Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Interview Prep Cheat Sheet: What Hiring Managers Really Want To Know

Part of my work as a consultant to creative organizations is what’s known as “executive search” (I prefer “executive find” myself – not that either phrase sounds very sexy). Companies hire me to go out and locate a leader who can help push their ideas out into the world. Among other things, this job involves interviewing… lots and lots of interviewing. So what have I learned in all these interrogations?

Despite the fact that people switch jobs more than ever these days, the interview is still somewhat of a specter. It’s a lot of pressure to represent yourself over the course of an hour or two and be judged one way or the other.

Don’t sweat it. You can greatly enhance your chances of getting to round 2 (or 3) by understanding what the hiring manager is really looking for. (Hint: it’s usually not your technical kung fu.) While the skills and experience of any job can vary to extremes, what the person hiring needs right now is confidence in you.When you prepare for the interview, think hard about how the experiences you’ve acquired might demonstrate some big picture traits. Here’s what you should show to your interviewer to instill confidence, no matter the role:

Your cross-disciplinary self.

Most of us aren’t one-trick ponies. All of our past experiences have required some intermingling. We just forget to show it. Are you a marketing expert with the ability to synthesize data? A designer who speaks developer-ese? Or just about any discipline who can recognize the business implications in his or her own parcel of work. Being great at one discipline probably got you to the party, proving your breadth will keep you there.

While the skills and experience of any job can vary to extremes, what the person hiring needs right now is confidence in you.

How you navigate ambiguity.

A huge buzz-phrase of hiring managers (do they all read the same magazines?), “navigating ambiguity” refers to the ability to make decisions and move a project forward without a lot of information. Since organizations are changing at the speed of tech, it’s important to feel comfortable with not-knowing, to see the challenges as they’re presented to you and make quick, confident (mostly correct) decisions.

Your power of influence to get things accomplished.

Many organizations have done away with a traditional business hierarchy for ever-mutating project teams and a flat organization design. Therefore, the skill of persuasion is as important as ever.

Your drive and initiative.

It’s the 99% perspiration factor: the ability to come up with ideas and work to execute them. What are the things you’ve done that prove you’ve got energy and vision?

Be sure to articulate your experiences through clear examples. In preparing for an interview, take an inventory of the things you’ve accomplished and be able to discuss them in detail. The story of your career is marked by signposts, subplots that demonstrate something about you.

Try not to talk about what you would do if given the opportunity. Talk about the stuff you’ve already done. That’s what really demonstrates what you’re all about.

What’s Your Experience?

What’s worked for you in interviews?

More insights on: Career Development, Hiring

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
load comments (21)
  • Alan G

    Would you please give some advice to the experienceless and storyless juniors on the interview prep? Thanks.

  • EssaySnark

    @Alan G: Everyone has stories! If you’re still in school, you hopefully have been participating in extracurriculars on campus, or maybe you’ve done an internship — and even if you’re light on both of those, you definitely should have examples to use of working in team projects and handling challenging situations with other classmates, right? Employers hiring new grads will appreciate hearing stories like that. Even if you have not been the “official” leader of a team, you can talk about times where you had a good idea that others weren’t buying into, where you convinced people to go along with your plan of attack. Focus on the results — where did you achieve success, either individually or with a group? And look for more ways now to get involved in the school community and make an impact (both because it’ll give you more stuff to talk about in interviews, and ‘cuz it’s fun!). Good luck!!

  • Brett Dudo

    Alan… there is no such person.  From the day we’re born we start our experience.  The story continues to unfold…

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    well said, thank you.

  • Herbert Reininger

    Interesting points, but I wouldn’t simply take them on in my hiring practice as creative director. 

    Sure, it’s interesting to hear what a candidate has done. But that is mostly limited to how far he/she was allowed to spread their wings within any given company’s culture.

    I, for one, am much more interested in the future POTENTIAL a candidate can bring to my shop. And most of my questions are around the future potential and not so much about the past achievements.

    After all, I can’t hire a candidate’s past, I can hire only their future.

  • Mark Simchock

    I agree with Scott’s premise but I prefer to phrase it another way:

    “Doubt is a deal breaker.”

    In this form it doesn’t just apply to the interview process. For the moment I’ll stay on topic. The larger question is, what’s motivating the hiring manager/organization? Which points of (potential) doubt do you need to address? In other words, just because you resolve your six month “sabbatical” doesn’t mean you’ve satisfied *their* doubt. 

    That being said, my sense is these tips lean towards being executive-centric. That’s fine but how about so help for the punters in the trenches?

    Finally, I believe it would also be helpful to discuss tactics the interviewee can use to sort out whether the organization doing the hiring is a good fit for them. An interview is a two way street, yes? A job/career is certainly important. However, any old job will do could in fact be more trouble than it’s worth.

  • Mark Simchock

    Excellent point.

    It’s also something more interviewees should understand. It’s not where you’ve been but where you’re looking to go and how much effort you wish to put into that journey.

    Moi? I’d take “average”, hard working and focused over “above average”, relatively lazy and having a sense of entitlement. People who want to learn and grow can be taught. People who know it all and think they deserve a raise/promotion *prior* to giving their all…well, that’s just not the way it works. Is it?

  • Lenticularimageprinting

    The post is very nicely written and it contains many useful facts. Thanks!

  • Lukas

    Thanks Brett, for a pseudo-philosophical response that did absolutely nil to answer Alan’s question.
    Alan, whilst I can’t provide you with an article that’s quite as well articulated as the one above, I can provide you with this resource that has proven to be rather useful to me and should assist you in preparing for an interview at most tiers of a wide range of industries:

  • Raphael Cousineau

    I do agree with you, potential is very important to consider. But I think the best way to know about someones potentiel is to learn about their past…

  • Alanc230

    I like the idea of stories. Everyone, no matter what stage of their career, should have a story to tell of what they’ve accomplished, where they’ve made a difference. 

  • Kevin Wild

    Thanks, this is a lot of help!

  • Yolk Recruitment

    Some good general advice – some of can also be applied as to when your looking to take on a design agency. It’s not always the design agency with the best technical skills or the best ideas that I would choose but the company you have the most confidence in to get the job done.

  • Angela M. Villegas

    Some good advice
    about interviews, in perfect timing, I’m about to have some interviews, and
    this just help to bust my confidence. Still I agree that not all interviewers
    or all companies are looking for the same, for the same reason that each
    interview is unique and very different from the next one.

  • Emily

    Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post.

  • Zoey

    I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well.

  • Sophia

    I will recommend my friends to read this. I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often


    Very good advice Scott, Good points to anyone who is looking to get a new job or trying to switch their career in this highly competitive market place.

    The main point is “While the skills and experience of any job can vary to extremes, what the person hiring needs right now is confidence in you.”

  • Wilson Masaka

    Great article I agree fully it is always a balance between Telling and showing :) and being passionate about your story!

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    Storytelling can be a really powerful tool in the interview, in terms of giving context to your experience and skills. They’ve already seen your resume and know you have the “high-level” qualifications – but what do you do when you’re faced with a challenge, or a difficult client/customer? Where have you shown particular value or taken initiative? In other words, what have you done in particular that might set you apart from other candidates with similar skill and experience backgrounds. Give them insight into who you are on the job.

  • ahamed

    Very True. I agree with your point. To know about someone future potential., it is very important to analyse the potentiality they had shown earlier.

    I admit that past cannot be hired but analyzing past can make you hire a good candidature.

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