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May 14, 2010
Interview Advantage: Understanding the Problem the Job Attempts to Solve

One of the most difficult things for people to understand when looking for a job -- whether they’re new to the market or old hands -- is that no one is hiring you because they want to give you a job. Usually when I say that to people I get the same look on their faces that I’m getting from you right now, so let me explain.

People are hiring you because they have a problem to solve, and they think you are the best way to solve that problem -- especially when compared to the other solutions (that is, candidates) they've seen.

Now, you can’t control everyone else they’ll see (well, you could, but you might end up on an episode of "Law & Order"), but you can control how well you understand what their problem is. This, in turn, allows you to better tailor yourself to solve that problem, which makes you a better candidate for the job. In this economy, that’s an advantage you can’t afford to pass up.

Let’s be clear; this is not just simple research, which everyone in any economy should do when they’re job hunting. This is about framing your research in terms of the most important question for the person who can reach across that table and say, “Welcome to the company.”

If you’re unemployed, this is actually one of those instances where not having a job gives you a leg up on those who do. That’s because you have more time to comb the trades and do back-channel gossip/research with friends, contacts, acquaintances, and strangers. You start doing that on the company dime, and you’re going to get a call from HR -- assuming you even have time to do it at all.

This process doesn’t stop the moment you walk into the interview. Listen to how they describe the position. Ask why it is suddenly available. Sure, these might be questions you’d normally ask anyway, but in the context of trying to suss out the problem, they take on a new importance and some new skills. You’ll need to listen beyond their words, and try to couple what they say with what you’ve been able to learn about them.

Because it’s not like they’re going to say straight out that their reputation for creative sucks and their looking for a big name to signal a change, or that they ground the last guy into sawdust, and he left, so now they’re looking for a new person to pulverize.

Also, realize that different people in the organization will have different perceptions of the problem -- and will describe the problem differently. A manager may talk about making the workflow more efficient. His boss may talk about something more strategic. Someone more junior might just need a cubicle-mate who doesn’t snore. Figure out where these descriptions overlap, and that’s where the job is.

In truth, it could be anything. There’s a new piece of business. There’s an old piece of business that no one wants to work on because there’s a new piece of business. This is a totally new position that will transform the dusty old company into the darling of media analysts everywhere. Perhaps someone left. This last one is usually the one that many employers default to, but don’t let it stop you. Force yourself -- and them -- to figure out what they’re really trying to accomplish and what the opportunity really is. Because while its true that over time we all form our jobs to our own personalities, unless that ex-employee’s mama is popping out more babies, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to find someone just like him to fill his place.

Lastly, realize that this information is not a one-way street. The more you understand the problem the job is trying to solve, the more you understand what they’ll actually be asking you to do when you get there. While a steady paycheck and someone else to pay your insurance may sound wonderful -- especially if you’ve been without them for a while -- they will all fade once the real work starts. And that can be a real problem.

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Martin Bihl has generated concepts, written copy, and directed creative for clients ranging from beer to banks to bio-tech and beyond. His work has won awards in advertising, promotions, guerilla, direct marketing, viral, interactive, events, and some disciplines that havenʼt been named yet. Currently, he is creative director at 7419, where he helps agencies all around the world.

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