Interviewing to live, living to interview

By: James Citrin

Author, The Career Playbook & Leader, CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart

Oct 10, 2015

It was the fall semester of my senior year at Vassar and I was excited to take the train from Poughkeepsie to New York City for my interview. Back then, in 1980, landing a job in a prestigious bank training program was coveted by many soon-to-be college graduates, certainly most economics majors. So I was quite pleased that I got the “call back” from Irving Trust [1], after they came to campus for first round interviews with a dozen students. I was invited to participate in interview day at their headquarters, “Number One Wall Street” (they were very proud of that address). I loaded up my blue suit, white shirt, and red tie in my overnight bag and boarded the train for the big city.

Here’s how it was to work. Hundreds of college kids were descending on the bank all competing to get offers. It was set to start at 9 a.m. with each student scheduled for two interviews, one with Personnel (“Human Resources” hadn’t yet really made it to corporate America by that time), and the second with a manager of the training program. Depending on how well you did, you would be told at 11 a.m. if you would continue through lunch and into the afternoon interviews. It was generally known that if you made it to the end of the day, you would be presented with an offer. So with each conversation the stakes got higher as you got closer to that goal.

My day was going very well. For a 21-year-old I had a lot of interviewing experience, and with all humility, a pretty strong resume. Earlier in the fall I had won a position in the Vassar admissions office as a senior interviewer. I had interviewed about 100 high school seniors by that time and written up my recommendations on each one for the dean. So I had the beginnings of a feel about what comes across well in an interview (eye contact, a strong handshake, good answers to the basic questions, “Why are you interested in Vassar?” and “Describe your strengths and weaknesses”), and what turned an interviewer off. My resume sported a high GPA, membership in the honor society for economics majors, three and a half years of college French, captaincy of the Vassar soccer and squash teams, two summers working on Wall Street (in a back office clerk job at the brokerage firm, Bear Stearns, thanks to a friend of my dad’s), and the immediate prior summer working in the international loans department for a bank in Paris (also thanks to my dad). I had a good story to tell (of course I would never offer it up that my dad got me those jobs), and I had practiced enough to have it down cold (I literally stood in front of the mirror summarizing my thesis on U.S. monetary policy).

Even then, I knew that interviewers love to win. When a Vassar applicant said they were also applying to Brown or Wesleyan, my competitive juices flowed and I was much more inclined to give them a strong rating than if they said they were applying to lesser schools. So I played up the fact that I was also interviewing at Morgan Stanley and talking to Bear Stearns about going back. My French language skills and international banking experience (such as it was) led all of the conversations to flow organically toward Irving Trust’s international business. I thought I was golden by 4 p.m. when I found myself in the sumptuous top floor office of the chairman of the international bank for the final one hour interview.

I can remember the scene as if it was last week. The cavernous circular room with an oriental rug. The mahogany desk and long conference table. Two deep arm chairs facing each other along the perimeter of the room, where the interview was to take place. And most dauntingly, an imposing executive, perfectly composed in a tailored pin-striped suit with gold cufflinks on his starched white shirt. The interview was following the expected lines. Why banking? Check. Why Irving Trust over Morgan Stanley or Bear Stearns? Check. Why international? Check? Discussion of the current interest rate environment. Check. But then, about half an hour into the interview, something slightly disconcerting started to happen. I had been sitting cross-legged in the deep arm chair and my right leg was starting to tingle. I was too self-conscious to uncross my leg, nervous that it would look unprofessional. So I soldiered on, not thinking about the consequences.

By the end of the hour, which was finishing with the flourish of a hearty thank you and the first smile emanating from his otherwise pursed lips, I tried to stand up to shake hands. But my right leg was dead asleep. Like a disembodied tree trunk. Completely cut off of any feeling. I literally collapsed on the carpet, like a marionette cut from its strings. There I was, flat on my back, looking up at the executive towering above me. “My leg fell asleep,” I said with a forced laugh, still recumbent on the floor. He remained expressionless. After I managed to get up and limp unsteadily out of the office I knew I was done for.

And I was right. Irving Trust and I were not to be.

But I never left my legs crossed in an interview anytime since.

Perhaps one of the most important threads of my career has been interviewing. 

Interviewing for jobs. Interviewing prospective employees as a member of recruiting teams. Interviewing candidates, top business leaders, and boards of directors over the past 21 plus years as an executive recruiter. I love interviewing. I love the structure of the interaction. The goals are so clearly defined. There is a distinct arena in which it transpires (whether an office, a restaurant, or an airport lounge). When you know your goal and know what you’re doing, there is no reason you can’t nail the interview.If you’re a candidate, your goal is to get to the next round in the process. If you are a hiring manager, your goal is to discern if you want to hire an individual and if so turn on your selling skills to attract them to the role. [2]

Interviewing is an art form — there should be grace and nuance to an interview and unexpected learning and connections should find their way into the conversation. There are rituals — the welcome, the bridge building, the assessment, the Q&A, the close. Animal instincts are very much at play — the pre-interview adrenaline, the parry, the competition. There is also a lot of science to interviewing — Ph.D. dissertations have been written on the topic; Amazon has 4,824 listings for “Job Interviewing”. And there are underlying principles to understand, practice, and put into play (more on this to come). Interviewing is a skill, like so many other things. You get better with practice and experience, just like acting or playing tennis.

When you become a strong interviewer, you will have an invaluable skill that will propel you over the course of your life. I’ve seen the great and less than great when it comes to interviewing. And I’ve also learned a lot through my own experiences, some of which worked out very well, some of which did not.

I can remember details from interviews that happened many years ago. When I was a second year student at Harvard Business School, most of my classmates were stressed out about meeting with the corporate recruiters who came to campus. I remember feeling exactly the opposite. Interviews were fun. They weren’t work. You just needed to tell your stories and answer their questions in such a way that the interviewers wanted to hear. Most of my classmates believed that they had to decide what field they wanted to enter before starting to interview. Over half my class of 1986 went into investment banking or management consulting. No one wanted to look unfocused so they picked their sector and interviewed with the best firms they could. But I took a different approach.

At age 26 I figured, why should I have to decide on a single path? After all, I was interested in a lot of things. But that also meant that I had to be able to explain why I was interviewing all over the place. “How could you be interviewing with investment banks, consulting firms, The World Bank, and diversified corporations?” they asked. But I sensed that if I turned the tables on the interviewers, it would be to my advantage. “Did you know for certain in your mid-twenties how you wanted to spend the rest of your life”? I don’t recall a single interviewer answering that in the affirmative — none of them wanted to appear to have been narrow or unworldly.

So there I was going down parallel interview paths. Here’s another funny thing about interviewing. You never know how an interview experience may come back around even many years down the line. One needs to keep this in mind, whether you’re a candidate or a hiring manager. Like the so called Butterfly Effect. In one interview that year at HBS, I sat opposite to a high-powered associate from the investment banking firm of First Boston Corporation (which later was acquired by Credit Suisse). His name was Ray McGuire. Ray forwent the usual opening of the interview and dispensed with the pleasantries.

He looked down at the personal section at the bottom of my resume and selected something to open the conversation. (This is an important lesson about how most executives read resumes — from the bottom up. Which is why it’s essential to put something catchy in that personal section. My resume said “Completed World Triathlon Championship, two holes in one, fluent French.”). He leaned in and said, “Vous Parlez Français, comment ça se fait?” “You speak French, how did that happen?”

So I explained, in not quite fluent French, how I had worked as an intern at a Paris bank and had studied French throughout college. The interview unfolded smoothly from there. Twenty-five years later, in an entirely different setting in October 2010, I was reintroduced to Ray. By this point, Ray had become something of a Wall Street legend and a major player on the New York philanthropy scene, including serving as a member of the board of the New York Public Library. [3]

In my role at Spencer Stuart, I was co-leading the CEO search for the library, and at the final board dinner, when we were to review the search and present the finalist candidate, (current CEO) Tony Marx, we went around the table introducing ourselves. When Ray introduced himself to me, I reminded him that we had actually met before. He was flabbergasted to hear the story and I frankly took a trifle of pleasure. Whether he became more supportive of our CEO search is hard to tell, but it certainly deepened the connection at the board dinner.

Outside of the investment banking interviews, my other primary tracks that fall of 1985 were in management consulting, with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and McKinsey, and in private wealth management, with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Interviewing with consulting firms has always been a world of its own, notorious with the oral case studies forming the cornerstone of the interview process. “There are no right or wrong answers,” the consulting partners would say, not believing a word of it, “we just want to see how you approach problem solving.”

I was in my second round at BCG and it was now time for the case study. I was presented with a client situation of an automotive equipment manufacturer that needed to redesign steering columns. I knew nothing about steering columns, the automotive industry, product development, manufacturing, or anything else that would have helped me make sense of the case. I couldn’t figure it out and flatly blew it. So like Irving Trust five years beforehand, BCG and I were not to be. But as was the case with Ray McGuire, once again, this turned out to not be the end of the story. Two years ago, Spencer Stuart and BCG agreed to form an annual CEO Forum, where we would invite ten major corporate chief executives to a private, two day session on best practices for how to become a thriving corporate leader.

In a posh meeting room at the New York Peninsula Hotel, at the start of the session, we went around the table and each participant introduced themselves. Interspersed among the CEOs telling their stories of how they had risen to their position and the greatest issues they were currently facing, the CEO of BCG, Rich Lesser, and the top partner in their leadership practice, Roselinde Torres, told their stories. My Spencer Stuart partner, Susan Hart, global leader of our retail practice and a major player in CEO succession, also gave her introduction.

When it was my turn, I explained how the Spencer Stuart BCG CEO Forum came to be, my own role as leader of our CEO practice, and you guessed it. I retold the story of my BCG interview and the steering column case study. Even though I wasn’t “good enough” for BCG then, it was a pleasure to partner with them at the very top of the house now. In the world of business, these kinds of personal anecdotes, woven into normal interactions and when tinged with a little self-deprecating humor, actually do wonders to make you memorable and therefore enhance your effectiveness. Perhaps the more important point is to never forget how “small” and interconnected the world is and that how you conduct yourself in a high-stakes setting can have ramifications even many years down the line.

I also interviewed at McKinsey on campus and was fortunate to be given a case study that I knew something about so I was able to make it to the final round. This was known as the “selling round” where the only way not to get an offer was to have your leg fall asleep and collapse on the floor, or some other such debacle. But I pulled out of the process at the end because I accepted a position as an associate in private wealth management at Goldman, Sachs. That was perhaps the most memorable and frankly uncomfortable interview process ever. The series of Goldman interviews were going really well, cruising through all the preliminary rounds, telling colorful stories about business school, my pre-grad school experience as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley (which turned out to be a better job than becoming a banker at Irving Trust), my summer job after first year of business school in venture capital in Honolulu (I wanted to do something fun and different). I explained how I was motivated to go into a career that was all about developing deep, trust-based relationships with sophisticated clients.

When all seemed poised to bring it over the line, Todd Morgan, then head of the Goldman New York office, said, “Sell me your watch.” This is a classic sales interview question, but it took me completely by surprise. I froze and had no idea how to react, fumbling something inane about the watch on my wrist.

He stopped me in my tracks and declared that private wealth management was not for me, that I wasn’t comfortable in a sales role, and that I seemed to think that I was “above” the selling part of the job. Despite all my protestations, he sent me back to Boston to reflect deeply on my future. Knowing I had to prove it to him that I was not above selling, I promptly went into Harvard Square and signed up to sell classified ads for a circular called The Square Deal. I found it easy and quite fun and called Todd back and told him my epiphany. I actually loved to sell and I proved it to myself (even though, of course, I was just trying to prove it to him).

So off I went to Goldman after graduation. 

Unfortunately, it turned out that Todd was right. I hated to sell. Well at least I hated to sell private wealth management services to rich people. I hadn’t realized that the relationship that people have with their money is unique and makes it especially hard to develop trust-based advisory relationships. When it comes to money, many people think that financial services professionals are just out to make money off of their money. So I was receptive when McKinsey wrote me a subtle recruiting letter six months into my time at Goldman. “We enjoyed getting to know you last year during our interviews and would like to stay in touch as your career evolves. To keep you current on the thinking of the Firm, please find enclosed a copy of The McKinsey Quarterly.”

To me, unhappy in my life and job at the time, this was like being tossed a life preserver after having been thrown overboard. I moved to McKinsey and for five happy years did all the things management consultants do. I worked with sophisticated corporate clients on challenging engagements, learned from incredibly smart colleagues how to structure and solve problems across industries, from media and cosmetics to package delivery and financial services. I was even able to return to France and spend a year working in the Paris office.

I was also a key member of various recruiting teams, interviewing analyst and associate staff candidates from top undergraduate and business schools. I loved recruiting almost as much as being on the candidate side. I never asked someone to do a case study about steering columns or for them to sell me their watch. But I did, once again, hone my view of what it takes to get hired. Beyond the resume, it was all about creating a connection with the interviewer, asking penetrating questions that show the homework they did about consulting in general and about McKinsey in particular.

Five years later, I then did what most management consultants do at some point in their careers. I decided to go out and try to make my way in industry. I pursued a disciplined job search, having decided I wanted to move into the media industry (my favorite sector from my time consulting), built a target list of potential companies, figured out who I knew or could be introduced to at each company, contacted them to see if there were appropriate opportunities, and generally made it known to anyone who would listen what I wanted. I developed my “elevator pitch” — the one sentence summary about what I wanted to do and why, which is a critical step for anyone when they’re in a job search — “I am passionate about the media business and want to find a position in corporate strategy or marketing with a major global entertainment or publishing company.” Having mentioned that to enough people led a former colleague to contact me about a position as director of strategic planning at Reader’s Digest.


At the time, The Digest, as it was affectionately known, was a flourishing $5 billion public company that boasted an idyllic campus in Chappaqua, New York with the world’s most valuable corporate art collection. This was thanks to co-founder Lila Wallace’s patronage of the French Impressionists three quarters of a century earlier. As I advanced in my interviews, I figured out how to overcome an ever present challenge to job searchers everywhere. This was something I later came to call The Permission Paradox, which is the classic career conundrum that you can’t get the job without the experience, but you can’t get the experience without the job.

One of the key responsibilities of the strategic planning job was mergers and acquisitions. My prospective boss said it was a requirement of the role to have experience with M&A. I quickly figured out one of the strategies for overcoming The Permission Paradox. Break the role into component parts and cobble the activities together to fit your experience. “No I have never done an M&A transaction end-to-end,” I explained. “But if you think of a deal as a series of discreet steps, I’ve done them all. At McKinsey I helped develop strategies that included growing through M&A and creating lists of potential acquisition targets that were in line with the strategies. At Morgan Stanley I was a part of teams that financed corporate activities including M&A. And at Goldman, I worked in the capital markets and gained an understanding of how transactions affect stock prices.” This answer turned out to be sufficient and I got the job.

My experience there over the next 18 months, however, was not nearly as successful as my interviews. Just as I had misunderstood a key element of the job back at Goldman Sachs, which entailed actually selling private wealth management services to individuals, I misjudged two critical aspects of the job at Reader’s Digest. One was that I was actually a pretty weak strategist. This was 1993 and I totally missed the tidal wave starting in media called the Internet. The other was that I had neglected to pay attention to the culture of the company and how I would fit in it. Having worked over the prior decade for three of the most prestigious professional services firms in the world, I took it as a given that all companies had people just like you, similarly motivated, and with whom you could develop quick and strong friendships.

But after three months into my job, I looked around and realized that there were very few people at the company who I would consider friends. Hence was born my realization, which I’ve now studied extensively, that cultural fit is paramount when it comes to both hiring and deciding whether a right job is for you (The Gallup Organization has famously found that the greatest predictor to job satisfaction is the answer to the question, “Is there someone at your workplace who you could consider a best friend?”).

Thankfully, a partner at Spencer Stuart named Claudia Kelly, now leader of our firm’s HR practice and then the head of our Stamford (Connecticut) office, who I had come to know while interviewing at the time I was leaving McKinsey, thought that I would be good at executive recruiting and that I would like it. So began the final series of job interviews I would ever conduct for myself (hopefully). I applied all of my learning about not only getting the job, but this time assessing for cultural fit. After three months and some 30 interviews, I finally got my offer and accepted it on the spot. I started on January 31, 1994 and have been blessed with an exciting and deeply satisfying career.

Now, all these years later, after conducting about 10,000 executive interviews, after helping place 600 top executives, including over 200 CEOs, after advising a great many college students and MBAs on their careers, after having written seven books on leadership and career success, I absolutely love to share what I’ve come to know about interviewing. It turns out that whether you are interviewing for an internship, a public company CEO, or anything in between, the keys to effective interviewing are surprisingly the same. Knowingly or not, first impressions are lasting impressions for many interviewers, so establishing an immediate bridge and having a strong answer to the first question is essential. And that rather than responding literally to the questions that are posed, it’s far better to weave the answers into a narrative that tell a story about who you are and how you can be the solution to the hiring organization’s problems. And being on guard to avoid falling into the trap of thinking an interviewer is just being polite when they ask you at the end, “What questions do you have for me?” This is one of the most important opportunities to show, by having prepared a series of insightful questions beforehand, that you’ve done your homework, that you are strategic, and that you really care about the opportunity.

Over my three and a half decades of interviewing, I’ve come to learn that interviewers are sort of like gladiators. They want a conquest. If they decide that you could be the one, they want to win you over. The more that you understand how interviewers think and what you can do to influence the process, the better the chances are that you can be in the position to make the most important decision — whether this is the right job for you.