A few months ago we asked Steve Lake to share some tips on how to set up a CV and how to get a first meeting when looking for a job. Steve worked at Pepper Stark, an industry consultancy where he was responsible for recruitment. A few months later times are still tough but there also seem to be some green shoots and opportunities with companies that managed to get through the deepest part of the recession in one piece. I asked Steve what do do next; having prepared a CV and with the experience of looking out for job opportunities he explains how to deal with the conversations at your next potential employer.
If a letter and CV get you to the first meeting what are the things that create that all important first impression?
Act like a human being not an interviewee – you might be someone these people will have to work with day in day out, they want to know you have some personality. But be careful not to take it too far – it’s still an interview, not a chat in the pub. Don’t waffle. Less is more. Answer questions properly but concisely. Don’t repeat yourself – they’ll have got the point first time around and if you keep making it they’ll assume it’s because you have nothing else interesting to say.
Be interested as well as interesting. Engage with the interviewer at whatever level you feel appropriate. Most employers – especially in small-medium sized libraries – care deeply about their company and will respond better if they feel you share that interest and attachment.
Be confident. Easy to say I know, but what I mean is stick to your guns. If you feel you’re a strong candidate and have valid things to say then don’t be put off by a perceived negative or aggressive approach (often put on anyway) – if you start to waver they’ll assume you were only saying the things you thought they wanted to hear, not stuff you really believed in. If it turns out they really don’t accept what you’re saying then it’s probably not the job for you anyway.
How do you treat potential weaknesses? This question will most likely be asked in any interview.
Don’t hide from them. Front up about weaknesses – it shows self-awareness. But you also need a clear strategy for how you intend to address any weaknesses and how you see that working within the job you’re going for. Turn to your advantage – the reason you want to work for this company/in this job is that it will provide the perfect environment for you to improve in weaker areas. They may not believe you but a strong self-aware answer will keep the interview momentum going.
Only deny a weakness if you’re very confident you can stand up under aggressive questioning. It’s better to admit and address weaknesses than get into a confrontation trying to defend the indefensible.
There is only this one opportunity to talk about everything. How do you make sure you know that everything is addressed?
Research and preparation are of course key. You have to play the game. Even if you feel you could do the job perfectly well without knowing when the company was founded and by whom the fact is the interviewer will expect you to have done this homework and it will work against you if you haven’t. And don’t just repeat verbatim the ‘about us’ section of their website – show some imagination, dig up a fact they may not expect you to know, show a connection with the company not apparent from your CV. But….for all the benefit of preparation don’t act like you’re reading it from a script.
I would never take in notes to refer to for questions and the like – certainly not at first interview. You want the interview to be as much like a normal two-way conversation as possible. So don’t leave your questions to the end when you’re asked for them (chances are interviewer will have answered most of them already) – incorporate them into the conversation. If he asks you a question then answer it properly but then come back with a related question of your own. If there’s a point you think is important that the interviewer doesn’t seem to be addressing – a particularly relevant bit of previous work experience for example that they may have missed – then find a way to work it into the conversation – don’t just blurt it out at random to cross it off your list. You’re allowed to take the initiative to some degree – it’s not just a Q&A session.
All of this should come naturally enough if it’s a company/job you know a lot about or if it reflects jobs you have done in the past – you’ll be able to talk fluently and confidently about the issues. If it’s more of a stretch then you have to not only do your homework but revise it as if you were preparing for an exam – you won’t need notes because it will all be in your head anyway. If you can engage with the interviewer and show real empathy with the job and the company then all the important stuff will look after itself.
After the first talk, what should one do next?
Not much. Go easy on the follow-up. Don’t, as one candidate did, immediately bombard them with emails saying how keen you are and basically repeating all the points from the interview. They’ll think you’re a nutter. Always ask what the timescale for decisions is in the interview – but expect them not to stick to this. There’s no point in getting anxious and trying to force the issue. Especially in small libraries with no HR dept other priorities can easily get in the way and delay the process. If that’s the case they don’t want to be bothered by you ringing up every 5 minutes.
At the same time, a quick follow-up email thanking them for the opportunity to interview for the role and reiterating your interest in the job won’t do any harm. But keep it short and don’t sound like you’re begging. Companies should always inform you of their decision within reasonable time if you have been for an interview (few bother to respond to candidates who don’t get to interview stage). But if you really feel they’re taking the piss then do force the issue. It’s disrespectful and rude not to inform candidates and give them some sort of feedback – this is a basic requirement you should be prepared to fight for.
Never ever follow up to try to correct something that might have gone wrong in the interview. ‘On reflection, what I meant to say was….’ – it’s too late and you’ll just make things worse. Only go back to them after an initial thank you email if you have something relevant to say that might improve your chances. For instance, if you said in the interview that you were looking at other opportunities (perfectly legit) then it can be worthwhile to let them know if you have been offered another job but have turned it down because this is the one you really want. Don’t lie about it though – it’s too small an industry and people have a way of finding these things out.
How do you handle rejection. Any tips to pick oneself up and move on?
Regardless of how good you are, in the current climate you’re going to need a hefty slice of luck to get a good job. There are simply so many good candidates available that any decent job is likely to have a handful of similarly-qualified and able candidates on the short list. If one of them just connects better in interview, or is that bit cheaper or can start that bit sooner there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t mean CV or interview or strategy is wrong – do exactly the same for the next job and you’ll probably get it.
If you can get some proper feedback (and you should be able to distinguish genuine feedback from the stuff that someone’s just read out of a book) do take notice of it. This doesn’t mean it’s right and doesn’t mean it will be relevant to your next application – but it’s the only way you can get an insight into how potential employers are seeing you (often very different to how you see yourself). You can’t suddenly change who you are; but you can tweak things to show your best side. Decent recruitment agencies can provide valuable feedback because they can push the client harder than you can; sadly there aren’t any decent recruitment agencies in the industry any more.
How should you treat the salary negotiations? Is it wise to be aggressive in these time?
I would never advise aggression. You’re looking for a delicate balance between understanding the employer’s point of view – with industry experience you should have a pretty good feel for what the going rate for any job should be; if not, ask around – and making sure you get the best deal for yourself. There’s no doubt that especially for sales/commercial roles most employers would be worried if you didn’t try to push them up on salary – they’ll worry about your sales/negotiation skills if you take the first offer. But at the same time don’t push it for the sake of it. If they make it clear that they can go no higher you’ll only irritate them by pushing further. And the danger in the current climate is that there’s a very good chance they’ll have a strong second choice candidate who will do it for their top figure. You need to be very confident you’re the standout candidate to play hard ball at the moment.
A lot will depend on personal circumstances. If you can wait a few months for the right job you can maybe afford to take it to the wire; if you need the job then I’m afraid it’s an employers’ market at the moment. My advice would be to not accept anything clearly below your market value – chances are they won’t respect you in the job if they take the piss with the offer. But if it’s a borderline decision and pushing for that extra 1K could be a deal breaker, then accept the job, get your foot in the door and prove how good you are and then look to get the salary up.
If things go according to plan, are there any rules for the first weeks and months?
Don’t try to do too much. You want to make a mark and a positive impression but don’t run before you can walk. If it’s a good job/company then you’ll want to be there long-term – there’s plenty of time to prove your worth. If you go in all guns blazing you’ll end up alienating your new colleagues and probably make a hash of things by trying to split the atom before you’ve got to grips with the way the company works. Be confident. If you’ve got through all of the pitfalls outlined above then the employer clearly wants you in their company and considers you to be an outstanding candidate – you must have been to have beaten stiff competition.
They’re not going to be looking at you in 2 weeks and thinking ‘well, what’s he done so far’. By employing you the employer is making a long-term commitment and investment just as much as you. You don’t have to walk around on your hands or work 16 hour days to convince him he’s made the right decision. For instance, if you get an hour for lunch and know that you work better after taking a break than you do working straight through then take an hour every day, even if no one else does.
You’ll be judged on the job you do not how good you are at following the pack. Remember what got you the job in the first place and stick to doing what you’re good at. The rest will look after itself.