PREPARING FOR AN INTERVIEW?

Interviews are wild. The odds, the anxiety, the competition, the feeling of so close, but so far away… Just before the interviews, many of us need someone to give some guidance, but perhaps without us having any specific questions. Let me chime in.

I last interviewed for a job close to four years ago. For that interview, I flew to Paris arriving the day before my interview. I was up early the next morning. As it was in the deep of European winter, it was still cold and dark as I walked to the office for the big day. I wore a pant suit and a white shirt, both of which my mom had carefully ironed and folded for me in Lilongwe, the previous day. It was all happening so fast, considering that at the end of my interview, I had to catch a cab to the airport for my flight home later that night.

But I was not in a hurry. I was in Paris. I mean… come on!

Listen, I had reasons to panic. I was 5 months out of work and nearing broke. I needed the job. I had also already done three or five interviews at this point, and was dropped at the very last step. I was not feeling very confident. I was interviewing for a very competitive position on a highly selective program in a distinguished organization. The odds were not necessarily in my favor. Plus, the first thing I heard during the briefing session before the interviews started that morning, was something like, 9000+ people applied and only 200+ of you are being interviewed for just over 50 positions.

Wild statistics. The odds, unthinkable.

I also remember thinking that if I did not get the job, I would be feeling really great that I was considered for the interview, because when I worked out the probability of getting in, I would have actually panicked. It helped that I was taking the interview in Paris. Who would not be grateful for that.

I write this now, knowing that a lot has changed in terms of the interview processes. I hear that sometimes the interviews are done with chat bots (check this out). Or Zoom. My wonderful husband, for example, took all of his interviews recently via Zoom, at home from our dining table (while I was in the other room with a newborn baby). One of those interviews, he took while I left him home alone with the newborn when I stepped out of the house to the hospital. It turns out that that is the interview for which they offered him the job. That is wild, isn’t it? Yet, even before the Pandemic, interviews have taken various forms. I have had two interviews in which I met the panel via a regular phone call, no video. One with a UN agency, and another international, both of which I was offered in the end (almost at the same time). I say this to say, whatever form the interview you are about to take will be, the important thing is that you scored an interview. You, yes you! Well done.

Here are my thoughts on how to prepare.

Prepare technically. At this point, you should know the job profile, the core competencies required, your set of business and interpersonal skills, your career highlights and why you make a good fit for the role. You would have gone over the details of this when you were applying, and again when you were talking to your referees. The next step for the interview is to make sure that you know exactly how all this information fits together. Almost like a puzzle. What you bring to the table (business skills, qualifications, experiences, personal qualities) + what they are looking for + what sort of work you may be involved in if you were successful. I know that sometimes we spend too much time going through very technical details like academic theories and methods and publications or we can get deep into the website of an organization and we read the project documents and evaluation reports and so on. This is important. But let’s be honest, more often than not, there isn’t enough time. And it can be overwhelming. I am of the view that great technical preparation is more of visualizing what contributions you would make to a given team, or a given project; how you would work out probable dilemmas in your line of work, what kind of previous challenging situations and lessons learned may be mirrored, and how all your people skills apply to the organization and work you being interviewed for. It is figuring out how your skills are transferable, and for many roles these days, how multidisciplinary your set of professional experiences and qualifications are. What makes you an asset. What areas of growth would you need support for. And circling back again to how all of this fit well with the job profile, the organizational culture and priorities in a way that shows you to be the one they have been waiting for! If you are not sure about how compelling you are as a candidate,start here.

Prepare to be concise. An interview is a conversation. Make it interesting. Whatever you have to say, say it in a few words so that your key messages are upfront and your taglines are memorable (I use tagline here to mean pre-mediated sentences that reinforce your key competences, zero in on your key achievements or highlight the key information you would like to highlight about yourself). You know the puzzle I mentioned above, once it fits together and you have the big picture of say 50 pieces, downsize that picture and now cut a simple puzzle of just 10 pieces but when the 10 pieces fit together, they show the same big picture as the 50 pieces. I personally find that having this mental map of the 10 picture puzzle helps me to be a little at ease. I do not have to remember a lot of things, just a few key scenarios, and a few practice sentences of how I will present that information no matter how the question is presented. In person, it is easy since there may be room for being wordy, but say you are interviewing with a chat bot, you need to be really concise. Think clarity, like in scenario xxx, in which xyz challenge/ opportunity/task availed, abc happened and my role was 123 and the outcome was _ _ _ . Shoot your shot and aim on target.

Prepare for surprises. You will not possibly be able to predict everything you will be asked. Or how it will be. I walked into the interview and it turns out it started with a group assignment, reading a really long document and working together with strangers from different professional backgrounds and nationalities under observation. That was a first. I have also done other interviews in which I wrote aptitude tests (or what are those tests called?) which I found incredibly stressful. The last time I did something remotely similar, I was 15, trying to get into undergrad. Or unexpected questions. Someone on the panel took interest with my very first job straight out of university and we actually talked a bit about that. If I was not ready to drive the conversation to zero in on what I carried over from that experience in relation to the job profile, that may have just been a nice by the way chat of something I did in my past. Which is why I recommend having some taglines and key messages handy. Never miss an opportunity of hitting the nail on the head. I am honestly not quite sure how chat bots can surprise you, but you know Zoom technology can fail so perhaps have an elevator joke or two. Or maybe not.

Prepare by practicing. You have that someone who can let you practice with them. Let them ask you random questions. Practice how to make your pitch, how to throw in your taglines, how to present your sentences in a clear and concise way. Practice light heartedly, with someone you can laugh with. Practice with someone who has no idea or interest in your line of work and let them hear you make a convincing pitch why are good for the job. Get feedback. All round feedback. Constructive and kind feedback. But also the lighthearted but useful feedback. For example, if you have small mannerisms that make you look less confident when you speak, have someone who can tell you and help you posture better. Or if you are going to practice writing down your scenarios or taglines, have someone who has time to read and engage with what your wrote and help you feel great about all the cards you are about to deal.

Don’t forget to prepare yourself. Get that pep talk. Talk to your hype people, and let them give you the vibes. Whatever helps you feel better, get that done. Pick that outfit. Get that feel good feeling going. If you pray, pray. Get yourself in good mental shape. Talk kindly to yourself. Believe that you have what it takes. Oh yea, the odds are wild and there will be competition. But personally, by the time I get to the interview stage, I focus on me. I am no longer looking at who else. I, Chifundo, have received a personal invitation to an interview. They want to meet me. And all I have to do is get them to meet the best of me. The main competition I have is the voice of doubt in my head. My goal, just before the interview is to make sure that my preparation silences anything that speaks louder than my faith believes. Because even if I do not get the job I am interviewing for, I want to walk in and out of that interview with so many stories of how far I have come, how much I have already achieved, how great it is that someone out there found my profile interesting, that they wanted to meet me and more importantly, that I believed that I could. I may not always walk in and out of an interview feeling very confident, but I always aim to walk in and out with excellence, diligence and grace shining through me. Because professionally, that is what I strive to give.

I hope this interview helps you take pride in everything you are, everything you have to give and everything there still is for you to learn.

Go, get it!

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