As anybody who has been in the professional world can attest, companies make some awfully weird hiring decisions at times.  Why this person, not that person?  What explains hiring one candidate over many qualified others — or in some cases, giving the nod to a candidate with far less experience than a competitor?

In many cases, it comes down to two magic words: which candidate “gets it”.  In other words, out of all the individuals a hiring manager meets with, they will usually single out and give preferential treatment to the person they feel has the best grasp of the company’s problems and exudes the most hope/confidence they’d be able to solve them. While some many think this dynamic happens at random, and is beyond a candidate’s immediate control, I’d beg to disagree.  I believe that a savvy interviewee, aware of this core issue, can apply a number of intentional techniques to demonstrate to the employer they have the best grasp, out of anybody, of what needs to be accomplished.  Here are seven key strategies you might consider, if you’re looking to improve in this area:

1) Recognize it’s not all about you; it’s about the work that needs to be done

Right off the bat, I think a trap many job hunters fall into is to assume that an interview is primarily a chance to talk about themselves, their skills, and their past accomplishments.  After all, those are the questions managers always seem to ask, right?  In truth, however, most interview processes (and the resume-focused questions they center around) are just a clumsy way for companies to ascertain who would likely be the best future solution to their problems.  So do your best to help the employer get to the real issues at hand by answering questions about yourself, when prompted, while seeking to steer the conversation back (gracefully) to the employer’s specific needs, issues, and challenges.  Don’t get stuck in the past, even if they keep trying to keep you there!

2) Do your homework; research the industry and study ads for “pain point” clues

The majority of day-to-day business problems managers face, quite honestly, are predictable ones.  Sure, some uber-tech startup may need to track down an engineer who can solve an impossible technical problem every once in a while — or a company might occasionally need somebody to translate in Greek — but in reality, it’s not hard to make educated guesses around the “pain” most leaders are facing.  They need to find ways to do things more cost-efficiently.  Or faster.  Or to greater scale.  Or with higher quality.  And if you conduct a modicum of research into any given industry, you can usually get a good grasp of the key trends and competitive challenges facing any organizations in that space. Use that knowledge to your advantage.  Appear smarter and more well-informed than your competitors.  And on top of this, study the job advertisement carefully and note any unusual, unorthodox, and repeated language that’s included in it, which can often signal a hidden challenge or”cry for help” in terms of what’s really going on at the company, beneath the surface.

3) Show intellectual curiosity; ask questions and dig deep

Another common reason interviewers give for picking certain candidates over others is the amount of “curiosity” a given individual displays about the job in question.  Simply put, many job seekers are too passive in the interviewing process.  Scared to death of failure, or perhaps trapped in the more deferential interview etiquette of decades past, I’ve seen a lot of talented people fail to step up to the plate, engage the hiring manager, and show initiative during hiring conversations.  These days, you don’t want to hold your questions until the very end.  You want to lean forward and ask questions throughout the process, showing a sincere interest in the role at hand and a desire to really understand what the employer needs done.  Don’t hijack the conversation completely, but don’t be shy, either, about engaging in some robust discussion and pushing back with some polite–but pointed–questions as the interview unfolds.

4) Engage in active listening

When Stephen Covey wrote his groundbreaking “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book back in 1989, there was a whole chapter devoted to the importance of active, empathetic listening.  It stressed that success-minded professionals should “seek first to understand, than to be understood” and went on to share numerous examples of how people are often in such a hurry to blurt out their own agenda items, they completely ignore the remarks of the person across from them.  Sadly, this condition still affects an awful lot of people out there.  I routinely encounter people (in fairness, the stress of an interview environment doesn’t help!) who seem hell-bent on giving canned interview answers that have nothing to do with the questions they’re actually being asked.  In fact, sometimes the responses candidates give are so off the rails, I’ll directly ask the person if they remember the question to which they’re responding — and often, they’ll confess that they don’t.  So if you want to really score points with an employer, take a deep breath, slow down, truly listen to what they have to say, and don’t respond until you’re sure you fully grasp what they’re asking you.  They’ll be much more impressed.

5) Validate assumptions along the way

As the interview unfolds, and you practice the above techniques, you should start getting a decent picture of what’s really going on at a company — and some clarity around the fundamental challenges that are keeping the hiring manager up at night.  Now it’s time to start being more proactive in your efforts.  Take whatever you’ve learned, or think you’ve learned, and run it back by the hiring manager, asking them to confirm that you’ve got an accurate understanding of the situation.  For example, if a manager keeps talking about the need for the new hire to help open up a new China office — you might ask “So just so I’m clear, one of the top priorities for the person you hire will to be get the new China office up and running, correct?  Would this involve starting from scratch or are there already some efforts underway?  And is there a particular deadline that you have targeted for this to be done?”  Essentially, you want to show the manager that you’ve listened carefully to their issues, verify that your understanding of the situation is correct, and ensure nothing has been misinterpreted or lost in translation.

6) Show off your expertise; share thoughts, ideas, and insights into potential solutions

As the interview draws near an end, it’s now time to show off your experience and start floating some ideas you’d have about how to get in the work in question done effectively.  What plan would you follow to achieve success?  What new ideas or best practices could you share?  What approaches do you think would work best?  What hidden challenges, risks, or obstacles might the employer not be thinking about?  While you don’t want to seem arrogant or that you have the perfect answer to all of their problems, it’s okay to meet them halfway, making statements like “Based on what you’ve shared, I’m confident I could ace this project by…” or “While I don’t know exactly what you’ve tried, to date, in my last organization I was able to resolve a very similar problem by…”  Doing so will demonstrate to the hiring manager that you not only have a firm grasp of their needs, but that you’re excited and already thinking hard about how you’d be able to solve them.  Managers, in general, dig this!

7) Finish on a high note; hope is on the way!

Last but not least, you want to leave the interview on an upbeat and solutions-focused note.  Last impressions can be equally as powerful as first impressions. So as opposed to just slinking out of the manager’s office after a fishy handshake and some final mumbled words of appreciation, straighten your spine, look the interviewer right in the eyes, and say something like “John, thanks so much.  This has been terrific and I think I’ve gotten an excellent sense of the culture here and the specific items you’re hoping the ideal hire can come in and take off your plate.  All of the challenges you’ve shared are exactly the things I love handling, and while I know you likely have some other good candidates in the pipeline, I hope you’ll seriously consider me for a spot on the team.”  Again, it’s your final chance to make a memorable impression and show them that you “get it” better than anybody else they’ve talked with — and are itching to come in and conquer some of the challenges they’ve outlined.