Your educational degree and technical competence merely give you the opportunity to compete. Winning requires something that separates you from your competition. We will focus on information as the tool that turns you from a competitor to a winner. While the focus of this article is on winning job interviews, the issues can also be applied to any competitive interview situation you are involved with.
The Case of the COO:
My client was a Chief Operations Officer who interviewed for a job reporting to the CEO of a private consumer products company. The CEO’s message was that the company was doing well but there was always room for improvement. The CEO asked why my client was interested in being considered for the role. Below is my client’s response:
“I’ve done some research about your company. Last year, you decided to outsource component manufacturing from the United States to China. Your key customers have been complaining about defective parts and late delivery. Wal-Mart has put you on probation. I have been dealing with manufacturing in China for years and global logistics is a key strength. I believe I can add value to this company as a member of your team.”
The CEO stammered, “How do you know all this??!!!”
My client smiled and said, “I do my homework. ”
He got the job.
The point of the case is that having critical information allows you to win. There are two kinds of research. Secondary research refers to information about organizations and individuals you can obtain by reading material written by others. This can be of great value when you are seeking to gain opportunities with public companies. Most of your opportunities, however, are going to be with privately held companies or nonprofits. Secondary research might have only limited value.
Primary research refers to direct conversations face-to-face, by email, or over the phone. Few of your competitors take the time to conduct primary research. Use their lack of initiative as a competitive tool to help you win.
In this article, we discuss six issues: (1) find a Starbucks (2) Your Script. (3) Your Three Questions (4) managing skeptical employees. (5) managing open employees (6) convert information in your head into notes (6) limits of this technique.
Find a Starbucks:
By “Find a Starbucks,” I mean any coffee shop where local employees often stop to pick up morning beverage prior to going to work. In many cases, it will be the Starbucks near the company location. In some cases, it means a coffee shop in the building lobby.
If you are looking at an opportunity in hospitals or higher education, show up at the cafeteria.
Visit the facility at 7:30am and make friends with the cashier or a Barista. Explain that you are here to gather information about a specific company to help you secure a job or land a sale. Could the Barista point out someone who works at the company to help you?
Many of them are proud to do so: it is a demonstration of how well they know their customers.
Prepare a standardized script and set of questions to ask each person you meet. I recommend you bring no notes with you. Focus on building a relationship. Below is a sample script:
“My name is Robin Jones and I am going to be interviewing Eileen Smith for an opening in her department. I’m trying to put my best foot forward for the interview and also trying to determine if this company is a good fit for me.
“Would you be willing to answer three short questions?”
Notice that the rationale is honest and the “ask” is answering three short questions.
Your Three Questions:
- What do you like about working here?
- What do you dislike about working here?
- What questions about the place have I not asked that I should be asking?
Notice that the three questions are open-ended. You want valid information. Don’t guide the employee down a path you have selected. As everyone the same questions in the same order so that there is consistency.
In the rare event someone from Corporate Security asks if you are engaging in industrial espionage, you want to be able to respond that you were only asking open ended questions.
Managing Skeptical Employees:
Most employees will react to your request with skepticism. They may refuse to cooperate or simply mouth platitudes. Thank them for their assistance. Do not ask for their name. Move on to the next person.
Managing Open Employees:
You hit “pay dirt” when your request is greeted with a smile and the person is eager to speak with you. That eagerness may be to describe how wonderful the company is and/or how special your potential boss is. Under these circumstances, ask for the employee’s name. This is a win for you and a win for the employee. They want management to know that they are happy.
You can also hit “pay dirt” in another way.
Your request is also greeted with a smile and the person is eager to speak with you. But this person wants to tell you how awful things are. You listen with respect and do not ask for the person’s name.
Remember that one comment from one employee does not prove anything.
If you get confirmation from other sources using the same open ended questions, you now have an important piece of information.
Convert Your Information to Notes:
At the conclusion of each interview you want to quickly convert your memories into notes. If you interview three people in one morning, your recollection will be hazy by the afternoon.
I use the digital recorder of my mobile phone to quickly dictate notes I can transcribe later.
Limitations of this Technique:
In some corporate cultures, the very act of collecting information will be seen in a positive light: you are taking initiative, conducting appropriate diligence about a major decision in your life, etc. That positive response is an expression of corporate values. But those same actions could also be perceived by the company as negative: you are a snoop, you are wasting employees’ time, you don’t accept the validity of what you have been told by authority figures, etc. That negative reaction also is a valid expression of corporate values.
In other words, the company’s reaction to your having collected data is itself useful data.
You may be going for an interview and have been told that the search is “confidential.” For example, the current incumbent is unaware that a search firm has been hired to find a replacement. If a search is “confidential,” you have an ethical obligation to respect it. Under these circumstances, you cannot conduct primary research. When there is a position with multiple incumbents, it is unlikely that a particular search is confidential.
Good hunting and dont' drink too much coffee!