen and this is an actual skills or cultural interview, HAVE. QUESTIONS. PREPARED. You know it’s an interview. You know there will be time for questions.
If I invite a candidate to ask questions and they start thinking on the spot about what to ask, I honestly want to rip my hair out. It’s as bad as people who get to the tube gates and then decide to start looking for their ticket. The only message you’re sending is that you really don’t give a shit about the role.
I find it so weird that anyone could struggle to prepare questions. Where you work is going to have a dramatic impact on your career … you’re telling me there isn’t anything you want to know?
Secondly, ask the right questions. Here’s where I’m going to help you more.
Examples of what not to ask:
- What are the benefits/working hours/salary? Questions like this might send the impression that’s all you care about. You can ask all of this at the offer stage.
- How will this role progress? Employers want to know you are excited by this role and that it will engage you for at least a few years. There are other, smarter ways to show you’re ambitious and to ensure your development is in safe hands.
- What’s the company culture like? As an interviewer I get asked this all the time. It’s not that original and it’s a hard one to try and answer. There are better ways to learn about the culture.
- How did I do? Are there any reservations you have about me? I personally will answer when a candidate asks this, but most people don’t like to and it’s best to avoid making people uncomfortable. Also, I’m not sure it achieves much.
Examples of good questions:
Before looking at the examples, ask yourself why you’re asking questions in an interview. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not so you look smart. There are so many important reasons to ask questions, which may relate to your past experiences or personal preferences.
Do you want to know your manager will develop you? Do you want to understand whether the product is any good? Are you keen to check if the company has enough money to last, or that you like the workplace culture?
Once you know why you’re asking questions, then you can map out what your questions will be. And yes, frame them right, and you’ll come across as smart 🙂
To learn about the interviewer’s ability as a manager:
- How would you help someone become a more [confident communicator]? Pick any core skill or development area of yours.
- If I asked someone in your team to describe what it’s like working with you, what would they say? Would there be a possibility to talk to them as part of this process?
- I imagine being a manager can be hard, especially when you need to act in the best interests of your direct reports, and the business. Can you tell me about a time when those were in conflict and how you managed it?
To learn about the culture:
- Which of the company values resonates most with you and why? If they don’t know the values, that’s telling in and of itself.
- Can you give me an example of a time when the values were used to make a difficult decision?
- Thinking about one of your star employees – what makes them great? Would you feel comfortable telling me about a former employee who wasn’t successful here and why?
To learn about the financial state of the company:
- Can you talk me through the current funding situation? When would you need to raise further funds? This gives you an idea of the company’s runway.
- May I ask what the current MRR (monthly recurring revenue) is? How does this compare to a year ago? What do you hope it will be next year? Ideally the company has already achieved 100% growth from the previous year.
- Do departments work to strict budgets, or is it more flexible? What’s the financial control process? Usually a company with stricter processes faces less financial hardship.
(Note that depending on the seniority of your role and/or the company, some interviewers may not be able to answer these questions, but it’s OK to ask).
To learn about the product:
- What do clients like about your product/service? What don’t they like?
- Thinking about the last client that churned, why was that?
- Thinking about the latest client that the company won, why was that?
This is a sample set to get you heading in the right direction, not an exhaustive list. Of course, the questions that mean the most to you will have the biggest impact, so put your own spin on them where you can.