When I was little, I obsessed over fictional detectives and secret agents. The thought of building dossiers to uncover the truth about people always got my heart pumping. Although I didn’t end up employed as an undercover spy, I did end up as a creative director at a Manhattan ad agency. In that role, I spent a good chunk of my time researching what people do, how they think, and what drives them to make decisions.
Sadly, due to corporate restructuring, I was let go from that job—meaning my daily detecting needs could only be fulfilled by Law and Order marathons.
After getting laid off, I did the appropriate amount of slacking off, then being pissed off, and, eventually, getting off my butt to try and find a new gig. By day six of unemployment, I finally had an updated portfolio and a few interviews lined up. The next step was to shake off the funk and prove to these leads that I had what they needed.
Before going to any interview, I wanted to learn all about the company’s history, dig into details about the people I was going to meet, and gather any noteworthy industry news. As I started this preparation process, I got re-energized. This was another opportunity to fulfill my super spy fantasies!
Luckily, I discovered that learning about the people who want to meet you and the companies they’re with isn’t all that rough.
In addition to the company’s website (the media room is always a good resource), I’d dig into the employer and hiring manager’s social networking profiles (you can learn a lot about someone from their public Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts). I’d also search to see if the company officers or my interviewer had published any op-ed pieces so I could get a feel for their personalities and pet peeves. And, last but not least, I’d read through all the bitter ex-employee reviews so I could compare what these people and companies said about themselves to what people said about them.
Armed with all this information, I could go into an interview with confidence. I wouldn’t have to sit there slack-jawed if someone asked me what I thought about a recent acquisition. I could talk about it intelligently. This detective work also empowered me to formulate answers to the “We’re struggling with (our culture, high churn, etc.) right now. What would you do to fix it?” question in advance of the interview. Sometimes I’d even prepare documents with potential solutions that I could whip out to impress the hell out of the interviewer.
As much as I pride myself on interview preparation, there have been several times when someone I’ve never looked into in my life joins the interrogation. In these times, I’ve drawn inspiration from a wise poetess who once encouraged us all to “flip it and reverse it.” In other words, I assume the role of interviewer and put the stranger in the role of interviewee. Although I am fully aware that the illustrious Missy Elliott was probably not thinking about corporate interview situations when she wrote these words, I’m here to tell you: “If it’s worth it, you should work it.”
Interviewers like it when you ask smart questions. And everyone likes to talk about themselves. So, if you can figure out a way to ask the stranger just enough smart questions to make a personal connection, it won’t matter that you haven’t had time to memorize his backstory before uttering your first word.
Just a couple of months before my agency showed me the door, I attended The 3% Conference—an annual event created by Kat Gordon to help increase the number of women in creative leadership positions. One of my favorite sessions was “Speed Mentoring”—a chance to spend 10 minutes with five creative industry leaders. Had I known exactly who the five leaders would be, I could’ve easily memorized every detail about them. Unfortunately, there was no way to know which of the 30-plus potential mentors would be present during my given time slot.
I knew I’d have to wing it.
Sitting at the small table across from someone I didn’t immediately recognize from the conference program, I decided to ask the same question I planned to ask everyone else: “I’ve realized with every promotion I’ve received, my circle of advisers has shrunk. It’s hard to get honest opinions from the people who rely on you for paychecks. They’re more likely to tell you they love an idea that they actually hate because they’re afraid of upsetting you. Plus, there are lots of things that simply aren’t appropriate to discuss with subordinates, so it’s dangerously easy to lose perspective. I’m curious about your approach to finding a trusted circle of advisers. Who are your mentors?”
He gave me the perfect answer: “When it comes to finding mentors, you just need two: Someone who supports your bullshit and someone else who calls you out on it.” For the next 10 minutes, we laughed about the pitfalls of management and traded ideas about how to stay down to earth no matter how high you climbed the corporate ladder.
At the end of the conversation, he told me how to get in touch with him. It wasn’t until this point that I realized I’d been chatting it up with the CEO of an agency I’d been dying to work with my entire career. Although our meeting didn’t result in a job offer, it did result in some incredibly helpful email exchanges when I needed to redesign my portfolio.
Like any good spy or detective, you have to be careful with the knowledge you have. Feel out every situation and only tap into your dossier when it makes sense. Your conversations should evolve naturally. Revealing you’ve done a ridiculous amount of research on the person interviewing you can get super awkward, super quick.
I’m not saying don’t do the research. I’m just saying that quoting a random five-year-old tweet by your interviewer is more likely to leave her shaking her head than your hand.
This article originally appeared on Monster and is reprinted with permission.