How to Master Your Interviews to Get The Job You Want
I have always had a passion for helping people develop successful careers, specially when it comes to professionals in financial services.
First in investment banking (as Recruiting Captain for Morgan Stanley’s Sales and Trading division), and later again as an entrepreneur, I have continued to invest focus and energy in identifying, recruiting and training talent.
Today, among other activities, I collaborate with the IE Business School as an Assistant Professor, where I lecture on topics like self-awareness or execution, and I also help Masters in Finance and MBA candidates understand the world of finance and maximise their chances of getting a job in the industry.
Over time, I have identified seven key aspects that determine a candidate’s effectiveness in a recruiting process, regardless of industry, applicable for both graduates or experienced hires:
- Applying for the right position for you (my example early in my career comes in handy).
- The understated — yet critical — importance of your Resumé.
- Doing you pre-interview homework on the company and the interviewer.
- Curating your story. It is your biggest asset!
- Mastering tricky interview questions that define your character.
- The importance of asking back the right questions.
- Following up post-interview, and the art of managing offers.
1. Apply to a Position That Fits Who You Are
In 2005, after my first entrepreneurial experience in Italy, I decided I would give my career a shift. I set off to find a corporate finance investment banking job in London.
A couple of months later I was at the final stages for a corporate finance analyst position at Morgan Stanley. I got to the last interview with a Senior Managing Director, who at the end of the session said: “Rafa, this interview was spot on. On paper, you should get the job. But I am not entirely sure this particular division fits you well. You will be in a cubicle all day. You won’t meet a single client for the next three years. Is this a good fit for you considering your background in sports and your experience as an entrepreneur? I feel that you would be happier and more successful at a faster-paced position, with more immediate responsibility. Have you considered applying for a job at the Sales and Trading division instead?”
My jaw dropped to the floor.
All the work and preparation and I was not getting the job I thought was right despite doing everything right. I left the room with a deep sense of confusion. And no job offer.
I did end up internalising the meaning of this feedback. It made me assess my strengths, weaknesses and character traits. I went on to research Sales and Trading, and indeed it seemed a better fit.
Why hadn’t I done this exercise before? I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I changed all my open job applications from corporate finance to the capital markets division and eventually joining Goldman Sachs as foreign exchange (FX) salesperson, starting a decade-long career in the industry.
You need to know yourself, as I wrote about in a previous article. Make sure that you are applying to a job that will put your strengths to work, or you will be miserable. Being smart does not mean being the best at everything.
Do You Know Yourself? 3 Revealing Questions to Find Out
You can’t change what you don’t know
2. Unfortunately, Your Resumé Will Get 8 Seconds of Attention, at Best
“Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products.” ― Al Ries
Recruiters at large firms have to go through hundreds of (similar) CVs in a few hours. How are you making sure that yours get picked for an interview? There are a few things that the screener will look for:
- Academic focus and accomplishment. Were you committed to your duty or just sailing through?
- How are using your free time? Do you have any cares about anything, beyond just being entertained during the weekend? Did you practice any sport competitively? Can you show me that you are a learner? Any charity work, are you giving back your time? Anything out the beaten track that will show you are unique? Remember, this is a marketing exercise.
- Do you care for my industry? Have you done any internships? Can you show for any work (paid or unpaid) that proves your intention and effort to discover what kind of job or industry you may like or not?
- Are you aligned with what is required? How have you built the hard and soft skills that could be of value in the position you are now applying for? Can you demonstrate those skills to the CV screener?
A CV with a well crafted story will make your academic feats a bit less relevant. The key here is to intrigue your interviewer, to give him or her the impression that it could be worth seeing you face to face to understand who you are a bit better. That will get you through the door and give you the chance to progress through the process.
Your CV speaks for yourself as loudly as the way you dress does. It represents you. Make sure both content and format help you get the right attention. My general advice would be to fit the content on a single page only and not to include a picture but bear in mind that specific industries may have different standards.
Your chances of getting a job depend on how your CV does during those brief 8 seconds on average. Invest enough time and effort to craft the best possible resumé.
3. The Importance of Doing Your Homework Before The Interview
Why are you interviewing with our company? Why would you like to work with us? How well do you know our company and me? Do you know “what” we do and “how” we do it?
We already know that marketing is not about the product, but about the perception you create in the prospect’s mind. How can you influence the interviewer’s perception? A good first step is to show that you care, by knowing about the company and the interviewer.
Prepare for questions about the business
“How many employees do we have?” “Do you know where our stock is trading?” “Can you mention any relevant piece of news about us in the press lately?” “Who is our bigger competitor?” “What do you know about our CEO?”
I will admit that some candidates may not have an immediate answer to some of these questions and then go on to become excellent professionals. But when the interviewer does not know you and you are joining as a junior person, this is a valuable way of measuring how keen you are. Your level of interest. And intentionality makes a big difference in the impact that you make when there may not be specific skills to show for.
Be ready to answer questions about values and purpose
What is our company’s “why”, our purpose?
Taking this one step further, do you know what our company is about? Our values? Our vision and mission? Does all of those resonate with yours? The interviewer will quickly notice a lack of alignment here. In the case of a graduate candidate, hard skills can be taught. Attitude? Not so much.
If you know the name of the interviewer, find out about him or her before the interview
A good idea may be to look them up on LinkedIn, see if you can learn more about them, their careers and their interests.
This could be invaluable when it comes to you asking the person in front of you. They will feel valued, and you will create empathy for yourself (more on this below).
4. Curate Your Own Story. It is The Most Important Asset You Have
“There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it” — Simon Sinek
If you inspire an interviewer, he will do anything in his power to help you. He will do so for his reasons and out of his own will because he will be looking forward to working with you. This is very different from convincing.
My first question in a face-to-face interview is usually “Ok, so tell me about yourself”. I already know what your CV says, so I am not so keen on the “What”. I am now in search of your “Why”.
What moves you at this point in your career and your life is essential. Great corporate cultures rely on the alignment of principles and core values between firm and team. Clashing principles between a company and a new employee will not work well.
The key here is to define the principles and qualities that define you, and exemplify how these show in your personal and professional life. Seek for alignment with the principles of the company and the qualities they look for (point 3, doing your homework, applies here). A successful pitch will leave the interviewer feeling that having someone like you around would make their team better, with a sense of fitness.
5. Examples of Interview Questions Aimed to Assess Your Character And Attitude
These a selection of 22 “character & behavioural” questions that I usually ask in an interview and that I have found over time to be the most difficult to answer by candidates, and the least expected.
Taking the time to prepare for these questions not only will help you know yourself better, but will also show the interviewer that you prepared deeply for the interview.
I won’t go into the detail of how to tackle them here (on a follow-on post, maybe!), but I will be happy to give you my point of view on these should you wish to leave a comment below.
- “If I met your boss at a social event, and I asked him or her about the three things you are best at and your three most notable weaknesses, what would he or she tell me about you?”
- “Who inspires you and why?”
- “What was the biggest mistake of your life, what were the consequences and what did you learn from that event?”
- “How do you learn?”
- “What is the most important thing you know?”
- “What are you currently reading, and why?”
- “Can you teach me something I don’t know?”
- “Sell this pen to me” (Handing over my pen).
- “Tell me a joke.”
- “Tell me about major world events happening this week.”
- “What is your definition of success? and of happiness?”
- “What were the best six months of your career? and of your life?”
- “What percentage of your life do you feel you can control, and why?”
- “What are your main goals for this year, and what is the plan to achieve them? What about your multi-year aspirations?”
- “What is a stressful situation for you, and how do you normally manage such stress?”
- “How would you react if I had to ask you to cancel your holidays for work?”
- “What do you think are the key qualities of a good manager?”
- “What is important for you in a job, what do you value the most?”
- “When was the last time you publicly admitted making a mistake or being wrong, and how did you go about it?”
- “Tell me about a situation in which you eventually decided to give up.”
- “How do you manage tasks that seem impossible to complete at first sight?”
- “Are you interviewing with some other company in our industry?”
7. Ask Back
The interview will invariably end with “Do you have questions for me at this stage?”. It is imperative that you are ready for this. Not having any shows lack of depth and little interest. Furthermore, you surely want to know more about the process and the firm than you are being told on the website, don’t you?
- Do you know everything you need to know about the recruiting process?
- How will things progress from that interview onwards?
- Could you ask the interviewer to describe his typical workday?
- What is his or her personal history and background?
- Why did he or she join the firm?
- What would make him or her leave the company?
- What would he or she change in the organisation?
- What are the most significant risks to the firm?
People generally enjoy to talk about themselves and voice their opinions. Turning an interview into a conversation will help you create the right impression.
8. How to Follow up After an Interview, And How to Wrap up The Process Regardless of The Outcome
At the end of the interview, ask for the interviewer’s business card
Alternatively, take note of the person’s email address.
Write back as soon as possible thanking the person for his or her time and highlighting your one or two key takeaways from the meeting. If you were asked something in the interview that you did not have an answer for, make sure that you look it up and provide the solution in your thank you email. Again, recruiters will favour proactive and thoughtful candidates showing a good learning ability.
Did you get an offer? Should you try to negotiate?
Thank the person giving you the news, and ask for guidance on the next steps and timeline. If you are in other processes, let the person know.
Do you have more than one offer? Some reasonable alignment of interests and negotiation are warranted. But don’t play with offers, don’t put companies in hard competition. It may seem smart in the short term, but you will plant the wrong seed in your future employer in the long run. Accept an offer or turn it down, but don’t play games. You will create mistrust, and this will come back to bite you in the future.
Saying no to an offer graciously, and sincerely thanking a company for their interest even if you received no offer.
As the saying goes, live as if you would die tomorrow, but plan as if you would live forever. You may be interviewing with that firm (or the same people in a different firm) in the future.
As you may recall, I was not selected to join the corporate finance division at Morgan Stanley in 2005. But funnily enough, I was recruited as their Head of Southern European FX sales just four years later. Some of the critical management decision makers in the process and the people I would have to interact with in my day to day for my business (Country Managers, etc.) were still the same. You never know, so act accordingly.
Be thoughtful in your email communicating your decision to join a different firm. Better even, call the person leading your process, thank them sincerely for their time and guidance, and show hope for crossing paths again in the future. More often than not, you will.
An interview process can be long and stressful. There will always be questions you have no answer for. You are bound to make mistakes; we have all made them! Some things will fall outside of your control.
But you can shift the focus to those parts of the puzzle you can control: how hard you work at getting ready. Know the company well. Know yourself even better. Look up all the interview questions you can find online. Practice your pitch with a friend, again and again. Get different perspectives from people working in the industry. Trust your chances and, most important of all, go for it. You get none of the shots you don’t take.
I am a 3-times business founder with a past life as a professional racing driver, a 15-year career in investment banking and a passion for talent development, career and performance coaching.
You may connect with me here.