What’s the worst that can happen?

What is it about interviews that fill me with a sense of dread? Besides the fact that I’m trapped in a room, being scrutinised by two or three people, and given less than hour to convince them that I’m the person they want to hire to undertake their vital piece of work? At times, it feels a bit like going into battle!

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I recently found myself looking for new contract, which meant having to dust off my interview skills. After many years of working as a contractor, you’d think I’d be rocking this interview thing by now. Nope. Now, I know I can talk until the cows come home about what I’ve achieved in my past roles, how I’ve applied my skills and how these are relevant to the role and even how I’ve managed a situation when things haven’t gone to plan. I’m confident I know my stuff. If I’m asked to do a presentation, I can rise to the occasion – years of practice means I can keep my nerves at bay even when I can feel my knees trembling! Yep, like a duck swimming I am. So why, as I was sitting in my car outside of an organisation I was about to interview with, did I have the overwhelming urge to turn around and drive home again?

After a few minutes, it hit me like a two-by-four in the middle of my forehead… I was about to step outside my comfort zone for the first time in a very long time!

To recap, I’d walked easily into my previous contract not long after I had recovered from a pretty serious health event. Ok, health event sounds stupid but there are times even now I try to minimise the gravity of my predicament. It was a bit more than an event. I had cancer – probably about as bad as it can be. Stage IV, high grade, rare as rocking-horse poop lymphoma. The only previous case in South Australia was 20 years before, so my haematologist had been scratching his head trying to figure out how to treat me. Yup, the only guy in the country who could save my life and he had to take a ‘best guess’. Lucky for me, he was a good gambler because I’m still here walking, talking and breathing… and stressing about having to go for an interview! Not a bad problem to have, truth be told. But, even though all of that was a couple of years ago, I was still feeling a little bit vulnerable. And having got my last job via a telephone interview and a recruitment agency, I was very, very out of practice in the interview skills department!

So, there I was, sitting in my car wanting to run away and not come back and realising that the reason I was feeling like that was because I was about to put myself out there and risk failure, not to mention potentially look like a fool. So, what did I do? Yep, I gave myself a good stern talking to, pulled myself together, put on my best ‘HR face’ and walked into the reception area. In the end, I actually had a really good interview. I’d done my homework, I’d prepared the short presentation as requested of me, and I’d done my research on the organisation. The CEO and I shared a joke about the weather and I thought I made a good connection with the other two senior staff who were interviewing me. I delivered my presentation and answered all of the panel’s questions without having a brain freeze. I thought I asked some reasonably intelligent questions and I walked out of the office feeling like I’d given it my best shot. And then I drove to a nice little café and had a good strong coffee and a muffin to reward myself for good behaviour while I reflected over the experience.

Putting yourself under scrutiny, as you do in an interview situation, really does mean stepping outside of your comfort zone. I don’t know too many people who don’t get nervous before an interview. I mean, you can be confident you know your stuff, but still have the vague feeling that you’re not quite good enough or you’re going to mess it up or not be able to answer a question. Having been on the other side of the table many times over the years, I’ve been involved in really good interviews… and real horrors! One example of how not to interview that sticks in my mind was the very confident candidate who directed all of his responses to my two (male) colleagues – yes, even to the questions I asked him – despite knowing that I would be the person managing the role. No, we didn’t hire him.

Nerves aren’t always a bad thing, especially if (like me) you can appear cool and calm on the surface while you are so nervous you can barely breathe. I had a very good lesson early on in my career when I applied for a role within an organisation I was already working for. My interviewers (both of whom knew me) gave me the feedback that ‘you didn’t really seem too bothered whether you got the job or not’. The truth was, I was so nervous, I was almost afraid to open my mouth in case a squeak came out rather than my voice. In future interviews, I made a point of saying that I was feeling nervous… and the feedback I received was more like ‘you contained your nerves very well’! However, not everyone is able to internalise their nervousness. I remember interviewing a young woman, for a highly desired graduate role, who was so nervous she trembled violently for the entire time my colleague and I were talking to her. We did everything we could to make her feel at ease, short of holding her hand! But, in spite of her obvious nerves, she gave good, intelligent answers to our questions and had clearly done her homework. Yes, we did hire her – we took a gamble that she wanted the job so badly that she could not contain her nerves and she turned out to be one of the best graduates in that year’s intake.

So what is the lesson in all of this? As I sipped my coffee and felt the sugar rush from my muffin, I realised that my lack of interview practice meant that, in preparing for the interview, I had imagined of all the things that could go wrong, but not the things that could (and did) go right. Basically, I over-analysed the situation. And, although it was a short-term, part-time contract, it was a job I really wanted and thought I could do well. For me, like the young graduate, the stakes were high.

In the end I didn’t get the job, but I came a close second and got good feedback from my interviewers. Over the next couple of weeks, I had interviews with a few other organisations and I went to each of them feeling a lot more confident about my ability to project myself in a positive light. As things turned out, I ended up securing another contract with the organisation I’d been working with on and off since late last year. But wouldn’t you know it? In the same week, I had three other job offers. Like buses, none come along for ages, then four come at once! Hopefully the next time I go for an interview I’ll think less about what could go wrong and remember that it won’t be nearly as bad as I fear it might.

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