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Preparing for success in your next job interview

A finance director turned career coach offers advice on how to make the best use of your valuable preparation time.
Job interview

As a management accountant you have the potential to build a highly successful career in finance. To move up the career ladder, you are going to have to successfully convert job interviews into job offers — simple to say, but not always easy to do.

In workshops and webinars, I've asked more than 1,500 accountants how long they typically spend preparing for job interviews. The response to that question is worrying:

  • About 60% spend four hours or less preparing for a job interview.
  • About 28% spend between five and nine hours preparing for a job interview.
  • Only 12% spend ten hours or more preparing for a job interview.

This matters because an interview is a highly important meeting for you and for the employer. From the employer's perspective, it's a major investment decision. They need to be sure that you are the right person with the skills, experience, and qualities to add real value to the team and the organisation.

You need to influence the panel and provide assurance that you are the ideal candidate.

Follow these steps to increase your chances of success.

Commit to at least 10 hours of preparation time

If your initial reaction is, "I can't spend ten hours preparing for all the jobs I am applying for," you may need to rethink your approach. Rather than applying for many jobs, devote your time to applying for those jobs where you really would be a good fit. Being selective about what you apply for means you will be more likely to find enough time to prepare well for each role.

Use the 20:40:40 approach

People often ask how they should use these ten hours. I always recommend the following:

Spend 20% of your time researching the organisation and sector

You are almost guaranteed to be asked what you know about the company. If you are applying for a finance role, you may be asked to give your perspective on its financial performance. Equally, you might be asked about the challenges and opportunities facing the sector or industry that the organisation operates in. Being able to answer questions of this nature confidently is a vital component of success.

Spend 40% of your time identifying potential questions and drafting answers

Plenty of clues to potential lines of questioning are in the job advert, the job description, and the person specification, which outlines the needed skills and attributes.

Go through these carefully to pick out the key terms, and start to make a long list of potential questions you might be asked. For example, if the job description includes "writing business cases", you may be asked to describe what makes a good business case. Or, for budget preparation, how would you go about running the annual budget process? Or how would you go about setting the budget for a division you are supporting? If the person specification mentions influencing skills, you might be asked to describe a time when you gained a colleague's or stakeholder's buy-in to make a change in the business.

If you have done this thoroughly, you should easily come up with 30 to 50 questions that you might be asked. Next, draft answers to those questions.

Remember, too, that employers are increasingly using competency-based questions. Like the influencing example above, this style of question may require you to describe a time or give an example of when you:

  • Handled a difficult client situation (whether the client was internal or external).
  • Dealt with a team member who was underperforming.
  • Initiated or implemented a change or improvement.
  • Overcame a significant obstacle or barrier.

Keep an ongoing record of success stories, where you summarise the situation, explain what you did, and describe the result or outcome you achieved. Noting these examples as they come up throughout the year means you can refer to them for each interview, not only saving time but also saving you from having to rack your brain under pressure. The achievements you talk about at interview don't have to be massive — it's more about the skills, qualities, and attributes you can demonstrate in the process. Examples about improving a process or significantly increasing the collection rate on customer payments can provide the opportunity to demonstrate the skills the interviewer is looking for.

Spend 40% of your time answering those questions out loud

Writing out the answers to potential questions will put you ahead of some of the other candidates. Taking time to speak your answers out loud will help prepare you, making you more likely to stand out from other candidates. The more confident you are in delivering your answers, the greater the impact.

A good method is to record yourself delivering the answers. You can download free software such as Audacity to your computer or use the recorder on your smartphone.

Listening back will make you aware of how long you are spending answering each question. It will also help you identify if you are speaking too fast or too slow, or sound flat or monotone.

Videoing yourself delivering the answers offers further insights. Watch your body language, and note any changes, especially when you are answering more challenging questions, such as those related to a weakness or a time when something did not go well. Shuffling feet, fidgeting, or dropping your gaze can reveal discomfort or uncertainty, for example, so work on adopting a more confident posture.

A mock interview is even better, especially if your practice partner can provide constructive feedback and ideas for improving your answers. If that mock interview and feedback session can be recorded for you to listen back to, you are in an even stronger position.

Make it count

The decision to appoint someone is a major investment from the employer's perspective. As the candidate, you can increase your chances of success by preparing rigorously. Doing so helps demonstrate you are a true professional with the right attributes to contribute both to the team and the wider organisation.

Duncan Brodie (duncan@goalsandachievements.co.uk) is a former finance director who specialises in helping accountants and professionals be more successful in their careers. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Samantha White, an FM magazine senior editor, at Samantha.White@aicpa-cima.com.


Resource

Duncan Brodie is a contributor to a CGMA report on Talent Management in Government that is expected to be released this month. Download the report at cgma.org/government.