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Turning the Tables On Job Interviewers By JOHN ARTISE

Mike Weldon, a project manager with 10 years' experience in telecommunications, was interviewing for a job as project director with a large cellular communications company in the Midwest. He felt confident and prepared for his meeting with Dan Crane, senior vice president of the engineering division, who immediately asked some tough questions.

Dan: I reviewed your resume and found your background impressive. What can you do for us?

Mike: I've recently been involved in a large-scale project aimed at linking our mainframes to a satellite telecommunications system over the Atlantic to improve teleconferencing capabilities with Europe.

Dan: I see. While that sounds interesting, I'm more concerned with your ability to handle multiple projects for us covering our domestic locations in Chicago, New York, Dallas and Minneapolis. Our project deadline is only two months from now.

Mike: That's a pretty quick turnaround. I had no idea.

Dan: That's my top priority. Think you can handle it?

Mike: Well, I think so. But I'll need more information. Could you-- (Dan interrupts)

Dan: If it's resources you're asking for, I've got to be honest with you. We're running lean in our department. We had some deep budget cuts last year, and they've been carried over to this year. Yo' have to do more with less, I'm afraid.

Mike: I understand. Can I tell you about my experience with the build-outs of several data centers in Denver not long ago?

Dan: How long ago?

Mike: Well, it was in spring 1988 and-- (Dan interrupts)

Dan: Wow. That's 10 years ago. Technology has changed quite a bit since then, especially the way it affects how projects are managed. Were you the project leader?

Mike: Uh, no. I was part of a team of eight people and-- (Dan interrupts)

Dan: (annoyed and very direct) Look, I have to be straight with you. I need a hands-on manager who can handle large projects and has cutting-edge knowledge and skills with very sophisticated state-of-the-art technology. I'm accountable for a specific number of deliverables during this year, and I need a strong self-starter. Do you have any questions?

Mike: Uh, no. Not right now.

Dan: OK, then. Thanks for coming in. I'll be in touch.

Waiting for the elevator, an unhappy Mike wished he could have talked about helping his boss achieve all of his objectives ahead of schedule or the special training he received on managing multi-level projects. But he couldn't get this information out because Dan "ran the show."

Sometimes seemingly well-qualified job applicants interview poorly because they didn't ask the right questions early in the interview--questions that would relate their skills, knowledge and experience to the job and hiring manager's needs. When Dan said he wanted someone to manage multiple projects, Mike should have quickly asked, "Could you explain some of the important objectives and details of these projects?" or "Can you describe in detail the director's role in this job?" Mike probably would have been better able to address Dan's concerns and turn the interview into a discussion between peers.

This is the "inquiry approach" to interviewing. It helps applicants because they immediately can ask questions about the job, management's expectations, company culture and the current strategic plan for the department, division or company. This information is critical because hiring managers want to learn during interviews if yo' be an asset to their organizations.

"When we coach candidates, we tell them to use a consultative approach to the interview," says Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a New York-based career-management consulting firm. "We want them to be more proactive and get a thorough understanding of the organization and its current concerns by asking pertinent questions right away."

Be Ready to Ask

In an inquiry interview, you must be ready to ask questions at appropriate times during the interview. Prepare questions in advance that relate to general concerns about your career path and company finances, products, services and other business areas.

"I advise clients to ask questions as early in the interview as possible to find out about the company culture, communication protocols and 'personality fit' for the position," says Carol Goldin, president of Gramercy Search, an executive-search firm in New York and a former vice president of human resources at the Bank of Tokyo. "When I was with the bank, I encouraged applicants to ask me questions almost immediately."

You also must be able to think of questions spontaneously. After an interviewer comments about job content, a manager's goals, work environment, changes in leadership or other business issues, ask probing questions to get more information.

You can also answer an awkward or tough question with a question of your own to deflect or redirect the interviewer.

By asking the right questions at the right time, yo' get information that will help you give interviewers better answers and convince them you're suitable for the job. It also helps you and the interviewer decide if you're a good match.

Listen and Probe

From the start of an interview, listen carefully. If you need to take notes, ask permission. Respond to the first question you're asked, and then pose a relevant question to the interviewer.

Listen carefully to the interviewer's response. Probe for more information about the response or ask another follow-up question.

As appropriate throughout the interview, respond with statements that link your background and experience to the interviewer's stated needs.

In closing, ask the interviewer, "Is there anything else you'd like to cover?" By this time, yo' have addressed topics and issues important to both of you and had a meaningful meeting.

Asking the Right Questions

Before the interview, prepare such questions about general business issues as:

* What are your three most important strategic objectives for this year?
* Describe the role I'd play in this position.
* Is this a new position or would I replace someone?
* Is there a career path for this position?
* Can you outline the organizational structure in this department? Division?
* What are your company's key competitive concerns?
* Describe the corporate culture.
* Why did you join this organization?
* Describe the company's leadership. What's their short- and long-term vision?
* Describe the ideal candidate for this position.

Here are examples of how you can use these questions in an interview.

Recovering From a Rough Start

Sue Colbert was interviewing for a position as head buyer for a national retailer selling kitchenware and culinary products at 200 stores. Here's how she expertly handled what could have been a rough start with interviewer Pam Smythe, her prospective boss (who, incidentally, didn't have time to read Sue's resume thoroughly).

Pam: Let me first tell you that this is going to be a difficult job. Yo' have 21 assistant buyers reporting to you, most of whom work in other cities across the country. Yo' be responsible for a huge volume of merchandise and there will be a great deal of travel required, about 80%. Now, I don't see experience on your resume that suggests you're up for this.

Sue: You've exactly hit upon the issue I'd like to discuss further. And I want to draw some relevant comparisons between my career accomplishments along these lines and your current goals. Could you describe your strategic plan for this year? I can then better explain how I can help you meet that plan. And just what are your three most important goals?

Pam: First, I need to cut purchasing costs by 20% while keeping the quality of our merchandise high. Second, I am responsible for eliminating 30 of our current stores and replacing them with 30 upscale, specialty stores featuring merchandise for the professional commercial marketplace. I have to select the appropriate 30 to be replaced. Third, I have to expand our buying capacity to the Asian and European markets. Our international product lines currently come from Central and South America exclusively.

Sue: What percentage of merchandise comes from those countries?

Pam: About 30% to 35%.

Sue: When I was a buyer for Epicure Ltd., I created a business strategy to cost effectively purchase quality kitchen accessories from Germany, Italy and Spain. As a result, we increased our customer base by 28% in the public consumer market and 15% in the professional culinary market. Pam, would you like to see a business plan? I can have one faxed to you early next week.

Pam: Sure. I'd very much like to see it. Tell me more about your experience at Epicure Ltd.

Sue elaborated on her experience as a professional buyer and did well in the interview. She managed to turn the interview around by asking key questions immediately. In short, she hit Pam's "hot button" (her three strategic objectives) and got her attention. Sue's offer to send Pam a business plan piqued Pam's interest in Sue's experience. From that point, Sue was able to make the interview a win-win situation.

Finding Important Clues

Ted Alvarez was interviewing for a job as assistant general manager of a large hotel in New York. He spoke with Gordon Leighton, the hotel's general manager.

Gordon: Ted, I'd like to find out more about you and your experience, especially in Singapore at the Raffles Hotel. But first let me explain to you what I'm looking for. I need a strong, right-hand person to manage this large facility, the main dining room and housekeeping, in particular. We have 945 rooms here, and the last person who held this position literally thought he was on a perpetual vacation. It amazed me how he just didn't understand what it meant, or for that matter what it took, to achieve and maintain the level of excellence which we require here.

Ted (responding quickly): That brings up a pertinent point. What is the ideal candidate for this position?

Gordon: I require someone who will do whatever it takes to satisfy our guests and who is 110% dedicated to the service of this hotel. I would love to find a person who is tireless in the performance of the many duties he or she will be expected to accomplish. That individual must also be on call virtually 24 hours a day. And this is above and beyond the flexibility one must have to accommodate the well-known demands of our industry.

Ted (sizing up Gordon as a difficult boss): Can you describe your management style?

Gordon: I'm a stickler for details, and, as you no doubt know, one must pay attention to every detail. I also need to be kept informed of your activities. That's why I require a very close reporting relationship between us, should you be selected for this position. Also, while I'm not one to give the proverbial 'pat on the back' for a job well done, I'll let you know very clearly when you haven't performed according to expectations.

Ted was uncomfortable with this response and decided not to pursue the position. His first clue had been Gordon's negative comment about the previous manager. Ted then began asking questions that would elicit information to help him decide whether to pursue the job.

Handling the 'Prober'

There are additional ways to use questions during interviews. Some interviewers will repeatedly ask you about a single issue and relentlessly probe your responses to identify inconsistencies or problem areas in your background. The "inquiry approach" helps you to curtail the probe and change the direction of an interviewer's questions.

Interviewer: How did you get along with your boss?

Applicant: Fine. We agreed on just about everything when it came to running the business.

Interviewer: Well, just what did you differ on? (a probe)

Applicant: Well, I guess the strategies involving sales development.

Interviewer: Can you elaborate? (another probe)

Instead of being forced to describe the differences, which would invite more probes, the applicant responds with a question:

Applicant: As a hallmark of my management style I'm very flexible and accommodating and very rarely revert to conflict. But to help me understand the way things work around here, can you tell me how the company culture operates to resolve conflict, should it occur?

This question deflects the probe and redirects the interview to a topic which is still related to the interviewer's question but less penetrating and incisive for the applicant.

Sticky Questions

Here's another interview situation where asking a question can help you escape a tough question.

Interviewer: How much money are you looking for?

Applicant: (very calmly and with light humor): Gee, I wasn't expecting to discuss money at this point, but I'm curious how much you're offering for a position at this level, considering someone with my background and experience. Can you give me a ballpark figure or maybe a range?

Simply turn the tables and ask what interviewers would normally ask. Most of the time, interviewers will accommodate you.

Applicant: I'm really not ready to discuss money until I've learned more about the job and determine how closely my knowledge, skills and experience match the job requirements. Can we defer compensation until later in the interview?

Your Final Question

Some applicants are uncomfortable at the end of an interview because they aren't sure if they should ask more questions. It's also disconcerting when interviewers don't indicate if they intend to invite the applicant for a second interview. Here's a way to gauge interviewers' impressions of you and learn if they intend to pursue you.

Applicant: I really enjoyed our conversation. Do you think we'll have another meeting soon?

Sound Advice

Practice the "inquiry approach" with a colleague or friend to become comfortable with the strategy. Ask non-threatening questions that will elicit information about the job, management style, corporate culture and the company's strategic plan. When interviewers respond to your questions, always show that you're listening. Yo' make interviewers comfortable and stay in control during the meeting.
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