Best Interview Tactic?

Executive-recruitment expert Jeffrey Christian offers some sage advice on acing the face-to-face with a prospective employer.

Jeffrey Christian wants you to make him hustle. The founder of executive-search firm Christian & Timbers, known for its placements for big-name tech companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, likes to see passionate candidates who like to take charge.

He doesn’t mind if you don’t want to talk to him — it just makes him want you more. Recently, the author of the new book The Headhunter’s Edge (Random House) sat down with CFO.com to share his thoughts on talent, leadership qualities, and interviewing. He also explained what the job market and dating scene have in common.

(Editor’s note: To read the first part of our conversation with Jeffrey Christian, click here.)

What’s your best interview advice?

I suggest reversing the roles and interviewing the interviewer. Everybody remembers what they say, not what you say. So you should be able to exemplify your expertise by asking insightful questions about the company, its challenges, its competition, and about their philosophies. Write down 20 questions, three per page with room to write. In post-interview discussions, you’ll be remembered as the person who was prepared and smart. Ask both generic and specific questions.

What are some good questions to ask?

“Tell me about your culture.” That’s a simple question, but you follow up with, “Is that the culture you have today, or the culture you’re striving for?” (And almost all the time it’s the latter, not the former.)

“Tell me a little about how your business model has changed over the years and how you anticipate it going forward.”

“Why do people stay here, and why do people resign?”

As you’re asking questions, you’re gaining information that will allow you to respond to their questions better, which is a great way to do real-time research on the company. They’re going to be asking tough questions; you want to be asking tough questions too.

What should people do if they’ve been fired?

They need to collect their best references from the past. Have positive things to say about your experience. Have a crisp description of what you were able to accomplish while you were there. If it’s based on a performance issue, explain that things didn’t work out, you didn’t see eye-to-eye with your boss. Then suggest that they talk to other people from the company and people you’ve worked with in the past.

How does somebody recover from a major career blunder — say, for example, someone got canned for lying on his or her resume ?

That’s tough to recover from. Surround yourself with your advocates. Take them out to dinner; ask them how they would handle the situation. Find friends fast. Do it in person, if possible. Respond proactively to protect your brand. Go out and find your next success as fast as you can — even if it means taking a smaller job at a smaller company. Do something that’s humbling. Talk to journalists, maybe write an op-ed in the newspaper, if it was in the press. Apologize, both in public and through individual letters to everyone. Do some things that are really classy, and be a man or a woman about it.

I recently read some statistics that suggested in increase in age discrimination against older executives. Do you see that out there for CFOs?

There is obvious age discrimination, and it’s probably the biggest area of discrimination by far. There are some things [older execs] can do. Getting in shape is important; being fit is important, and it can work against you if you’re not. Get out there and sell. Find a mentor; don’t believe you know everything. What happens a lot of times in people’s 50s is they stop learning.

With the recent push for corporate-governance reform, there’s been a lot of emphasis on the need for finance expertise on boards and audit committees. In this environment, you think this is a good time for CFOs?

I think it is for those who are successful and who have developed great relationships with their CEOs. I would say that CFOs in general that have great business acumen and have had a lot of board experience. However, there may be many who lose their jobs as well, because they didn’t have the skill set that companies are demanding today.

With the increased demand for finance expertise, can good CFOs afford to ask for more when negotiating for pay?

They can to the extent that anyone else can, and money is important. It’s important to be fair and informed. Normally, the best tactic is to put [your compensation] in context of the market and your peers. Point out, for example, that you’ve forgone a raise or other benefit, or that your peers earn more.

Any other job-search advice?

Don’t relying on e-mail; don’t think that’s all you have to do. As soon as you hit the “send” button somebody at the other end is pushing the “delete” button. Use the phone. You’ve got to make the call. You’ve got to do the work. Research. A lot of people don’t do their research. They may do research in their business, but they don’t put research in their career. Also, don’t get bogged down by rejection. It could be the 99th call out of 100 that’s really going to resonate with someone. And don’t oversell.

Discuss

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