I spend a lot of time on the phone with Baylor undergraduates helping them figure out one thing: how to get a job.
There’s no hiding it’s a tough market. The recession may have officially ended, but behind the weak job market and downgraded GDP forecasts lurks a gloomy truth that college degrees just aren’t the security blanket they used to be. Labor Economist Andrew Sum analyzed the results of the Labor Department’s 2009 American Community Survey and concluded nearly 45% of college graduates under the age of 25 are either not working at all or working jobs that do not require a college degree. Anecdotally, we see it every day. We see the business major making coffee. We see the biology major waiting tables. We see it, and it’s scary.
But the reason people call me for advice isn’t because I’m an expert. I can’t offer a silver bullet. What I do offer, however, are the practical lessons I’ve accumulated from literally dozens of interviews with professional finance firms. I learned many of these lessons the hard way, but as I’ve engrained them as habits, they’ve consistently been responsible for winning job offers over equally–and even better–qualified candidates. Employing this strategy worked wonders even in highly competitive positions, at times earning me the offer from a pool of 25 interviewees.
And that’s the dirty little secret of interviewing: it’s a skill. And like all skills, it can be mastered by finding a process and adhering to it. I know, I know. It’d be much easier if your performance at the job was all that mattered. But that’s just not the way the world works. On-job performance often has little correlation to the ability to win the job, and this is true all the way up to campaigns for the United States Presidency. It’s not fair, but it’s not going to change. But the good news is you can use this to your advantage. The vast majority of people – even professionals – neglect to develop their interviewing skills, so you can frequently gain a slight edge over them with even rudimentary effort.
With that, I give you Samer’s Unpatented Process to Interviewing:
BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
1. Write, Rehearse, Record. Certain interview questions get asked all time, and you know them:
“Walk me through your resume.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“What are your strengths & weaknesses?”
“Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge/lead a team/failed at a project.”
“Why are you interested in our company?”
You can best 80% of your competition’s answers by writing down your responses beforehand. Unfortunately, this isn’t Whose Line Is It Anyway? and you do not score points for improvising. You may take pride in your exceptional knack at bullshitting, but save it for the next time you’re caught with your pants around your ankles in the back of Volkswagen.
So stop and take a few minutes to think about it. The correct way to answer is to adapt stories, results, and details into a 2-3 minute narrative. Not longer, not shorter. Specificity is key. Mention the number of people you’ve led, the amount of money you oversaw, and the types of projects you managed. When you tell your story, explain it chronologically and build the experiences in a way that qualifies you perfectly for that job. Make your story memorable, clear, and logical. If the structure resembles the movie Memento, you’ve lost.
To best 95% of all candidates, give yourself a full dress rehearsal. Dress up just like you would for the interview and set up your iPhone across the table to video record your answers. Yes, it may seem weird, but if NFL players obsessively watch film to learn about themselves, why can’t you? Don’t be afraid to critique yourself. Are you stuttering? How is your posture? Are you smiling and making eye contact? Does your voice sound sure and assertive? Don’t be shy to ask close friends and family, “Hey, I’ve been working on my answers to some interview questions. Do you mind taking a quick look at this clip to let me know if you have any suggestions?”
2. Unleash the Madness. I began to despise my role at a Dallas hedge fund in December 2009, launching my job search when the majority of firms were still laying people off. The timing was about as wise as casting Rosie O’Donnell as a Victoria Secret model, but I was a man on a mission.
I thought of every obvious avenue that held a job opportunity – local finance recruiters, alumni web postings, friends’ companies – and followed up until I exhausted them. And then I searched more. I contacted former professors, my parents’ friends, and attended a monthly business breakfast for university alumni (where I was one of the few under the age of 40).
Push yourself to discover avenues until opportunities present themselves. Finding jobs is largely a matter of initiative, so do not be discouraged if results don’t show up immediately. Stay hungry.
Above all, don’t be shy to take advantage of the connections in your industry. If you have a strong relationship with someone who currently works for your prospective employer, your chance of receiving an offer is obscenely high.
3. Research. As I thumb through a stack of old interview notes, it’s striking how they evolved in the short period of my job search. At the beginning, I wrote down five generic questions to ask in the interview and used a couple more lines to take notes during the interview. I fit my first three interviews on one page.
As I gained more experience, the research for each interview took on a life of its own. The previous day’s ending prices for the Dow Jones, NASDAQ, and S&P500 indices began to adorn themselves at the corners of the page. Then it was bullet points to remind me of my story. Then, important facts about the company and job description started to fill the page. Then my questions during the interviews matured from “What is the company culture like?” to “The market for secondary Private Equity interests has cooled by approximately 40% since 2008. What effect has this had on your firm, and how has it hedged against the macroeconomic volatility?”
It was a constant refinement, and my ability to deliver impressive answers correlated perfectly with my interview preparation. I regularly hear hiring managers complain of interviewees who lacked substantive questions and didn’t display knowledge about the company. The Boy Scouts had it right: “Be Prepared.”
DURING THE INTERVIEW
4. Mindset. Your mission is to get the offer, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a terrible fit and you wouldn’t work there. Do your best to get the offer.
There are two important reasons why: you received an offer and are therefore desirable and you now have a number that other hiring managers need to beat. When I am job searching, I focus my full energy on getting the first job offer. Once interviewers realize you have an offer or multiple offers on the table, they start to move more urgently and more proactively to recruit you. Offers come to you with much more ease. If the position you’d hate gives you an offer for a higher amount, you have a powerful negotiating tool to take to the company you prefer and inform them that “I received an offer for $xxx,xxx, but I’d really like to work with your company. Can you match it?”
Get the first offer, then get multiple offers. Then decide what you like. The benefits you’ll accrue by starting a friendly bidding war may produce a salary tens of thousands of dollars higher than the original offer.
5. Know Your Demeanor. From the second they see you, interviewers are comparing your vibe to the others who sat in your seat. Don’t let that intimidate you, but know that it’s of utmost importance to be aware of the characteristics you are projecting. In finance, it is common for interviewers to put you on the spot, intentionally pressure you, and gauge how you react under pressure. Many of them ask brainteasers like “how many ping pong balls would fit in the Empire State Building?” or “how many gas stations are needed to service the city of Chicago?” They aren’t looking for the right answer; they’re watching to see if you approach the problem analytically, if you keep your poise, and if you can explain your solution clearly. Impressive answers are great, but never focus on the content at the expense of remaining relaxed and confident. Let me say that again: stay relaxed and confident. You must remain unfazed. Theron Q. Dumont explains in The Power of Concentration:
“It is very necessary that people should have confidence in you. When two people meet, they have not the time to look each other up. They accept each other according to instinct, which can usually be relied on. You meet a person and his attitude creates suspicion in you. The chances are, you cannot tell why, but something tells you, ‘Have no dealings with him, for if you do, you will be sorry.’”
The interviewer is looking for someone he or she can work with, so I focus on connecting with the person across the table. I always stay relaxed and steady, but I make minor adjustments depending on who I’m talking to. If a dominant personality is interviewing me, I’ll speak a little louder and a little more assertively. I’ll skip minor details of my story if they seem impatient. If someone is sweet and quiet, I’ll lower my tone and speak a little more slowly. The difference is very subtle, such that if both people were in the room, neither would notice the change.
Regardless of the personality, I stand up to give them a firm handshake, touch their elbow or hand with the other hand, look at them in the eye, and tell them, “It’s a pleasure to meet with you, Mr. Buffet.” As Dale Carnegie points out, to each person, their name is the most precious sound in the world. During the interview, I shut up when they are talking and elect to take notes or listen intently until they are done talking. I note something unique about the conversation with each interviewer, which plays a big role in a well-written ‘Thank You’ letter after the interview.
6. Use Specifics to Answer Questions. I’m repeating this because it needs to be repeated. Whenever you answer a question, use specific anecdotes and examples. Instead of describing your college days as “heavily involved in clubs and fraternity life while balancing a heavy course load,” be specific: “My junior year, I was elected to lead 52 Senators and manage $52,000 in campus spending as Student Body Vice President while balancing an 18-hour course-load and Honors thesis requirements.”
This applies to your resume as well. I see too many people list their job responsibilities instead of what employers really notice: accomplishments. What did you actually do? Instead of saying that you “answered client requests,” explain how you “helped develop the account as it grew from $5 M to $10 M in revenue by coordinating with client managers twice weekly.” If the accomplishments aren’t relevant to your new employer – like a career change – show that you’re motivated by speaking about self-study courses or certifications you earned independently.
7. Predict the Technical Questions. A hedge fund manager explained to me during my undergraduate years that “technical questions are a check-box. Getting them right won’t make you, but getting them wrong will probably break you.”
I vividly remember my first finance interview. I remember because I failed miserably. I had driven 4 hours to Houston to interview for a stock analysis position, and the first 2 hours of the interview – the qualitative portion – was as smooth as any I’d ever done. After I asked my questions and assumed our time was up, the manager suddenly remembered, “Oh! We forgot one last thing. We’d just like to ask you a couple of questions. Is that alright?”
“How would you value McDonald’s?”
“What do you think the beta is of Abercrombie & Fitch and why?”
“What does negative net debt mean?”
“How would you value negative earnings for a manufacturing company?”
…and so it went for 16 more questions, and I didn’t get the job. The questions weren’t particularly difficult or tricky, I just wasn’t prepared. As soon as I got in the car, I wrote down every single question they asked me, and I learned the answers to all of them. The next interview had 4 of the same questions, and I documented the others. I eventually built a database of likely questions –- from my own experience as well as my colleagues –- to keep myself prepared for any other interview. Even the brainteasers started to repeat themselves.
If you get a technical question you don’t know the answer to, relax and make an educated guess. Instead of saying “I don’t know,” show that you’ll at least attempt to think analytically about the scenario. No one wants to work with the guy who throws his arms in the air and doesn’t even try.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
8. Thank You Letters. I send a “Thank You” email about 24 hours after my interview to each person I sat down with. I thank each person for taking the time to meet with me regarding the open position, but I spend the entire 4-5 sentences discussing our unique conversation, much of which is driven by the questions I asked that particular person. Your main goal is to keep it brief, non-needy, and reinforce a couple things that make you memorable.
I want to thank you for your time yesterday regarding the vacant Vice Presidential position.
After meeting with you and your Cabinet, I’m confident my experience as Secretary of State and interest in a White House position makes me a great fit for the team. The projects we discussed regarding job growth and Confidential Black Ops missions were truly fascinating, and I hope to join you in achieving those goals. I enjoyed hearing about the day-to-day responsibilities of the position, and I think my speaking skills and desire to be in a fast-paced atmosphere enable me to be productive from the start. If you have further questions, let me know.