Monday, March 1, 2010

Rebalancing The Interview Power

While Pri is sunning herself in PR with a Corona and a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic, I thought I'd tackle the topic of balances of power. As I am now among the ranks of "those looking for employment," I find I am interviewing a lot, which is a situation with a seemingly obvious power dynamic. They have the job and the paycheck, and I have to dazzle them with my rapier wit and intellect to get that job. But, I posit that it isn't that simple. I am taking a slightly different approach to interviewing this time around, and so far, it's made the process, at a minimum, feel less like I'm hoping for some boy to ask me to dance (an emotion I'm not eager to relive).

Premise #1: You are an intelligent, capable individual with a skill set and background relevant to the position you're seeking to attain. 

If this isn't true - either because you know you're an idiot (in which case, kudos for self-awareness) or are just starting out in a field or switching jobs, then clearly, the rest of this plan is somewhat less solid. But, most of us have at least a partially relevant skill set to the positions we're seeking. 

Premise #2: There are more than 3 jobs available, broadly, that you could theoretically do today. 

If this isn't true, meaning that you're a highly specialized individual or one in a hell of a down market, then the power dynamics are different. But, if you're not a broadway costume designer trapped in Omaha, read on.

Action #1: Do a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how many people in your geographic area have matching/competitive skills to yours. That means looking both broadly and narrowly. You might be one of the few bakers in Tulsa with a business degree, so you can handle both accounting and frosting. But, if people are only looking for accountants, your skill with fondant might be less relevant. 

This will make you feel better. I promise. There's nothing worse than the feeling that you are swimming in a sea of other, taller, shorter, fatter, thinner and generally less accessory-averse carbon copies of your resume against which you are competing. This is strictly an exercise in self-esteem.

Action #2: Match your really unique combination of skills to the jobs identified in Premise #2. 

In my current job hunt, it turns out that my skill with a KitchenAid, my background both in cookies and bundt, and my inherent love of cookie pricing models made me a shoe in for 2-3 of the gigs on the list, and a less ideal fit for the other 10. Some people already have a cookie pricer. Some don't use KitchenAid. I apply to all 13 jobs with the following assumption:

a) I am probably going to get a call back from the 2-3 prime gigs, because really, there are only another 10 people with that skillset in the area (ballpark) and I know 4 are employed happily
b) I will likely get a call back from 25% of the remaining 10

This is good. Note that this has me applying to a lot of gigs. And this is a rolling process, over time. All gigs fall into "prime" and "sub-prime" categories in my mind, with a much higher expected hit rate on the prime.

Action #3: The interview.

The prime interviews have one fundamental goal. Only one.  Convince them that I'm well qualified in their 3 key requirements - and highlight how unusual that is. Typically that's best done subtly. Like "I know most Kitchenaid mechanics don't take pricing classes in college, but I found that fascinating so I took 3 years of it. Butter cookies are so underpriced in the market, and so easy to make with the #45G5J attachment!"  It is fair to assume that they have 1-2 other candidates that are perfect fits like you, and a few that aren't (like you are in the sub-prime interviews).  

The sub-prime interviews are your back up plans. Run them like regular interviews, and see whether you can coax them into loving you. You are primarily using them as pace setters for the prime interviews. They are your pawn. See if you can't keep their process moving steadily forward, since interview periods are governed by a sense of urgency. 

Action #4: The Follow Up

There are usually follow on interviews, thank you notes and so on. In the sub-prime ones, your goal is to clear each hurdle as well and as fast as possible, all the while keeping the process moving forward. Work as many of these as you can stomach, since they will drop off because you are NOT the perfect fit for these jobs. 

For the prime ones, keep the sense of urgency going. Shift the balance of power. I like to say things like "I anticipate I'll have to make a decision in the next 2 weeks."  Who will give you an offer? Dunno. What decision? Doesn't matter. You anticipate that you will make a decision in the next 2 weeks. No one likes that. They better keep moving.  Then, you sweeten the deal by saying things that are relevant to the quality of the offers. I am not a "money-talker," so I tend to say things that imply stature or level of the competition. Like "well, I'm in a 3rd round with a bakery, and I'm meeting their Head Baker next week."  Both urgency and a realization that you're interviewing at a high level everywhere. Strangely, people welcome the openness of the details, while they are being used to increase your value in their eyes. 

The overarching game is: You could lose me. I have other opportunities. They are progressing well. They are all as good as yours. 

Junction #1: Decision Point

You really do need to force a decision somewhere. Most of the time, these things are hard to orchestrate, but use every decision point as a lever. Got a bad offer from someone else? Who cares! You have a decision point. Call the front runners, and tell them that you need to make a decision in the next X time. If you've kept them warm along the way, they might jump to accommodate your schedule. Be intentionally vague and flattering like "I really did enjoy meeting with your bakery, but of course it would be irresponsible to let an opportunity go like this one...."  And, then remind them - you're one of the few withe that unique skill set. "I would prefer your bakery, since I could do cookie pricing in addition to fondant mixing, but on the other hand, I'm not sure I can turn down an offer in this economy."  Every decision point is a place to increase power and force an outcome. Being forced to explicitly pass on you is harder than making a decision between 3 people. Human nature is in your favor. 

I'm working this angle now, trying out the system. I am not sure it will yield greater employment opportunities, but it certainly makes the whole thing feel a lot better. It's like I'm playing chess with multiple pieces, instead of running parallel paths with single opportunities. I'll let you know how it goes - and I will say, I don't think it will change the outcome, the offers, the prices, or anything. Except perhaps that my feelings of being more in control might mean I'm interviewing better. 


Capt. BS said...

Amazing writeup. I think there's a lot of truth here, but as I read it, I couldn't help but think there's an additional premise necessary to pull this off (either well or at all). Insofar as I can articulate it, the unstated third premise assumes that you have a relatively high level of seniority within your field, and/or that your skillset is both rare and desirable relative to the other candidates (as described in Action #1).

As your possession of these qualities increases, the balance of power between the potential employer and the potential employee starts to reach an inflection point, past which the candidate begins to have the upper hand in the hiring process. In other words, the the focus of the due diligence begins to shift from the candidate to the company. Would my three-person, slow-but-steady-growth startup love to have Larry Page as our chairman? Absolutely. Would Larry Page consider taking a $1 salary and spending 80 hours a week trying to lead us from obscurity to glory? Hellz no!

If you're not Larry Page -- or at least a well-seasoned, executive-level candidate in a growth market with relatively few 100%-qualified candidates -- you probably won't have the luxury of enacting the plan described here. True, if you're an exceptional self-marketeer, you can probably pull it off by convincing your interviewers that you belong in that class of individuals... but realistically, if you're one of ten or more qualified applicants for a mid-level position, and your advantages over the competition are anything other than head-and-shoulders-above, attempting to readjust the balance of power and/or manipulate the decision process could easily back-fire, e.g.:

"I'll need to make a decision in 2 weeks."

"Well, that's wonderful, but we're going to be thorough with all of our candidates, and imagine this process will continue on for another four to six weeks. We're sorry you won't be available at that time. Shall I remove your name from the candidate pool?"

On the other hand, if you're applying for a senior position that reports directly to the CEO, or you're well-connected in your local industry circle, or if you possess skills that are truly unusual in terms of scope and aptitude, you're more likely to be interviewing through back-channels that are much more informal, and therefore much more malleable. In those situations, the approach you describe will be much more effective.

Priya said...

if i weren't peeling like a sunburnt reptile, i might comment more on this. good post!