Conversational interviews – much more than just ‘chitchat’

5 November 2015

There is more interview technique content online than you could ever read in a lifetime. Much of this content is hugely valid and you will have no doubt prepared for every interview eventuality thrown at you. You attend the interview: a quick 45 minute meeting and then you reflect, more often than not when stuck in traffic:  

“That went well, no real structure, great chat, nothing too challenging, didn’t really discuss the job, not sure why we spent so much time debating the market, these guys are great, think I’ve got the job”.

Does that resonate?

Don’t be drawn into a false sense of security!

This type of interview has become common place, particularly at senior exec level and I call it the ‘Conversational Interview’. The interviewer is likely to be a Board member, who is no doubt privy to your skills and achievements, provided by HR or a Head Hunter. This is probably the most challenging interview to prepare and it’ll be competitive and there is no right or wrong answer. However, here are five useful rudiments as to how you can make the best representation of yourself:

1.   That went well, no real structure

There is always an objective to a meeting and a conversational interview is no exception; though in this case the objective may be concealed: try to identify it quickly without being too direct. This type of informal meeting is more sophisticated than is apparent. The lack of structure cleverly conceals the underlying appetite for the interviewer to assess your credibility, experience and your emotional intelligence (EQ). It is your role to match this structural sophistication and guide the conversation back to your ability to do the job, without jeopardising the ambience of the conversation. There will be clues: sniff them out and refer to the examples you have prepared. Remain on your guard throughout.

2.  Great chat, nothing too challenging

The interviewer has taken it for granted that you have the skills to do the job and is eager to delve deeper into the person you are. The conversation will be light touch, friendly and non-intrusive. It’s important not to let the conversation babble on. Debating England’s RWC woes for 20 minutes maybe a red herring….or not. Again your EQ will gauge this, though always ensure your points are concise, impactful and be ready to move on. Feel free to take the lead and direct the conversation back to business if appropriate. Your audience will be impressed with your ability to influence the direction of the conversation: this is a great opportunity for you to impress, demonstrating your ability take an indirect lead.

3.  Didn’t really discuss the job

More often than not, most senior positions can be flexed to suit the chosen candidate. The interviewer is often eager to understand your perspectives on the role. You will be measured on your astuteness, asking cleverly aligned questions directed towards what you believe the challenges the business and position face. This is an opening for you to help shape the role if relevant, by presenting innovative ideas taken from your experience. The interviewer will have a far greater opinion of you, more so than just assessing you against the role responsibilities and competencies.

4.  Not sure why we spent so much time debating the market

This is closest aligned to what you’d expect in a formal interview, where you’ll be assessed on your business aptitude. Again, this part of the conversation may feel very informal and relaxed; a positive sign I deem, as you have clearly done your homework, and are able to debate the market, challenges and opportunities. Your knowledge superiority is a huge asset, and the interviewer will always be hungry for external perspectives. You may well be impressing, though keep the conversation professional. Your ability to have a measured and unique opinion on the market is hugely advantageous.

5.  These guys are great, think I’ve got the job

The conversational interview is the most difficult to judge in hindsight. Whatever the final feedback was, you will have had a positive experience and the interviewer is likely to have finished on a progressive note. I have taken feedback from many candidates, who finished up thinking they were the chosen one, and sadly I’ve had to deliver the bad news.

There is no hard and fast rule to succeed in a conversational interview. However, if you’ve prepared thoroughly, grasped the ambience of the meeting and cleverly aligned your candidature throughout the conversation, you will have put your best foot forward. Good luck!

James Blackwood is a Consultant in the Technology Practice at Berwick Partners working on commercial and technical leadership assignments.


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Ken Sanderson at 10/01/2017 14:35 said:

James,

Thank you very much for these insights into what's really going on in the interviewers head during conversational interviews like this. For one role I won in the commercial sector, I was invited to dinner. It was a very nice friendly event and a free meal! It wasn't until much later on I was let into what had actually happened at this "interview" and how I succeeded!

James Blackwood at 10/01/2017 16:29 said:

Thank you for your interest in this article Ken, and to your point, it’s always important to be on your guard. I trust you found it useful.

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