Your turn — asking the right interview questions for you

You’re anticipating an interview for your dream job. You’ve done your homework — researched the organization’s website, searched the blogosphere for commentary, and tapped your network for the inside story. You’ve practiced telling your stories in a problem/solution format in anticipation of behavioral interview questions that probe details of your past experience to better predict your success.

But there’s still one really important item on your preparation checklist: coming up the “right” questions to ask your prospective employer. Typically, you’ll have at most 5 or 10 minutes to address your questions, so you want to ask the ones that really count. So what are the right questions? OK, that’s a trick question. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all list of questions for every interview scenario. The only right answer is to ask the questions that if given the opportunity will help you decide whether this job is really the one for you.

Here are some guidelines to help get you started:

Think about behavioral interviewing in reverse. Just as an employer asking you to list your strengths is less helpful than asking you a question that demonstrates them, asking a prospective employer a general question such as “what is your culture?” will likely result in a pretty general, superficial response. If you want to understand the culture, why not take a page from your interviewer’s book and ask about, say, a time when the company went through a very stressful period and how they handled it?

Interested in whether the company promotes from within? Instead of asking the question in a yes/no format, you might ask for examples of people who came up through the ranks in the department where you are interviewing. What is the interviewer’s own history there? Remember, you don’t want to come across as an interrogator. You want to demonstrate healthy, completely appropriate curiosity.

Show you’ve done your homework but be wary of asking “showboat” questions that won’t really add to your own decision-making process. For example, if your role will have an international focus or you are interested longer term in an international assignment, you might learn a lot by asking your interviewers to expand on the website description of their presence in Tokyo or Sydney. But if this is not a focus of either the role or your longer-term interests, you probably don’t want to use one of your precious question opportunities there.

Strike a balance between questions that show you have done a thorough research job and those that reflect your true interests. Not only will you come across as more engaged and sincere — because you will be! — but you will also come away with knowledge that will inform your career search. Besides, employers can usually detect formulaic questions, the ones that sound like “I’m asking this because I’m supposed to,” a mile away.

Any questions?

What’s your career music?

I was reflecting the other day that certain songs put me in the best frame of mind to push forward. Whether it’s helping a client push through an obstacle to applying for a dream job — or just inspiring me to push past personal lethargy on a blah day — certain tunes never fail to change the momentum.

One of my can’t-miss favorites is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It reminds me that leading with positive energy (some might say good karma) is always the best way to re-fuel and replenish. As the song says, “you’ve got the music in you…don’t give up.” There is always “one dance left,” and if “you feel your tree is breaking,” you can “just bend.” Having just come through knee surgery, that line especially resonates for me!

Of course, “You Get What You Give” could also be the mantra for job exploration, and networking in particular. It speaks to the power of placing giving ahead of getting, and looking for opportunities to do so. The current best-seller “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” by Adam Grant hits hard on this theme, positing that givers not only come out ahead at the end of the day, but build richer, more meaningful relationships, personally as well as professionally.

If you could set your own career search to music, what would it sound like?

Career exploration for middle schoolers: mock trials, rock stars…and frosting

This week nine months of planning came together at the annual Career Day — called Dimensions in Living — at my son’s middle school. As the parent chair of the committee that produced this extravaganza with 45 speakers for some 900 students aged 11 to 14, I can honestly say it was both an energizing and humbling experience.

Energizing, because as a recruiter and career counselor, I took some voyeuristic satisfaction in trying to figure out which types of speakers would both inform and engage this challenging age group. Humbling, because I couldn’t have predicted which speakers would draw the most interest — even for my own child!

Here’s some of what I learned:

Most middle schoolers (there are exceptions) aren’t yet thinking long term about careers. While sessions led by experts in practical fields like dentistry and accounting were challenging to fill, more than 400 students selected the cupcake baker as their number one speaker choice. With due respect to the talented and very successful baker we tapped for this career option, I think it’s fair to say that many kids were in it for the frosting.

Show and tell still counts. My son attended sessions led by a locally prominent news anchor and a well-known architect. He enjoyed both of their presentations, but the one that drew total raves was the team of police chiefs that packed some pretty impressive equipment.

Middle schoolers still like — and need — to move. From a local golf pro to a personal trainer to a professional soccer coach, the students attending these sessions were fully engaged. And there was a somewhat related career option that was also wildly popular: physical therapy!

They also crave creative expression. We had no less than three professional actors, two fashion designers, a rock musician and an interior designer, all of whom played to packed houses. All of these professionals took care to engage the students through interactive exercises or projects, giving them a platform of their own for future consideration.

They are inspired by those who serve our country. Two separate members of the military attracted filled-to-the-rafters audiences of both boys and girls.

They’ll even eat healthful foods if you make it fun. While the above-mentioned cupcake baker and a very popular caterer topped many students’ wish lists, I was pleasantly surprised that the less sexy-sounding “food educator” drew many fans as well.

Traditional professions captivate as well — the technology engineer who talked about finding inspiration in philosophy and chemistry in college, the vet who brought an irresistible large plush canine, and the judge who brought an entire entourage to enact a mock trial which students described as just plain “awesome.”

At the end of the day, when the speakers circled back to the library for a little R and R, I asked the accountant when he first became attracted to his field. “When I was about 17, he replied.” How about at age 12? “I never really heard of accounting.”

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from the adults, including many of the speakers: they wished for a “career day” for grown-ups. They wished they could attend many of the sessions offered for the kids.

In reflecting on that, I think it’s actually an awesome idea. Instead of sending adult career-changers out on informational interview after informational interview, what if we could bring the info to them? Not a job fair complete with resumes and applications, just a forum to exchange ideas and share experiences.

For middle schoolers, the goal of career day is to provide exposure to a broad range of options — and to resist the temptation to draw long-term conclusions from the students’ choices in the moment. For adults, the time urgency may be heightened, but there is also more life experience and wisdom to draw on. Career day could feel a bit more like speed dating, quickly ruling out options that just don’t feel right.

In any event, I’m all for infusing career days with a taste of frosting. Some experiences are just ageless.

Finding your own career voice

Welcome to In Your Own Voice, a forum for finding and keeping authentic self-expression front and center in career exploration and job search. There is a lot of advice out there about how to look and sound like everyone else to get the job you want. The problem is, when everyone looks and sounds alike, there is no way to stand apart from the crowd.  As a job candidate, you can lose yourself — and all that truly makes you uniquely hirable — in the process.

The fact is, we live in a world where job applications are automated and screened for “keywords,” sometimes before a human decision maker enters the hiring process.  So while we can’t completely circumvent “the system,” we can learn ways to follow protocol while going the extra mile to get real — and get noticed.  I should know.  As a veteran “headhunter” and an emerging career counselor, I’ve seen the process in action from both sides of the coin.

A good friend of mine from Texas used to say that “you can’t just go being yourself all over the place.” She’s right to a degree. Even if you’re  a poet at heart, it’s probably not a good idea to send in a career haiku in lieu of a resume (though it might be for Hallmark).  It’s a tricky balance, but I believe that we hit the right notes when we sing within our own vocal range.

Let’s use this forum to share ideas and experiences about how to preserve our own — and best — voice in the challenging process of career exploration and job search.  I’ll start by sharing some of my own, changing names to protect the voices, of course.  Then I hope you’ll chime in with yours as well. We won’t always achieve perfect harmony, and that’s OK. Sometimes it takes the right moment– and lots of practice —  for a voice to rise above the cacophany.

Thanks for listening.