If you want a job, learn to think on your feet

A while back I had a client who came to me because, for the first time in 20 years, he was looking for a job.

Nothing new there.

What was new was that a year earlier his daughter had graduated from college and, in preparing for her job search, had bought half a dozen books on job interviewing. She gave them to her father who proceeded to write down every question that the books’ authors suggested interviewers would ask, and he prepared answers for each and every one. Then he got his first interview and not a single one of the questions that the authors said he would be asked was asked! (Thus his call to me.)

I’d like to be able to say that when I prepare a candidate for an interview all of the questions I pepper them with are asked. But that would be a lie.

With the exception of job description review, there is no way to know what you are going to be asked. Of course, you still have to prepare for the expected questions and, more importantly, have excellent questions to ask the interviewer(s), but the best preparation of all may be life experiences.

You can’t learn to think on your feet from reading books. You can’t even learn how to think on your feet from reading posts on LinkedIn! But you can from life.

Perhaps the best exercise you can do, prior to an interview, is to put away the rehearsed answers and questions, sit back in your favorite chair, or lie down in bed, put on some soothing background music, and think back to all the times you were surprised. When you were a kid you got caught doing something. In class the teacher called on you unexpectedly. At work you were asked something by your supervisor that came totally out of left field. And you reacted. Sometimes well, sometimes, not so well. Why did you have the answers in the former instances, but not in the latter? Think about it. If you do, you should be in the proper mindset for a surprise-filled interview.

I had one executive recruiting candidate who totally fell apart during an interview. She told me that everything was going well, the conversation was flowing, she had all the answers to questions about the company and the job, she had good questions to ask, and then…

What was the last book you read?

Brain freeze! Big time! She could not think of anything. She could not even remember what a book was!

The interviewer wanted to see how she coped with the unexpected. And she was not coping.

What seemed like minutes was probably only seconds. She then had a stroke of genius:

Winnie the Pooh.

She then explained that she was looking after her nieces and, to avoid the, “Just one more” cries of desperation, let each choose two books. By the time she started reading the fourth, they had all fallen asleep. (Who among us has not had a bedtime story for a child become a bedtime story for us too?!)

The interviewer laughed, shared a similar experience, and by that time she was able to remember the last “big girl” book she had read.

She passed the test and got the offer. She proved she could think on her feet, and had a sense of humor to boot. (He probably also liked the fact that she was a proud aunt.)

The lesson: Don’t think that the surprise questions will be work related. The interviewer knows you are prepared for those. The surprise questions will almost always be about something personal.