Joining the 1% – What’s the secret ?

What really matters

There has been a fair amount of press coverage recently about ‘poshness’ and top jobs in law, management consultancy and investment banking. This makes for great headlines. For a more measured treatment of the subject, it’s worth reading “How to join the 1%” in the 16 May 2015 edition of the Economist.

The article refers to academic research by Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management on how top firms recruit. This resulted in a book : “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs”. The theme is that top firms are elitist, recruit in their own image, and that the cards are stacked against candidates who haven’t been lucky or privileged enough to attend the top universities. The Economist article makes the point that what really counts, more than background or privilege, is how you present at interview, and that one of the key ingredients is confidence.

Interviews in top institutions are often conducted by front line staff, for example partners and associates, and not by interview professionals. They will act like human beings, not like detached assessors in white coats. They’ll ask themselves ‘Can I put this candidate in front of my clients?’, or ‘What if I’m stuck with this person on a business trip?’ or ‘What would it be like to share an office with this person?’. Brains will count less than ‘smarts’, maturity, trust, common sense, reliability and whether the interviewers like the candidate, plain and simple.

Putting the chances on your side ?

  • First impressions count. The human mind has the ability to make judgments about 10 new faces in 1 second. Decisions are often made about a candidate, consciously or unconsciously, within 10 seconds. So dress smartly. Do breathing exercises and work on your body language (it’s worth looking at Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED Talk for some great body language tips). Practice those crucial first moments over and over : walking into the room, smiling, and looking the interviewers in the eye when you introduce yourself with a clear, confident voice.
  • Show you’re interested in them. Interviewers, like most of us, love it if you get them talking about themselves. A good way to do this is to ask knowledgeable questions about the firm and (if you happen to know who they are and can do research beforehand) about the people interviewing you. To ask the right questions from a position of knowledge, spend as much time as you can researching the organisation. Speak to at least two people employed by the organisation to get a feel for the firm’s culture and what it’s like to work there. And prepare your questions : a really good one to ask is : “What have you found most rewarding about your work here?”.
  • Show your curiosity. Understand the business and the world of business and current affairs. And, best of all, if there’s a particular thing that you’re passionate about, talk about it.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Prepare the questions, and practice the interview with friends, and in front of a mirror. It’s well worth investing in professional interview practice as well. This will give you feedback, which you can work on. Most interview questions are predictable – a classic example is the question about strengths and weaknesses, which tests your self-awareness. For other questions and preparing interviews generally, read the Interview Preparation Top Tips on the Interview Advantage ‘Help Yourself’ page
  • Work on your presentation skills. Getting your voice, modulation, tone and language (both verbal and body language) right will make a huge impact at interview. Presentation skills coaching is useful, not least to build confidence, and it is certainly worth it for that crucial first job interview. This is particularly true you’re naturally shy, reserved or diffident, as these qualities will count against you at interview. Just as for interview practice, a coach will give you feedback which you can work on, and that’s invaluable.
  • Listen. This seems like an odd one: we all listen, particularly in an interview. But there’s more to listening than just hearing. It’s a state of mind : it’s asking yourself : ‘What’s this person really saying or asking?’. It also helps to repeat some of the things the interviewer says back to them, for example by reformulating questions briefly. This has three benefits : it gives the impression that you’ve thought about and understood what’s being said and it gives you a chance to display your skills at ordering and summarizing thoughts. It also has a basic psychological effect : research shows that restaurant staff win larger tips just by repeating back customers’ orders (see van Barren et al. 2004 ‘Mimicry and Prosocial Behaviour

So, when it comes to interview, how you come across counts more than IQ or what’s on your CV. The good news is that with research, practice and coaching you can improve your chances immeasurably.


Photograph from previous page copyright Flazingo Photos