10 Jan 2019 21:02 IST

Making the right impression at placement interviews

A willingness to learn is an interviewee’s biggest asset

Besides being the start of a new year, this is also the season for students to gear-up for placements. Many will have already claimed their prized job, while some are yet to make a choice, leaving few others to do the rounds — group discussions, aptitude tests and interviews. Classmates are now competitors, as each student vies for the best placement at their dream organisation. This process requires us to make the right impression. Paradoxically making the right impression requires one to not try too hard. It is great to learn for the placement process, and is also a great leadership lesson for life. How can we get this right?

It’s not about me

It is important to see the placement process from the employer’s point of view — finding candidates who can add value to the organisation while achieving their goals.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, once gave an example of a lady named Lori Goler, a 1997 graduate of Harvard Business School, who was working in marketing at eBay and was exploring a job at Facebook. She called and told Sandberg, “I want to talk with you about coming to work with you at Facebook. So, I thought about calling you and telling you all the things I’m good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So, instead, I want to know what’s your biggest problem and how can I solve it?” Sandberg’s reaction says it all: “My jaw hit the floor. I’d hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that.” Lori was not only hired on the spot, but went on to head the department of people operations.

Now that’s the kind of approach the leader-MBA student takes. She focusses on the employer’s problem while asking, “What is your biggest problem and how can I solve it?” And showcases that it isn’t about her. This move will help to take off a lot of pressure from the young MBA student, helping her position herself as a better choice for prospective employers. The goal is not so much to impress, but to shift the focus on the problems and opportunities the employer has and the skills, attitudes and aptitudes that she can bring to help solve those problems and harness those opportunities.


A majority of candidates come to the placement process with the belief that they can wing it. Two weeks ago, I was interviewing a candidate for TalentEase. To my shock, I found that she hadn’t even taken the trouble to visit our website. What does that tell me? She didn’t treat it as a priority to be prepared. And this raises alarm bells for me, because the role I was looking to hire her for demands consistent preparation. Your preparation should be two-fold. First, learning about the organisation you intend to join, the industry, challenges and leadership. Second, about yourself — how can you establish that you are a good fit for the company. What experiences, events and achievements can you share to convey that you are the best for the role.

To quote B Ravishankar, Executive VP at HCL TalentCare, “At job fairs, we select candidates based on the college and the stream he or she has chosen and how he or she articulates his or her goals and expectations. Very few candidates come with a set of clear-cut goals or do their homework about the company they sit for an interview with ”

Taking the trouble to prepare, conveys seriousness of purpose, rigour and intent. All these are qualities that an organisation looks for in their future leaders. It always amazes me when candidates are asked about themselves and the first words out of their mouth are “Myself Prasad, doing my final year MBA…” Of course, the interviewers know you are Prasad; of course, they know you are a final-year MBA student. These kinds of responses are a symptom of a lack of preparation. Tell them about the things they really want to know about.

At the colleges where we worked with students on leadership skills and values, we also helped coach them on the interview process. We encourage them to apply one of the key marketing concepts that they would have learnt in their MBA programme — FAB or features-advantages-benefits. Often, candidates will go on to list one ‘feature’ after ‘feature’ about themselves. But employers are interested in the benefits of these features. Only proper preparation will help us translate each of these features into benefits. The fact that I love spending my weekends indulging in practising mixed martial arts is of no interest to a prospective employer. But, when I position that ‘feature’ as bringing them the benefits of a ‘self-disciplined and self-motivated future employee’, their eyes light up.

Openness to learning

One of the biggest mistakes that candidates make at placement today and then repeat as leaders tomorrow is attempting to fake it as someone who is extremely knowledgeable. A few months ago, I met a young candidate who used the words ‘I know’ more than 20 times over the course of our conversation. According to him, he was an expert at world economics, international law, and analytics. It would be funny to hear such claims even from a veteran; coming from a 21-year-old, it was a red flag.

Here is what employers really look for:

* “With the world we live in changing so rapidly, we need young people who are open and adaptable to change, and are willing to embrace it,” says Pramit Jhaveri, CEO, Citibank India.

* Laszlo Bock, the former Global HR Head at Google, highlighted what he looked for in a prospective hires: “Whether they are capable of learning.” In the list of four things that he looked for, “The fourth aspect, and the least important, is expertise.”

* “A prospective employer will try and find out as soon as possible how much of a team player you are and how much you are willing to learn,” says Robert Inniah, VP-HR Episource India.

* “We look for people with the right attitude. Communication skills are a pre-requisite but we are willing to impart such skills to a candidate if he or she has the right attitude and a willingness to learn,” says S Purshothaman, DGM HR, Allsec Technologies.

If you focus on the needs of the other, if you do your homework, and stay authentic and open, you will sail through placements today and successfully confront many leadership challenges tomorrow.