The Best Way You Can Help Yourself During Your Next Interview

In your next interview, phone screen, or chat over drinks, when the topic comes up… ask “what are you looking for?”

The most successful hot dog cart in Ladders’ hometown of New York City isn’t a hot dog cart at all. It’s “The Halal Guys”, a gyro, chicken and rice stand in midtown a couple blocks from Fox News and Radio City Music Hall.

As you can see, the line stretches all the way down the block. And it’s that way any time of day or night. My wife and I once waited a half-hour at 1 a.m. in the morning for Halal Guys’ gyros after a late night celebrating our anniversary.

Now the thing that makes The Halal Guys special is the food and the service. They focus on their specialty and they’re quick to ask what you’d like. It makes sense because that’s the best way to make sure your customer is getting what they want.

And you’ve experienced the same thing at restaurants and retail shops your whole life. The person behind the counter asks “how can I help you?” or “would you like fries with that?” or “what would you like today, hon?”

The question seems so obvious to us because we’ve grown accustomed to it.

Which makes it strange that when you’re the one doing the selling or offering, and you’re sitting across from your customer, these simple questions so rarely pop into your head to ask.

Time after time, when we’re in the job search, or doing some purposeful networking, or fielding phone calls about job opportunities, we let flattery or nerves or anxiety get in the way of asking the obvious questions.

“What would you like?” is also the right question for you to ask your future bosses, prospective colleagues, and interested recruiters.

By the time you’ve landed on Ladders, you’ve figured out what you’re good at, and where you specialize in life. And just like The Halal Guys, there a limited number of roles that you know you’d be good for, or interested in.

But somehow, in managing our careers, we can get flummoxed with trying to sound smart, or live up to some imaginary standard in our head, or let the nerves take over and spend the entire time guessing what the person on the other side of the coffee table needs.

But we’d actually do better when we’re moving along in our careers, by starting with “what would you like?”

When you walk into an interview, ask your future manager “what are you looking for?”

When you get a call from a recruiter via Ladders, ask “what are you looking for?”

When a prominent person in your industry floats the idea over cocktails that maybe you could make a new home at their firm, ask “well, what are you looking for?”

And, look, I get it. The nerves, or the surprise, or the social niceties can sometimes make it difficult to keep your focus.

Somehow, this is one of those areas where it seems to actually come easier when it’s a friend or a close colleague from a past life in the discussion. You’re far more inclined to ask “what are you looking for” because you’re genuinely interested in making sure that what you’ve got, and what they need, are matched well together.

The fact that there’s a bond of knowing each other over years, and your desire to make sure you’re doing right by your friend somehow supercedes those nerves and anxieties and surprise. And that makes it easy to get to the heart of the matter and ask without guile or gumption whether or not you truly match up with what your friend is seeking.

And while I know it is easier to do with friends, it’s a good idea to extend this courtesy to everybody you meet in planning your career.

Just like the Halal Guys start every customer interaction with “what would you like?” you can start your conversation with “what would you like in this role?”

Whether it’s your future boss, the industry recruiter, or the HR manager, make sure to ask up front what they are looking for.

The unsurprising truth is they will tell you.

This eliminates a lot of guesswork and misunderstandings on your part. If it turns out they’re looking for something you don’t have or can’t do, there’s every reason to be polite and pleasant and steer the conversation to some other topic because this is not the job or role for you.

The Halal guys don’t do ice cream sundaes, Cobb salads, or sushi. There are a lot of things that you can’t, don’t, or won’t do. The sooner you can determine whether there’s a fit the better off you’ll both be.

And this is important not just for the efficiency of being persuasive in your interviews, but also because wasting your time on roles or conversations that are never going to lead to success distracts you from other, better, more fruitful conversations.

So in an interview, in a phone screen, in a chat over drinks at the trade show, when the topic comes up… ask “what would you like?”

And I’ll see you at the corner of 53rd and 6th in Manhattan!

I’m rooting for you.