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The Lorton Perspective: Tips From a Master on Nailing That Job Interview

Workhouse Arts Center President and CEO John Mason has seen it all

Ever feel like you've lost a job because of a bad interview?

With a national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent (Northern Virginia is at 4.5 percent), knowing the secret to a good interview - and how someone crosses that bridge from being on the short-list to the call-back list - can make or break your next career move.

On Thursday, Patch sat down with an authority on the subject - who estimates that he's interviewed hundreds of job applicants over the last 30 years.

Patch: What tips do you have for people about to walk into that interview? 

Mason: First, do your homework on the business or organization that you are trying to get a job with. Get on their website, understand what their mission is. The person hiring you is basically looking at you from the perspective of the bottom line of the organization.

So, how do you, the applicant, contribute to the success of the organization? It's not about it being my job to give you a job. 

Secondly, dress appropriately. If you're applying to a management position, or, let's say a senior position with an arts foundation, you're going to be in a coat and tie environment. Don't dress like you're about to go to the beach.

Patch: What kind of attitude should the applicant have? 

Mason: Have respect and appreciation for the questions your interviewer is asking. Typically there is a reason the interviewer is asking those particular questions. For example, a common question asked is to name your strengths. So, then list two or three things that you think can lend something to the organization.

The interviewer may also ask you to list your weaknesses, and there's no such answer as 'None.' We all have them. 

Patch: When should money-talk come up in the interview? 

Mason: In an initial conversation, unless asked, stay away from asking questions on salary and benefits. Let that all unfold as the interview goes on, and they may raise the subject, or will if you make it to the final cut in a subsequent interview. 

...And at the conclusion of the interview, thank the interviewer for the opportunity and express appreciation for what you have learned from their company or organization. 

Patch: And after the interview? 

Mason: Within 24 hours, send a hand-written thank you note to the interviewer. 

Patch: How do you decide on whether you want to hire someone? 

Mason: I think you inherently know whether this is going to be a short interview, or will be included in a final round of interviews. But rarely has the decision just been up to me. You have to depend on the opinions of other team leaders and potential peers of the person being interviewed. 

If you have a system where a senior interviewer solely hires a person based on a single interview, you're going to get resistance from employees who haven't engaged in the process. So, to achieve a degree of fairness, you typically need three people to interview someone for any kind of a supervisory job. This is an evolved system, and not the same as it was 30 years ago. 

Patch: What's changed? 

Mason: If you go back 30 years, most organizations and businesses were more focused on maintaining vertical relationships - with a boss on top, deputy bosses and so on. And people worked in a cutthroat fashion with their peers to get promotions.

Today, the horizontal relationships are just as important. It's all about productivity. If your goals revolve around growing a business, or expanding the visual arts at the Workhouse, for example, you'll need people who can act in a synergistic way to help the organization grow as a whole.

Mason is a former U.S. Army Colonel and vice president of the Science Application International Corp.

Got any other tips? Tell us in the comments!

Terry August 24, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Then you hope the President keeps his word and doesn't let these "Automatic Cuts" that will cut millions of Defense jobs January 1st.
James Cullum August 24, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Thanks Terry! How do you do in job interviews? Got any tips?
Terry August 25, 2012 at 05:48 PM
Dress well, be well groomed and have copies of all you certifications/diplomas on hand. Speak well and be cheerful.
James Cullum August 27, 2012 at 12:07 AM
Awesome. Thanks so much!
LaMarr Funn October 17, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Great tips! Very sage advice.

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