How Does a Young Manager from the Outside Convince an Interviewer that He Can Lead?
How Do You Convince an Interviewer That You Can Lead?
Recently, a reader posed a question after finding our article explaining how young managers can lead older subordinates. Because his question (posted below) required more than just a passing comment as a response, we decided to dedicate an entire post to properly address it.
Recently I interviewed for a leadership position in a big and reputable organization. The company is considering internal candidates also for the position. This position is likely to lead a huge team which also includes experienced and older team members, many of whom would’ve been interviewed for the same position. The interview panel felt that it would be a humongous challenge for me to lead such a team. Although the panel seemed satisfied with my professional exposure, they considered the people challenges to be the most difficult part of the job. In the subsequent round of interviews, what do you think my approach should be to the people management aspect? – Sourabh De in Mumbai, India
Great question, Sourabh. Our answer is going to assume that you’ve previously led a large team and/or subordinates with more experience. If neither of these is the case, you’ve got a tremendous uphill battle ahead of you. Companies – especially large, reputable ones – are exceedingly unlikely to gamble with important roles like the one you’ve described. If they rolled the dice and hired the untested from outside for key management positions they certainly wouldn’t be large or reputable for very long. While it is perfectly acceptable for these companies to promote an inexperienced top performer from within, it would be institutional suicide if they put unproven outsiders in important leadership roles.
Keep the Focus on the Interviewers, Not the Interviewee
As you are obviously neither untested nor inexperienced, you should still have a shot at the position. To help keep your focus on the task at hand, it’s important to understand there is a reason you are being interviewed in the first place. Certainly, we can assume there are no clear frontrunners currently employed with this company; because great companies don’t waste their people’s time assembling a panel to interview outsiders who have no chance of joining the team. We also have to assume, however, that your skill set is similar to at least a few of their current employees.
How will you stand out and convince them you are capable of leading their team?
The key for anyone attempting to join a new company is to make yourself seem indispensable without having to explain just how much they need you. Telling the interview panel why you’re more qualified than those they already employ makes you seem arrogant and seemingly questions their ability to organically grow talent. The trick is to get them to see you as crucial to their success all on their own.
This is accomplished by keeping the focus on those conducting the interview; and by you keeping quiet when possible. Just as there is a greater likelihood of being successful on a sales call when you let your prospect dominate the conversation, you stand a better chance of landing a job when you allow the interviewer to do most of the talking. People love to hear their own voice, and when you ask their opinions and genuinely listen to their answers with interest, they perceive you as much brighter and more likeable and qualified than if you spoke non-stop during the interview.
In your next interviews, be sure to ask well thought out questions and listen carefully to the responses. This will make you seem mature beyond your years, and may help them see you as the leader of their large team.
What Are Their Goals?
As you prepare your questions for your next round of interviews, it’s important to know as much as you can about the goals of the company and, especially, the individual needs of those on the interview panel. Do you have a “coach” or friend who works for this company? If so, ask them about the hot buttons of each member of the interview panel, and then fashion your questions so that you allow the interviewers to showcase their strengths and fully explain their desires. If you do not have a coach, then you’ll have to use what you already know about the panel to determine their wants.
Obviously, it’s easier if you’re dealing with a single interviewer, but the key to getting people to tell you their goals is to ask them. In cases where you’re dealing with an interviewer one-on-one, you could probe for goals during the interview by asking the right questions and paying attention to the responses. Posing questions such as “assuming you hire me for the position, how will you know if I am successful?” may allow you some insight into whether the interviewer expects only mediocre results from the role or genuinely believes it could chart the future for the company. It also helps the interviewer picture you in the role (this is critical).
Play To Your Strengths
Because we can assume there are no insiders who are truly front runners for the position, it’s time to identify your unique strengths and play to them. Without sounding arrogant, you’ll want to align your strengths with the needs of the company and of the interviewers.
More than anything Sourabh, it’s important to present your strengths in a way that ensures those doing the interviewing that you will be an asset because 1) you are an expert at gaining trust and assimilating a new team quickly; 2) you excel at leading large groups; and 3) you are especially adept at leading older subordinates.
The best way I’ve found to give interviewers a sense that you possess these qualities is to identify these as potential pitfalls for whomever they choose. Whether they ask you directly or not, you should find the opportunity to state that the major challenges (as you see them) for the successful candidate are points 1, 2, and 3 above; making certain to provide examples when you 1) quickly gained trust; 2) excelled at leading a large group; and 3) you successfully and joyfully led older subordinates.
Above all else, stay positive. This company certainly doesn’t want someone in the role who is going to hurt the morale of the team or undermine the authority of their peers. A negative attitude, even if it’s toward a competing candidate, will make you seem disingenuous.
Although you’re certain that you are the best person for the position (or you have no business getting this far in the interview process), you must avoid comparisons that paint the other candidates (either individually or collectively) as unqualified. In their minds, the interview panel has assembled a diverse group of highly talented people; any of whom might be a perfect fit. If you acknowledge this with a positive attitude and highlight where you will be able to overcome the major obstacles, you stand a much better chance of landing the role.
Best of luck and please let us know how it turns out.
July 20, 2009 @ 5:16 AM
Thanks a lot for the comprehensive response. Highly appreciated.