Your time to shine…

Take your interview technique to the next level with these expert tips from Ed Heffernan.

If you Google “interview advice”, you will be presented with over six million results. Bizarrely, when you then search for “interview advice for accountants”, you have 84 million results to choose from!

It’s impossible to work your way through the noise of the internet and uncover the real pearls of wisdom, so we’ve done it for you. In the pages that follow, you will find checklists for the three stages of interview – the planning or preparation stage, the ‘on the day’ stage, and the ‘next steps’ stage.

We’ve glossed over all the stuff you already know, like show up on time, look presentable and have a firm but friendly handshake, so add these points to your checklist to give yourself the best chance of success.

Before the interview

  • Research the company: but go beyond the superficial. Get your head around what the organisation does but more importantly, why they do it. If you can demonstrate that your values align with those of the company you wish to join, you will put yourself in a good position. It will also help you answer those dreaded questions: “What do you know about your business?” and “Why does this company and role interest you?”
  • Get comfortable with the company’s financials: you’re an accountant, after all, so this should be second nature. Depending on the industry, different figures will hold varying degrees of importance so in leasing, for example, impairment will be key while in the ‘software as a service’ business, revenue recognition and the revenue model will take precedence.
  • Search for your interviewers on LinkedIn: to identify any similarities or common denominators. If you attended the same college or have a mutual acquaintance, you can create an immediate bond – however tenuous it might be. It’s also a nice idea to connect with the interviewers and send a ‘look forward to meeting you’ note ahead of the interview. It’s a small gesture, but it shows confidence and an understanding of the importance of relationships.
  • Prepare for competency-based questions: telling an interviewer that you’re capable will only get you so far. If you can demonstrate your ability and quantify the effect of your efforts you will cast yourself in a much more favourable light.
  • Prepare some probing questions: for the end of the interview because virtually every interviewee is asked: “So, do you have any questions for us?” You won’t get a better opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, understanding of the company and enthusiasm for the role so leverage what you already know about the company to come up with some really challenging and insightful questions. Good examples include: “Can you describe the month-end process and how would I participate?” and “What are your expectations of this hire?”
  • Confirm the format of the interview: irrespective of whether you’re dealing with the company’s HR department or a recruiter. The more you know about the interview process, the better prepared you will be. You should also ask for some information about the interviewers – their roles, career paths, what they’re like and so on – to give you a rounded view of what you’ll face when you enter the interview room.
  • Know your dates: when you’re working through your career history and the experience you’ve gained in various roles, it’s important that the dates match those listed on your CV and LinkedIn profile as this will demonstrate your attention to detail. It’s also important to demonstrate how your past experience could benefit your future employer, but look beyond the superficial. For example, a large hotel chain and a renewable energy company have a lot in common. Do you know why? It’s all about context!

During the interview

  • Travel light: keep your phone on silent and out of sight, leave your bag and jacket at reception, and don’t bring your CV as you should know it inside out. Also, arrive five minutes early – but no more, as you don’t want to put your interviewer under pressure.
  • Dress to match the culture: but err on the side of caution. If the office adopts a casual, dress-down approach, attend the interview in smart casual attire. Interviews can be decided on fine margins and in this scenario, jeans and a t-shirt could be the deciding factor.
  • Make eye contact and smile: this is a common piece of advice but it cannot be reiterated enough. It demonstrates engagement and likeability, and will subconsciously position you as a team player and a thoughtful candidate.
  • Keep it positive: if you’re asked a question that leads you to say “no” or “I can’t”, be sure to follow up with a qualifying statement that leaves a favourable impression and provides adequate context for the interviewer. The ability to say “no” is an admirable quality, but you need to be able to say it in the right way.
  • Ask clever questions that get the interview panel talking: clever questions your peers wouldn’t ask as this will set you apart. There are questions you should avoid too – anything to do with salary, work-life balance and so on can be cleared up with the HR department at a later date.
  • Stay on your guard: interviewers may appear casual and, on occasion, almost familiar in their approach but remember, you are being assessed at every point so keep it very professional. HR representatives are sometimes more formal and structured in their approach than hiring managers, but treat all interactions with the same high degree of professionalism.
  • Be prepared for questions on the specifics: particularly if the role you’ve applied for has a technical slant. Anything less than a detailed, considered and confident response will leave room for doubt with regard to your ability, so be on top of your technical game.
  • Be coy when it comes to talking about your salary: if you notice some buying signals (questions about salary, start dates and other interviews, for example), use it to your advantage. Questions about your current salary can be tricky, but you should stress that the company and role are most important and you hope to match or increase your current package in line with market norms. Where possible, leave salary negotiations to your recruiter and don’t disclose too many details as you may under-price or over-price yourself.

After the interview

  • Be patient: hiring managers will routinely say “We’ll get back to you tomorrow” and while it might be said with the best intentions, it’s often a promise that goes unfulfilled. Always add three days’ grace as this will help you avoid unnecessary disappointment and worry.
  • Follow up by email with the HR department or recruiter: particularly if, after the interview, you’re still keen on the role and leave a positive message. In the case of a deadlock, it could tip the scales in your favour.
  • Check in with your recruiter if you don’t hear back from them within three days: there’s a saying in recruitment that “time kills all deals”. You have an active role to play in the recruitment process, so use your initiative and take control.
  • Prepare diligently for your second interview: if you’re invited for a second interview, congratulations! All interviews and hiring processes are unique so your second interview may be the same as the first, or it could be more detailed, or it could be broader in its scope. You may be interviewed by the same people, or new people. Whatever happens, prepare as diligently for your second interview as your first and you won’t go far wrong.
  • Be positive and enthusiastic: remember, when you’re on par with another candidate in terms of your experience and academic record, the person who wants the job most and who appears to be the best cultural fit will win every time so don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm!

Leadership material

Ken Bowles, CFO at Smurfit Kappa, shares his thoughts on becoming a great leader.

We’ve a great culture at Smurfit Kappa and over the years, we’ve worked to define what makes a successful leader. The capabilities cover areas such as opening up, making the most of diversity, being authentic, knowing yourself, embracing learning and, of course, operational excellence and taking a strategic perspective. No-one will excel in all areas, but I look for these capabilities at all levels as they’re key to success in our organisation.

Our people help shape the future of Smurfit Kappa. We look for people with the potential and ambition to become future leaders… ultimately we’re a large global company but at the same time, we’ve a personable atmosphere with short lines of communication where you can contribute from day one.

That said, people sometimes leave our organisation and the most positive exit experiences I’ve had with employees were when their exit didn’t come as a surprise. So my advice is: if the company isn’t delivering what you expected in terms of career growth or you are dissatisfied with your salary or benefits, talk to your manager first and try to resolve the issue. If it can’t be solved and you hand in your notice, take the time to attend exit interviews and give constructive feedback to your manager and the organisation as a whole. Leaving in a positive way is important; you never know when you’ll meet previous employees and old bosses again.

How to tackle competency-based questions in four steps

Prior to your interview, you should prepare answers to a range of competency-based questions such as “Tell me about a time when you solved a problem for your employer?” The answer should provide specific examples of activity in your previous roles. Adopting a structured and logical approach will help you prepare rounded and detailed answers that will impress your interviewers:

  • Describe the situation you’d like to refer to.
  • Outline what you did, and avoid referring to “we”.
  • Define the outcome of your efforts.
  • Describe what your learned from the experience.

This approach will help you tackle a variety of competency-based and situational questions. It would be useful to practice your responses, but don’t go overboard. Just get used to applying a structured approach and familiarise yourself with the main points of interest.

This article was originally published by Chartered Accountants Ireland in January 2018. You can read the article and see the full edition here.