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Tackling senior interviews

Posted on from Northumbria University

Dr Fiona Robson identifies some of the principal issues that you might face as a senior interviewee, alongside strategies for performing well at interview.

The basics of interview preparation

Many of the tips for successful interviews may seem quite obvious, but it's surprising how many people forget the basics and don’t prepare sufficiently in advance. A good starting point is to re-read your application form and covering letter to remind yourself of the key illustrations that you provided.

Next, it's useful to go back to their job description and person specification as well so that you are very clear about what they are looking for. Bear in mind at senior level, many of the qualities that the organisation are looking for are unlikely to be captured tangibly within a CV or application form so you will need to exhibit them in the interview.

Additional research

It's also advisable to undertake additional research in a variety of ways so that you feel well-informed and can integrate it within your answers to their interview questions. Firstly, you should look specifically at the organisation, begin at their website but if there is not sufficient information available you could contact them directly and ask them to send you any specific documents that you need. If it's a public sector organisation, there should be a wealth of information on their website as part of their Freedom of Information Act publication schedule. 

Ensure you're reading the business news in the week leading up to the interview - consider how the stories will affect a) the organisation and b) you if you were doing the job that you've applied for. Finally, it might be appropriate to do some initial research on their competitors: so that you can demonstrate an understanding of the environment in which they operate.

At this stage you can also begin to consider your answers for the standard questions on career history, strengths etc. While it's helpful to practice some of these responses out loud, try to avoid learning a script as this may stilt your delivery in front of the interviewer(s). If you have any gaps in your CV or entries that may stand out, you can use this opportunity to think about how you can explain them in the best light.

Moving between sectors, countries, organisations

In the current economic climate, jobs in the public sector may be less secure than in the past and there may be more candidates looking to move between sectors. If moving between different sectors, it's important to demonstrate your knowledge of some of the key Challenges inherent in them. This means avoiding some of the public sector stereotypes, such as the need to be risk averse. Your private sector interviewers may have misconceptions about your ability to adapt if you've had a long public sector career, so you will need to demonstrate to them your transferable skills.

If moving between different types of organisation, you'll need to show that you have a good understanding of the new organisation’s business and their key issues moving forwards.

Moving from a different country can have many possible advantages for an organisation as new employees can bring in new perspectives, knowledge and experience; this should be balanced against your ability to demonstrate a strong awareness of the potential Challenges and how you propose to overcome them.

Presenting your career to date

Usually, an early question in an interview will involve you discussing your career history and talking the interviewer(s) through an extended version of the roles detailed on your CV. This is a critical part of the interview process, and an opportunity to really engage with your interviewers.

You'll normally face questions on your career history so it's useful to consider in advance how you will best present this. While discussing your current role will be particularly important for your interviewers, you should also consider some of the key relevant points and responsibilities from your previous roles; especially those where they aligned closely with the post you've applied for. When discussing achievements, it's crucial to get the balance right between confident and over-confident. If you're unsure about this, you could do a trial run with a colleague and request their feedback.

Promoting your leadership skills or potential

When being interviewed for senior positions, it's highly likely that you will face questions on your leadership abilities; either reflecting on past experiences or exploring how you would utilise and develop them if appointed in the new role.

As leadership can mean different things to different people, it may be useful to begin by defining your interpretation of leadership and then outlining your experiences and vision for the future. Providing clear examples will be useful, particularly when you can reflect upon both proactive and reactive responses to organisational issues. These examples should also enable you to demonstrate your ability in creating and developing a creative vision and approach.

Questions that provide examples

Asking behavioural questions remains a widely used technique on the premise that exploring past behaviours and experiences are usually a good indicator of future performance. A benefit to interviewees is that the answers to these types of questions can be practised in advance as most organisations will tend to ask some generic questions.

When responding to these type of questions, it's important to try and steer away from clichés and some of the more generic answers centring around good communication skills; go back to the job description and person specification for the role that you are applying for to identify the areas that they are most likely to be interested in.

Demonstrating transferrable skills

In many cases you may not have a 100% match with the skills; knowledge and experience detailed in the job description or person specification, but you may have some close equivalents. If this is the case you need to be able to provide some detailed examples to evidence this. For example if the organisation is looking for someone who has managed a diverse workforce in the UK context and whilst you don’t have this you have worked and managed internationally you can draw parallels.

Dealing with challenging questions

The classic ‘challenging’ questions require you to give examples of past problems and perceived weaknesses. In answering these questions, you need to take a balanced approach whereby you objectively identify an appropriate example, and within your discussion focus on resultant actions to overcome the situation. Think carefully in advance about the weaknesses or Challenges that you will share and discuss, remembering the inferences the interviewers may draw from your choice of example and your ensuing analysis. Avoid saying that you have no weaknesses as interviewers could interpret this in different ways.

You may be asked to provide examples of how you've managed conflict in the past; when answering you should ensure that you focus on the steps that you took to resolve the conflict and any Lessons about moving forwards. The identification of positive changes and the ability to reflect are usually respected skills.

If you're leaving your current organisation due to your unhappiness about an aspect of your role there, you should consider how you will present this to your interviewers; presenting a professional interpretation is important. It's also vital to respect the confidentiality of ways of working in your organisation and not to provide named examples of people who you work with or manage.

The importance of culture fit

Culture in organisations is becoming a popular theme that may be discussed within an interview, so you should spend some time reflecting on your perceptions of your current organisation’s culture as well as your perceptions of the recruiting organisation.

Culture can be interpreted in different ways so clarifying your position on what it entails can be enlightening for the interviewers. Consideration of the need, impact and enhancement of cultural change are often high on the agenda and can be considered before attending the interview.

After the interview

Don’t underestimate the importance of asking questions to the panel to demonstrate your enthusiasm and professional interest in the role. This also provides you with the opportunity to glean any additional information requirements that you have; selection is a two way process and you need to feel confident that this is the right job for you as well. Positive and forward-looking questions are usually well received and provide you with a final opportunity to engage with the interviewers.

After you've been interviewed, it's a good idea to make some reflective notes that may help you to prepare for future interviews; this is best done straight away when it's fresh in your mind. If you're not successful, ask for some constructive feedback.

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