The Secret to Nailing an Interview is Not What Everyone Thinks It Is


Congratulations, you’ve made the short list of candidates for your dream job. Now all you have to do is pass the final test: How do I walk into the room and convince the decision makers that I’m their best choice?

This is the question on the mind of anyone, everywhere, who’s ever competed for a job. Unfortunately, it’s exactly the wrong question to ask. We know because we advise corporate boards, executives, and CEOs — from middle-market firms to the Fortune 500 — to help them make their most critical hiring decisions. We’re in those rooms all the time. More importantly, we’re in the heads of the people who make the decisions. Job seekers, here’s the surprising thing to understand before you walk into the room: They’re as anxious about the hiring process as you are. Maybe even more so.

Why? Time is short. No one seems like the perfect fit. The chances for failure are uncomfortably high. The cost of a wrong decision can be astronomical.

In the face of uncertainty, hiring decision makers want to make a safe choice. So when you are walking into the interview, get out of your own head and your own anxieties over proving you are worthy of the role. Safety is your key to the kingdom. And communicating safety, we’ve found, has less to do with convincing the decision maker of your capabilities, skills, or intelligence.

The bottom line is this: You get fired on results but hired on perception. So how can we all exude safety in the room?

Become the ‘Happy Warrior’

Bill Fry has delivered many tens of millions of dollars of value to shareholders of companies he ran. He grew the vacuum company Oreck during an economic downturn — no easy feat — and before that, he led Bell Sports through a similarly challenging time, with 9/11, new market entrants, a major acquisition and then a merger. Before starting his corporate career, he spent eight years in the Navy, after an ROTC scholarship took him to Ole Miss. Bill is competitive and as sharp as a tack. Sounds formidable, right? He must be one intense guy! we thought, prior to meeting him to assess him for the CEO role at Oreck.

It took one minute in his presence to prove that assumption wrong. Bill radiates an I’m OK, you’re OK vibe that sets you immediately at ease. Eye contact, friendly questions, self-effacing humor, and calm but confident demeanor. Bill listens intently no matter who is in front of him — a CEO or a mailroom clerk — and makes you feel respected. Bill Fry gets results, without a doubt, but darned if he isn’t the nicest guy you ever met.

In the interview process, nice guys and gals finish first.

Boards, and interviewers in general, consistently overemphasize soft skills in their hiring decisions. Can it be that the same comportment that helps attract a date also gives you an edge in getting hired? Sophisticated as they are in tackling “hard” business problems, when sizing up people, most board members and business leaders hire under the heavy influence of gut feel. And gut feel leads them to the more likeable candidates.

Among 2,600 CEO candidates analyzed by Professors Steve Kaplan and Morten Sørensen of the University of Chicago and Columbia University, the more likeable leaders had higher odds of getting hired for any leadership position. They weren’t necessarily the best of the best, but they were the friendliest of the best. SAS analysts found similar patterns in their analysis. Highly confident candidates were 2.5 times more likely to be hired. Likeability and confidence impart no advantage in performance, but they definitely help you land the job. While these studies focused on CEO candidates, we’ve seen the likeability effect play out up and down the corporate ladder.

Bill Fry exudes a “Happy Warrior” demeanor. The happy warrior confidently says, “I love to solve the problems you have. Been there, done that, and liked it. Eager to do it again for you!” As these leaders talk about their most difficult projects and tough decisions, they exude joy, pleasure, passion, and energy. In other words, they simultaneously create both emotional and practical safety. You know you’ve met a happy warrior when he or she leaves the room and you can’t wait to put her or him in the job.

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