We have a pretty terrific system in America: Careers are open to talent. I'm not saying it's a pure meritocracy, but compared with other countries and cultures, we completely rock.
Who your parents were, how you grew up, even where you went to school (unless it was Yale, of course) … all these factors are secondary to whether or not you can deliver the goods.
Getting through the interview, though, is another story.
At last count, there were just over 4 million books published on the subject of interviewing for jobs. They tell you how to dress for success, how to sell yourself and how to answer all the tricky questions. Most important, they give you the confidence that only comes with having read a book or two. There's nothing like it.
My grandmother, bless her soul, used to say, "Never raise a child by the book until your child is old enough to read the same book."
And therein lies the rub. Assuming you and whoever conducts the interview are using the same script, it's akin to Hollywood magic. But what if the interviewer didn't study his or her lines? What if that person read — gulp — a different book?
Let's skip the obvious rules of engagement for a minute. I'm sure you don't need me to warn you about discussing money, politics or your personal history with alien abductions on the first date. Where people have the most difficulty is with the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers thing, the dynamic that defines whether you're dancing forward or backward.
Starting with basics, who is the buyer and who the seller in your scenario? If you're out of work, you may very well be stuck in the seller role. Put on your tap shoes. If you've been recruited to this interview, then maybe you're the buyer. And, then again, maybe not.
Here's how it usually goes: On one side of the desk sits the candidate — you — arms folded across your chest, waiting to hear from the interviewer why you should drop everything and consider moving your family a zillion miles to take this job out of all the possible jobs in the world.
On the other side of the desk sits the CEO or CFO or HR chief or whomever, arms also folded in judgment. She wants you to be clear that this role is mission critical, essential to the success of the organization, the most important job in the company. So why, of all the possible candidates in the world, should she consider you the best qualified?
It's a standoff.
If you think about it, this really is a flawed model, awkward at best, adversarial at worst. There's simply no agreement about who's Fred Astaire and who's Ginger Rogers. Each of you knows intuitively that there must be some blend of selling and buying in your exchange, but in what sequence or proportions? How much self-promotion vs. how much scrutiny? What's the routine? Who's on first?
My solution is ridiculously simple. Forget about being a candidate — totally. Imagine instead that you're a consultant, and that you've already been paid a nonrefundable $20,000 consulting fee to attend this meeting. How does that change things?
For one, you don't have to worry about selling yourself. No posing, no posturing, no tap dancing of any kind. You're there to be helpful, to identify your "client's" needs. You simply want to add value, to give them their $20,000 worth of empathy and understanding. If you deliver, they're likely to come back for more of your time and expertise.
Now you can sit on the same side of the table, metaphorically speaking, and ask the hard questions. Not as a skeptic, but as a doctor or analyst might do while conducting a thorough exam. You'll want to hear where this organization has been, where it is today and what type of goals its executives would like to achieve. What's the history of this particular role? How did the company come to define it as such? How will its executives recognize top performance and by what method will they calibrate results? The very questions you ask will tell your interviewers volumes about who you are and how you think.
Listen to how they self-diagnose while you make your own private diagnosis. Consider whether your assessment matches theirs. Never mind whether you're the right person for this role. You can think about that later, in the car on the way home.
What will stick with them is that you asked the right questions, paid close attention to the answers, and really fathomed what their organization is all about. Now they're hooked.
Just remember: It's not about you; it's all about them. The more you want to be taken seriously as a candidate, the more you should forget that you are one.