The “outside” candidate for the CFO slot didn’t know what had hit him. Walking out of the interview, he could tell from the interviewer’s parting response that he’d blown it. But why? He’d been ever so careful, he said in talking the disaster over with an old friend, Chip Clothier, a managing partner at HFC Executive Search.
The interviewee was right about the session’s results, as Clothier tells it. He had indeed ruined his chance of being called back for a second interview — by presenting himself in the first session as too much of a team player.
Many things can sink an interview. Sometimes it’s simply making a bad first impression; a tendency to ramble, instead of being direct in answering questions, perhaps; or poor backgrounding on the company you seek to join. But often the problem is more complex. Some candidates don’t think far enough ahead, giving the interviewer a sense of little potential growth to be tapped. Others talk grandiosely of the future while shortchanging their immediate skills. Candidates could well consider the main goal of a first interview to be getting to a second interview, says Korn/Ferry International’s Chuck Eldridge, who heads up the firm’s financial officers’ practice.
And then there’s the trap that ensnared Chip Clothier’s friend. The finance executive, who Clothier declines to identify, had worked for a Fortune 100 company known for its deep culture of teamwork, with executives encouraged to tap cross-departmental expertise to solve problems and advance corporate goals. Whenever possible in the interview, the candidate described “the team’s successes” and “our projects,” never explaining what he himself contributed to the group efforts. Suddenly the interview was over, and so were his prospects of winning the CFO job.
“There was no ‘I’ in this company’s vocabulary,” says Clothier, describing his friend’s previous employer. But bringing that focus to a job interview — with a company that had a more entrepreneurial corporate culture — turned out to be a mistake. “He should have been prepared to describe the teamwork in terms of his leadership and specific contributions,” reasons Clothier. The candidate wasn’t “mentally prepared for selling himself, and fell back on the nomenclature of his company.”
Clothier, Eldridge, and Heidrick & Struggles partner Lorraine Hack — three recruiters consulted by CFO.com for this article — offer insights about how to avoid interview pitfalls. Their observations capture problems both glaring and subtle, all of which can trip up interviewees. The experts also suggest ways to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls.
Your Mother Was Right
First impressions do count. And as obvious as it may sound, candidates still strike out when it comes to grooming and dressing for an interview, notes Hack, who leads Heidrick & Struggles’s financial officers’ practice. Ill-fitting, stained, or shabby clothing can ruin an interviewer’s first impression, and so can something as minor as unpolished shoes.
Candidates, she says, should “always err on the side of a suit and tie, even if they’ve been told that the hiring company has a casual dress policy.” Better for a man to be able to loosen his tie, if the interviewer gives him that option, than to be caught without one. And no excuses about dressing down for an interview — like saying a tie will make a current boss or co-workers suspect you’re going on an interview. Figure a way around such a situation, insists Hack: change in the bathroom or your car, but make sure to show up dressed well.