by John Lees | http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/11/the_interview_question_you_sho.html
Whether you are a new middle manager or a new President-elect, the common wisdom is that you have three months to make an impact in your new role. And yet when preparing for job interviews, candidates make the mistake of believing that most questions will be about their past experience, not what they plan to do once hired.
New hires have to impress their bosses, peers, and employees in less time than it takes some of us to arrange a meeting. So if you’re interviewing for a job, plan to be asked the question: “What do you hope to achieve in your first three months?”
First, approach this question — and indeed, every interview question — as an audition. Imagine your interviewers running a movie in their heads where you are sitting working with their team, presenting to their boss, talking to customers or shareholders.
Second, beware of extremes. The savvy candidate knows to take some care before jumping in with proposed improvements, but this often leads to bland over-caution: “I wouldn’t make any changes until I had learned a lot more about the organisation and consulted with my colleagues.” That answer is not only predictable, but a little too safe for most jobs.
At the other end of the spectrum is the candidate who tells the organisation every mistake it’s making and offers to give things a pretty big shake-up — usually enough to put the interviewers’ backs up. Other candidates clearly promise more than they can deliver, or reveal a naive view of what is possible.
The best answers take a middle ground, effectively saying, “Yes, I will learn and listen, but I will also get on with things.” It’s unwise to be deeply critical of the organisation — the system you are trashing could be the brainchild of one of the people in the room. Better approaches use phrasing such as, “This is the approach I would take…” or “Here’s something I have tried elsewhere which I believe could help you.” Try presenting changes as suggestions open to interrogation — the beginnings of a strategy rather than the whole deal. Throw in some quick wins — short-term results that can be obtained at minimal cost without treading on anyone’s toes.
Finally, think about your presentation. Long-term success will often be based on your visibility within that initial three-month window, and your interviewer wants to know what you will look like in the role and what impact you might make.
Too many candidates concentrate on content — far too much of it — forgetting that a panel is really trying to find out whether you fit the part. Address this larger question by following a simple 3-part structure:
1. Analysis. Say briefly what you see and understand. The more this sounds like a “helicopter view” the better.
2. Make connections. Draw on perspectives from outside the organisation, and your own experience.
3. Suggested actions. Clear recommendations, offered with some caution because you would of course need more detail before implementing any of them.
Whether it’s explicit or not, most questions are all variations on the 90 day question — do you ‘get’ the needs underlying the role, can you fit in, and can you deliver?
Suggested further reading: Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days reinforces the widely held assumption that judgements made about your performance in the first three months impact hugely on career success. The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome by Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux suggests managers do tend to make fairly rapid and instinctive decisions about whether new staff are stars or problems.