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How to prepare for a first stage interview

Lawson Chase provides our expert advice on preparing for a first round interview

"To be prepared is half the victory" - Miguel de Cervantes

Running a global recruitment business, I get to wish 'good luck' to hundreds of job seekers every year - from seasoned professionals who have held several positions throughout the course of their careers, graduates who are interviewing for their first ever role, those finding themselves interviewing for the first time in several years having being made redundant, 'passive jobseekers' who have been convinced to meet a company but weren't otherwise actively looking for a new position, return-to-work professionals following time off focused on childcare or ill health and everything & everyone in between.

As diverse as this group of professionals are, one thing always resonates true - they can never be 'too prepared' for a first stage interview.

Here are some top tips to put you in good stead for the first opportunity you have to meet a potential employer:

Know who you are meeting

We're in a world awash with information - there are no excuses not to have done some hefty research on the firm you are going in to see & the people you are interviewing with. Squirrel yourself away with some coffee and your laptop and start investigating.

At a minimum you should know;

  • What the organisation does, it's history, its size, where it operates, it's main services or products. Your first port of call should be the company website but other resources including Wikipedia and broad Google searches will be valuable.
  • Anything newsworthy in recent years and anything currently in the headlines about the firm. If there is a big story ongoing and you don't know about it you run the risk of looking ill-prepared and foolish.
  • About the firm's leadership, particularly if there is a high-profile CEO - search for any videos of them speaking or press interviews they have given.
  • About the company culture. A good place to start is Glassdoor where previous & current employees can review a workplace. I'd always caution paying too much attention to these sites as it is often only those with really polarised opinions who end up voicing them (and there is certianly a risk of 'fake reviews' being posted - but by & large it can help you gauge a firm's culture and work atmosphere in general trends.
  • If you know someone that works there call them and get an inside view. It's invaluable if you happen to have a contact already in employment there (or who has recently worked there). Note: companies change and experiences differ wildly from team-to-team so again, treat anything you hear with a pinch of salt.
  • Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn... the company you are interviewing with will most likely keep active social media accounts - get to know their style and how they are pitching their brand to the wider world.

Can you answer the question 'what do you know about us' without sounding like the opening paragraph of a corporate report? If not, invest some time reviewing the above.

Get a proper handle on the opportunity

The majority of job descriptions (not all of them, mind!) are pretty dull bullet-pointed lists of responsibilities, tasks and expectations/criteria that fail to breathe any life into what an opportunity is or indeed, often what a firm is really looking for. We are in an age where job specs often list an almost endless wish-list of 'expected' pre-requisites to secure an interview - the 'we are looking for a left handed astronaut & if you're not one, please don't apply' mentality.

You may then, be looking at a firm's wish-list and be thinking you don't have what it takes. Don't fret. The shopping list of wishes & wants is rarely hit 100% - if you have secured an interview it means the hiring firm has seen something they like in you.

With that in mind, it's time to digest what you can about the job you are interviewing for;

  • The spec will likely tell you about what group the role sits in. Using a tool like LinkedIn or Google, you may be able to identify key people that work in that business area and a broader view on what that team or department does.
  • If you are being represented by a recruitment firm then pick up the phone and ask your recruiter the questions that you have. This is a key area where your recruiter is likely to be able to add value to your job search - they can provide an 'inside view' on what a hiring manager is looking for and help answer your questions. If you aren't being represented by a recruiter but have a channel of communication with the HR team, you can also ask them for some limited guidance pre-interview (but don't pester them or ask a mountain of questions at such an early stage).
  • Don't understand an acronym? You should be able to use Google to decipher what it stands for. Firms have a tendency to litter their specs with acronyms that will be known internally but may confuse an external applicant. Search the acronym next to the company name in Google and you will more than likely be able to decipher this within the first few results.
  • Go through the responsibilities line by line and think about pertinent examples you can give where you've fulfilled similar duties before OR can speak about how your versatile skill set or experience would allow you to pick things up quickly. You should do this with a fine tooth comb as the interviewers will likely be assessing you largely against this.
  • The same thing applies to the firm's wish-list of things they are looking for. If you don't fit the spec neatly, think about how your other skills/experience/education (or education in life!), hobbies etc. can address the requirements in more inventive ways.

Be prepared to talk about why you are there

Why are you meeting this company?

Senior professionals from a firm have given up their time to meet you - you should have a reason why you've decided to interview with them and you should be able to talk about it. Even if you were headhunted for a position and weren't actively looking for a new job, there is a reason why you have agreed to meet this firm.

You need to think about and be able to express your career aspirations

There are a number of things you might be hoping to achieve from a career move;

An opportunity to work for a global company, management experience, exposure to particular projects, travel, academic development, the chance to work for a particular brand that intrigues you or a sector you are fascinated by, better remuneration, work-life balance, the chance to work for a group well reputed in the industry etc.

Everyone has different drivers - have a good think about what yours are.

Tip: relate this to the job description and/or what you know about the company or opportunity. If the job you are interviewing for is not a people manager role and you say you are looking for management experience, it's a certain way to drain the enthusiasm out of your interviewer's eyes!

Know how to tell your own story

Know how to tell your story in five minutes or less.

I'll say it once again for impact!

Know how to tell your story in five minutes or less.

You've managed to score yourself face-to-face time with one or more busy executives - they want to learn about you and the stage is set for you to dazzle them. You are faced with the challenge of wanting to relay your experience, qualifications and skills whilst simultaneously trying to build a rapport with the person or people in front of you. Without a shadow of a doubt, the best way to do this is through the storytelling technique.

What you don't want to do is to launch into a 20 minute monologue when asked the now-standard interview question 'tell me about yourself'. You should, however, be able to give a five minutes (or less) run through of who you are, your background and experience and how you've ended up sitting in front of this person (or people).

This can include;

  • Your academic background - why you chose to study what you did, what you enjoyed, things you learned about yourself during your education, your aspirations for applying your education to the workplace (or that you realised you wanted to do something completely unrelated of course... i.e. studying to become a lawyer made you realise you didn't want to be a lawyer!)
  • How you landed your first job (if you are not going for a grad role), why you took it and what the vision was.
  • In each position - what you were drafted in to do, what you achieved, how you spent the majority of your time, key projects or initiatives you had heavy involvement in - what you learned and what you were proud of.
  • The reason you left each position and joined a new one. Hiring managers will want to follow your career so far - that means being clear and honest about each time you have decided to change jobs so far. This can include things like exposure to new markets, the opportunity to learn XYZ, following your previous manager to a new position, always having wanted to work for an XYZ type of company etc. Where possible, keep your reasons for leaving each role positive (i.e. not 'I hated my old boss' or 'I was paid peanuts') - try not to speak negatively of past employers, it rarely plays out well in an interview in terms of how it is received.
  • What you are good at and how you like to apply your skills.

Other things to prepare for.

  • Know your CV/resume inside out. That includes dates, job titles and grades! If you have said that you have done something on your CV/resume, be prepared to speak about it at length.
  • Never, ever, ever lie. Ever. Beware your sins will find you out. If you claim to have managed people but were only 'informally mentoring' them in a matrix structure, be clear. Don't overstate your achievements or overly exaggerate on any point.
  • We've covered this earlier but your career aspirations and why you decided to interview with this firm today.
  • What you are good at and not so good at (the classic strengths and weaknesses question).

Plan how to get there

You should work out your journey way in advance and also check for travel updates on the date of your interview that may affect your arrival time. An invaluable tool I would always recommend is Citymapper which has fantastic coverage of a multitude of global cities. It will scan in live time for your best route/s from door to door, let you know when to leave and what your back-up journey could look like.

The correct amount of time to arrive early is five minutes. That shows you are punctual and allows a window period / buffer period that might be required to 'check in' to an organisation at reception and make your way to a meeting room or waiting area. Arriving ten minutes too early or earlier than that shows you are not mindful of a carefully constructed appointment time and will set alarm bells ringing. If you are at the building 15, 20, 30 minutes earlier than you have to be there - head round the corner, have a coffee and relax.

Think of questions to ask your interviewer/s

Over the years I've had a few candidates fail to make it through to a second interview who have let themselves down through failure to prepare questions to ask. In follow ups with the interviewing firms I've been told that a lack of questions posed to the interviewers at the end of an interview indicated a lack of enthusiasm from the interviewee.

You will probably be asked 'do you have any questions for us at this stage?'. The correct answer is ALWAYS yes.

& not only that, your question/s need to be smart and cover ground that has not been fully discussed throughout the interview already. That means you need a small arsenal of questions before you go in as some of the things on your mind will likely be tackled during the course of the interview.

If you are taking a pen and paper with you there is no harm in jotting down some of the questions you want to cover off.

Examples of questions you might want to ask;

  • What do you enjoy most about working for XYZ company?
  • In terms of career progression, if I was successful in getting this job what does the career path look like from here?
  • Can you tell me some more about the group of colleagues I'll be working with - their backgrounds and the shape of the team?
  • What would be the key things you'd be looking for me to achieve here in the first six months?
  • Why has this opportunity become available?
  • What are some of the projects you guys are currently heavily involved in within the organisation?
  • What does the interview process look like from here / how many stages will there be?
  • From the interview today, do you have any reservations about my ability to do this job? (This can be a good way to open up a dialogue about anything that may have popped up in the interviewer's mind but not been covered comprehensively).

Know what you are going to wear

For first interviews you should always wear formal attire unless given the advice otherwise by a recruiter, HR professional or the hiring manager directly. There are certain industries like Media, Tech, Hedge Funds etc. where there will be a more casual dress code but you should always assume formal interview attire unless explicitly told otherwise.

  • Relatively neutral colours are always recommended - a suit for a male and formal business-wear for a female. If you think you might sweat, a white shirt is your friend.
  • Make sure your clothes fit well! If it's been a while since that suit has come out of the wardrobe make sure it fits. I once had a candidate who wasn't asked back to second interview because his belly was protruding out of his shirt and he hadn't taken the effort to make sure his clothes fit.
  • Keep jewellery and make up low-key. If you have an abundance of body piercings you may wish to consider removing them, depending on the type of firm you are interviewing at. The same goes for body tattoos that you may feel appropriate to cover.
  • Ironed clothes, polished shoes, business-appropriate bag if you are taking one. Try to look the part.

Things to bring with you

  • Printed copies of your CV/resume - one for you and copies for however many interviewers you have. On your CV/resume you should have your contact information clearly shown.
  • A pen and notepad so you can take notes throughout the interview. Take a backup pen too.
  • If there is even a 5% chance of rain, take an umbrella - don't get caught out looking like a drowned rat - first impressions count!
  • Photo ID - some large corporations have security functions at the reception desks that will ask you for photo ID. You should always be prepared for this. Some will accept a credit/debit card but it's better to be safe than sorry.
  • Anything you may have been asked to bring such as a writing sample, portfolio of your work, application form or case study etc.

Things to be mindful of before you get there

You should mentally prepare yourself for the following...

  • Eye contact whilst you are speaking or whilst your interviewers are speaking to you. This comes naturally to some people but others either avoid eye contact through nerves or just don't have self-awareness that they aren't providing it. You must make eye contact with your interviewer/s when they are speaking to you or you are speaking to them, otherwise you will seem disengaged. It's amazing how often interviewees don't realise their eyes are somewhere else during a 1 hour interview.
  • Remember to be mindful both of how fast you are speaking (nerves can make folks speak faster than they usually would!) and how long you are speaking for. Try not to commandeer the interview - you need to be succinct and not waffle.
  • Remember to 'answer the question'. When you get to your interview, you should focus on trying to digest what the interviewer is asking you and what they are likely to want to be getting from your answer. Don't ramble or go off-piste - make sure you are directly answering the question that has been asked of you.

After the interview

  • If you've been given business cards from your interviewer/s, always follow up with a quick email within 24 hours to thank them for their time and express your interest in the opportunity. This is common courtesy and should always be done. If you don't have their email address, ask your recruiter if they will be happy to provide it.
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