True story: A few years ago, one of my students, who was about to graduate with an MA degree in Conference Interpretation, did a series of mock interviews with me in preparation for a position as an executive assistant to the US CEO of a large global company headquartered in Asia. After three interviews, the moment of truth came – she was shortlisted to be interviewed by the US CEO. With a reputation of a sharp mind and high standards, working for him was such an intense experience that his executive assistants typically rotated out every two years. The flip side of that is working for a boss like this prepares you for anything that comes your way thereafter.
After the big day I asked my student to tell me how the interview went. She told me that after each of her answers, the CEO would say: “OK. Give me the same information, but summarize it. Cut the length by half.” She followed the direction. He then said: “OK. Now cut the length by half again.” To make a long story short, she got the job, crediting her training as an interpreter. On a side note, summarizing while retaining the meaning of the message is one of the key skills taught in interpretation training. This is a beautiful story of leveraging one’s transferrable skills.
Back to interviewing. I had never heard of this interviewing approach described, but it made sense to me. What is the most valuable resource of a senior executive? Time. He needed his executive assistant, who would often be his “gatekeeper” of information, to be highly skilled at grasping and articulating the essence of issues.
I thought of the CEO interview story recently when Jingfei Shi (MATLM 2022) scheduled a mock interview with me specifically in preparation for the final round of an interview cycle – this time with the VP of the company she was applying to. In anticipation of this mock interview, I thought back to my VP days. Do I think C-suite executives approach interviews differently from the frontline hiring managers? The short answer is yes. To be clear, accurate and concise communication shouldn’t be reserved for senior executives. Communication best practices should be utilized at all times regardless of where your counterpart is on the org chart, but I do think the more responsibilities one has in an organization, the more information they need to acquire, process, synthesize, frame, and articulate. As such, they do tend to have higher standards in the precision of messaging. Here was the advice I gave to Jingfei:
- Take a position on the question you are asked. Know the point you are trying to make. Sounds easy, right? Not so. If you don’t know what message you are trying to convey, you are just filling space with words. Be clear about the point you are trying to make.
- Get to the point. Start your response with the “punch line” – the key point(s) you are trying to make – and then use stories or measurable outcomes to support and elaborate on your point(s). This is the best practice I follow even when I am not interviewing for a job. When I approach colleagues, especially the busy ones, I always start with a “bottom line statement” – explaining what information I am about to share, what questions I am asking, or what actions I want them to take. This way, the communication is framed and the listener is oriented.
- Brevity is your friend. If you can make a point in one sentence, don’t take two. I get it. When you are nervous during an interview, it’s easy to fall prey to the perception that saying more exhibits knowledge and therefore strength. However, rambling on is exactly what you shouldn’t do.
In case you are wondering, Jingfei was offered and has accepted the position and she graciously shared her learnings from this experience:
- The VP’s questions were broader than localization with emphasis on technology and business acumen. I felt that showcasing how I think about and think through issues was as important as the “what” in my answers.
- The most helpful things I did in my preparation:
- Winnie Heh’s suggestions on “get to the point” when answering questions. I kept answers within 3 minutes and referred back to the key points the interviewer made.
- Eva Klaudinyova’s class on Leadership. I quickly mapped the VP to a visionary leader. This info may or may not have been useful during the interview, but when I start working in the team, I believe it’s going to be useful at some point.
- I drafted 5 questions and consulted with professors beforehand. I asked smart questions to let them know that I cared about what they do.
- Now looking back, I think I could have done more research on the company’s product performance and on their product offerings in various regional markets. This way I could have had a more intelligent discussion with the VP when he shared their market expansion plans.
The job interview is an opportunity to exhibit the quality of your thinking through the quality of your talking. First things first: focus on the thinking and the talking will follow. I’d like to end with a saying by Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” (For more than 20 years, I actually had this saying on a small piece of paper pasted to my monitor as a daily reminder.) I think this is what the CEO in the story above was looking for, and for that matter, what most hiring managers are looking for, too.