Woman being interviewed by a committee

Flourishing in Interviews

In Personal Strategies & Goals, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

Truthfully, I haven’t interviewed a lot lately, but I had success early on. Some of it was planned, other was luck, but I think my observations will be helpful to people during the interview process, regardless of the level of the position.

Four Interviewing Techniques

1. Determine the Goals of the Interviewers

Don’t be wrapped up in putting yourself in a good light. The goal is to understand what the interviewer is trying to accomplish and what they might be looking for. During the interview process, you are most likely going to interview with multiple people, and you need to understand each person. 

Think of it like school when you have to figure out what is going to be on a test or what’s important to the professor. Or in a career, what’s necessary to get ahead, please your boss, and move the organization forward.

It’s a process of trying to understand, and I recommend doing the same for an interview. Most people go into interviews thinking that the hiring manager or committee is out to choose the best person. But usually, there is some underlying issue or problem that they are trying to solve, hence the reason for hiring.

2. Emphasize the Value You Bring – Not Your Past

Throughout the process, emphasize the value you bring instead of focusing on what you’ve done in the past. One mistake I often see is people randomly talking about past experiences that have no relevance to the job they are interviewing for. A better approach is to show how your previous work would benefit the position or organization you are interviewing for. The same goes for cover letters. Show the value that you bring instead of, “I’ve done this, and I’ve done that.”

Sometimes, this is better when done subtly. For example, when interviewing for college acceptance, you determine that this particular school wants to recruit active students, not only in the classroom, but in the school and community. Instead of saying, “I’m an active person,” maybe throw it in as a question. “If I want to be active in community politics, like I have in the past, are there good opportunities for me to grow in that regard?” That sets them up to know that you bring this to the table and is part of asking good questions.

3. Prepare and Ask Good Questions

The previous example involved a question that wasn’t just facts about the institution. It showed knowledge of what the interviewer was looking for and allowed the interviewee to put their strengths forward. The opposite also applies.

Use questions to cover up weaknesses. “In high school, I didn’t have the opportunity to do X, but I’m really hoping to find ways to develop that while I’m in college. Are there good ways to do that?” Or, “At my last job, I was only able to do such and such. But I’ve been doing a lot of research and studying, and I’m very interested in doing Y. I’d like to continue with my studies but would also like to learn from my colleagues. Will there be opportunities for me to grow in this regard?” In your mind, not having Y skill was a weakness. Asking good questions allows you to address that ahead of time in a way that’s beneficial to you.

I noticed early in my life the value of asking questions. Two were from when I was in high school interviewing at colleges. At Case Western Reserve University, I met with an admissions counselor who, for whatever reason, simply did not like me, and everything was going poorly. He told me that while my scores were good, they weren’t the best. Somehow, he got it in his mind that I didn’t have the right attitude or something, and the only way I recovered was by asking questions.

I had asked a couple of questions with quick answers, but I finally found one that stumped him. I inquired about credit by examination, “Can you tell me about the process where I receive credit for a class by taking an exam so that I don’t have to repeat material I already know? For example, I have a lot of flying experience, and in your course catalog, Aeronautics 1 and 2 are listed. Maybe I could start with the second course if I pass the test for the first one. I’m curious how that works.” He explained that it wasn’t possible, but I told him that I’d seen something in the course catalog about it. He proceeded to tell me that he was the admissions counselor and familiar with everything in the catalog. I then asked for a copy, turned to the page, and showed him. He was visibly flustered.

After that, I “owned” the interview. I had him do all sorts of things, such as setting up appointments for me across campus and meeting with department chairs. All this because I got the upper hand. I didn’t do it analytically, but afterward, I thought about it and noticed that the interview wasn’t going well, but by asking the right question, I converted that to having something on my side. Of course, he was feeling guilty about his attitude toward me, and this exposed that.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), I had the opportunity to use this technique again. RPI is an outstanding school in Upstate New York, so my friend and I decided to visit. When we arrived, there were long lines of smartly dressed students from New York City standing with their parents. We felt somewhat out of place. I told my friend about my experience at Case Western, and we furiously studied the course catalog before our meeting.

We met with an admission counselor, but it was clear that he didn’t have time for us because of the other students from top NYC schools. He just wanted us to get in and out, but we started asking questions. When we asked about the campus squash club, he didn’t know. We said that we would wait while he found out, so he made some calls. He informed us that he wouldn’t have the information until 4 pm when the coach returned to campus. I piped up, “Great! Can you set up some meetings for us on campus while we wait?” Stunned, he said, “Okay, sure.”

These two examples are proof that this strategy works. These were college interviews, but I’ve used this technique for job interviews as well. And, when interviewees use this tactic with me or someone in my organization, I find it emphasizes the value that person brings.

4. Prepare Your Answers Ahead of Time

To prepare answers ahead of time, you have to guess the direction of the questions, but not really. Come up with good answers to questions that you want to receive, and then do what politicians and skilled test takers do on essays. Find a way to bridge the topic so that you can include the answers you think are good. When doing this, my advice is to:

  • Keep it short: Don’t be long-winded. Keep it to a modest length of four to six sentences, certainly not 40.
  • Emphasize the value you bring: Talk about what you can do for the organization.
  • Answer with questions: This spruces up the conversation and turns it into a dialog.

For one interview, I prepared an answer that was related to a learning experience I had in boy scouts. They asked me a question about extracurricular activities. I’m sure they were talking about school activities, but I didn’t have anything that fit well. I bridged the gap to a time early in boy scouts so that I could name drop being an Eagle Scout. I talked about how I was put in a situation where I could use my technical skills to help scouts who were older and more experienced than me. That put me in a position of leadership. I followed up with a question, “Will there be an opportunity for me to start at the bottom in a new field and work my way up? I really like learning and mastering new fields.” This showed humbleness but also the search for excellence. I received positive vibes from that particular interview group.

Group Interviews

A couple of other tactics are necessary when interviewing in a group setting because it’s easier to size up a person in one-on-one interviews. I find it’s essential to make eye contact and study the facial expressions of everyone in the room. I’ve used this in groups ranging from 2 to 45 people. One thing I have noticed is when establishing eye contact, individuals start making facial expressions. From this, you can identify the ones who support you, and they will subconsciously help you.

When answering a question, look to someone on your side. If their face goes in a negative direction, then your answer isn’t being received well. Back off the comment and go in a different direction. If the person nods their head and smiles, then expand on that because they are saying that your answer will go well with the group. Now, these people don’t know they are helping you, but it’s the way it works. I’ve experienced this time after time.

Weave in some humor. I don’t think I have a super sense of humor, but I am usually able to come up with some witty remarks to diffuse situations. Remember that most people interview multiple candidates, so they can be formal and stiff. If you can relieve some of that energy by injecting humor, it sends a message of confidence and lets people get closer to you.

Anecdote 1: Boys Nation

As a junior in high school, I was a participant at Boys State in New York, which had about 1,100 participants. Boys State is a summer leadership program sponsored by the American Legion for top students from high schools across the state and focuses on state and local government and civic training. Part of the activities include mock running for various offices, such as Governor and Lieutenant Governor as well as other roles that mirror that particular state. Two boys from each Boys State across the U.S. are then chosen for Boys Nation, which applies the same concept for the federal government where the students are mock senators.

In New York’s Boys State, they interviewed 10 people for the two positions, and most of the boys selected were high-ranking mock officials, meaning those elected Governor, etc. I, however, wasn’t one of those, so I knew that if I wanted to be chosen, then I had to demonstrate why I was different. During my interview, I mentioned that I worked very hard behind the scenes to shape who were going to be the winners and to help align power and guide them. I saw myself as a kingmaker instead of being out front. I explained that I was the Chair of the Committee of Ways and Means and responsible for drafting bills. I wanted to be involved in that activity because I thought it provided the opportunity where I could learn the most. I would meet a lot of people, have influence, and end up with actually doing something because of the bills we drafted.

I continued on because I received positive reinforcement from the group, and then they asked what I would do if I went to Boys Nation. Would I try to be elected President in its mock election? “Well, that’s a possibility, but I would enjoy playing the role of kingmaker there as well. I like working behind the scenes, influencing the political process, coaching people to be successful, and lobbying and rallying the troops. But I’d also like to be involved in making laws. Since I might be the only person from Ways and Means, I would be in a good position to help shape whatever laws they work on at Boys Nation.”

I thought that separated me from the nine others who probably all wanted to be President. My strategy worked… I was chosen. By understanding their goals, I was able to look at their facial expressions, weave in some humor, and talk about maximizing learning. The bottom line was that if they were going to sponsor and pay for someone to go to Boys Nation, they wanted to choose someone who desired the most learning possible.

Anecdote 2: RPI Scholarship

I was already accepted to RPI when interviewing for an Alumni Association Scholarship, which could be a full ride depending on need. For the interview, I went to one of IBM’s headquarters buildings. Someone from the lobby walked me up and led me to a room filled with at least 20 people, all seated in a vast room. He said that since he couldn’t introduce me to everyone in the room, he would simply present me to the group. He also said that I had 40 minutes.

They started asking questions about my background, and I tried to weave in some humor and talked about things that were important to me like my activity in boy scouts and aviation, which played well. I recall getting positive facial expressions, and people seemed to like me.

One person, who seemed somewhat prickly, asked me my opinion on “draft dodgers,” as they were called at the time. This was just after the Vietnam War, and a lot of young people had avoided the draft, some of whom escaped to Canada. Now that the war was over and things were normalizing, the question was what to do with the draft dodgers. Of course, many young people thought we should forgive them. Some older people thought we should put them in jail. 

This was tricky, so I decided to test my viewpoint. I said that it would be nice if there were a way for them to provide services to work themselves back into a good stead as a U.S. citizen. I could tell from the facial expressions of those on my side that my position was good. Instead of being soft, I became a little more aggressive, talking about it more. One person with a kind expression said, “Oh, that’s very thoughtful. It will be interesting to see how this process works out.” Then, there were follow-up questions, which was a good sign.

Some of my previous experiences helped resonate with the room initially, but by utilizing the facial expressions, I navigated a difficult situation. I won the scholarship, but I ended up not going to RPI. The way the math worked, my family made too much money, so the award wasn’t worth much. The interview process, however, was a great learning experience.

Anecdote 3: University President

By far, this was my toughest interview. And in hindsight, I’m amazed that I made it through the process.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) was looking for a new President. The previous Presidents were former military officers, with the current President being a retired Air Force three-star general who was the former commandant of the Air Force Academy. He recommended his provost that he had at the Air Force Academy, who was a recently retired four-star general, as his replacement. The other candidates consisted of two four-star generals, a two-star admiral who was the head of the Naval Postgraduate School, and an admiral who was an astronaut. And then, there was me, a 36-year-old Vice President of a software company in Silicon Valley.

I needed to stand out, so I did a lot of research on ERAU and came up with a strategic and tactical plan for what I thought could move it to the next level. I spoke with many people about the current weaknesses and what they thought the university needed. When I had my first interview with the headhunter/recruiter, he looked at how young I was, and in my mind, he rejected me immediately. He asked me questions about my Ph.D. dissertation and things like that. I answered his questions, and he said, “Great, thanks.” Without moving, I said, “Hey look, I don’t know if you have time, but I’ve been thinking about Embry-Riddle and want to show you what I think is a good strategic plan for how to move forward if I’m selected as the President.” He was surprised.

I handed him a copy of the presentation and walked him through it. He seemed to like it. I later found out that after that meeting, he immediately called the search committee and told them, “I found the person! I found the person!” 

During my first search committee meeting, the other candidates had come in and talked about themselves and what they had accomplished in the past. I was the fourth candidate. The members already knew from the recruiter that I was interesting and had a plan for the future. When I walked in, we talked about what my plans were, and they asked tough questions, especially the ones who seemed supportive of me. It was a great conversation.

The candidate who came after me was one of the deans at the school. He later told me that the room was still abuzz after I left. My advantage was that I talked about the university and what it could become instead of my credentials and the past, like all the other candidates.

The next step was to interview with the entire search committee in Washington, D.C. The format was for me to talk for 20 minutes and then answer questions. Once again, I talked about what I saw for the future of ERAU, so the questions they asked were about moving things forward. A couple of people tried to sneak in questions regarding my background, but I bridged it back to the university.

It worked out pretty well, but I was young, and the current President was throwing his weight behind another candidate. I heard that the search committee unanimously voted for me each time, but when it came to the Board, they could not reach a consensus. They decided to have a special board meeting and invite the emeritus members, a total of about 45 people. For this meeting, I made a presentation, and each person had five minutes to ask me questions. It lasted about three hours and was an extremely intense process.

I was awarded the job, became the youngest U.S. University President at the time, and had a successful seven years. I certainly broke a few eggs along the way and had interesting challenges. Overall, I think it worked out well for the institution and me. Looking back on the experience, it’s obvious that talking about the future is more exciting and productive than only talking about a person’s background.

An Aside

ERAU’s Chairman of the Board, who was on the search committee, worked for a corporation where the CEO was suspected of illegal activity and fraud. It turns out that the FBI had wiretapped many of the senior officers to try to deal with the situation. After ERAU’s Chairman had finished answering all the questions with the FBI, the agent told him, “That’s the end of the official questions, but I have one more, if you don’t mind. One of the things that we are curious about is, since we had to listen to all your conversations. We want to know who you ended up hiring as the President. The young guy or the four-star general?” Apparently, there had been so many phone calls and discussions going back and forth that the FBI was interested in how it turned out.

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