Purple squirrel is a term used by employment recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, experience and qualifications that perfectly fits a job's multifaceted requirements. In theory, this prized purple squirrel could immediately handle the expansive variety of responsibilities of a job description with no training and would allow businesses to function with fewer workers.
What do you think separates the purple squirrel from all other job candidates?
Purple squirrels know what to expect in interviews. They have prepared for and have practiced key components of the interviewing continuum to make the best case for their candidacy.
Doing an all-aspect, personal self-assessment is an essential step. This zeroth level emphasizes five elements – your skills, your personal traits and behaviors, values, your fit for cultural norms and your emotional system. In your career-long marathon, you also need to understand the formal and informal situations that arise in the rest of the interviewing continuum happening before, during and after job interviews.
Interviewing has many forms. Essentially, it boils down to an exchange of impressions with a purpose at a defined place and time (more and more, place and time are broadly defined and can be virtual and asynchronous.).
Interviewing techniques do not stand still, just as employers' expectations and methods for estimating future performance and behaviors will be refashioned. Too often, emphasis is placed on the questions that will be posed, the correct answers that should be stated and the proper clothes to wear. While these are certainly relevant, depending upon circumstances, interviewing in the 21st century requires preparation and an understanding of the interviewing continuum.
The greater use of computing technology to more efficiently manage time has thrown virtual video interviews as a regular pitch used to meet and evaluate scientific, engineering and management talent. Virtual interviews seem to be happening in all tiers of the continuum, where in the past direct, in-person meetings would be the norm for the traditional interview phase.
A second trend we are observing is the use of case study interviews (or questions) for on site and, even, screening phases. Resume reviewers comment that they honestly cannot predict which graduates will be competent problem-solvers and communicators from their resumes or discussions with references.
A recent graduate, for example, was one of the candidates for a clinical device development position and, during the tour of the facilities, was asked how she might overcome a problem they were having at that moment. She proceeded to clarify the question, ask for more information, determine what had been tried already and then proposed a statistical design of experiments to figure out which factors were important levers and which ones were non-linear responses.
A little bit later during the interview, she asked what a typical work day was like. Several responded that each day was different with different goals and priorities. One commented that they are slowed down by not having all that they need being readily available. She proceeded to ask if they were aware of the 5S strategy – Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain – which organizes a space. She offered that might be one of the things she would collaborate with others to implement.
She clearly shined in the interview and received an offer the day after the interview.
These are more often informal meetings with one or more people to help you gather information and insights for what it is like working in a particular field, working in a particular job or in a specific company. The meetings can be with people inside or outside your network and from whom you do not seek a job offer. Informational meetings can often be short sessions where you meet someone and ask specific and general type questions showing enthusiasm and respect for anything that is offered.
There are many situations at society exhibitions where company representatives demonstrate or describe their product and services. These consequential strangers can often be leads for informational interviews because of their connections.
The increasing use of LinkedIn, professional blogs and society networks has expanded the variety of ways networking interviews allow us to make connections and be allies for others. Networking interviews can begin as cordial networking conversations to seek common ground, share interests and tell memorable stories.
Networking is often what makes society meetings so valuable. In fact, one of the leading reasons for attending meetings is to keep abreast of what is going on with other leaders in your field.
What distinguishes networking interviews from simple conversations is being able to offer a compelling elevator speech describing what you seek in your career. During the conversation you should listen alertly for keywords and for exploring whether you might obtain a referral for an application.
Interviewing is a communication performance, resembling a competition where you do your best and usually do not see your competition. As such, preparation and practice are essential for knowing what is expected and how you can behave and respond effectively. A mock interview simulates the experience of many aspects of an interview, honing your ability to recognize and respond, and practicing how you want to come across in an actual interview.
When you observe and participate in mock interviews, you can imbed positive behaviors and key thought processes. These include listening skills, making small talk to reduce tension, displaying appropriate and professional nonverbal actions and telling stories. All are important ingredients of the image you project and are selling to a prospective buyer, the hiring organization.
You might consider engaging in several mock interview scenarios for continuous skill development. Come into each one as if it were live. Wear interview clothing, introduce yourself professionally recognizing the importance of many unconscious nonverbal cues we receive and send. These unconscious behaviors are habits that can be identified by a skilled mock interviewer/career consultant and can be improved in mock interview settings.
All of the types of interviews listed above will not result in a job offer, of course. Nonetheless, performing poorly will limit your chances of being invited for interviews that do lead you to a job offer, the on-site interview sequence. The before and zeroth level interviews assess your skills, abilities, values, emotional self and organization adaptability fit to the job market allowing you to narrow down the strike zone for career and job matches for which to apply.
After your before interviewing is done, you are ready to pursue your most attractive positions. Your resume looks like you might be a good fit for a position. It describes your key skills and accomplishments that will prompt an employer to hire you. Screening interviews confirm the information on your resume for the employer and allow you to form your first impression of the interested organization.
Screening interviews last less than an hour. Your best preparation lies in knowing yourself and your interests, and crafting good stories for items on your resume, your strengths and what interests you in working at the company. It will be important to show that your skills match the position's needs. You will want to portray yourself as an individual who stands out positively from the crowd, so that the employer will want to invite you in for an on-site interview.
A cost- and time-effective means for conducting a screening interview uses telephones. Unlike the in-person screening, a telephone interview will not let you take advantage of visual and physical cues. All advice in the screening paragraph above applies to telephone interviews. In addition, note that you should be prepared to engage in a telephone interview any time after you have submitted your resume. Accept all phone inquiries civilly and agree to an interview at a time when you are ready.
Act as if you are interviewing in person. It will come through as genuineness in your manner and in your voice. Keep your comments shorter than they are when you speak in person. A 21st century emerging trend brings cells, iPad devices and computers with video capability in on screening interviews. At very little incremental cost, much more can be gained in the interviewers' assessment of the candidate than through a simple phone interview. Virtual video interviews need some planning, set-up testing and practice to do well.
Following a successful candidate screening, the hiring organization will invite you to visit the site and to meet the staff and leadership. You will exchange impressions with your interviewers via in-depth meetings and in a formal presentation. In many cases during an on-site visit, you will converse with a series of interviewers one right after another. Your goal is to display energy, drive, interest and whatever important attributes the interviewers desire for this particular position. You can also expect a series of tours, meals and activities meant to sell the company to you. You should plan to bring and do things that will sell you as being the best candidate for the job.
Several members of the organization may meet with you at one time in a panel. It can be helpful to know in advance who will be present and the nature of each person's responsibilities. After introductions, the group will ask a question first, and they will observe your answer and perhaps follow up your response with more questions. This is your chance to display your confidence and humility to your future co-workers and supervisors.
A more social context of an on-site interview is a meal interview. During these meals, you have the opportunity to show how you fit in with the group through small talk and listening, and you also give your interviewers a sense of how you may interact with customers and collaborators. You will be expected to display your social skills and to show that you are at ease in different situations.
Behavior-based questions focus on how you have responded to situations in the past. It is commonly perceived that past behaviors serve as good predictors of future performance. You are best served by offering a detailed self-assessment yielding examples in stories. Before you begin responding, sometimes it will help your thinking to ask for clarification. This way you can respond with the information the interviewer is really seeking.
Relevant subsets of behavior-based questions are competency questions in interviews. In these, in addition to identifying behaviors, questioners drill down to explore how you might express similar behaviors in practical situations. An example of this is offered above in the story of applying the 5S strategy.
A candidate's ability to solve problems or work together in groups is assessed in case study interviews. These are standard in business consulting firms and appear more frequently in entrepreneurial companies. Many questions are unfamiliar and require proactive exploration and clarification. "What might you do?" Or, "What might your thought process be?" Your interviewers will observe how you ask for clarification, your demeanor in dealing with either a familiar or an unfamiliar situation and any out-of-the-box thinking that may yield new insights.
The interviewing day can be long, in addition to being stressful. You will meet many people and they will be observing you from many perspectives. Preparation is important, especially for one-on-one meetings. Your stamina and your ability to remain focused will be challenged at points. The situation where you are invited to meet an unplanned person may arise. Note that this may be part of the planned interview process.
Preparing yourself before interview interactions and performing well in meetings involve you revealing:
This, however, is not enough and your efforts can be lost if appropriate follow-up actions are incomplete or delayed. It is imperative that you are organized, understand your next steps and deliver actions expected of you.
Thank you notes are a discriminating form of interview communication. They portray you as the professional the organization is better off employing rather than seeing become part of a competitor's team.
In addition to presenting them with your expenses (honestly represented) on appropriate forms, it is in your best interest to indicate you want to work for the company. If you have not heard from your interviewers within a reasonable time, it is appropriate – even critical – to professionally contact them. You should have a plan of who to contact, when you should contact and what you will ask. Is there anything more that they need from you to help them make the best decision?
There is a recommended formal approach to receiving and accepting an offer. Commonly offers are called in, e-mailed and sent in hard copy. An offer that is only verbally expressed does not always stand up to legal scrutiny. It is sound business practice to ask for a specific offer letter stating position, salary, starting date and benefits. This does not have to be agreed to initially, but it should be formally acknowledged. Then, it is important for you to reflect on the offer with family and mentors.
Interviewing is an on-going topic for career advisors and needs to be continuously updated. This before-during-after perspective suggests a continuum of interactions that we should be practicing throughout our career.
Dan Eustace serves members of several societies, local sections and ?universities by sharing behaviors, emerging ideas and best practices for managing careers. He retired from Polaroid and ExxonMobil and serves the UCONN Chemistry Department as an adjunct professor. Eustace has held staff and management positions in battery development, complex oilfield chemical development, terrestrial solar cells, high tech film manufacture and environmental protection, industrial hygiene and chemical safety. He serves SLAS as a career consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with Eustace on LinkedIn.
November 18, 2013