23 December 2019

How to win at Interviews

Steve Halsall

Red Tiger Consulting


It is that time of year where some 2nd year undergraduates are going through the process of finding industrial placements for their 3rd year.  This could be the first time you have had to do a formal interview and the stakes are high as industrial placements are often competitive. This blog reflects on my first two interviews (over 25 years ago), outlines a typical interview process and offers practical tips of how to win at interviews and give yourself the best chance of success. 

Red Tiger Talent provide candidates of all experience levels with advice on CV and cover letter design, but this blog is assuming you’ve got past this stage and you wish to focus on the interview process.   If you are struggling to get to first interview please do get in touch as we may be able to help. 

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels - how to win at interviews; interview guidance

The Interview Process 

The Interview process does vary from client to client depending on the role, but generally there are 2 or 3 stages: 

  1. CV Based chat – this could take a formal or informal approach, usually with one person (HR or hiring manager), via phone or face to face, lasting between 30 to 60 minutes.  Here, the interviewer will require a high-level view on whether the candidate can do the job and that they will fit culturally. They may also be wanting to see whether you understand the role and show a desire to work for the company. 
  2. Task based interview – depending on the role, successful stage 1 candidates may be invited back to present to a wider team on a specific task or topic.  This allows the candidate to demonstrate a number of skills – presenting, analysis, visual style, timekeeping, following a brief, engaging and reading the audience, dealing with objections or difficult questions.   There may be a second part to stage 2 where a more detailed interview may take place (plus provide an opportunity for the candidate to ask further questions) which would usually include the hiring manager and another member of the team. 
  3. Meet the big boss – This is an optional stage (depending on the level of the role) where the hiring manager has made their decision that they would like you on board and is seeking their bosses’ approval, i.e. a rubber-stamping exercise.  The candidate is likely to be the only one at this stage, or at worst, one of two, where the hiring manager would like their boss to make the decision.  This is likely to be a relatively short (c 30 mins) informal chat. 

Before I dive into my practical advice, let me talk you through my first two interview experiences.  I have been fortunate enough in my career that I’ve only really had two formal interviews as every other role I’ve had has either been where I am one of the founding directors or more senior, where the process was more a series of informal chats. 

Brook Street Research 

My first proper interview, for a role I genuinely wanted, was for the role I eventually got at DTZ in London.  I had done other interviews for roles I wasn’t that interested in, for example, a sales role assessment day at Joshua Tetley brewery (now sadly a car park), which I fortunately didn’t get!  It was good training and experience for this interview. 

I recall arriving about two hours early and as a northern lad I’d only ever been to London a handful of times.  I remember finding the scale and busyness of London very daunting, but exciting at the same time.   I sat in Portman Square prior to the interview, going over my notes and my CV.  I had come armed with examples of my work (dissertation, module papers etc) and felt well prepared.   I am forever grateful to the late Joe Valente who saw something in me and gave me that first opportunity in my career. 

That was 25 years ago and I struggle to remember some of the specific details but this was pre-LinkedIn and so I only had the job description and web-based research on DTZ to go by.  I am sure their web site had information on the research department, so I certainly got a feel for the types of research they carried out.  I was confident that my GIS and location planning skills learnt at Uni (this was well before the idea of internships or industrial placements!) were ready to be tested in a work environment for the first time. 

Needless to say, I got the job as a research analyst and spent 18 happy months there where I learnt so much and made so many good friends. 

The Gong Man 

My second interview at The Rank Group was a little easier for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the internet had moved on a bit. Secondly, I was now an experienced researcher and finally, I had the support of a recruitment consultant.  This consultant (and now a very good friend and advocate of Red Tiger Talent) really helped to ensure I understood what the hiring manager was looking for and the competencies/experiences I needed to bring out in the interview. 

Through a work colleague at DTZ I also found out a bit about the hiring manager (whose ex-girlfriend is now the hiring manager’s wife!).  This was very useful in building up rapport with him at first interview.  I found out a lot about him, his career background, that he had fairly recently started in the role as Head of Location Planning, and that he also liked music and sport (especially football). 

I also researched the company, using the web and the extensive library archives at DTZ which  housed historic articles and publications on most major businesses in the UK.  I think a comment from my prospective hiring manager at the time was that I knew more about The Rank Group than he did (which was probably true). 

I was delighted to be offered the role there and take the next step in my career.   In this role I was part of a newly formed team of six people and we were to build a new function to help with the expansion of the Rank Group’s leisure brands across the UK, which at the time included Mecca Bingo, Grosvenor Casinos, Odeon Cinemas, Tom Cobleigh pubs and a nightclub chain.  It was an exciting time as the business invested in skills, technology and data to drive the insight around locations.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels
Do your research into the company, the team, interviewers etc.

Interview 101 

Taking these two experiences on board, and our more recent experiences at Red Tiger Talent, I thought I would summarise my recommendations in the form of an interview 101: 

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare (but not to the stage where your answers appear scripted and formulaic)
    • Know the interview format/structure/location/time/length and who will be attending from their side – this is something that as a recruitment consultant we would be able to brief the candidate on. 
    • Research the individuals – there is a fine line between research and stalking but prevalence of social media today makes it a lot easier to profile your interviewers from Linkedin, Twitter, Blogs, Instagram etc –  this isn’t to prove that you know loads about your potential hiring manager, but it’s a way of establishing rapport.  It is also useful to see what experience they have got and where else they have worked. 
    • Research the firm – this should be relatively easy to do via corporate websites and news searches – be sure to ensure your research is based on facts rather than people’s opinion. 
    • Research the department/function – the specific function you are interviewing for may also have information on the company web site if it is outward facing.  It may be worth doing a search on Linkedin to try and build up a picture of the department in terms of people, products, capabilities and roles. Again, this is something that we, as recruitment consultants, would assist with. 
    • Think about what they require (job description) and how that relates to your experience.  Make sure you are armed with succinct examples across all of the attributes they are looking for.  
    • Competencies – some first interviews will tend to focus on competency questions (particularly if HR are involved)- examples like:
      • Give an example on where your intervention helped a project/colleagues? 
      • How would your manager describe you? 
      • Give an example where you have handled an objection and what the outcome was 
    • If possible, practice some responses.  Get a friend to ask some questions and you answer.  This is to review what you say and how you say it.  It is important not to waffle or be too brief but try to use positive language to subtly explain why you are the ideal person for the role. 
    • Think of some questions to ask them. 
  • On the day
    • Dress code – Back when I had my first two interviews, formal business wear was the de-facto, but things have changed.  If you aren’t sure always dress formally; if you have the opportunity then feel free to ask what the interview dress code. If it’s a more casual environment, dressing in a similar way to your interviewers will create a different connection. 
    • Plan your route in advance – and, if possible, make sure you leave plenty of time, just in case your intended journey doesn’t work out and you need to make alternative plans.  If driving, check about parking arrangements as many businesses outside of central London will have visitor parking which may need to be pre-booked.   It is best to arrive 30 minutes early so you have some time to compose yourself prior to the meeting. 
    • First impressions count – Remember, you could be being assessed from as soon as you walk into the building.  Whoever is front of house could possibly be the most influential person in the office, so it’s right that you create a good impression from the start.  This is about how you look, how you engage and how you interact with people. 
    • Meet and greet – Meet your interviewer with a positive hand shake, smile and look them in the eyes. 
    • Try to relax – it is easier said than done, but most people will be nervous at the start of an interview.  Good interviewers will start by trying to put the interviewee at ease early on. 
    • Engage your audience – Make sure you engage directly with interviewers with good eye contact and appropriate facial expressions. 
    • Take your time on challenging questions – use common techniques such as taking a sip of your drink or saying ‘let me think’ to buy you valuable seconds to think before answering. 
    • Avoid any nervous ticks – it is quite common for interviewees to adopt repetitive behaviours in interview that can be distracting for the interviewer. Examples include over-use of single words or phrases or fiddling with something (like clicking a biro in and out). 
    • Close down – thank the individuals for their time and if they haven’t already specified timelines, seek clarity on when you are likely to hear back on next steps. 
  • After the event 
    • Push for feedback – too many candidates (and employers) fail to get (or give) feedback.  Feedback is extremely important, particularly if unsuccessful, in order to shape your approach next time. 
    • If unsuccessful, learn and move on – no-one is born with good interview skills –  it is something that can be learnt and developed over time with experience and research certainly helps. 

I hope this blog provides you with some good practical advice. Much of it is common sense, but over the years I have been conducting interviews and helping candidates find roles, it is amazing how often some of the basics are missed.  We are always interested to hear in your experiences so feel free to comment or contact us directly with your feedback. 

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Published by Steve Halsall

Steve is the founder of Red Tiger Consulting. He has worked in Location Planning for over 20 years – both on the consultancy side and client side. His passion is building successful teams that evolve their capability (skills, software and data) to meet the ever changing requirements of analysis. In his spare time he is mainly kept busy with his two children, falling in and out of love with Liverpool FC and at some point he wants to re-start his golfing ‘career’.


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