Executives, “There is no such thing as ‘not part of the interview’.”
In just the last week, we heard on the news two stories about high-profile people and their inadvertent publicizing of more or less private information. In the case of Duchess Kate Middleton, compromising photos of her were leaked to the media. Clearly she must have thought she was completely alone when these photos were shot. She could not have believed that her very public persona would go unnoticed no matter where she was or what she was doing. Similarly, the campaign of presidential candidate Mitt Romney discovered that a speech he gave was recorded when it should not have been. Whether you agree with his conservative approach or not does not discount the fact that as a public person, he should have been aware that he is always under scrutiny. And whether you believe that a newlywed can or should behave any way she wants privately doesn’t discount the fact that the Duchess should be aware of what she’s doing all the time due to her high profile.
The same is true in the executive interview. Let me tell you another story, a very personal one. Two decades ago, when I had just finished a master’s degree program, I was in job search mode. I had achieved an interview for a job that I was interested in, and was sitting before the hiring executive. He asked me all of the usual interview questions, which I answered to the best of my ability. He also asked me something tangential, I believe about my thesis and the way I did the data analysis. He post-scripted this question with “This is not part of the interview.” Without thinking I knee-jerk responded with, “There is no such thing as ‘not part of the interview.'” I suppose I also answered the question about the data analysis. I didn’t get that job–in fact I got another one that I was much better suited for. But I never did forget, and I have repeated many times, that there is no such thing as not part of the interview.
When you are applying for an executive position, you will have to go through many interviews. You’ll interview with executive boards, CEOs, CTOs, CMOs, potential colleagues, and even subordinates. You walk through the company’s hallways, you’ll sit at desks, in conference rooms, in lobbies, and maybe even in restaurants. None of these locations are private, and none of the people with whom you interview are obligated to remain quiet about your conversations. Even if your executive interviewer suggests that your conversation will remain private, he or she has no obligation to remain circumspect about what you say. In fact, the more inflammatory your comments are the more likely someone will repeat them in the form of gossip about your level of professionalism or in the form of a polite letter declining to evaluate your candidacy further.
Thus, it makes sense for you to measure every word and sentence that you utter not only from the perspective of your executive accomplishments and your executive role, but also by the dimensions of whether you are comfortable with your words being repeated by people you don’t know well to people you don’t know at all. Here are a few guidelines for you as you move through your executive interview:
- Treat everyone you meet professionally, including administrative personnel. You might even earn some goodwill points by writing a quick e-mail to the receptionist to thank him or her for the kindness shown to you on the day of your interview.
- Do not let your guard down during your interview, no matter how comfortable you feel with the interviewer. This might be especially true if you know one of the panel members well. That person is not your friend in this context: That person is evaluating you the same way he or she is evaluating every other candidate that walks into similar interviews.
- If you are asked and uncomfortable for even the legal question, be prepared either a) to answer the question as asked, or b) respectfully decline to answer it based on its level of appropriateness. Do know, that if you answer an illegal question you open up a tremendous can of worms and the opportunity for your interviewer to probe the issue more deeply.
In conclusion, remember that as an executive in an executive interview you are as famous as Mitt Romney and Kate Middleton. You are on stage and being evaluated at every turn. Anything you do can and certainly will be used against you. By monitoring your behavior and behaving like the professional executive that you are, you can avoid being caught saying something you can’t defend or doing something you wish you hadn’t. Remember: There is no such thing as “not part of the interview.”