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How to be successful at interview

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11 September, 2012

This very experienced former director who was advising the interview panel was giving us a little pep talk. She said, “you are the type of people who are used to success. You have no doubt got every job you have ever gone for”. She went on to say that at this level most people take two or three attempts before they are successful and not to be discouraged by the fact that three of us were going to be disappointed. She meant well but I was still dwelling on the revelation that my competitors for the post had always got the jobs they had applied for. This wasn’t my experience.

It took me three goes to get my first management post. My big break came after the disappointment of not getting the area manager job I desperately wanted - and felt I was well qualified for. On the rebound I applied for and got a project manager post which I was not well qualified for but was more qualified than the only other candidate.

I only lasted 18 months in my next post having told the head of HR that the tail should not wag the dog, the chief executive decided to back her and get rid of me. The next move was therefore a sideways one. After several attempts I got an assistant director post, which I hated - not the job itself but the person I was working for. I applied for a number of director posts, travelling up and down the country, including one disastrous venture into Wales. Banging in an application form was no problem but the selection process was gruelling - in tray exercises, group discussions, role play, a buffet with representatives from the voluntary sector, the NHS and councillors, plus “tests” - just to get through to the all important interview. I went for a deputy post as a stepping stone and got it. I loved it. I had the most productive period of my career marred only by my persistence in seeking a directorial post.

My point is this: at every stage, I had a lot of painful rejections, unsuccessful interviews and mostly unhelpful feedback. I was not one of those people who went for the top job in the knowledge I had always got the jobs I applied for. I always went into an interview thinking “well, if I have got this far I am in with a chance”. I always believed I was appointable because I was good at what I did.

So what has my experience taught me? Persistence pays off. Don’t fall out with the head of HR or chief executive. Your track record gets you an interview but not the job. You do get better at interviews because they tend to ask the same questions. And the best approach at interview is to be yourself. I could have played the game and told them what they wanted to hear but when I did this I got jobs where people didn’t want me to be myself and I couldn’t keep up the act. Of course being yourself makes the rejections all the more personal.

Blair McPherson, former Director in a large local authority and author of Equipping managers for the an uncertain future and People management in a harsh financial climate, both published by www.russellhouse.co.uk

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