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Keil Hubert: Know Your Opponent

The more you know about another person, the better you can speak to their needs and desires when you finally meet in person.  Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert recommends that show at least as much respect to a job interview panel as you would to a blind date.

Back when I was an officer cadet, our military science professors loved to quote General Sun Tzu’s classic treatise The Art of War [1] whenever we got around to talking about strategy. I understand why; I believe that the Sun Tzu did a stellar job of summarizing critical and complex lessons-learned into concise, direct statements. One of my favourite passages was this one, from the end of chapter 3:


So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.

If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.

If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

That very simple admonishment was used as a verbal cudgel by our professors to exhort us cadets to study Soviet arms and doctrine. [3] If we couldn’t adequately describe how adversary forces would respond to our tactics and battle plans when we presented, then our plans were (at best) suspect. I know that the professors’ diatribes it worked on me; after I was commissioned, I regularly carried a quick-reference guide on Soviet military capabilities with me when I went on field exercises, just in case I needed to look up obscure facts.

I find it kind of funny that the advice that our professors gave us back in the 1980s still holds great potential value for us today outside of the military sphere. I don’t write war plans anymore, but I do interview people on a regular basis. Yes, there’s a connection: try adjusting the phrase just a smidge, like this:

So is it said that if you know the people that you will be interviewing with and know yourself, you will secure a job offer.

If you know only yourself, but not the decision maker interviewing you, you might win an offer, or you might make an utter fool of yourself.

If you know neither yourself nor the people on the other side of the table, you’re probably going to make a complete fool of yourself and sabotage any chance you might have had of getting an offer.

Holds up, doesn’t it? The more that you understand who-all you’ll be talking to, the better you can craft your sales pitch specific to your audience on why you’re the right fit for their team.

I've experienced exactly the opposite approach – where a candidate completely mis-read the job posting, and still insisted on making their case for they were the optimal candidate for a position that we weren't offering and didn't need.
I’ve experienced exactly the opposite approach – where a candidate completely mis-read the job posting, and still insisted on making their case for they were the optimal candidate for a position that we weren’t offering and didn’t need.

Oddly enough, I don’t see many other people actually suggesting that this is a good idea. I’ve read a lot of advice penned by professional interviewing coaches. I find that it’s very common for the ‘experts’ to recommend preparing for interviews. Read up on the company, they say. Read quarterly and annual reports, news articles, press releases, and marketing material so that you can gush convincingly about how great the outfit is and why you’d great in it. Very few advisors, though, exhort job seekers to read up on the specific people that they’ll be meeting. That seems odd to me.

Every time that I received an invitation to conduct a phone screen or to participate in a face-to-face interview, I’d make it a point to Google all of the names that the facilitator had mentioned. I’d also ask politely if I could know the names of all of the person or people that I’d be meeting – usually, the facilitator was happy to oblige. It didn’t take me long to pull up people’s social media profiles, appearances in company press releases, and other online artefacts that gave me some insight into their business history. For example, if I was learned that I was going to interview with a person who had written a whitepaper, I downloaded and read their paper. Simple, quick intel gaterhing.

To be clear, I didn’t feel any need to look at people’s after-hours social postings unless there was nothing else available on them. I preferred to use more formal business sites like LinkedIn, since that content was usually much more germane to the work environment.

Once I had a glimpse ‘behind the curtain’ for each person that I was going to meet, I then prepared at least two unique questions for each of them. I brought my questions with my notes just in case the opportunity presented itself to ask (in a non-creepy way, of course). Examples have included:

I saw on your profile that you completed your master’s degree while you were working here. How did the company support your academic growth?

I read on your profile that you recently earned your CISSP certification. Why did you choose that one over, say, the SANS GSLC certification?

I noticed on your business card that you work out of the company’s Boston office. Are you just here in Dallas for these interviews, or do you regularly commute between the two offices?

Your last quarterly report with the SEC mentioned that you’re spinning off [division X] later this year. Will that restructuring affect this team?

I'd avoid mentioning anything about the recently laid-off workers you bumped into in the lobby on your way to the interview.
I’d avoid mentioning anything about the recently laid-off workers you bumped into in the lobby on your way to the interview.

I’ve never once encountered a negative reaction to my highly-personal questions. Yes, I’ve surprised a lot of people – shocked a few, even – but I’ve never had anyone get mad or defensive. Usually, I’d get a positive vibe from the other person. Almost everyone was happy to answer whatever I’d asked.

First off, it shows that I’ve been thorough: I researched the interviewer before I met them, and I took an interest in them as a human being. That’s good for their ego. Further, showing respect or sincere admiration for something that a person has done helps to validate their sense of self. That’s a good way to start building a personal rapport with them.

Second, the simple act of doing a little research suggests good work habits: reading up on a problem shows deliberate planning and consideration. When someone walks into an interview room and tries to ‘wing it’ without having done any prep, it’s sometimes perceived as arrogant, or even insulting. For me, I’m inclined to believe that if you were willing to ‘wing it’ as an applicant when you really need a job, the you’d certainly be likely to ‘wing it’ with a client when the pressure was off.

When I’m on the other side of the table, I’m always – always – impressed when someone demonstrates that they’ve done their homework on us before coming to the interview. Candidates’ insightful questions often inspire me to ask a great many new questions of them about what motivated them, what they learned about us, how they interpret what they learned, and so on.

As an example, one of the Knowledge Management techs that I hired a number of years back absolutely stunned the entire board when she admitted that she’d not only read all of our regulatory guidance to prepare for the interview, but she’d also gone out and interviewed several people who worked in the field to better understand what-all she needed to do in order to be more competitive. She’d thoroughly studied our needs and managed to articulate her value proposition clearly. It was brilliant. [4]

Although she was nervous enough about interviewing that she didn't pick up on our not-very-subtle reaction.
Although she was nervous enough about interviewing that she didn’t pick up on our not-very-subtle reaction.

In recent years, I’ve started prompting people to reveal what they have (or haven’t done) as part of my regular questions batter. I’ll ask early on what-all they know about the company in general, and specifically what they might now about our team or about the role that they’ve applied for. I see it as a strong positive indicator when someone has taken the time to research us and to try to understand our needs; it suggests that they’ll work out well over the long haul. I need people who are self-motivated and curious.

If you’re looking to change jobs, I submit that it’s worth your time to do a little ‘intelligence work’ before you actively engage with the hiring board. Make it point to read up on the company first, and the specific individuals that you’ll be talking with second. It can’t hurt you; at most, it’ll chew up a few hours of prep time. At best, it’ll give you critical insight into the thought processes of the people who have yes-or-no authority over your selection. Showing respect, interest, and awareness of people and their needs will (more often than not) help you to stand out from your competition. [5]

[1] The original is, according to Wikipedia, titled 孫子兵法, which translates more literally as ‘General Sun’s Military Rules’.

[2] That’s Wikipedia’s rendition of the Chinese characters, not mine. I neither speak nor read Chinese (at least, not yet).

[3] Yes, I’m that old. I first enlisted to defend against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and their Warsaw Pact vassals back when they both constituted a thing. Generation Y readers: ask your parents.

[4] Yes, she got the job. It still makes me smile every time I remember that interview.

[5] Yes, I know that I didn’t talk about the ‘know yourself’ part of this equation. I talked about that subject a lot in my book Why Are You Here?: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to IT Interviewing.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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