How Executive Candidates Can Thrive in Virtual Interviews (and Why They're Likely Here to Stay)

In a world grappling with a pandemic, interview norms have largely gone out the window—and moved into the home. Yesterday’s in-person boardroom interviews are today’s makeshift home offices, where executive candidates can only see their interviewers behind a computer screen. Rules we lived by pre-pandemic have shifted or, in some cases, been eliminated altogether. As an executive candidate, this new style of interviewing can be even trickier, as flights, meetings, and dinners—previously a staple of the interview process—are now the exception to the rule. What do you need to do to make a great first impression when you’re relying solely on your virtual interview skills?

Virtual interviews likely aren’t going away anytime soon—and as more and more executives are seeking new job opportunities, it’s essential that you make the best impression possible. Here are tips on how to stand apart in today’s climate and highlight for potential employers why you’re the best choice for the role.

Benefits of Virtual Interviews

Private equity firms and executive candidates alike have discovered many benefits to the virtual style of hiring. With the ease of platforms like Zoom, for example, the recruiting process has been sped up significantly; what used to take a month in the hiring process can now be done in two or three days. With flights and scheduling constraints taken out of the equation, the interview process as a whole has become much more efficient. It’s possible to quickly assess whether a candidate is qualified for the next step in the process and, likewise, for candidates to know whether they’re being considered, in a much shorter time frame, resulting in a better experience for all.

Virtual interviews have created flexibility in new ways and given candidates greater access to opportunities that didn’t previously exist. Executive candidates, most of whom are working from home, have more time to interview, and an increased ability to be discreet about their search, without the demands of office life and a constant flow of people in and out of their office door.

How to Best Present Yourself Virtually

The fact that you’re interviewing behind a screen doesn’t mean that you need to prepare any less for the interview. In fact, in this new normal, you’ll likely need to prepare more, as there are more variables to consider, and you have increased responsibility to control the setting (and minimize accompanying distractions).

(Re)Mastering the Basics

Although telling you to dress your best and remember to make eye contact may seem like advice out of Interviews 101, the virtual experience has flipped interviews on their heads and changed the rules as we know them—and the “basics” are more important than ever when you’re talking through a screen rather than across a boardroom desk. It’s important to focus on getting all the same information to someone that you would if you were sitting across the table from them. Treat your interview as you would a normal in-person interview when it comes to considerations like dress code, body language, and eye contact.

Here are a few essentials to keep in mind as you embark on the virtual interview process:

  • Body language: Maintaining consistent and friendly eye contact is key. Eliminate any distractions around you such as your phone, papers on your desk, and other clutter. Make sure you’re sitting in an area away from the noises and foot traffic of your home, with a neutral virtual background or wall behind you. Choose a location with soft, natural lighting if possible. Just as with an in-person interview, your full focus and attention are expected, and de-cluttering your area will prepare you to focus on giving the interviewer your full attention. Your body language is more limited, so be mindful of your posture and facial expressions, as well as any nervous habits like touching your face, all of which may be more noticeable in a virtual setting.

  • Dress code: Dress as you would if you were in the room with your interviewer. After all, you are—you’re just separated by a screen. Consider the appropriate dress code for the interview. While you may decide not to wear a suit if it doesn’t reflect the client’s culture, you should still make sure that your clothes are clean, wrinkle-free, and appropriate for the interview setting. Choose an outfit that makes you feel confident and comfortable so you can present yourself in an authentic way. Since interviewers can’t exchange a handshake or see as easily how you carry yourself during an interview, the clothes and body language you do choose to show are magnified.

  • Listen: Remember that silence can be golden—and in an interview situation, this can be particularly true. While it may be tempting to fill the spaces between questions with chatter, particularly when you aren’t physically in a room with someone, instead, make it a point to stop and listen. Get comfortable with the pauses. When it comes to conversation flow, you don’t need to overcompensate or treat the situation any differently than if you were sitting in a room together. This will likely take practice, but the more you do it, the easier it will become and the more natural it will feel. Start by practicing in your own life, with your family or those close to you, and be hyper-focused on listening. As you train yourself to do this in your everyday life, it will become much easier to do in a professional setting.

Focus on Soft Skills

How do you promote your interests and show a potential employer a side of you beyond your qualifications? Soft skills—like attention to detail, strong communication skills, and adaptability in a changing environment—are in high demand, especially in a business landscape that looks nothing like it did at the beginning of 2020. In ISACA’s 2020 State of Cybersecurity report, respondents cited a lack of soft skills as their biggest skills gap.

Consider which of your soft skills would make you an invaluable addition to the team, and brainstorm ways to talk about those skills and show them through your responses. Write down specific instances in which those skills brought about learnings, successes, or milestones. You’ll have them at the ready for the interview, and can work them into your answers as appropriate.

Get Personal

How do you differentiate yourself and get personal? Consider that while you still need to maintain a professional demeanor, you’re in a non-typical setting. Your family might be eating lunch in the room right next door as you interview for a job. Your interviewer’s toddler may have just left his or her office before you started. This new reality lends itself to interesting topics if you’re willing to open up more than you would in a typical face-to-face interview. This type of “small talk” typically happens at the beginning or end of the meeting. Look for some sort of common ground between you and the interviewer/s. Work on building rapport throughout the meeting by looking for appropriate opportunities to talk about “lighter” topics: the weather, the likelihood of sports resuming in the same fashion as before, and so on. Find creative ways to connect about the strangeness of the situation we’re all in, or tie in some personal anecdotes along with work-related ones (bonus points if you can do both at once) that show your character and personality. This will give a potential employer a fuller picture of who you are as a candidate and a leader, but also simply as a person.

Be open to new ways of meeting virtually. If a firm or company is trying new ways to connect and get acquainted, such as through a virtual dinner, a happy hour interview on Zoom, or another virtual event, be receptive to these new methods. Accept non-traditional invitations, which are replacing former in-person getting-to-know-you golf outings or dinners, and make the most of them. They may be the opportunity you need to shine and set yourself apart. Remember that everyone is seeing what works right now, and some things may seem uncomfortable because they’re new. This is an opportunity to show your adaptability; not only is it a great character trait, particularly in these times, but a strong soft skill to have as well.

Practice—and Check Your Tech

The only way to get comfortable being yourself, while also being succinct and effective during a video interview, is to practice ahead of time. Consider conducting a “test run” interview on a Zoom (or your potential employer’s interview platform of choice) with a trusted family member or friend, in which that person asks a few interview questions with you on the video. This will allow you to see how you come across, get valuable feedback, and make adjustments accordingly. Be sure to ask for candid, honest feedback so you can work out the quirks and refine your tech setup and screen presence ahead of time. Get any technical difficulties figured out and make sure you’re comfortable using the platform so you’re not scrambling on interview day. Find videos and tutorials about the platform you’ll be using to get an overview of the technology.

On the day of an interview, double-check that the Internet connection and video software you’re using is working correctly, well before the call starts. Make sure you’ve checked into proper video conference etiquette. If any tech snafus pop up during the interview, smile, apologize, attempt to fix the issue quickly and move on. How you handle problems on the fly can give a potential employer a window into how you’d handle on-the-job challenges.

Do Your Research

Do your due diligence prior to the meeting and use various methods to effectively research your potential employer—including reading up on the company blog, scoping out professional profiles, and checking out the competitive landscape. As always, come prepared with thoughtful questions and specific examples of how your background and experience relate to some of the challenges and deliverables the employer has discussed as part of the role.

Thoroughly preparing for virtual interviews will help you remain professional, polished, and unruffled in a typically high-stress situation—which can go a long way in demonstrating to a potential employer that you have what it takes to be a valuable member of the team.

The Future of Virtual Interviews

We’ve stumbled into virtual interviews for all kinds of jobs, including executive roles, by necessity—but we predict that they’ll have major staying power in the future. By following these best practices, you’ll be ready to take on virtual interviews with confidence.

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