Job Hunting

“I Blew It”: Biggest Interview Errors

Your résumé has opened the door. But recruiters point to the traps that candidates fall into, and offer tips for making a better impression.
Marie LeoneOctober 26, 2007

The “outside” candidate for the CFO slot didn’t know what had hit him. Walking out of the interview, he could tell from the interviewer’s parting response that he’d blown it. But why? He’d been ever so careful, he said in talking the disaster over with an old friend, Chip Clothier, a managing partner at HFC Executive Search.

The interviewee was right about the session’s results, as Clothier tells it. He had indeed ruined his chance of being called back for a second interview — by presenting himself in the first session as too much of a team player.

Many things can sink an interview. Sometimes it’s simply making a bad first impression; a tendency to ramble, instead of being direct in answering questions, perhaps; or poor backgrounding on the company you seek to join. But often the problem is more complex. Some candidates don’t think far enough ahead, giving the interviewer a sense of little potential growth to be tapped. Others talk grandiosely of the future while shortchanging their immediate skills. Candidates could well consider the main goal of a first interview to be getting to a second interview, says Korn/Ferry International’s Chuck Eldridge, who heads up the firm’s financial officers’ practice.

And then there’s the trap that ensnared Chip Clothier’s friend. The finance executive, who Clothier declines to identify, had worked for a Fortune 100 company known for its deep culture of teamwork, with executives encouraged to tap cross-departmental expertise to solve problems and advance corporate goals. Whenever possible in the interview, the candidate described “the team’s successes” and “our projects,” never explaining what he himself contributed to the group efforts. Suddenly the interview was over, and so were his prospects of winning the CFO job.

“There was no ‘I’ in this company’s vocabulary,” says Clothier, describing his friend’s previous employer. But bringing that focus to a job interview — with a company that had a more entrepreneurial corporate culture — turned out to be a mistake. “He should have been prepared to describe the teamwork in terms of his leadership and specific contributions,” reasons Clothier. The candidate wasn’t “mentally prepared for selling himself, and fell back on the nomenclature of his company.”

Clothier, Eldridge, and Heidrick & Struggles partner Lorraine Hack — three recruiters consulted by for this article — offer insights about how to avoid interview pitfalls. Their observations capture problems both glaring and subtle, all of which can trip up interviewees. The experts also suggest ways to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls.

Your Mother Was Right

First impressions do count. And as obvious as it may sound, candidates still strike out when it comes to grooming and dressing for an interview, notes Hack, who leads Heidrick & Struggles’s financial officers’ practice. Ill-fitting, stained, or shabby clothing can ruin an interviewer’s first impression, and so can something as minor as unpolished shoes.

Candidates, she says, should “always err on the side of a suit and tie, even if they’ve been told that the hiring company has a casual dress policy.” Better for a man to be able to loosen his tie, if the interviewer gives him that option, than to be caught without one. And no excuses about dressing down for an interview — like saying a tie will make a current boss or co-workers suspect you’re going on an interview. Figure a way around such a situation, insists Hack: change in the bathroom or your car, but make sure to show up dressed well.

Just as important: “No limp or cold-fish handshakes,” she adds. “Look the interviewer in the eye and give a firm handshake; that’s part of first impressions.” It’s OK to lose eye contact if you’re composing a thoughtful answer to a question, but be sure to reestablish eye contact when you deliver your answer.

The cold-fish warning extends to demeanor. Great credentials can be discounted quickly if candidates fail to show energy and passion when meeting with an executive from the hiring company. “You can’t hide [disinterest] during an interview; clients pick up on it,” contends Eldridge. And start right away. “The minute you walk into the building,” he says, “you have to be in the zone.”

No kidding. How you treat the lobby guard, the office receptionist, and the assistant offering you coffee is all part of the interview. Eldridge tells of one hiring company whose executives routinely talked to the receptionist and other nonmanagement employees to find out what impression potential candidates made.

Your mother was also right in reminding you always to say thank you. Hack is adamant about telling candidates, no matter what job level, to send a thank-you note to the interviewer via E-mail, even if the meeting was set up by a recruiter. Keep the note short, sweet, and relevant to the job opportunity. A note may seem rote, but it still can set apart one candidate from another if their qualifications are similar.

The Two-Minute Drill

Eldridge is amazed at how the best candidates seem able to summarize a 25-year career sharply and precisely in two minutes. They discuss what’s relevant about their experience and avoid long anecdotes or digressions. “You have to have an elevator pitch about yourself,” advises Eldridge. It’s similar to the encapsulated sales speech entrepreneurs give investors to pique their interest. “But few people master the pitch.”

Have it prepared the moment you enter the building. Eldridge tells of one candidate who actually found himself turning on the pitch while on an elevator — as a senior manager conducted him on a 40-floor ride to the interview itself. The pitch should contain, for example, names of prominent companies where a candidate has worked, and in the case of lesser-known companies, its size. A potential CFO could start with something like: “I was the controller of a $700 million manufacturing company that catered to clients who were similar to your customers.”

The flip side, of course, is that a poor two-minute drill can be costly. Don’t bring up your earliest finance job, for example, unless it pertains directly to the current job opening, warns Eldridge. Listen carefully to questions, answering them completely without drifting off target. Offering too much on a first interview by answering unasked questions can drag things out to the point where it’s hard for a candidate to recover a sharp focus. Like a résumé, an interview should illustrate clear, concise communication skills from a candidate who brings complicated issues into focus quickly.

Question Authority, and Everything Else

One of the biggest mistakes candidates make is not asking questions, says Hack. Too few questions may suggest to an interviewer that a candidate is unengaged and uninterested in the job. An uninformed question can stop things short, however, so Hack advises that candidates work up queries from the annual reports of public companies, and press releases and news reports of private ones. Some wise candidates purchase private company reports from a financial-information service, such as Dun & Bradstreet or Hoovers , for their information.

“Press recruiters for key information and lean on them to help you identify landmines,” adds Eldridge. Learn before meeting a company’s executives what the company’s hot buttons are, what kind of culture is encouraged, whether decisions are centralized or decentralized, and how managers get things done. “Weak questions are a deal killer,” asserts Eldridge, who recommends that candidates for senior slots ask strategic questions rather than regurgitate facts from press releases.

He singles out one outstanding CFO candidate who was sent on an interview for a position that called for him to work closely with a CEO. Beforehand, the candidate learned that the CEO was seeking a finance chief to help him double or triple company growth during the next three years. In the interview, the candidate observed that his study of company financials told him that during the past eight years, margins had not even doubled. His questions of the CEO: How do you plan to triple growth in half that time? Will you be acquiring companies or launching an IPO? Will there be reinvestment in one of the higher-growth divisions or products? Is the company planning to hire talent or build out infrastructure? The questions alone, says Eldridge, exposed a smart, attuned candidate.

Avoid being too historic in your approach, though. “Don’t go into the past,” as Eldridge puts it — it indicates a lack of strategic long-term thinking. If you know about a recent acquisition, for example, ask about merger-integration issues, not deal specifics that were taken care of months ago. “Go deeper, more granular: you want to make an impact statement with your questions,” emphasizes Eldridge.

Just Like an Earnings Call

“Everything on a résumé is subject to audit,” notes Eldridge, introducing one true horror story. A CFO’s résumé had noted that he worked closely with the CEO on a big merger deal five years before. But when the interviewer asked the CEO’s name, the candidate’s mind went blank. And indeed, failure to recall his old boss’s name convinced the potential new boss not to hire him. The only lesson: try to prepare for résumé questions — the easy ones as well as the tough ones. Everyone has weaknesses, but how you discuss shortcomings could turn them into strengths. Prepare for an interview like you get ready for an earnings call, he advises.

When it comes to any apparent holes in a résumé, such as termination from a job, be direct and concise about the reason. Take the high ground; don’t badmouth former employers. Even if you were let go through no fault of your own — if the company was sold or you were caught in a wave of layoffs, for example — you need a sharp reply.

There are ways to depict even bad situations in a professional manner. Hack says candidates should stick to the facts, stressing that “an interview is not a therapy session.” Don’t talk about the poor performance of former managers or internal squabbles, for example. Instead point out that your termination was part of a 300 percent turnover rate that the company had experienced over two years.

Similarly, if a newly hired CEO cleaned house and you were one executive replaced, acknowledge the leadership change and unapologetically point out that you were disappointed by the decision but realize that this is sometimes how Corporate America works. Never launch into the history of management changes, says Hack. Instead “be clear, cohesive, and succinct, and don’t dance around the subject.”

If practicable, turn the query into a discussion rather than a question-and-answer period. “Interviewers don’t want to be talked at,” says Hack. If more than one person is interviewing you, make eye contact will all of them, regardless of whom posed the question. Get everyone involved.

Talking Money

Recruiters at retained search firms usually pass along current salary requirements of a candidate to the hiring company. It’s a mistake not to be ready to discuss compensation in an interview if asked; specifically, what it will cost to get them to move to a new job.

Hack suggests putting together a compensation spreadsheet that calculates salary, potential bonus targets, and payouts; vested and unvested stock; stock options; and company perks such as car allowance, club memberships, and company-paid financial-planning services. That way you’ll be able to tell an interviewer quickly what you would be leaving on the table should you accept a new job. “It may seem silly, but in this age of direct deposit,” notes Hack, “sometimes even CFOs don’t know what their paycheck says.” They should.