I’ve been on many interviews over my career and have encountered many different interview styles - the behavioral interview, the panel format with a few people interviewing me at once, the “mean” interviewer, and so forth. One interview “style” that caught me off guard was the NON interview style. It was almost like going out for coffee, as it was more of a hello, meet and greet, and ZERO questions were asked about my background, skill set, or qualifications. My resume was not even looked at. So in an interview style without the actual interview questions to answer and sell myself, it was hard for me to figure out my competitive edge. In the end, I passed with flying colors and here’s how.
First some background…
I had been interviewed by two different people weeks prior before my final interview. My first interview was about an hour with the office manager/HR person. We hit it off really well from the start even though it’s not like we found out we were from the same hometown or anything. We just seemed to mesh really well for whatever reason with our personality and communication style. I wasn’t asked what or how much of the company I knew, but it did come up in conversation somehow and I was able to rattle off everything I learned (that I had done through extensive research). They were really impressed saying it’s more than most people knew. I asked some really in-depth questions about my potential boss, the company, the duties, and about the role. It’s always important to me to find the right job, not just any job. So, my interviewer said THEY felt like they were getting interviewed and were a bit nervous too. But we had a good laugh about it.
My second interview was with an executive who was more senior. It lasted about an hour with me asking a couple of questions I couldn’t get answered in the first interview. I assumed that this more senior executive probably got a full download of the questions and what happened in my first interview. Therefore, my strategy was not to repeat and ask all the “basic” questions again. Rather, I wanted a more thorough meeting by asking more for their insight/opinion about my potential boss’ management style, communication style, preferences, and more things related to my working with my potential boss in reference to soft skills and emotional intelligence versus the hard skills of the job. I also wanted more information that would prep me for hopefully meeting my future boss AND getting as much information as I could about what I could expect should I be given the chance to work with them.
My third interview was with my potential boss. I rightfully figured they had already gotten a full recap of me, my career, and how the 2 previous interviews went. As mentioned earlier, this non interview “interview style” was the first time I had ever had an interview like this. And I think the only thing that helped me pass with flying colors was that I had researched the executive, and read business books in general or about interpersonal relationships, I knew how to adapt, and I kind of just trusted my gut on letting things unfold, going with the flow, instead of panicking.
The most unnerving thing was usually in an interview they take charge, they ask questions, and you answer them and you sell yourself and there’s a definite format where you also know it’s your turn to ask questions after they have gotten to know your background and vetted you. I know what stories and examples I want to share about each of my jobs. I know how to explain my strengths and weaknesses. I know how to share my passion for being an EA, why I’ve chosen it as a career. I know how to showcase my achievements without sounding like Kanye West. In this non interview, there was NONE of that; not a single question about where I worked, the projects I’ve managed, or if I even used a Mac or PC. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
I walked into their office, we shook hands, they warmly asked what my name was, how to pronounce it, and spell it to make extra sure they got it right, and we sat down at a coffee table of sorts where we were both on “mutual ground.” Typically in an interview it’s someone sitting behind the desk in the power position and me sitting in front of them. Even in a conference room with two people, they would sit at the head of the table and I would sit next to them so we were utilizing the corner of the conference table. So for me to be sitting by them on “equal ground” was a bit new to me. We sat down and I’m smiling and sort of waiting for things to get started and it’s just silent. So in the silence I sort of smile back and just wait, but nothing happens. The only thing I could think to do after a few moments of waiting was to offer my resume. I offer it, and they take it, but they don’t look at it. They put it down nicely in front of them and give it a cursory glance, but that’s it. And the conversation sort of just starts along with them asking where I’m from and about my family and those getting to know you questions. I also ask similar questions back.
Once that line of conversation is over, there’s another lull and I’m still waiting for the “real job interview” portion to begin now that we’ve gotten the pleasantries out of the way. In the silence, I’m racking my brain of what we can discuss cause it seems obvious it may not go in that direction of a regular job interview. And the atmosphere is very serene, calm, peaceful, familial, and not cold or sterile at all. The office decor also very warm and home-y. So, on a whim, I mention that I recall someone once saying war is a big business (as we were just talking about my dad who was in the Navy and loved the military and loved being on the ship and going to war). I sort of toss it out there, as a test, to see if this new tid bit I offered would extend our getting to know you questions or if they would introduce a new topic. At this point I’m sort of grasping at straws because again it’s not a typical interview. But it worked because, what I didn’t know until MANY MANY MONTHS LATER was, this topic so happens to be one of their absolute favorite and they perk right up. I could not have picked a better subject to stumble upon by chance. They ask me where I heard that war is a big business and after thinking for a few seconds which famous person I could attribute it to, I recall it was my dad and how we had this long conversation about it the last time I saw him. I mention my dad is dismayed war is such a big business for the US, but I realize I might be in tricky territory and putting my foot in my mouth so I back pedal a little and mention my dad retired after 30 years in the service and STILL works for the Navy so they don’t think horribly of my dad. I think this executive thought it was such a fascinating discussion to have with a random stranger and to have this exchange of ideas. Granted, by accident, I had created a powerful connection choosing their favorite topic, sharing more about my family because I figured they chose to start with it, so until they picked a new topic, I’d just expound upon it.
Then, the office phone rings and the door opens announcing who the caller is. They decide to take the call. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this because I’ve had an informational interview or maybe even a job interview interrupted for the executive to receive a message like you have 15 minutes left, but I had never had anyone take a phone call while I was still in the very middle of a job interview. And the executive taking the call gives me no indication if my meeting is going very horribly or if this par for the course so I’m sort of just being blase about it internally because it could really be going either way. No point in panicking when there is no real reason to. The thought did cross my mind if they were bored, with me. So I can hear the entire conversation as I wasn’t asked to leave. A lot of executives do this in meetings, they will take important calls and let folks just sit there and listen. So I occupy myself by looking around the room, at the art work, the photos etc, but remain seated with wandering eyes. I didn’t dare leave my seat to wander the room to look at stuff lest they think I was trying to snoop. I wanted to occupy myself by being present, without being rude, which is why I chose to learn more about them by taking in the artwork vs checking my emails.
The phone call ends, but they get up and leave the room to give a follow up note to a staff member. Before I’m left alone in the room, I ask if it’s okay for me to look at their book shelf which is across the room. They are gone for about 5 or 7 min which is an eternity. They finally come back and the “interview” resumes.
In an effort to “jump right in” and get back to trying to sell myself or somehow make this more than a meet and greet, I ask if they have any questions for me. THEY DO NOT. Um, okay… LOL And, just my luck, of COURSE they don’t! LOL They kindly explain that they know everything about me that they need to know - - and they gesture with their hand (referencing the fact that the entire interview I’ve been taking notes, even of our hello/getting to know you chit chat). I assume this is a good thing, that I’m taking notes, because almost EVERYONE comments on it and loves it. It makes people feel heard, validated, important, and it shows you are paying attention, listening, and are organized and less forgetful. So then I decide to ask my questions because I’m not sure what else to do since I have been “given the floor” pretty much for the entire interview session since the executive is more than happy to NOT conduct a formal interview. I have an entire list of questions, but I can tell it will NOT fly because this has not been a typical, ordinary interview. And this person is not a typical, ordinary person.
I glance down at my questions, about 10-15 of them. I skip alllll the way down to the bottom because I know that’s the smartest thing to do. Because, in reading the room, I sense this is the best course of action. I decide to get to the heart of it… I ask, “What are three challenges of working in this role?” And they laugh and exclaim, “Me!” Not quite the answer I was looking for, but I loved it. I figure I might as well ask the next question though I’m not sure if they’ll “bother” to answer it. And I purposely ask this question last, to end on a high, happy note, signaling the end of my questions and the interview.
So then I ask, “What are the three best things about this job?” And they answer with a glint in their eye and an infectious smile and say, “Me! All me!” And, in hindsight, but maybe even in that moment, something told me, they were absolutely wrong about their first answer and more correct than they would ever know on their last answer...
And here’s my last piece of advice when you’re in an interview -- be yourself. It’s that simple. Yes, do your research, draft your questions, sell yourself, put your best manners, and put forth your best efforts. Yet, know there is inherent value in being true to yourself - showcase your authentic personality, interests, hobbies, demeanor, and why you want the job, why you like being an EA/admin, and make that true connection to that other person - as a person - not as your future boss. Because I find out later, by someone who is not my boss, one tiny, but very important piece of information. It is offered to me as a gesture of solidarity when they offer me the job. With talent, intelligence, emotional intelligence, and skill set all being equal, this is what I learn... The reason why I was offered the job was because MY BOSS FELT THE MOST COMFORTABLE WITH ME OUT OF ALL THE CANDIDATES. That was THE single defining trait. I was able to stand out, by being myself. And as the weeks go by, my colleagues tell me they could immediately see how much my executive and their spouse liked working with me, external clients would tell me when my boss mentioned they got a new assistant my executive had “A LOT of nice things to say” about me, and when I was introduced by another senior executive to other team members and staff for the first several months, I got one of the best compliments of my career. “She is the best thing that has ever happened to our office!”
Heed the lesson. Be yourself.