Skip to main content

Sometimes interviews can start with very direct questions that can catch you off guard.  It can be that an interviewer wants to see how you react under pressure, but it can also be that you have a task-oriented interviewer who wants to get on with things and doesn’t spend time warming up the conversation.

I was in the final stages of a lengthy interview process to run sales and marketing for a NASDAQ listed company some years ago, and I had to meet one of the company’s founders over breakfast.  One of the challenges in this sort of situation is that it can feel informal, so you are too relaxed, plus there is noise and distraction around you.

As we sat down, and I was still sorting out my coffee he glanced up from his breakfast and said “Ok so what is your sales strategy going to be”.  

I should add that this was a company with sales teams on every continent, multiple complex customers, a dense array of technical products, and it had seen some decline in sales volume – so it was not a trivial question.

At the time I did not do such a good job of handling this, but with the benefit of the learning from Mastering the Interview, you can do much better, especially if you use a combination of the techniques that are described in the course.

Let me give you some ideas.

First be aware of the primary premise behind Mastering the Interview, namely that a powerful interview performance is not about the questions, it’s about the answers, and you have control over the answers.  So rather than feeling under pressure by a probing start, see it as an opportunity to launch your strategy.

Second, you should anticipate that this sort of opening can happen.  You can imagine the likely starts to meetings and think of a couple of direct questions that would put you on the defensive – maybe focusing on items on your cv where you had setbacks, or on aspects of the new role that are going to be challenging.  If you imagine some of these, and plan a response, you will be mentally prepared, and a very direct opening won’t come as a surprise.

Third, don’t feel rushed.  In Mastering the Interview, I suggest a technique that I call “pause and package” namely take a deliberate one second pause to give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts and to determine how you are going to construct and sequence your response.  One second is no time for the interviewer to wait, but it can make all the difference between a muddled answer and something well-structured and meaningful.  This is even more important if the question is demanding and comes early in the meeting.

Fourth, you can think of this sort of question like you would a case study.  There is a module on this topic in Mastering the Interview and the idea that I will draw from this is that a good first step to unravelling a case study or challenging question is to ask a question back to the interviewer.  This gives you time to think, enables you to gather more information and then to advance step by step, making the topic more of a discussion or joint problem solving rather than an examination of your knowledge.

With all that in mind, let’s see how I could have done a better job with the start of my answer regarding the sales strategy.  

So, he says, “what is your sales strategy?”

I could start, “Well I understand that we are selling directly to customers today.  One consideration given the breadth of the portfolio is whether we should be using a channel strategy and seeking partners for some of the products – what do you think?”

He says, “I don’t really know, what would take you down that route?”

And I say “well there are a number of considerations, one of them is that we are quite widespread, and we should look at the depth of our customer relationships and whether we can get better penetration with local partners…”  

I won’t go further with this example here, but I hope you can see that with the application of a few key techniques that you can, not only hold your own in any interview dialogue, but also use the interview to show case your knowledge and your broader skill set.

Sometimes when I have taught groups on this topic, members of the class want to ask me about specific questions that they have been asked and how they should answer them, but this way of thinking misses the point.  While you can get somewhere with good anticipation, it is not possible to predict every potential question and script an answer.  

By contrast it is much better to learn how to manage your mind in these situations such that you can leverage any question, take control, and move the conversation into areas where you feel comfortable and able to deliver most value.