Technical skills are not enough to ace an interview for a sought-after finance job. You need to hone your technique and deliver a polished performance.
Yet, some technically able finance professionals struggle with interviews because they present themselves poorly, recruiters say. A more polished communication style could make all the difference. Here are some tips to help master your interview technique.
Work on your interpersonal skills
London-based Kyra Cordrey, the director at Michael Page Consultancy Strategy & Change, said cultural transformation is currently a key focus among employers, and they want to hire individuals who can embrace their company’s ethos. “This is particularly important for management accountants, as they tend to liaise with various departments across the business,” she said. “Employers will therefore look out for individuals who have strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.”
Lee Owen, a UK-based senior business director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, said candidates with strong experience, technical knowledge, and the ability to present themselves well will perform well in interviews. “For management accountants, soft skills such as communication and adaptability are crucial alongside elements such as commercial understanding,” he said.
If you are not strong in people skills, start developing them now. If you do have good interpersonal communication skills, you may simply be failing to convey them during an interview because of nerves or apprehension.
Start well, build rapport
“When your interviewer meets you in reception, greet them with a broad smile and open body language,” Owen said. “They should initiate small talk, but if they do not, start the conversation, even if it’s just a simple ‘How is your day going?’ ”
Polite conversation at the start is better than silence. But, if you can develop a good rapport with the interviewer, that will help you feel more confident and at ease in the interview.
“Remind yourself that your interviewer is just another human being, and they have been in your seat before, no doubt feeling nervous, too,” Owen said. “Get an idea of the person you are meeting beforehand by asking your recruiter about your interviewer’s professional background and career, as well as looking up their professional online profiles, such as LinkedIn.”
Adrian O’Connor, founding director of the Global Accounting Network, said one of the best ways to build rapport is to identify areas of commonality with your interviewer. “Common connections and shared interests will help break the ice and make you feel more comfortable,” he said. “This is a much better way to break the ice than a discussion about the weather.”
If the interviewer mentions a hobby on a site such as LinkedIn or Twitter, ask about it. You can often notice people’s body language relax as they talk about things they like doing.
Prepare strong, detailed answers
The amount of effort you put into preparation and research usually relates directly to how strong an impression you make during an interview.
Always research the company in detail so that you can discuss topical issues affecting it. Go over the job specification and your CV carefully before the interview and prepare examples from your career where your experience fits the role and where you have delivered tangible results.
O’Connor said that to master this approach, you should also prepare and practise questions to the extent that you can give a practical example with every answer, even if it is a theoretical question.
These examples should be structured around specific business needs or issues, the steps you took to overcome them, the challenges you faced in doing so, and the result you delivered, he said.
“This is not a natural way of communicating your experience, so it needs preparation, but it is far more powerful in hammering home your suitability,” he said.
If you have secured an interview through a recruiter, that person should know the client well, so speak to the recruiter beforehand.
“Ask them what to expect, what the interviewer is like, what the format of the interview will be, and which areas to focus on,” O’Connor said.
Learning how to give strong answers is one of the best ways to demonstrate the communication skills that employers seek in finance professionals, especially for a role that involves working with other parts of the business, Owen said.
The STAR technique, he said, is useful for handling competency-based questions as it forces you to stick to a framework, while providing all the most relevant information in your answers. S refers to describing the situation; T explains the task; A describes the action you took; and R showcases the results.
One potential interview question, Owen said, could be, “Your CV says you have excellent stakeholder management skills. Can you describe a time these skills were put to the test?” Adhering to the STAR method, he said, “will ensure that you structure your answer in a way that tells a story to the interviewer and keeps them interested”.
Maintain two-way dialogue
Throughout the interview, try to keep the dialogue two-way — giving clear and detailed answers, but also listening carefully to the interviewer. Prepare a good list of potential questions to ask the interviewer. If they all get answered during the conversation, think on your feet and ask at least two more questions at the end.
Show knowledge to get knowledge
This is an advanced technique that refers to the ability not only to have good questions prepared for the interviewer but also to show that you are well informed through your questioning, O’Connor said. “Use lines like ‘through my research I noticed …’ and ‘experience in your market leads me to believe that …’,” he said.
Show wider understanding
For management accountants, the ability to understand other teams outside finance is crucial. The same goes for outside stakeholders such as suppliers and investors. If you can describe how you would gain understanding of other groups and give a relevant example, you can capture the interviewer’s attention.
Speak clearly, finish strongly
Speak as clearly as possible, and don’t undersell yourself by using maybe words such as “just”, “like”, and “maybe”. Use strong verbs that clarify your work, such as “implemented”, “improved”, and “motivated”.
At the end of the interview, ask whether there is anything more the interviewer would like to know, O’Connor said. Then confirm your interest in the position and articulate why it appeals to you.
Owen also advised asking interviewers about their careers and why they enjoy working for the company. “After all, you need to know this, too,” he said.
— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.