“I Blew It”: Biggest Interview Errors

Your résumé has opened the door. But recruiters point to the traps that candidates fall into, and offer tips for making a better impression.

Question Authority, and Everything Else

One of the biggest mistakes candidates make is not asking questions, says Hack. Too few questions may suggest to an interviewer that a candidate is unengaged and uninterested in the job. An uninformed question can stop things short, however, so Hack advises that candidates work up queries from the annual reports of public companies, and press releases and news reports of private ones. Some wise candidates purchase private company reports from a financial-information service, such as Dun & Bradstreet or Hoovers , for their information.

“Press recruiters for key information and lean on them to help you identify landmines,” adds Eldridge. Learn before meeting a company’s executives what the company’s hot buttons are, what kind of culture is encouraged, whether decisions are centralized or decentralized, and how managers get things done. “Weak questions are a deal killer,” asserts Eldridge, who recommends that candidates for senior slots ask strategic questions rather than regurgitate facts from press releases.

He singles out one outstanding CFO candidate who was sent on an interview for a position that called for him to work closely with a CEO. Beforehand, the candidate learned that the CEO was seeking a finance chief to help him double or triple company growth during the next three years. In the interview, the candidate observed that his study of company financials told him that during the past eight years, margins had not even doubled. His questions of the CEO: How do you plan to triple growth in half that time? Will you be acquiring companies or launching an IPO? Will there be reinvestment in one of the higher-growth divisions or products? Is the company planning to hire talent or build out infrastructure? The questions alone, says Eldridge, exposed a smart, attuned candidate.

Avoid being too historic in your approach, though. “Don’t go into the past,” as Eldridge puts it — it indicates a lack of strategic long-term thinking. If you know about a recent acquisition, for example, ask about merger-integration issues, not deal specifics that were taken care of months ago. “Go deeper, more granular: you want to make an impact statement with your questions,” emphasizes Eldridge.

Just Like an Earnings Call

“Everything on a résumé is subject to audit,” notes Eldridge, introducing one true horror story. A CFO’s résumé had noted that he worked closely with the CEO on a big merger deal five years before. But when the interviewer asked the CEO’s name, the candidate’s mind went blank. And indeed, failure to recall his old boss’s name convinced the potential new boss not to hire him. The only lesson: try to prepare for résumé questions — the easy ones as well as the tough ones. Everyone has weaknesses, but how you discuss shortcomings could turn them into strengths. Prepare for an interview like you get ready for an earnings call, he advises.

When it comes to any apparent holes in a résumé, such as termination from a job, be direct and concise about the reason. Take the high ground; don’t badmouth former employers. Even if you were let go through no fault of your own — if the company was sold or you were caught in a wave of layoffs, for example — you need a sharp reply.

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