Interview Like a Trusted Advisor

Recently I had coffee with a group of newly unemployed professionals in my community. Most of them haven’t had to interview for a few years, and they were looking for an edge.

I thought about it and realized – many interviews are conducted on both sides by people who really don’t know how to interview. The interviewer asks questions, presumably to assess fit, and the job hunter tries to impress. That can be seen as over-confident or desparate, in either case, without regard to whether the job hunter is truly right for the job.

I suggested another approach: The real goal of both parties ought to be to determine whether there is a fit on all levels. Change the dynamic of the interview itself to a collaborative discovery. It may not be easy. Interviewers may not be skilled and veering off the prepared questions and format may be difficult. Job hunters want to show that they have what interviewers want, and may be afraid to acknowledge where they fall short.

Changing this dynamic requires both of you to take the risk of thinking unconventionally. If you can move the conversation to what’s really at stake for both parties you can truly distinguish yourself.

How can you collaborate wth the interviewer? Here’s what I suggest:

1. Explore the job requirements together. Understand what is needed and why. Discuss the specifics of what needs to be done, how it’s been done in the past, and why there’s a need to fill this job now. Don’t be afraid to discuss whether it makes sense. Better to address the job now, than for the employer to discover two months from now that the need was different than originally thought.

2. Discuss the ideal candidate. Ask what type if person would be perfect for the job and why. You may agree or have input. Find out what got you in the door – what intrigued someone enough to interview you. Ask what qualifications the interviewer thinks you have, and those he or she thinks you lack. Discuss those qualifications openly.

3. Sell by doing, not by telling. Make it easy for the interviewer to see how you might approach a situation in the job. Your exploration of the job requirements might uncover something that your role might address. You might have enough information by now to talk about how you would address the situation.

4. Understand the decision-making process. Ask the questions that will help you understand how a hiring decision will be made. And it’s not a bad idea to ask about the other talent they are interviewing. If you bring up the subject in a collaborative rather than competitive way, it will be heard with the genuiness you intend.

5. Be open and clear about whether you believe you are right for the job. Express whether you think you are and note your concerns. Don’t be afraid to refer to what got you the interview in the first place.

Notice there is absolutely nothing in these steps that says you should try to dazzle the interviewer with your credentials and your brilliant ideas. Nothing that talks about you selling yourself in the traditional way. Being transparent and collaborative in an interview requires that you are not arrogant (usually a sign of weakness), and certainly does not give the impression that you are desperate for a job.

Not to say you shouldn’t put your best foot forward. Or help the interviewer see what you can do – and how that might benefit the company. But do so only after you learn as much as you can about the job, and only as part of a mutual exploration into whether you might be the right fit. If you are, after a single interview you’re well on your way to earning their confidence and their trust. Then you will both understand that the interest and enthusiasm you’re expressing by the end of the interview are genuine. With the beginnings of trust established you’re bound to find your odds of landing the job substantially improved.

Do you have other tips for interviewing that build trust? Please share them as comments here!

4 replies
  1. Doug Cornelius
    Doug Cornelius says:

    Stewart –

    Excellent thoughts. One of the problems with the trust analysis in the job interview process is the typical assymetric knowledge and motivation of each party. Especially in these economic times, the interviewee may be desperate for the job and the interviewer may be trying to sort through dozens of interviewee applicants to find the right person.

    But I agree that is important for the interviewee to put themsleves in the postion of figuring out how they may (or may not) fit in the role and value of the company. They need to be as ready to say no to the position as the person on the other side is ready to say no. Again, that frame of mind is hard to get in these economic times.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hello Stewart,

    Given the natue of today’s  economy, the world of work and an uncertain future, I see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs playing perhaps a greater than usual role here.

    Many folks feel desperate and are rightly or wrongly resistant to “Be(ing) open and clear about whether you believe you are right for the job.” (5), forging ahead anyhow hoping they will/might fit even if they are lacking.

    With some folks standing to lose everything, their needs on the hierarchy tend toward the bottom rungs – psysiological (shelter, food, …) and safety (personal security, financial security, employment, health – one’s own and one’s family – and well being.)

    In a more centered and grounded environment, more folks might tend towards Maslow’s higher rung, self-actualization –  where they might feel more at ease and open to suggestions 1-4. Maslow suggests that the upper needs won’t usually be addressed until the lower needs have been satisfied (not true in the case of the “starving artist” type).

    The fortunate ones today are taking the time, as challenging as it might be, to step back and take a deep breath and re-examine and re-evaluate who they are, what they want and where they’re goling, in the process changing their self-image, their view of the world and their place in it and landing on their feet in careers, jobs and positions they never thought possible six months ago, a year or years ago. In this case, the issues of truth, trust and transparency begin with one’s self. Not easy, perhaps, but do-able, even in these difficult times.

  3. Jim Bullock
    Jim Bullock says:

    You know, that’s great … if you’re talking to someone with a problem to solve, interested in getting work done, and able to have that conversation.

    In technology, especially in the shadow of a few large name-brand SW companies, that isn’t the game. Hiring is undertaken by an orchestrated chorous of folks with no skin in the game, who all get a vote on "fit." The game is blatantly "Is this one of us." There’s also, often no discrimintation between "I’m uncomfortable because this guy is different or a threat." and "I’m uncomfortable because there’s something here I don’t understand." and "I’m uncomfortable because this guy might not work out, for this particular reason."

    Along with keeping the people homogenous, this really prevents some problems from ever being solved – a functional manger might see it, but the Greek chorous of similarity doesn’t. One example is the assumption that developing software depends on genius and heroics. It turns out there’s a limited amount of genius involved. Most of it is just doing the work. And needing heroics is a sign that your planning and managing are way off – how is this good?

    Your approach is great for grown-ups, having a grown-up conversation. Right now "the economy" is giving a lot of people a lot of latitude to keep people out for the wrong reasons. "No need to take a chance, someone perfect will come along – half the world is unemployed after all."


  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    The situation you describe is not only true, it’s the majority situation. Maybe it’s worse in technology, and during the recession–in any case, yes, you betcha, that’s right, that’s what’s going on.

    The question is: therefore what?

    What should an interviewee do?

    If your interviewers are dismissive, paranoid jerks, then behaving like a dismissive paranoid jerk is not going to get you the job–even if they subscribe to the "hire someone like me" philosophy (and I agree with you about that too–it’s endemic).

    The only sensible alternative is to behave directionally the way Stewart described. Of course it’s no guarantee–this is life, after all, there are no guarantees.  But it demonstrably improves the odds.  And doesn’t diminish them.

    Yes, the odds are low.  Bad behavior lowers them further.  Good behavior–collaborative, inquisitive, curious, non-manipulative–has a positive impact on some, virtually no negative impact on anyone.  It’s the smart move in almost all cases.

    And if the entire interview team zings you for being a decent person, guess what–they saved you a whole lot of grief by not hiring you. 


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