Wolfgang Messner and Pratibha Messner.
Wolfgang Messner and Pratibha Messner.

Pratibha Messner & Wolfgang Messner: How to ace a job interview

Small things like being on time, waiting for the right moment to bring up salary issues, and not scrambling to fill the silences can help

Drive up to the gate of the office where you will be interviewing a day or two in advance so you can iron out issues of directions and the time it will take to get there, advise Pratibha Messner and Wolfgang Messner in Winning The Right Job: A Blueprint To Acing The Interview. The book is a compendium of advice, from what to wear to an interview, to how to tell if an interview went well—in short, a lot of the messy, often vague, questions we have around landing a job.

Pratibha is the director of Bengaluru-headquartered GloBus Research-Messner Consulting & Training Pvt. Ltd. Wolfgang is associate professor of international management at the MYRA School of Business, Mysuru.

In an email interview, the couple talk about whether it’s okay to accept tea during an interview, and what to do if an interviewer asks a sexist question. Edited excerpts:

What are some of the basics most people overlook when they appear for an interview?

Companies, first and foremost, are in the business of making money. Winning the right job is about knowing yourself, the value you bring to an organization, and refining your message. Use the interview to share your story, backed with reasonable evidence.

Quite frankly, companies are not interested in a candidate’s lofty aspirations. The boss doesn’t care either. Everything else is a myth and for the management textbooks. In the real world, companies exist to make money by selling stuff, the boss has a job because (s)he helps the company make money. And the candidate is being evaluated to see if (s)he can be of help to the boss in this process.

That’s the only reason someone is recruited; and not because (s)he wants to gain some domain or thought-leadership expertise.

Our top tip, in short: In your CV or application letter, focus on how YOU can personally contribute VALUE to the company. Think about what skills, competencies, experiences, etc., you have that shape your value proposition. How does your value proposition help the company to make money?

Is it okay to accept tea or coffee while you wait for an interview?

It’s best to hold off all tea or coffee needs until you are being asked. Ideally, use the opportunity for some small talk and good-natured banter with your interviewers. Use these minutes to start off on the right foot. If nothing is offered, but you feel like you really need a glass of water, there’s absolutely no harm in asking for it. Keep the request simple, though.

What should you do if you are going to be late for an interview?

It may sound old-fashioned, but we do attach a lot of value to being punctual. It is an important part of forming first impressions.

But sometimes things are really out of your control. A traffic snarl on Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru is no such excuse, but an incoming flight cancellation would count for a valid reason. We have been in similar situations ourselves. The best you can do is to call, state the facts and ask if it’s all right to show up later.

When is it okay for the candidate to say something like, “I’m curious how that question helps you make better hiring decisions"?

If you feel like you are being cornered, it might be time to change tactics. For example, you might feel that the interviewer is focusing a bit too much on your poor grades in a graduate degree, while you feel that you have done enough afterwards which is also worth talking about. Or, in a blatant display of sexism, some women candidates are asked about their family plans in an interview.

We recommend turning the tide at this stage. If nothing else, it will show the interviewer that you respect yourself—and the interviewer’s reaction will reveal a lot about company values too.

How should candidates answer a question about the times they have been unsuccessful at something?

Failing is fine as long as you have learnt from it, and as long as it didn’t have too bad a financial consequence for your company. Use the answer to demonstrate resilience, an ability to fight, change and bounce back.

Is it acceptable to discuss expectations about a potential raise or higher profile in the new company at the interview stage?

It’s all down to finding the right moment. There is no standard answer as to when you should discuss these important points, but we would suggest playing it down until you have a better understanding of the company and the role they want to hire you for. Once the rupee figure is out, it’s out, you can’t take it back.

What are some of the minefields?

Employers are looking for candidates who are inspired by the work that the organization is involved in, not for a litany of complaints you might have about your current employer.

We advise honesty while talking about matters of money or career, but we also ask you to be aware that the company does not exist to fulfil your aspirations. Make them want you; the rest will follow.

Your top tips on how to deal with long silences during an interview.

Some interviewers might not pepper you with questions all the time, they will ask something and then stay quiet. This technique is based on the concept of mindfulness, and it might just be the interviewer’s way of getting to know you better. Watch what you say, you may be tempted to fill the silence and end up saying too much.

Your top tips on signs that an interview has gone well or poorly.

Watch closely for body language, some encouraging nods and smiles during the interview. Ask for some information on the process, the number of interviews you will be going through, the timelines for response, and see if those parameters are being kept. Are there surprises in the end on salary and the job profile?

Welcome or not, be aware of the signs, the messages being sent. Don’t get caught up in a play of emotions and ego. At the end of it all, it’s about finding a happy balance between your skills and a company that wants and values what you have to offer.

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