Advice

Why the secret to nailing an interview is the exact opposite of what everybody thinks

Congratulations, you’ve made the short list of candidates for your dream job. Now all you have to do is pass the final test: How do I walk into the room and convince the decision makers that I’m their best choice?

This is the question on the mind of anyone, everywhere, who’s ever competed for a job. Unfortunately, it’s exactly the wrong question to ask. We know because we advise corporate boards, executives, and CEOs — from middle-market firms to the Fortune 500 — to help them make their most critical hiring decisions. We’re in those rooms all the time. More importantly, we’re in the heads of the people who make the decisions. Job seekers, here’s one of the surprising interview tips to understand before you walk into the room: They’re as anxious about the hiring process as you are. Maybe even more so.


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Why? Time is short. No one seems like the perfect fit. The chances for failure are uncomfortably high. The cost of a wrong decision can be astronomical.

In the face of uncertainty, hiring decision makers want to make a safe choice. So when you are walking into the interview, get out of your own head and your own anxieties over proving you are worthy of the role. Safety is your key to the kingdom. And communicating safety, we’ve found, has less to do with convincing the decision maker of your capabilities, skills, or intelligence.

The bottom line is this: You get fired on results but hired on perception. So how can we all exude safety in the room?

Become the ‘Happy Warrior’

Bill Fry has delivered many tens of millions of dollars of value to shareholders of companies he ran. He grew the vacuum company Oreck during an economic downturn — no easy feat — and before that, he led Bell Sports through a similarly challenging time, with 9/11, new market entrants, a major acquisition and then a merger. Before starting his corporate career, he spent eight years in the Navy, after an ROTC scholarship took him to Ole Miss. Bill is competitive and as sharp as a tack. Sounds formidable, right? He must be one intense guy! we thought, prior to meeting him to assess him for the CEO role at Oreck.

It took one minute in his presence to prove that assumption wrong. Bill radiates an I’m OK, you’re OK vibe that sets you immediately at ease. Eye contact, friendly questions, self-effacing humor, and calm but confident demeanor. Bill listens intently no matter who is in front of him — a CEO or a mailroom clerk — and makes you feel respected. Bill Fry gets results, without a doubt, but darned if he isn’t the nicest guy you ever met.

In the interview process, nice guys and gals finish first.

Boards, and interviewers in general, consistently overemphasize soft skills in their hiring decisions. Can it be that the same comportment that helps attract a date also gives you an edge in getting hired? Sophisticated as they are in tackling “hard” business problems, when sizing up people, most board members and business leaders hire under the heavy influence of gut feel. And gut feel leads them to the more likeable candidates.


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Among 2,600 CEO candidates analyzed by Professors Steve Kaplan and Morten Sørensen of the University of Chicago and Columbia University, the more likeable leaders had higher odds of getting hired for any leadership position. They weren’t necessarily the best of the best, but they were the friendliest of the best. SAS analysts found similar patterns in their analysis. Highly confident candidates were 2.5 times more likely to be hired. Likeability and confidence impart no advantage in performance, but they definitely help you land the job. While these studies focused on CEO candidates, we’ve seen the likeability effect play out up and down the corporate ladder.

Bill Fry exudes a “Happy Warrior” demeanor. The happy warrior confidently says, “I love to solve the problems you have. Been there, done that, and liked it. Eager to do it again for you!” As these leaders talk about their most difficult projects and tough decisions, they exude joy, pleasure, passion, and energy. In other words, they simultaneously create both emotional and practical safety. You know you’ve met a happy warrior when he or she leaves the room and you can’t wait to put her or him in the job.

The people who ultimately get picked are those who lead with fierce competence delivered with genuine warmth. Good interviewees take a read on the room the moment they walk in and mirror the energy level. They pay close attention to body language to see how their words are landing: Are people’s eyes lighting up? Do they sound hesitant? Are they checking their watches? Your goal is to connect with your audience and make them feel safe

Linguistic landmines and the safety of words

During the CEO Genome Project, we ran 212 CEO interview transcripts through SAS text-mining software, searching for linguistic patterns behind hire and no-hire decisions. SAS is a company who builds powerful predictive analytics tools; the IRS and major banks use it to detect fraud, to name just one application. When we unleashed it on our interviews, we found some ugly hidden handicaps: superficial factors that have little or nothing to do with what it takes to perform yet that trigger biases that affect your odds of being hired.

Foreign accents. Candidates for United States–based companies who had a significant accent were, twelve to one (!), less likely to be hired. Yes, in the twenty-first century, when billions are spent on diversity initiatives, in-group bias continues to play an out-size role. It’s bad enough that the bias exists. What’s worse is that nobody will tell you as you are coming up the ranks that you may be the most capable person in the world but that others’ perception of your capabilities may suffer because of your accent. Saying so is not polite and can even be risky.

Elevated or pretentious language or affectations. While accents are a handicap, so is using overly sophisticated language. Throwing the dictionary at your interviewers will not get you the job. Interview candidates who used more esoteric, intellectual, or “ivory tower” vocabulary were, eight to one, less likely to be hired. Candidates who used more colloquial language (e.g., phrases such as “shooting from the hip”) were, eight to one, more likely to be hired. In our experience, down-to-earth storytelling, drawing on memorable results, is vastly more powerful than a cerebral, academic style.

Management platitudes, acronyms, and consulting-ese. Relying on empty buzzwords can be an interview killer. We sat with one candidate who kept saying he was “all about amplitude” and that he “liked to elevate people.” Trouble was, he seemed to think that repeating these phrases removed the need to offer specific, quantifiable examples. Using generic language can come across as lacking authenticity and can trigger the interviewer’s ambiguity bias — the tendency to avoid those who appear to be missing information. Instead, be precise in your use of language and examples.

“We” and “I”. Leadership is a team sport. The goal is to balance the “I” with the “We.” All candidates use “I” when describing their accomplishments at a higher rate than “We.” But the weakest candidates used “I” at twice the rate of the rest of the interview candidates. The best candidates are clear about their individual contributions without overusing “I.” Candidates who go on and on with their own accolades and accomplishments impress decision makers less than the ones who say, “My proudest achievement was the moment the team began to knock it out of the park” — and then clearly explain their role in the team’s achievement.

You may not look anything like the interviewers who will decide whether you get the job. You may not have gone to the same schools or played the same sports. But if you can leave them feeling safer and more energized than you found them, you’ve got a much better shot at getting the job.

Elena Lytkina Botelho and Kim Rosenkoetter Powell are the authors of The CEO Next Door (Crown Publishing), from which this article was adapted.

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