Only recently I was delighted to have been shortlisted for second interview for an exciting senior role. I had been told I was one of two candidates selected for the final stage, so, while preparing for the big day, I kept asking myself what qualities I needed to show, which would make me stand out against the other candidate.
A day after the interview, I came across an article in the The Guardian, which I wish I had read before. It was a piece by Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of the New York Times and author of Corner Office: How Top CEOs Made it and How You Can Too (Harper Press, RRP £12.99).
Bryant’s book is a collection of interviews with more than 70 chief executives about how they do their jobs and the most important lessons they have learnt as they rose through the ranks. In the article, Bryant identifies five common, essential qualities that helped set these CEOs apart, and which they also looked for in people they hired.
Do you have what it takes to be a future leader?
Luckily for us jobseekers, all five attributes are skills or attitudes you can learn and acquire with, if you don’t already have them. If what you are looking for is not only a job but career progression, focussing on developing these leader characteristics could help you get ahead.
You can read the full Guardian article here, but I have tried, below, to apply the CEOs’ five big tips to an interview situation:
1) Passionate curiosity
Are you passionately curious? Do you ask big picture questions? Do you try to find out why things work the way they do and whether they can be improved? Are you interested in other people’s stories, in human nature?
Bryant says chief executives may exude confidence and authority at external-facing meetings but within their organisation their greatest contribution is their ability to ask the right questions so they can spot opportunities, understand people who work for them and how to get them to work effectively.
“CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students.”
Perhaps you should prepare some questions to ask at the interview, which indicates a strong interest in the business of the company you want to work for, questions that will show the interviewer you have the “hunger” to succeed. How is business being done now? Where do they want to be in five years’ time and what do they feel they need in order to achieve that ambition?
2) Battle-hardened confidence
CEOs are looking for indications on how well you will perform by checking how you dealt with adversities, even failure, in the past. They will be testing your resilience and resourcefulness. Those who can best handle difficult situations tend to get recognised and promoted.
It is one of the most frequently asked interview questions, so make sure you have a good story up your sleeve, preferably from a professional situation, which will illustrate how you owned a challenge and overcame it with your positive attitude and perseverance. If you have only recently finished school and have limited work experience, a challenging personal situation can be used as an example instead.
3) Team smarts
This is not just about being a team player but the ability to form “ad hoc teams”, “recognise the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal”.
Employers are looking for people who will be able to build and manage a team and get on with their peers. Are you the linchpin type, who can hold it all together, collaborate with different people, lead, mentor, motivate?
“People who truly succeed in business are the ones who […] have figured out how to mobilse people who are not their direct reports.”
This may not be so easy to prove, as it may be linked to your character and how you project yourself. But practising active listening during the interview, showing confidence without arrogance, even a good sense of humour can help make you look personable.
Your interviewer will be trying to find out if you get on with other people. They may even ask you questions such as “How would your colleagues describe you?” Have the answer in your head before the interview day. Don’t lie, of course, but try to stress qualities that highlight what a great colleague/team worker you are.
4) A simple mindset
Great advice here if you are asked to present a Power Point presentation at the interview (I was!).
One way of proving how clear your mind is is to produce a concise, uncluttered presentation, NOT a long one crammed with data showing off how much research you have done on a topic. You will not impress more by talking for longer than necessary either. Less is more, so keep it simple.
“Lose the ‘Power’ part of the presentation and simply get to the ‘Point'”, says Bryant.
A good leader-in-the-making has the ability to connect dots and find solutions “by asking simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities”. I suppose he is trying to say a smart person should be able to think and communicate even complex ideas with clarity and simplicity. Easier said than done.
Most people tend to either talk too much (my case) or clam up when they are nervous. If you feel yourself starting to do either during an interview, try this trick, which a friend advised me: take a few sips of water (don’t forget to ask for a glass of water at the beginning, if they don’t offer you one) while you collect yourself, breathe in and carry on. Make sure your thoughts are coming out coherently.
Many recruitment agents these days offer interview coaching; get some practice beforehand if you think it will help.
People who will only ever do what they’re told to do, or are only concerned about maintaining the status quo will not be seen as “leader types”. In the competitive world we live in, CEOs are looking for people who are not afraid to challenge and push ahead of the competition. By taking risks. By being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
This does not mean you should tell your interviewer your hobby is bungee jumping. In business, you need to be making calculated, informed decisions, even when taking risks, so a balance of fearless and sensible is probably ideal.
You could be asked how you would improve their business if you were in the role. However unusual or risky the suggestions, as long as you can explain your line of thinking logically, you may impress with your ingenuity. But if you overdo it, hoping for the ‘wow factor’, you may talk yourself out of the job. Show you are creative/innovative but back it up with plenty of shrewd business acumen.
Bryant says there is a lot to be learned from CEOs about leadership, as they practise it daily. They have tried and tested their leadership styles and know what works and what doesn’t.
Whether your aim is to one day become a senior executive or your ambitions are much more modest, the fact is employers like candidates with a winner mentality. We all know there are more jobseekers than jobs out there right now, so the more you sound like a winner, the better your chances of landing a job.
Your CV and cover letter will get you the interview. But to survive the interview and beat the competition, you need more than a list of skills and achievements. The following tweet from a recruitment consultant I know says it all: