This piece was originally published in Inc.com
In the five years since we started The Grommet, my co-founder and I have interviewed every finalist for a permanent position. With a team of over 50, that is still a feasible and necessary step to preserving the quality of our team and our culture. Perhaps when we get to 500 people that will no longer be possible, but for now I am able to share what I know will set the person up for a great interview–and a great future employee.
These are the three character traits I look for when I am interviewing entry and early-career people.
I expect at a bare minimum for a candidate to be able to articulate their interest in our company in a truly personal way. I am not looking for them to memorize our mission. In fact I prefer that they use their own words to describe an attachment to what we do. (In addition, it can be highly enlightening to me, as CEO, to find people characterizing our business in original ways. I learn what is “landing” from our communications efforts, and what is not.) If an applicant can’t describe our business with genuine insight, I know they are just looking for a job–any job–and they will not fit into our team of highly committed people.
And at the very least, a candidate needs to understand the core product of a company. One otherwise qualified applicant blew her interview when she failed to answer my easiest softball question: “What is your favorite Grommet or Grommet video?” (There are hundreds on our site.) I was so annoyed I actually emailed the person who referred her to advise this trusted senior person not to lend her reputation to this young woman again before giving her more coaching on basic preparation.
Our VP of marketing, Sandrine Mangia-Park, told me recently, “I’ve interviewed a lot of people and they sometimes don’t realize that it will take me five minutes to get my head in the game. I might have just come from a demanding meeting, another interview, or received bad news. They should not throw their best stuff at me immediately.” A job candidate should start with the assumption that the beginning of the meeting is just an effort to connect on a human level;you don’t have to dazzle the interviewer with your qualifications just yet. In fact, please don’t.
There are multiple ways to reel me in as CEO. You can talk about your reaction to a particular Grommet we launched (see above!), or share an insight about a shared professional connection (LinkedIn makes this a piece of cake). Some people tell me a funny story. That takes confidence and if you have a great sense of humor, use it. One middle-aged white woman answered my (always terrifying) “tell me about yourself” question with Steve Martin’s classic “I grew up a poor black boy.” That totally disarmed me. She got the job. The easiest thing of all is to ask a question about my vision for the company, or about a blog post or article I wrote. It is a sure bet way to a CEO’s heart.
My immediate reaction from any of the above interactions is “I’ve got a live wire in front of me. This meeting is going to be worth my time.”
We hire a lot of entry and early-career people. I have limited expectations for their subject matter knowledge. We expect to train them ourselves. With more experienced people I am going to drill down on their prior responsibilities and expertise. But no matter what the level of candidate, I am most avidly interested in their ability to describe the why behind their choices. For instance, “Why did you choose that college?” (And it is OK to say it was the one you could afford.) “Why did you leave that position?;” “Why did you move to that city?”
In listening to a candidate’s descriptions of their decisions and transitions I am looking for evidence of original thinking, self-awareness, and a positive attitude. I want to hear that a person was always headed towards a deliberate, thoughtful choice, and not following convention or simply escaping a negative situation. It’s not that I don’t respect leaving a bad job–I do. Sometimes leaving is the best choice of all. It’s more that I want the person to be able to own their decisions, be thoughtful in transitions, and I am also guarding for people who don’t have the tenacity to stick with something if the going gets tough.
I find a lot of candidates over-invest time in describing the specifics of their current or prior jobs, when what I really am looking for is their ability to attach meaning to their decisions, including the one to possibly work at my company. In preparing well, making a human connection with me, and showing thoughtful decision-making, an applicant can powerfully separate himself or herself from the pack.