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Robert De Niro on Interviewing

This week I had the pleasure of coaching a candidate on an up coming Director of Ecommerce job interview in Dallas.  When it comes to interviewing, I am a firm believer in two things:

  1. Every candidacy needs a theme, and
  2. Attitude is everything.

When I say every candidacy needs a central selling theme, I mean that there should be one simple, relevant theme surrounding WHY a candidate is the best fit for the organization.  Seriously.

Abraham Zaleznik of the Harvard Business School said nearly 35 years ago that all too often, it is not the most qualified candidate who gets hired -- but the one whom the hiring committee believes can contribute something lasting and meaningful to the company's existing management mix.  Not much has changed.

Indeed, I have seen incredibly qualified C-level candidates come out of interviews in a body bag because the "chemistry" just wasn't there.  And one key element of chemistry is being able to convey your selling story to a hiring committee in a way that is short, punchy, and memorable.  Like Johnny Cochran's "If it doesn't fit -- you must acquit."  Just like in jury trials (See Pg. 5).

My client is relatively new to ecommerce, and some of their VP's are nervous that a top-flight Director of Ecommerce will bring about revolutionary change (as opposed to evolutionary change).  So I told my candidate that his drumbeat should be "With ecommerce behind it, _____'s best days are ahead of it."

Granted, this tagline didn't trumpet my candidate's name all over the place.  But humility is a key element of my client's culture, and any attempt by my candidate to sell himself so brazenly would have killed his chances.  So it was best for him to elevate the client's existing management team through his tagline.  By making himself the Best Supporting Actor, he gets himself hired.  At least that's the theory.  I'll let you know next week if he got the job ...

The other aspect of chemistry is attitude.  And as my father-in-law would say, "Stay loose and you can win."  Somehow, with job interviews, the harder you try, the worse they turn out.  Not sure why that is.  But if you try too hard, you come across as trying too hard.  And companies can smell a disingenuous candidate -- unless the company is so dysfunctional that you'd be crazy to work there.

So how does one stay loose?  Well, you simply have to keep things in perspective.

Robert De Niro Which brings me to Robert De Niro.  Several years ago I read an article in Esquire about celebrities and their Big Breaks -- when they got them, how they recognized them, and how they handled them.

The writer asked Mr. De Niro about his Big Break -- which Mr. De Niro said was the audition for the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (strange, I know, since Mr. De Niro had previously won an Oscar for his role in Godfather II).

I'm not a movie buff, but the story goes that every great young actor in Hollywood was dying for the part.  And a ton of great actors auditioned.  But Mr. De Niro strolled in for his audition, read the part, and nailed it.

So the article's writer asks Mr. De Niro "Were you nervous?"

"Nope," replies the star.  "I never got nervous before auditions.  Ever."

"Why's that?" asks the interviewer.

"Because I didn't have the part when I arrived.  What's the worst that could happen?  I'd leave without the part.  The way I saw it, every audition was pure upside.  All opportunity and no risk."

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This is a terrific summation of a point I frequently make with jobseekers. Candidates who understand themselves stand a far greater chance of finding a new position and are more likely to find a role they want.

The most successful candidates kickoff a job search by defining what they CAN do and what they WANT to do. They create their central selling theme by pairing these two concepts. The next step is to identify which organizations might have the right kind of opportunity and then to create a pursuit plan.

Trepidation going into interviews may be very difficult to overcome through force of will. In fact, it may get worse the more your try to counter it. To start with, define the very next step in your career and what you bring to the table. Cling to that vision, even if it is short term, and deliver a consistent message.

I will use the idea of a “central selling theme” with my candidates in the future. It is an elegant way to express an important idea.

Jason Sanders
Managing Director
J. Sanders Associates

This is an excellent post. To get to the point where I, as a job seeker, am okay with *not* getting the job though is quite a stretch. With mortgage, bills, mouths to feed and other things like that it is increasingly harder to not need that job, especially if *I* think it's the perfect fit!

But I agree, if you can change the attitude, and have this perspective, it will likely help you sell yourself better.

Jason Alba
CEO - JibberJobber.com

Attitude is everything!! I'll hire a great attitude over better skills every time. Skills can be taught, attitude, "It is what it is".

Both points go to the candidate main "to do": it's not about me, it's about the company. So be yourself in a way that works with/relates to the problems the company is looking to solve with you.

You gotta love De Niro. Great post Harry, but I have a question for you.

You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the .... do you think you're talking to? Oh yeah? OK.

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