Get Hired - 3 Tips to Pass Every Phone Interview

A few months ago I started a blog series on how to improve your chances at each stage of the interview process. In the first two parts I focused on the top of the funnel – specifically, how to make your applications and resume jump out of the applicant pool so you get more interviews. Check out part 1 and part 2 for some context. In this blog I’m going to focus on the next phase of the job search process – the phone screen.

Also, if you haven't already, check out my blog on resumes. I'll show you the resume I use and give you access to my resume template for Microsoft Word.

The Job Search Funnel

The Job Search Funnel

The phone screen is a standard step in most corporate recruitment processes. Human resources departments and recruiters need to reduce the field of candidates down to a subset that actually stand a chance of getting the job.

Of all the stages in the job search process, the phone screen is the easiest for you to control. There is no reason to fail at this stage if you execute the correct strategy. I’d go further to say that it’s actually quite critical for you to convert phone screens at an extremely high rate in light of the rapidly growing competitiveness of job searches today. Unlike the first stage i.e. getting noticed, and the latter stages i.e. in person interviews, the phone screen is actually quite easy to master – it’s formulaic. But to master the formula you must first understand the mindset of the phone screener.

Phone screens are typically conducted by an in house HR person or an external recruiter. Sometimes you’ll actually have to go through both. In either case there are three primary motivations that govern their behavior and decision making.

1.       The need to reduce the field: The phone screener’s job is to reduce the total pool of possible applicants down to a more manageable number. If fifty resumes meet some basic level of qualification, the screener needs to reduce the field down to 7-10 people for the hiring manager to actually interview. This has implications on the tactics you need to employ to make it through this step. You can’t win the job in this stage – you can only lose.

2.       The desire to avoid the big mistake: Whether the screener is an internal resource or an external consultant, the last thing they want to do is waste the hiring manager’s time by passing along a bad candidate. Some candidates will be better than others, but under no circumstance does the screener want to risk putting forth a completely unqualified or incompetent candidate. Again this has an impact on your optimal strategy. You generally need to play it quite safe and conservative so the screener can be confident you won’t embarrass him or her.

3.       The mandate to identify cultural fit: One of HR’s primary roles in the company is to maintain and grow the corporate culture. Since the screener most often lacks the specific domain expertise to measure depth of competence, they typically focus on personality and cultural fit to help determine which applicants advance to the next stage. You job in the phone screen is to appear like someone who will be easy to work with – I’ve seen many candidates fail at this stage because they come off as over confident in their misguided effort to convey competency.

There are a couple of things may have jumped out at you in that list. For one, screeners tend to be quite defensive in their approach i.e. they aren't typically focused on hitting a home-run but rather they focus on passing along consistently solid candidates while avoiding the big mistake. Secondly, because phone screeners aren't generally experts in the field or function they’re screening for, they tend to rely heavily personality fit and on the job description as the measuring stick for qualification – sometimes to a fault.

So what does this mean for your optimal strategy? Here are three tactics to employ on your next phone screen. They take advantage of what we know about the motivations of the screeners themselves and are designed to help you take advantage of the system to get past this step and onto the in-person interview more consistently. If you can raise your batting average at this stage, you’ll significantly improve your overall chances of landing a job.

1.       Master the job description: The job description that you read on the internet was probably the last communication the hiring manager had with the phone screener about what the ideal candidate should look like. Because the screener is not an expert in the field or function he or she is interviewing you about, they will treat the job description like the bible. Your best opportunity to pass this stage of the process is to study the job description, break it down piece by piece and have a prepared answer for every aspect of it. If there are qualifications in the job description that you don’t have, you should have an answer prepared in advance for that with the strongest counterpoint you can think of. For example if applied for a marketing job that required experience in a marketing automation system or software program that I didn't have, I would prepare the following response and deliver it with confidence:

“I see that you’d ideally like to find candidates who have experience with application X. As you can see from my resume, while I haven’t used that specific application in practice, I have proven to be a quick learner when it comes to new systems and processes. So much so that I spent a few hours over the weekend watching tutorials and videos on best practices for using application X and I’m already making progress towards learning it.”

2.       Deliver the keywords: Phone screeners are taking notes and looking for some key points to underscore in their case for why you are a good candidate to pass along to the hiring manager. It’s your job to make it easy for them to build that case. The best way to do that is to focus on saying the most important keywords over and over again. Look through the job description again and pick out your strongest points relative to the requirements. Then identify the most powerful keywords from the job description that you can leverage. For example if the job description requirement was:

“Extensive experience developing front end interfaces using JavaScript and Jquery.”

I would make a point of saying “JavaScript and Jquery” at least three or four times in the phone call. And at the end of the call I’d make sure I closed with a summary of the keywords I most aligned with. This way you make certain the screener has some specific notes on your strengths in relation to the job description. It should go without saying that if you’re asked about your strengths specifically on the interview, you should make certain your answers align to what is written in the job description. It doesn't do you any good to talk about your strength as a “great communicator” when communication skills weren't listed as a key requirement in the job description.

3.       Prep your cultural message: Inevitably in the course of the interview the screener will ask you a rather innocuous sounding question about the type of work environment you like or what your former colleagues would say about how you were to work with. Most of us consider this to be a softball question so we don’t adequately prepare for it. I've seen more than a few candidates do quite poorly here and cost themselves a shot at the in-person interview. Here are a few simple do’s and don’ts for the cultural question:

  • Don’t talk about work-life balance. It’s always interpreted as “I’m lazy”.
  • Don’t ask about standard work hours or what time people come in and leave. It’s another red flag.
  • Don’t describe yourself as a perfectionist. That gets translated into “I’m a handful and control freak”
  • Do talk about being collaborative. Even if you’re not, you can never lose by saying you are.
  • Do talk about being hard working. A good work ethic can make up for limited skill sets.
  • Do talk about being detail oriented. The better option to “perfectionist”. It says you can be relied upon.

4 Golden Tactics to Raise Your Salary

salary increase

Q: I finally got a raise this year ... woot woot. I know, I know ... I should probably be happier than I am. I have been waiting so long for this. But when my boss finally gave it to me, it was a 4% increase.. four percent!?!  I feel like I've been working my butt off and now when they finally recognize my contribution, I get a lousy 4% bump. BTW -- its 4% of a very small number to start with - I feel like i'm stuck in quicksand. How the heck can I increase my salary in a meaningful way?

A: I feel your pain. You've hit on one of the most frustrating dynamics we face in our careers and one I don't think most people fully understand. The cruel irony of corporate tenure is that the longer you're employed with a company, the harder it seems to be to get a substantial salary increase.

You've worked hard, you've been loyal to the company for years, you've got the experience and you know how to get things done in the organization. But when it comes to salary review time ... nuthin. Meanwhile, you watch as shiny new people join the company and deep down inside you just know they're getting paid more than you. Why else would they be so happy? And what's with that Prada laptop case? It better be a knockoff ... Its so frustrating. Then you hear whispers about colleagues who finally got so frustrated that they threatened to quit if they didn't get more money - and voila, they got a big increase. Is that the right move? The nuclear option?

Unfortunately, like many tough situations you're going to face in your career, there is no rule book for how to handle this scenario.

  • Do I march into my boss's office and demand a raise?
  • Do I threaten to quit? 
  • Do I wait patiently and hope for the best?
  • Do I start looking for a new job?

It's really hard to know what to do. And so, most of us do nothing. We keep working hard. We sit in silence. We quietly bemoan the injustices beset upon us. We complain to our husbands and wives. And we never get what we deserve. 

Here are the four most important things I've learned about raising your salary:

1. Avoid ultimatums at all costs. The "pay me or I'll quit" ultimatum is the nuclear option. Its mutual assured destruction. It should only be used when there are no other options available and even then the outcome will almost certainly be bad for everyone. The problem with the ultimatum is that your boss can never unsee it ... like that time you walked into your parent's bedroom without knocking first ... oh dear god no. When you threaten to quit or you resign as a negotiation tactic, you've permanently altered the relationship you have with the company and your manager. So even though it might work in the short term - your boss might give in - you lose in the long term because the bonds of trust have been broken. You effectively held yourself hostage and forced your boss to pay the ransom. There's no fixing that. From that point forward every time your boss looks at you, you'll be the one who bullied her. So when exciting projects come up, new opportunities arise, there will always be this hint of distrust in the relationship such that will make it even hard to get ahead. Some managers just won't negotiate this way at all. They realize that when an employee resigns or threatens to resign that they're already too far gone to save. Moreover, that by rewarding this type of behavior, they set a dangerous precedent for others in the company. This is another reason not to get into ultimatums unless you truly have no other option and you're really prepared to leave the company.

2. Take a longer term view. Nobody wants to hear this but I'm going to tell you anyways because I learned this lesson the hard way and I want to help you avoid that. When I look back on the early years of my career, I see now that I burned a lot of bridges and a great deal of emotional energy over what was, in retrospect, a pretty insignificant amount of money. I remember caring so much about the difference between my 33,000 salary and the 40,000 I thought I deserved. It really affected me. It had a major impact on my attitude at work, the decisions I made, and ultimately led to a pretty lackluster performance. Eventually I did get the 40,000 I wanted, but at what cost? The thing about income is that your mindset should always be on calculating the expected value of each action you take - you have think about the net present value of the earnings you'll make in your career and make the best decisions to maximize that. And many times that means taking a longer term view - forgoing short term gains to optimize your career path such that it will lead to bigger earnings down the road when you get into bigger salary levels. For example, you could torpedo your relationship with your boss (as I did) to get that 7K salary increase but if it means that 2 years from now when he's at a new company and looking for a new director of marketing that will earn 100K a year ... is he going to choose you? I'm not saying that you should avoid negotiating your salary in the early stages of your career. What I am saying, is that you need to make sure you focus on optimizing your path to the higher income ranges which sometimes means you need to be a bit more patient when the stakes are lower to get to higher stakes faster.

3. Always be working towards a promotion. You might think this one is self-evident but most people I see are not actively working with their boss towards a promotion. If you aren't, you should be. The fastest path to material salary increase without changing companies is to get a promotion. Annual increases and inflationary adjustments will never change your fundamental salary dynamic. You might slowly earn more but you won't be increasing your income relative to everyone else - you'll just be keeping up. You also won't be changing your salary level which is key to breaking out of the lower end salary ranges and into the higher brackets. Check out my blog on getting promotions for strategies I've used to jump up in my career. The most important thing to know is that you should have a promotion plan at all times and you need to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with your boss as you work towards achieving it. A promotion isn't something you ask for. It’s not a request. It’s a journey you embark on over many months with your boss as your partner. 

4. Don't job hop - make purposeful moves. Job hopping is a pretty hot topic at the moment. You can read my blog on the subject which explains in detail why I think it’s a flawed career strategy. It’s no secret that the easiest way to get a significant salary increase is to change companies. Internal promotions and increases tend to be incremental, 2%, 4%, maybe 7%. So the prospect of becoming a free agent can seem alluring. But in the long run, jumping from one company to another every 2 years isn't going to get your where you want to go. It might seem like these jumps are the best way to get meaningful salary increases but in the long term there are diminishing returns as your resume starts to raise red flags for hiring managers who don't want to make a significant investment in a job hopper. It might work in the early stages of your career when you can get a nice salary jump at the new company, but it will actually hurt your chances of landing management and executive level roles down the road where the salary bumps will be so much bigger. Job hopping is pretty short sighted but purposeful company changes at key points in your career actually make a lot of sense. My experience tells me that you need to stay with a company for at least 3-4 years in order to take advantage of all the opportunities to learn and demonstrate your ability to develop and grow. You want to work at a place long enough to show a track record of promotions and role expansions to make you more attractive when you ultimately test the external job market. In this way you're probably forgoing some smaller salary bumps along the way but you're positioning yourself for a bigger wins when you inevitably move to another organization. 

We all want to earn more money. We want to be appreciated for our contributions. It can be extremely frustrating especially when you've worked for a company for a number years without a material salary increase. I hope by sharing some of the lessons I've learned along the way will help you avoid my mistakes and get the job and the salary you deserve. 

Let me know in the comments about your experiences trying to get a salary increase.

6 Career Changes I'd Make if I had a Time Machine

Lately I've been thinking a lot about my younger self. Mostly I've been thinking about all the mistakes I made early on in my career. Check out this slide-share and see the 6 pieces of advice I'd give the 25 year old version of me if I had a time machine.

New Boss? Company Acquired? 3 Tips to Take Advantage of Change

In my experience, the greatest moments for career advancement come in times of uncertainty and disruption. I know this sounds counter intuitive but its very true and something most of us overlook or won't admit. During highly tumultuous periods, like in an acquisition or management shake-up, the opportunities are actually at their greatest and your competition are at their worst. In these chaotic times, roles change, departments get reorganized and objectives and power shift. If you execute strategically you can find many career advancing opportunities. If you operate emotionally (like most people) you can lose out on your best chance to get ahead. While your peers are rebelling to change and worrying what the future may hold, you need to be executing your advancement strategy. Here are some tips for how to embrace change from the book Stealing the Corner Office:

A very important first step is to create a Change Playbook so you can take advantage of these moments when they present themselves. I find it helpful to document my game plan when I see big changes coming. The process of actually writing my plan down helps to remind me how important it is to be consciously executing purposeful tactics during these periods versus reacting emotionally.

I recently met with a business partner who confided in me within an hour of meeting him that he had a new boss he couldn't stand. He just couldn't figure out how to deal with him and he and the rest of the team missed their old boss immensely. As much as he delivered the polite version of his plight, it was pretty obvious that he and his peers were not handling this change scenario well.  A management change is almost universally mishandled by staff who fight against what has already taken place in some naive hope their discontent can actually reverse time. In this case, when your peers are all gossiping and griping about the evil new boss, you should be actively networking with him or her and finding ways to be helpful in the transition. Getting on the winning side of change is as much about choosing to play on the winning team as it is about any specific strategy. Having a positive attitude and aligning yourself with the eventual winners are your keys to success.

So when change is afoot, I jot down a few key notes in three basic areas to guide my behaviors. It reminds me that my goal is to get ahead in the company and not to vent my emotions or misgivings about the situation. Here is a sample of what that might look like:

Figure 1: Sample Change Playbook

Figure 1: Sample Change Playbook

The first area I focus on is my Influencer List. It has most likely evolved as a result of the change that has occurred. I make a quick list of who the key players are and who can most profoundly influence my success or failure in the new environment. My only caution is not to let any personal misgivings cloud your assessment of who actually has power and influence. Sometimes we can convince ourselves power hasn’t shifted when in fact it has.

The second thing I take note of is what key transition projects are likely to take place or have been scheduled already. I want to be a part of these and will do whatever I can to participate. These will come in the form of process alignment meetings, systems integrations, best practice sharing and a variety of other events. They all have the goal of smoothing the transition from the old way to the new way. You will participate on these committees and in these meetings ostensibly to help in the transition most importantly you’re tactically demonstrating leadership and networking with the winning team.

The final area I make note of is how I can advance my position during the change period. Specifically, what actions I will take to proactively improve my status. This can include things like booking a meeting with the new boss to understand her priorities and challenges. It might be taking one or two new people out for lunch or dinner after an acquisition. It can be the small things and conversations that reveal the best opportunities for career advancements in a highly dynamic environment. If you see yourself doing the same old routine, or trying to ignore the chaos around you – you should stop and get involved.

The most important thing in taking advantage of change scenarios is your attitude. Get on the winning team. Do the opposite of what the masses are doing. Find opportunities to demonstrate leadership in the face of disruption which will often be present during this times. Get strategic during turmoil and you will rise to the top.

Here are three quick tips that will make sure you embrace the changes everyone else hates and ultimately end up on top:

  • Make a change plan. You need to actually write down what your plan is or your emotions will likely get the best of you. Jot down some tactics when a major transition occurs to force yourself to act strategically and not emotionally.
  • Pick the winner with your mind not your heart. Make an objective assessment of which side is likely to come out on top and join that team. If someone has just bought your company or has just taken over your department – choose that team. Don’t fight against the winning side.
  •  Leave your ego at the door. If you execute the correct change playbook, people will make fun of you and tease you for being a suck up. Ignore them. Your career is not about making friends, it’s about advancement.