I’m not sure where or when it happened, but at some point along the highway of history, society seems to have decided that the best way to select somebody for a job was to bring them in, ask them a bunch of canned questions, and listen to a bunch of canned (or at least shopworn) answers. In fact, you can turn on CNN at almost any given moment and observe top-level cabinet appointees and judges acting this way, attempting to land coveted positions by playing it safe, avoiding straight answers, and coming across as “non-offensively” as possible. This behavior inevitably triggers my gag reflex. You?
While this technique may arguably work in the halls of government, however, it almost never works in the private sector. Passivity doesn’t sell. Every company I encounter seems to be looking for people who are confident, engaging, smart, and willing to put themselves out there — visibly and vocally — in order to demonstrate the quality of their ideas and expertise. So if your interviewing experience to date has mainly involved sitting in front of a desk, politely answering questions, there’s a good chance you’re not registering strongly enough to be a serious contender.
Expressing your professional “point of view” in a hiring discussion becomes even more critical, of course, with each rung you attempt to take up the corporate ladder. If you’re being considered for a top leadership position, for example, it will be imperative to capture the employer’s imagination with specific ideas, thoughts, and wisdom about how you can address the company’s problems and successfully achieve their goals. What incredible secrets have you learned about managing companies through periods of intense change? How do you make sure you hire the right people? How do you get the best out of your direct reports — or get multiple teams and departments to work in tandem, despite turf battles and competing priorities? These are the things that your next employer is dying to hear. They desperately need them, after all, or they likely wouldn’t be talking with you!
This same dynamic also applies to anybody who is targeting an SME (Subject Matter Expert) position within an organization, such as the top marketing job, financial post, or operations role. Remember, they’re hiring you (ostensibly) because they don’t currently have the answers and expertise they need in house — and are eagerly hoping you can supply them! So while you should use a respectful tone at all times, don’t let modesty or propriety prevent you from expressing your own strong opinions about how you’d approach the company’s problems or where you think they might be going wrong with their current efforts. If you’re interviewing for a Director of Marketing role, for instance, don’t be afraid to tell the company what you really think of their current website, collateral, and other materials, even if this feedback might not be highly favorable. Sure, they might disagree with you, but they’ll at least respect you for having a point of view, and you’ll be exponentially more MEMORABLE than all of the other people they’ve met with who are trying to skate by with lazy, contrived, politically-correct answers.
Ultimately, there’s a huge difference between playing to win and playing not to lose in the interviewing process — and if you’re following the latter strategy, and always trying to tell the interviewer what they want to hear, your chances of success won’t be very promising!