For answers I turned to four seasoned career coaches and I reviewed some articles by Forbes contributor Liz Ryan, who is big on the idea of a “Pain Hypothesis.” She advises that before an interview, you should try to figure out what the organization’s biggest challenges are and ask questions about those issues. This tactic works well no matter where you’re interviewing. Do a news and web search on the firm and read everything you can get your hands on. If you can find a connection to someone who works there, call and ask for a 10-minute chat or even better, a meeting. Keep probing until you learn what the firm’s weaknesses are. Then direct your questions at the problem or “pain” you’ve uncovered.
In my world of journalism it could be circulation or traffic to a news website. I would ask the interviewer whether traffic was an issue and if shey said yes, I’d say, at Forbes we’ve had the same challenge and we’ve overcome it through our contributor model, through data analytics that help writers develop popular stories and by assigning writers to beats where they break stories and develop a following.
New York career coach Robert Hellmann agrees with Ryan’s approach. “You want to form the hypothesis so you know what the issues are ahead of time,” he says. Among your goals in the meeting should be to convince the manager that you’re not just a good person to consider when he has a job to fill down the road, but that you’re worth referring to another highly-placed contact in the field.
For instance a client of Hellmann’s had been working in the marketing department of a financial services firm and wanted to switch to higher education. Through contacts he landed a meeting with the No. 2 person at a university. Hellmann’s client asked a question faced by all universities: How do you attract more donors? The client suggested he could use his financial background not only to attract new donors but to double the return on investment the school got from existing contributions. He wound up hitting two pain points on the nose, impressing the manager who said, “I’m sorry we didn’t have this conversation two months ago when we needed someone.” Then he went on to say that he knew of a university that needed the expertise the candidate was offering. Hellmann’s client had a meeting at the second school and used the same approach. That administrator referred him to a third person who wound up hiring him. “The third person turned into the actual job interview,” says Hellmann.
If you don’t have a pain hypothesis going in, don’t worry. Use the meeting to ask informed questions about the organization. The coaches I interviewed disagree about how specific to get. Longtime New York coach Ellis Chase, author of In Search of the Fun-Forever Job: Career Strategies That Work, suggests that you keep the questions general. For instance you might say, “I read your organization is planning to introduce a new product. I’m interested in that because we tried that in my office and I’m interested in how you’re going to tackle that.” Anita Attridge, a coach in Basking Ridge, NJ, who previously worked in staffing at Merck, Xerox and The Nature Conservancy, says it’s legitimate to ask even more general questions, like what are your key priorities, what are you really focused on now and what are the skills you look for.
Sarah Stamboulie, a New York career coach who used to work in corporate human resources at Morgan Stanley, Nortel Networks and Cantor Fitzgerald, and as a career coach in Columbia University’s alumni office, recommends drilling down much further. For example, if your expertise is in sales, ask what territories the company is targeting, what the customers bring up as common objections, what issues with products or services the customers are having, and what the company is doing about those issues.
Though Ellis Chase differs with Stamboulie about asking such specific questions, they and all the coaches agree on the importance of following up. He recalls his own experience with a meeting that led to a job. The motto of this story: It can take a long time and following up is essential. He started with a meeting with one of the founders at a big outplacement firm. He’d worked in staffing at what was then Chase Manhattan Bank so he had a lot of expertise to offer. Though there was no specific job open, he hit it off with the firm’s co-founder, who referred him to a more junior colleague. She and Chase set up a 7:30am meeting in Stamford, CT, shortly afterward, but when he arrived, she didn’t show up. Chase called the founder who said, “I’m sorry, do stay in touch with me.” A month later Chase followed up with a call and the founder introduced Chase to a manager who was running the firm’s branch in a region of New Jersey. Still there wasn’t a job, but the manager took to Chase, and, like the founder, he invited Chase to stay in touch. Chase wrote several follow-up notes and finally, nine months after the first meeting with the founder, he was offered a permanent, part-time position. He eventually worked his way up to managing director. “I’m not a great networker,” he admits. “This was the one time in my life that I did everything right: I stuck to it, kept the relationship going. When they said follow up, I followed up.”
Stamboulie’s approach is a bit different. She recommends you focus on trying to get your interviewer to talk, rather than trotting out your own story. “It’s a little like going on a date,” she says. “You want to show how you would make a good girlfriend by being nice to them and nice to the waiter. . . Don’t talk about what a great girlfriend you were to your past boyfriend.”
Another tactic: Show that you are current with the news in your field. If I were meeting with a journalism boss this week, I would have several topics to touch on, including the increasing scrutiny of Rolling Stone’s reporting tactics in its attention-getting article about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, the walk-out by editors at The New Republic after the venerable magazine fired respected editor Franklin Foer and the new editor of Bloomberg News, John Micklethwaite of The Economist, who is replacing l,ongtime editor Matthew Winkler. Those topics would demonstrate that I’m a media insider who keeps up with industry happenings.
To me the toughest part of this process is figuring out the pain points and coming up with specific stories illustrating how you could address them, gaining an understanding of the organization’s structure and culture and where you might fit in, and, at least in my field, following up with carefully chosen story ideas that show I understand their pain points, which in journalism means the need for appropriate story ideas.
All the coaches said that no-job interviews are the most effective kind. Often when you go to an interview for a job that’s being advertised, the company has already chosen a front-runner, frequently an internal candidate, and is just covering its bases by talking to more people. Or maybe the hiring manager has decided to hire that sharp woman he met six months ago who asked all those great questions, volunteered great ideas connected to her own experience, and sent him a note last week with a suggestion that hadn’t occurred to him about how to boost sales.