When Ivy Exec founder and CEO Elena Bajic sat down with a potential new hire last month for her first interview, she was blown away with her insight into the 5-year-old recruiting company, which specializes in placing high-level executives.
"She knew the names of key players and what hurdles we've been looking to overcome," she says. "I was impressed." But when she learned that the young woman had, in fact, arranged an informal meeting with another employee prior to her interview, Bajic was blown away. "She had done amazingly well in the interview and now I know why," she says. "It was a proactive move that showed commitment and engagement from the get-go." [More from Forbes: How to get the best references]
For Bajic, who vets hundreds of candidates a year for companies through her firm, preparation for an interview is a make-it-or-break-it issue. "I'm beyond passionate about this topic," she told me when I called to ask her to share her tips for job-hunters. There are dozens of questions you should ask both of yourself and of the employer before you even think about sitting down for an interview, but she says they really all are just preparation for answering the most important question of all: "How can I help this company reach its goals?"
Matt Proman, the founder of the National Association for Professional Women (yes, he's a man), takes a different, more introspective, tact when preparing for interviews. "The very first question to ask yourself is what are your motivations for taking the job," says Proman. "Once you can identify what your motivations are—money, stability, upward mobility—you're better equipped to do the research necessary to make sure that this company can help you meet your goals." [More from Forbes: Make social media your job-finding weapon]
To that end, once you've received that sought-after phone call from human resources and you've interviews inked into the day-planner, it's no time for relaxation. "Interviews are a key part of the hiring process," says Charles Purdy, senior editor for Monster.com. "A good resume gets you an interview. But a good interview gets you the job." Between making sure all goals are met—both yours and the companies—you've got your work cut out for you. Pat yourself on the back, the experts say, and then ask yourself the 10 most important questions that will help you get down to business and (ultimately) land you the job.
The vast majority of interview prep is about due diligence. Purdy says that the research that you do should inform your questions. "Keep in mind that an interview isn't just about the employer deciding whether you're right for the job," he says. "It's also about you deciding whether the employer is right for you." If your motivation is to land a position with stability, you want to educate yourself on where the company is headed in the next three to five years. "Check where the market's headed," Proman says, especially if the company is in the super-competitive tech landscape where businesses often go under or weather frequent acquisitions. "You want to make sure that if you're looking for a long-term position that this company has a future and is going to be there down the road." [More from Forbes: Turn a rejection into a job offer]
Bajic agrees that due diligence is key ("take advantage of the company website," she says) when testing whether a company is right for you, but when it comes to making sure you're right for the company, going above and beyond a Google search is essential. "The most important questions are often not about you but them," she says. "What are their goals? What are they trying to achieve? What are their weaknesses or challenges? The more you can understand those things, the better you can set yourself up for a successful interview." For this more insightful information, a visit to the company website won't cut it. Try for informational interviews with other employees in the company, or look for press mentions of interviews with key players on the team who have discussed strategies or corporate challenges.
"Ask yourself how you can quantify your experience," Bajic adds. "If you're asked about prior results in an interview and you aren't prepared, or ask to get back to them, you're at a disadvantage." She advises spending time scouring old emails and reports to be prepared with numbers to illustrate your results. [More from Forbes: The best and worst jobs of 2012]
To Bajic, asking these questions equip a job candidate to "connect the dots" between your specific skills and the company's specific needs for the interviewer, which doesn't just make his or her life easier, but increases your chances of moving forward in the interview process. "Connect those dots in your head prior to the interview so that you can connect the dots confidently when you get there."
But prior planning for Bajic isn't all focused on the positive. She stresses that one incredibly important question to ask yourself leading up to an interview is what your shortcomings are. Or, more specifically, she says "What objections might the interviewer have?" By thinking ahead and addressing those objections with an articulate and confident answer, you won't just keep from being caught off-guard, but be able to turn the conversation back to your strengths. "Say the potential position includes building an online community and you've only ever worked offline," she says. That might be an objection, but by preparing an answer on how that experience will translate online, you'll be equipped to field the question with poise. "Depending on the objection, you might want to bring it up yourself to keep control of the conversation," Bajic says, "But either way, having a prepared response is key."
For Proman, whose advice for preparation leans more toward the "me, me,me" side of things, due diligence and researching the potential employer requires looking for past employee experiences. Scour the web for references to the company and its human resources department in particular, he says. "A lot of bloggers will post their experiences with a company online, even if it's anonymous. It's a great way to backdoor your way into information on a company." [More from Forbes: 10 questions you'd better ask your boss]
Proman says another crucial question to ask is whether the company is currently—or has ever—been the defendant in any litigation. This is especially important to look for, he says, because a lawsuit can be an indicator of poor working conditions or an unethical corporation, "especially if it was a class-action suit organized by employees." A call to the attorney general's office will tell you if the company is currently subject to any investigations, another indicator of a less than squeaky-clean public record—and a potential red flag. Why is this so important? "If you accept a position with a company with a questionable past," says Proman, "That reputation can stick with you for as long as that company remains on your resume."
"What is the company's churn rate?" asks Proman. "See if you can find through public records or LinkedIn how many people have held this position prior to your interview." It's a lot more expensive for a company to hire a new employee than to retain an existing one, so employee turnover can be indicative of poor management—something you definitely want to know sooner than later.
But while much of Proman's advice leans more towards finding out whether the company is a good fit for you, he does concede that it's equally important to position yourself as the right candidate for the employer. "It's definitely a two-way street," he says. "You have to know what you're looking for as well as what they are to be confident in an interview setting," he says. "If you come in and are dancing around your experience and your knowledge of the company, the interviewer is certainly going to know."
"It's true," Bajic agrees. "So much about preparation is about a sense of inner peace and confidence in knowing you can address any issue that is thrown at you. If you feel comfortable, it shows." Add that confidence to a bit of luck, and it just might land you the job.