The Second Interview

July 1, 2009       Tom Pope      

Job openings are hard enough to find and then get that first interview. After you’ve aced that first meeting the second one looms, so more preparation and focusing means planning extra details.

Senior positions average almost 10 interviews, according to David Hinsley Cheng, managing partner of DRG, a national search firm for nonprofits in Manhattan. “Treat the interview like a business meeting,” he said. “That means having an agenda of talking points.”

Candidates should understand why the position is vacant and the employer’s expectations. “How would they define success in 100 days is one question,” he said. “It’s crucial to know if you’ve done a good or bad job without those guidelines. That answer ensures both parties are on the same page.”

Cheng admitted that it would be difficult to evaluate a vague answer. “You can’t really probe,” he said. “Chalk it up and make a mental note to ask for clarification at a later stage.”

Usually the first interview centers on human resources or broad departmental issues, such as organizational history and the reporting structure.

Delve deeper than the first interview during the second go-round by speaking about whether the organization was having a good year. Ask about the expectations for the next quarter. “That can be an opportunity to show the research you’ve done on the organization,” said Cheng.

Expect behavioral questions, according to Katharine Hansen, creative director of Quintessential Careers, based in DeLand, Fla. This type of questioning links past performance to a candidate’s future potential. Behavioral questions are thought to lead to as much as a 55 percent predictability factor of future performance, she said.

Some key questions from this type of interview focus on what the candidate was thinking when acting in a certain way and the decision-making process.

The characteristics sought through this type of interviewing include ways to examine critical thinking, the amount of self-starter ability within the candidate and how much the person will participate in a team experience.

Cheng suggested developing skills at reading an interviewer’s body language cues. That way you can balance the tone you set between being too casual or too formal.

How large a part of the process is business dining? For CEOs and chief development officers, dining is a common activity, Cheng stated. “Everything in the event is part of the interview,” he said.

Be candid, he suggested. Be aware that the conversation should ebb and flow to allow both parties to interact. “Sometimes we see one person doing all the talking,” he said. “Make sure that both parties are progressing at the same rate so people have an opportunity to eat or pause.”

Suggesting a level of skill that could aid the organization is a tactic that “fails more than succeeds,” he said. “Often, the way that comes across is, ÔI see you’re underperforming and if you hire me, you’ll do better.'”

The execution comes off wrong and puts the organization on the defensive, according to Cheng.

“One senior vice president told the story about a candidate who recommended a couple of ideas from his past without knowing fully about the organization,” Cheng said. “The vice president said the ideas were amateurish and not fully developed so the person gambled and lost.”

Instead, phrase the question in terms of an ability to add strength in a certain way rather than fill a gap, suggested Susan Egmont, principal of Egmont Associates, a Boston-based executive search firm for nonprofits, foundations, and academic centers.

Find out how many candidates are still in the field for the second interview, she suggested. The existence of a range of five or 10 could help you.

“If two people remain, you might ask what particular things in the first interview still require explanation,” she said. “You might ask about comparisons between those in the field and the factors being sought, like management style.”

The second interview could focus less on the skill side and more on the culture of the organization. Questions on culture include how the size of the organization affects the activity. How does the workflow compare to the candidate’s previous organization?

Culture also includes the type of mission. A hospital could be highly structured while a community health center be more informal.

“Sometimes a culture is seen though the funding sources,” she said. “That influence could determine a difference because of donor wishes.”

Culture occurs in the way things are communicated whether via email or in the hall. “Little signals people give could mean a lot in seeing whether the person fits in,” she said. “Do people refer to others as ‘Mr.’ or through the first name?”

Cheng warned that any question could be crucial. “It’s hard to pinpoint a single question that seals the deal,” he said. NPT

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes regarding management issues.