Job Hunting

How to Ace That Interview

Turn the tables on the interviewer, says executive-recruitment expert Jeffrey Christian.
Lisa YoonOctober 17, 2002

Jeffrey Christian wants you to make him hustle. The founder of executive-search firm Christian & Timbers, known for its placements for big-name tech companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, likes to see passionate candidates who like to take charge.

He doesn’t mind if you don’t want to talk to him — it just makes him want you more. Recently, the author of the new book The Headhunter’s Edge (Random House) sat down with to share his thoughts on talent, leadership qualities, interviewing, and what the job market and dating scene have in common.

How do you define talent?

Talent has [a number of] key ingredients. Honesty and integrity. Intellectual firepower: people who don’t necessarily have the highest IQ, but those who can figure out paths through complex problems in business. Sometimes it’s instinctive, sometimes it’s learned — and it can be learned. Energy, drive, and enthusiasm. Leadership.

Finally, a sense of humility. When I interviewed [Hewlitt-Packard chief] Carly Fiorina for the HP search, she was very upfront and open — generally more so than men are — about the fact that she wasn’t a technologist or a computer-industry expert. She said that if that was what I was looking for, then it probably didn’t make sense. She wasn’t afraid to talk about the things that she wasn’t strong in. The people who have a sense of humility about the things they don’t know are generally [good learners]. And you can’t grow — or build an organization — without learning.

In your book, you talk about the relativity of talent. [He writes, “I often interview candidates who are not the right people. But when I consider the specific needs of a particular company at a unique moment in time, an imperfect candidate may be absolutely perfect.”] Can you explain that?

A candidate may not have the specific industry experience or knowledge, but they may have the energy or the drive. People can learn about the industry, but they can’t learn to have energy or drive. Companies often hire for experience, but they fire for human qualities. And, I suggest, they ought to reverse that. Also, sometimes the wrong candidate for one company may be perfect for another company with different circumstances and needs.

What personality traits do you look for in CFOs?

I’m looking for someone who asks good questions, who is thoughtful, who is analytical. The best are those who have been confidants of the CEO and can tell stories of how they’ve helped solve business problems.

They also don’t react right away to every question you ask — they sometimes have to think for a moment before answering. They have passion for their job and what they’ve accomplished. And I like a good personality. I like the new generation of CFOs who are personable, friendly, and have a sense of humor. I like to say something funny in an interview and see if I get a chuckle. CFOs need to build relationships quickly — with the board, with internal employees, with Wall Street — so I want them to be able to build a relationship with me quickly. I also look for someone who takes personal [responsibility] — when they’ve screwed up, they admit it, and they’re not afraid to tell you when they have in the past.

What are you looking for when you make that first call to a candidate?

I’m looking for somebody that doesn’t want to talk to me. If I’m recruiting by phone, they’re too busy for me. They immediately start to ask tough questions and try to take control of the conversation, and I have to wrestle with them a little bit.

I’m hearing their intellectual horsepower and I can tell that they’re real busy. I’m looking for people who are real happy in their jobs, and don’t have an interest in leaving, and say that in fairly short order. The best candidates are the ones that don’t want to be recruited. That’s true with everybody — it’s like, you want to date the guy who’s hardest to get.

So should people pretend they’re not eager, even if they are?

Absolutely. But they need to be professional, too. They should act as if they need to be sold. They should never be [the one who is] selling. Everybody thinks they need to sell, and no one should ever sell at any stage of interviewing.

What’s your best interview advice?

I suggest reversing the roles and interviewing the interviewer. Everybody remembers what they say, not what you say. So you should be able to exemplify your expertise by asking insightful questions about the company, its challenges, its competition, and about their philosophies. Write down 20 questions, three per page with room to write. In postinterview discussions, you’ll be remembered as the person who was prepared and smart. Ask both generic and specific questions.

What are some good questions to ask?

“Tell me about your culture.” That’s a simple question, but you follow up with, “Is that the culture you have today or the culture you’re striving for?” (And almost all the time it’s the latter, not the former.)

“Tell me a little about how your business model has changed over the years and how you anticipate it going forward.”

“Why do people stay here, and why do people resign?”

As you’re asking questions, you’re gaining information that will allow you to respond to their questions better, which is a great way to do real-time research on the company. They’re going to be asking tough questions; you want to be asking tough questions too.

What should people do if they’ve been fired?

They need to collect their best references from the past. Have positive things to say about your experience. Have a crisp description of what you were able to accomplish while you were there. If it’s based on a performance issue, explain that things didn’t work out, you didn’t see eye-to-eye with your boss. Then suggest that they talk to other people from the company and people you’ve worked with in the past.

How does somebody recover from a major career blunder—say, for example, someone got canned for lying on his or her resume?

That’s tough to recover from. Surround yourself with your advocates. Take them out to dinner; ask them how they would handle the situation. Find friends fast. Do it in person, if possible. Respond proactively to protect your brand. Go out and find your next success as fast as you can—even if it means taking a smaller job at a smaller company. Do something that’s humbling. Talk to journalists, maybe write an op-ed in the newspaper, if it was in the press. Apologize, both in public and through individual letters to everyone. Do some things that are really classy, and be a man or a woman about it.

I recently read some statistics that suggested an increase in age discrimination against older executives. Do you see that out there for CFOs?

There is obvious age discrimination, and it’s probably the biggest area of discrimination by far. There are some things [older execs] can do. Getting in shape is important; being fit is important, and it can work against you if you’re not. Get out there and sell. Find a mentor; don’t believe you know everything. What happens a lot of times in people’s 50s is they stop learning.

With the recent push for corporate-governance reform, there’s been a lot of emphasis on the need for finance expertise on boards and audit committees. In this environment, do you think this is a good time for CFOs?

I think it is for those who are successful and who have developed great relationships with their CEOs. I would say that CFOs in general that have great business acumen and have had a lot of board experience. However, there may be many who lose their jobs as well, because they didn’t have the skill set that companies are demanding today.

With the increased demand for finance expertise, can good CFOs afford to ask for more when negotiating for pay?

They can to the extent that anyone else can, and money is important. It’s important to be fair and informed. Normally the best tactic is to put [your compensation] in context of the market and your peers. Point out, for example, that you’ve forgone a raise or other benefit, or that your peers earn more.

Any other job-search advice?

Don’t relying on Email; don’t think that’s all you have to do. As soon as you hit the “send” button somebody at the other end is pushing the “delete” button. Use the phone. You’ve got to make the call. You’ve got to do the work. Research. A lot of people don’t do their research. They may do research in their business, but they don’t put research in their career. Also, don’t get bogged down by rejection. It could be the 99th call out of 100 that’s really going to resonate with someone. And don’t oversell.