What Matters in an Interview


By Erica Swerdlow

In the past 30+ years of working in public relations and communications, specifically at agencies, I have had the complex but rewarding task of hiring people in all types of positions; complex because it has always been difficult for me to find the right formula that helps find the right fit, and rewarding, because correctly done, I can help fulfill people’s aspirations and build fantastic teams.

Early on in my career, when a candidate sat across from me, I only wanted them to succeed…a nice thought, but not a formula for success on either side of the table. I asked the prescribed questions of the time, “tell me your strengths and weaknesses, why do you want the job, what is your experience?” Perfectly acceptable questions, but for me, didn’t always lead to a successful fit. There was even a point in my career, when leadership suggested that I just stop interviewing folks since it wasn’t proving to be successful.

So, I started thinking about hiring interviews as something different. I wanted to treat it like I was building a relationship. I would first evaluate what was really needed at the organization; how would we get someone to complement the team and culture and how do I really get to know more about the person beyond their technical skills and learn more about their attributes.

Over time, I identified my best hires and identified six simple ideas that helped me get to know and analyze a candidate during a first interview.

1. The right balance of speaking and listening – At times, I would ask a candidate a question and they would speak for 30 minutes, often using the whole interview time. It taught me a lot about one aspect about them but didn’t leave time for them to answer more questions. I believe succinct answers with examples highlight a sophisticated way of managing time and discussion.

2. Be prepared with good questions about the role – Candidates should dig deep and ask questions that will help them decide if this opportunity is the right fit. When candidates have interview fatigue, they are often ill-prepared to ask specific questions about the company, culture, the role, the team and their potential boss.

3. Proof of resourcefulness – I value resourcefulness above all. At a time where jobs are changing by the day and new tools are evolving, I don’t expect a candidate to have the answers and training to do it all, but I do want to hear examples or anecdotes about how problems were solved with creativity and ingenuity.

4. Strong examples of success with other people, above and below their level – Managing relationships is the name of the game in ANY job. Showcasing the ability to support others in a professional, effective, and appropriate way, helps me identify how someone will work with a team.

5. A strong example of overcoming a mistake or failure – This brings resourcefulness and relationship management together. Everyone makes mistakes, I want to learn about the steps used to fix them, this tells me the most about a person’s character.

6. A professional and upbeat vibe – I believe work should be challenging and fun. I want teammates that work hard, are passionate and have a sense of humor. If that doesn’t come across in an interview why would it at work. Look the part, smile and be confident.

At the heart of these six interview ideas is storytelling. I have studied storytelling as one of the most important tools in work. A good story elicits emotion; it helps people make decisions, it’s memorable and can bring to life the skills and attributes that matter most. Upon posting these ideas on LinkedIn, I received a lot of positive feedback. I also received additional ideas – some specific to particular jobs and some that fall along the next part of the hiring process, such as the ability to write and sell.

Interviewing – like anything in business – is about relationship building. At the end of the day, finding the right teammate is about fit. Interviewing is getting the right information to make the right decision and candidates need to be prepared to share the best and most compelling information about themselves.

Erica Swerdlow has had leadership and hiring roles at both large and small agencies. She is currently managing director at Summit Strategy Group, a consulting firm specializing in corporate reputation, issues management, crisis communications, ESG and sustainability.

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