Four Contrarian Interviewing Tips From Executive Recruiters

May, 2017

Athlete running in the city wrong way

I heard over two hundred executive recruiter presentations during my two decades as an executive career transition coach at Right Management. Each month recruiters described their process and preferences. They shared why some job candidates advanced and others did not. I always appreciated the times they offered less obvious and even contrarian advice. In this blog, I’ll share four of my favorite contrarian suggestions.

1) Don’t spend too much time preparing.

Everyone attending our recruiter presentations was in a career transition, so comparing themselves with employed candidates was a common concern. Recruiters suggested that, while candidates should always be well prepared for an interview, their employed competition would rarely have the time to prepare as thoroughly as they could.

Candidates busy with their jobs, or with a broadly diversified job campaign, will inevitably have less time to research the details of a target company, industry and job. The consistent advice from recruiters was to do sufficient research and preparation, but spread yourself out. Explore many opportunities, and stay diversified in your networking and research. Don’t become myopic or obsessive about any one opportunity, and you’ll look and sound more like your employed competition.

2) Be discerning and not too positive during the interview.

Remember that if you are unemployed, or unhappily employed, you are vulnerable to being too positive about what looks like a solution to your employment situation. Prospective employers can sense when you are too positive and not discerning enough about an opportunity. The majority of your competition may be successful leaders who already have a good job. They will not relinquish that job unless the prospective employer can convince them the opportunity is an improvement to their current situation.

Recruiters and employers need to know that you are taking an objective look at both the job opportunity and their company. If you avoid discernment questions, or only see the positive, they will wonder why you are not sufficiently balanced in your assessment of them. Be diplomatic and lean toward the positive, but guard against being too positive or avoiding discernment. Do this and you will be seen as a more trustworthy candidate.

3) Take your eye off the ball.

One of my favorite tips comes from Marcia Ballinger, a highly regarded executive recruiter. She suggests that job candidates schedule a networking meeting one or two hours after the anticipated conclusion of a job interview. With an unrelated commitment later that day you will not be focused only on the job interview as your sole priority for that day or week.

It is common for job candidates to pour their entire energy supply and focus into one opportunity, especially while in transition or unhappily employed. If there are other meetings scheduled after the interview, then it forces one to act similarly to one’s employed competition.

4) Pursue a different opportunity

Recruiters will often ask, “Do you have any other opportunities right now?” If you do, your stock value will likely rise, and there is greater urgency to make sure they don’t lose you as a candidate. If you, or other candidates, don’t have other opportunities in the works, the process can easily bog down, as competing organizational priorities push the focus on a job opening aside.

Even if other opportunities might not make your “A” list, it is wise to still develop them for leverage purposes, interviewing practice, and because they might become more attractive over time. In the end, you can always turn an opportunity down at any time if it doesn’t look like a good fit.


If you are either unemployed, or unhappily employed, remember that most of your top competitors for future jobs will be employed, strong leaders. What can you learn from them? They have to juggle many competing priorities in their life and work. They can’t risk focusing too much time and energy on something that will take them away from other pressing priorities.

They know that they have the option to keep doing what they are doing, or seek advancement within their current company rather than take on a new opportunity. They also have the option of playing hard to get.

Consider that your competition may seem more authentic and attractive because they are moving in this direction. Could being less prepared, more discerning, less positive, or less singularly focused be a more effective strategy? Consider these “contrarian” ways. You might get some surprising results at your next job interview!