Back in 1982, I was two years out of college and working, unhappily, as a secretary/receptionist for The American Lawyer magazine. Though I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for its then-editor Steven Brill, in those days at least, he had a terrible temper and would curse at me when I made a single typo. The job felt like a dead end and made me wonder if I should forget journalism. So I bought a book it seemed everyone I knew was reading: What Color is Your Parachute, by Richard Bolles. I dutifully tried to do the exercises that promised to guide me to my true calling and felt immediately frustrated by the vague, open-ended questions. What were my dreams, what were my skills and weaknesses and how did I see my mission in life? I became increasingly annoyed as I filled in the blanks, which led me no closer to a new career and revealed nothing to me that I didn’t already know. So when the 2014 edition of the book landed in my mail pile recently, I was ready to chuck it out in disgust.
Until I looked inside. The 350-page book still has some flaky exercises, like an outline of a flower where you’re supposed to jot down “your idle thoughts and hunches,” like “my favorite knowledges [sic] and fields of interest.” Most people know this stuff already—what kind of people you like to work with, what interests you—and don’t need a silly diagram and obvious questions to discover their preferences.
But what surprised me about this latest edition was the extensive and detailed information in Chapter Four, “Sixteen Tips About Interviewing for a Job.” The advice is all good, and sometimes even provocative. Much of it I’ve heard from coaches as I’ve written on careers over the last four years. It’s worth sharing. Here are What Color Are Your Parachute’s tips on mastering a job interview, in the book’s words with some of my own editorializing.
1. Employers are not monolithic. Job seekers who meet rejection after a couple of interviews often get discouraged and lump all potential places they could work into a disparaging box they call “employers.” But there are substantial differences between new companies and those that have been around your whole life. Tip: Focus on small, growing companies in hiring mode.
2. Prepare thoroughly before your interview. Most of us think that potential employers want to learn about us in an interview but many hiring managers are more interested in what you know about them. Too many applicants blow their interviews by saying, “so what do you do here?” Google GOOG -0.2% extensively, pour over the company’s website, ask everyone you know what they know about the firm and come ready to ask specific, informed questions about the division where you’re interviewing.
3. Set a length for the interview and stick to it. This is an odd tip but I can see its efficacy: If you’ve initiated a meeting, say how much time you need like, say, 19 minutes. Then keep track of the time. When the time is up, say, “I said I would only take up 19 minutes of your time and I like to honor my agreements.” Only stay past the allotted time if the employer begs you.
4. At best, an interview is a conversation. While the interviewer is trying to decide if they like you, whether you have the skills, knowledge and experience they need, if you have a strong work ethic, how you will you fit in, at the same time, you’re deciding if you like them and want to work there. Ideally you will take two steps during the interview: informed questioning about the company and then confident self-marketing.
5. Prepare for their questions and yours. The book includes a laundry list of 14 common questions employers ask in interviews: Tell me about yourself, what do you know about the company, why are you applying for this job, how would you describe yourself. It’s a good idea to anticipate all of these but know that there are really only five things the employer wants to know: Why are you here, what can you do for us, what kind of person are you, what distinguishes you from other applicants, and can we afford you. Even if the employer doesn’t ask these questions outright, it’s good to try to answer them in the interview. You should want to know five things as well: What does this job involve, what are the skills a top employee in this job would have, would I like to work with the people who work here, how can I distinguish myself from other applicants, can I get the salary I need. You can ask the first two aloud but keep the rest to yourself until there’s an offer on the table.
6. Try to talk as much as you listen. The book points to an MIT study showing that the people who get hired are those who mix speaking and listening 50/50 in the interview. I think every meeting is unique and it’s best to be alert to signals from the interviewer, rather than trying to impose an artificial structure, but this could be a good benchmark.
7. When you answer a question, talk for at least 20 seconds and no more than two minutes. You don’t want to put your interviewer to sleep but you also shouldn’t leave an empty silence after you’ve answered.
8. Employers hate risks. If they hire you and you don’t pan out, they will be out a lot of money. They have a long list of worries: you won’t be able to do the job, you’ll be absent too frequently, you’ll take another job, you won’t get along with your co-workers. Anticipate the employer’s concerns and emphasize how you would do the opposite.
9. Do sweat the small stuff. Details like personal appearance and nervous mannerisms can scotch your chances. Make sure you’re on time, wearing clean, tidy clothes, meet the interviewer’s gaze, give a firm handshake, don’t slouch or fidget, speak up, don’t interrupt, be polite to the receptionist.
10. Make it clear you have the skills that employers want. Before the interview, make a list of experiences that prove you have drive and enthusiasm, that you’re dependable, that you’re trainable and love to learn, that you’re committed to teamwork.
11. Bring evidence of your skills. If you’re an artist or designer, bring a sample of your work on a tablet.
12. Don’t say anything bad about your previous employer. Even if your bosses were driven out of business on securities fraud charges, don’t bring that up. Your potential employer wants to know that if they screw up, you’ll protect them.
13. Anticipate questions about your past; give answers about your future performance. Employers ask about what you’ve done as a way to reassure themselves that you’ll be productive and you won’t damage their reputation. Try to retain a note of humility while talking yourself up. Example: When the interviewer asks, “have you ever done this kind of work before,” say, “I pick up stuff very quickly and I’ve mastered any job I’ve done before.” Illustrate that with a quick, specific anecdote.
14. Notice the timetable of the interviewer’s questions. The more forward-looking the questions, the better for you. “Where would you like to be five years from now,” tells you the interviewer is imagining you working at the firm in the future. Then you can frame your questions with a future spin: “Would I be working with a team, to whom would I report, how would I be evaluated?” Another good question, if things are looking up: “What do you wish you had known about this company before you joined it?”
15. If thing go well, ask questions about the next step. Though it sounds blunt, ask if they can offer you the job. If they need more time, ask when you can expect to hear from them and whether you can contact them after an agreed-upon time period.
16. Send a thank-you note. Most job hunters ignore this easy step. Get business cards for everyone you meet when you visit for the interview and write to each of them separately. A thank-you is also a great way to correct any missteps in the interview and underline any salient points. (“In the last quarter I exceeded sales targets by 40%.”) There’s no need to buy cards. Emails are fine.
Touted as one of the first career handbooks, What Color is Your Parachute has had 40 editions since it first published in 1970. More than 10 million people have bought the book. Though it’s still freighted with chapters of what I consider flaky prose—there is a 68-page section toward the end called “The Pink Pages,” which professes to help you find your mission in life—there is plenty of sound career advice in the earlier chapters. It’s not a book to read cover to cover, but if you pick and choose, you can find some lasting wisdom.