Job interviewing is a skill that we use for a short time and then lose as it grows rusty from disuse. When it becomes necessary to gear up a job search once again, we bring it out to polish the rust off. At one time, a person used interviewing skills once or twice in an entire lifetime. In today’s turbulent career scenario, we find them necessary on the average of every two to five years. (I know there will be some readers who have been with their companies for many years — this is certainly commendable, but please realize that you are increasingly in the minority.)
No matter how comfortable you are with the interviewing process, it is important to note that two plans are being played out on interview day: one centered around the classic decision factors and one with a hidden agenda. The term “hidden agenda” often has a negative meaning. In my case, I am using it quite literally. This isn’t a sneaky, political behind-the-scenes ploy to entrap you . . . just an unspoken few items that are on everyone’s mind who you’ll meet that day.
Two Groups of Decision Factors
The list of traditional topics for any interview in a bio/pharma position includes education, experience, and of course the technical fit that you bring to the job. Managers are too busy to train for technical skills today.
I won’t go into detail on these classic decision points. These items will be discussed on the agenda for any interview, regardless of position level. Suffice it to say, even if you come away from the interview with a solid match for the employer on all counts, it does not automatically follow that you will receive an offer. Recruiters are constantly amazed at the number of professionals they prescreen who are “right on the mark” and yet who walk away without a job offer.
How can candidates offer every qualification that a company is looking for, yet fail to arouse its interest? It’s easy: they fail when it comes to those items that are below the surface.
Hidden Decision Factors
Even though a company lists requirements for the position, an equal number of hidden factors influence its decision; those are part of this “other” agenda. This list is more emotional than the first, but its impact on the interview cannot be overlooked.
Items on this agenda are first impression, personal chemistry, advancement potential, motivation, enthusiasm, and competence.
Like the old saying says, these do matter. Even scientific hiring managers find themselves getting sucked into an early decision by a good or bad first impression. In an ideal world, the scientist-manager would use the same analytical skills she uses in her lab to make a decision. But it doesn’t usually work out that way.
In the first few minutes of your interview, you’ll make an important first impression — an imprint that is very hard to change. Four nonverbal factors influence a first impression: vocal quality, body posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. Make sure that your attitude and appearance project self-confidence, professionalism, and eager interest in the company. And really practice that handshake! (Men: make it a solid handshake but not a bone-crusher. Women: make a good connection with the full hand and keep it firm instead of floppy.)
This refers to the feeling that you have, and that your prospective colleagues and bosses have, about the “fit” for you in their organization. People have to see you as an easy person to work with. Are you seen as a “big company person” or “better off in a smaller organization”?
How well are you received by the people you will be working with? Do they walk away seeing themselves working alongside you? Let’s face it, some people are more enjoyable to work with; if you enjoy good personal chemistry with the staff around you, you are likely to be more effective and get more accomplished. Company managers also see such people as having greater potential for advancement.
Whether your best choice for a career is along the scientific or the management track, company managers tend to evaluate — at great length — your potential for upward movement in their organization. You are being hired not only for the job they have for you to do on day one, but also for the job you could be doing in your next move up the ladder.
Judging a person’s leadership ability is one of those gray areas that can fall onto the emotional side of an evaluation. Interviewers often make a “gut level” decision about whether you can handle increasing responsibility for people or project management. In an interview, it is up to you to point out relevant experiences that indicate your abilities and to indicate that you are receptive to a changing environment and increasing responsibility.
Motivation and Enthusiasm
No one likes phony enthusiasm, so please don’t think I am trying to “pump you up” before you go to an interview. On the other hand, no company hires individuals who come across as critical or negative, or who simply answer questions and then wait for the next one.
Many companies in our business sector are run by individuals who are entrepreneurs of the first order. They have given up security and an easier pace for the excitement of seeing their ideas come to fruition. Approaching an interview in these circumstances without honest enthusiasm for their work will certainly not earn you a job offer.
There’s a certain communication issue that many scientists have — and it goes back to the scientific process — where it is sometimes perceived as inappropriate to show a great deal of enthusiasm. And yet, if you dig down into the passion that got you into science in the first place, you will likely find a source of enthusiasm for what your prospective employer is doing with their technology. Express interest. Smile, and tell them you’d like to work for them, if that is the case.
Your competence is a factor that might seem amenable to objective measurement. Unfortunately, determining your competence is far more difficult than simply looking at your publications or accomplishments. Can a company see you as a person who can contribute in many different types of professional challenges? Companies like to hire for specific scientific niches, but behind that there’s a desire for general competence that identifies you as uniquely qualified for their team.
One vice president of research for a major biotechnology company put it this way, “I hire people who are critical thinkers, who can separate what is important from what is not important. We need broad competence, as opposed to simply a high level of knowledge in a particular scientific niche. I want people on my team who will be able to contribute for the long haul.”
The relative weight each company gives the classic interview factors and these hidden decision factors may differ. A recruiter with a shopping list of all the must-haves for a particular assignment may locate a candidate with a terrific fit, but that does not mean the job is assured.
A candidate who scores substantially lower in the classic decision factors could still come out ahead by scoring high on the hidden factors. If you are headed to an interview for a position where your fit is a concern, don’t let it stop you from charging ahead. Score well on this “hidden agenda,” and you just may walk away with the job offer you were hoping for.
David G. Jensen is Managing Director of Kincannon & Reed Executive Search (www.krsearch.com), a leading retained search firm in the biosciences. You can reach Dave at (928) 274-2266 or via email@example.com.