How to Land (and crush) Any Interview, Ever

Standing out is easier said than done.

Standing out is easier said than done.

By: D.J. Podgorny, @DJPodgorny

In my senior year of college, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Illinois Sports Business Conference at my university. It was an amazing day filled with tons of valuable insights from industry leaders and innovators. But, of all the sessions that I attended that day, one in particular stood out.

This session, towards the end of the day, was given by a charismatic, well-dressed baseball agent. James Reid ("J.R."), of the Ballengee Group, addressed the audience in one of the most engaging speeches I have ever witnessed. The topic of the day: personal branding.

Dating back to my days in management consulting, I had always found “personal branding” to be corporate jargon, held in the same league as “networking” and “synergy”. Needless to say, I was cynical and hesitant about attending this particular talk. To make matters worse, my phone was blowing up with texts from all of my friends at happy hour (the event was held on a Friday).

Reluctantly, I sank into my seat, deciding that I would give this man a few minutes of my time. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.

For the next half hour, I followed Reid on an incredible journey. He spoke of the four bases of personal branding, using a baseball diamond as an analogy to drive home some incredible points. He called on audience members to illustrate uniquely valuable points. Most importantly, he elucidated an important mental shift.

Reid spoke of the importance of displacing the “breaking into” mindset in the sports industry. He reiterated that so many young professionals are desperately trying to “break into” sports that they often sell themselves short and lack confidence. Instead, he recommended focusing on what you have to offer, to have confidence in what you can do and have a clear story that communicates this.

In short, you need to behave like you belong, not that you are an outsider trying to sneak your way in.

In the past year and a half since that talk, this perspective has shaped everything I do professionally, both inside and outside of the sports industry. Today, I want to share an example of the tactics behind this principle that will enable you to stand out, head and shoulders above your peers, at a career fair or any other online job application.

Before I begin, it is important to reiterate the principles behind this. In order to stand out, you have to do the opposite of your competition. In most cases, your opposition will be looking to take value from the employer. They will want to take their most precious resource: their time to interview them and, ultimately, the position at the company.

By shifting your mindset to that of someone that already belongs, you are in a position to add value to that organization immediately. Instead of wasting their time pitifully trying to promote yourself, you are making use of the time to show them ways they can grow or improve their business. You will be giving them exponentially more than you take and they expect. This is how you escape the hyper-competitive world of resume dropping and elevator pitches. This is how you stand out.

“All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” - Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Now that we have the foundation built, let’s get into the tactics of standing out in the job marketplace. I think the best way to break this down is in a five step process.

Research the role you’re applying for extensively

Before you head to the career fair or fill out the online application, you need to know the role you’re applying for, inside and out. You need to memorize the expectations, responsibilities, duties, and required experiences. This will serve as your framework for ideation of ways to add value.

In addition to the role specifically, it is of utmost importance to research the company, league, or team that you are applying for. What is the history of the organization? What are the core values and culture? Understanding this will help you better determine if you are a fit for that particular employer and, if so, help you identify the particular strengths you will want to highlight throughout the process.

Develop and log thoughtful ideas for the position

Once you have a strong hold on what the role you’re applying for would expect of you, it is now time to generate a laundry list of ideas. This brainstorming should be focused on specific projects that fit into that position’s set of responsibilities and would positively affect your prospective department. Create as many ideas as you can, then filter the list down to the best 5-10.

For example, if you were applying to be an inside sales representative for an NFL team, one component of your list could be a sample script that you would use when on the phone with leads or a list of targets that you would contact, with reasoning behind each. If you were looking to become a social media manager of an NBA team, it may be helpful to highlight a few ideas for content strategy across the multiple platforms the team uses.

The cumulation doesn’t necessarily have to be amazing or industry-changing. A list of well thought out, useful ideas will suffice. Remember, the goal here is to stand out and add value. By creating this list you will be doing something virtually none of your peers will be doing, while also showing the employer that you belong and are ready to hit the ground running.

Polish your resume, cover letter, and elevator pitch

The unfortunate reality still remains: the traditional application materials are not going anywhere anytime soon. This means there are still rules to the game, and you must abide by them to stay in the running. Use your knowledge of the company and required skills for the position to cater your image and strengths to align as best as possible throughout all correspondences. Ensure that there is one, strong, cohesive story being told throughout the entire process.

Apply or attend the career fair

The next part is straightforward. If the company you’re applying for is attending your career fair, throw your suit on, and go meet them. Be prepared with a well-formatted copy of the list of ideas*, as well as the traditional application materials (resumes, cover letters, etc). When you’re meeting the recruiters or hiring managers be sure to ask thoughtful questions. This  is an opportunity to show how much research you have done about the role and organization. As you are leaving, be sure to give them your list of ideas and use it as a chance to continue to show your interest.

If you are applying online, continue through the normal application process. Answer any specific questions and complete all forms as required. When the application prompts you to upload your resume and cover letter, attach the formatted list of ideas as well. In this case, it may be beneficial to also include a paragraph explaining why you put the list together and how the company can use them, as you will not be able to explain verbally.

When you get the interview: be prepared to elaborate

Chances are, if you land the interview, the interviewer will be interested or intrigued by your collection of thoughts. At this point, you will already have a leg up on the competition. To land the knock-out punch, you must show up to the interview with a list of next steps associated with the concepts you illustrated. Ideally, you should come prepared with a detailed list of things that you would do to implement each and every idea, but with time constraints, this may not be possible. I recommend coming prepared with a granular plan of execution for at least three of your top ideas and a general idea for the remainder.

There is also the chance that the interviewer knows nothing about your list either, so you should come prepared for that as well. In order to do so, it would be wise to print out a copy or two of your original list, as well as the new detailed list, to share with your interviewer. This will cover all of your bases and help make you extremely confident going into your important meeting.

If you follow the above steps, you should be in an excellent position to receive both an interview and a job offer. Once again, this whole approach is rooted in the fundamentals of behaving like you belong. By thinking innovatively and providing value directly to the organization, without being asked, it also shows you are a proactive self-starter that they can count on to solve problems.

Example

To showcase this concept at work, I will explore the Manager of Digital & Media Partnerships listing for the Cleveland Browns found here.

Research

Based on the job listing and a small amount of research, here are some things key takeaways:

  • Heavy emphasis on digital and media platforms
  • A focus on relationship building and collaboration
  • Securing new media advertisers
  • Provide digital advertising thought-leadership
  • Delivered in a first-class manner
  • Team slogan is “Expect to Win” in 2016
  • One of the NFL’s oldest franchises; strong local fanbase
  • Strong focus on community involvement as of late
  • Recent hires of analytics-heavy front office execs

Create a list of ideas

  1. Potential partners to form or develop relationship with:
    1. CVS Pharmacy
      1. Slogan is “Expect something extra”: could create parallels to team’s slogan of “Expect to win”
      2.  Involved in partnership with Cleveland Clinic and greater community overall
    2. Mattel Inc
      1. Mission is “to make a difference in the global community by effectively serving children in need”
      2.  Strong opportunity for involvement with First and Ten initiative
    3. Dunkin Donuts
      1.  Extremely loyal customers, serves blue collar community
      2. Parallels nicely with Dawg Pound and loyal fan base
    4. Proctor & Gamble
      1. Donated $5M to youth sports in 2012; aligns with Browns youth football initiatives
      2.  Have several large facilities within Ohio
    5. Target
      1. Spent nearly $1B on educational spending in 2015
      2. Aligns with Back to School and Ginn Academy campaigns
  2. Digital and social media content strategy ideas:
    1.  Snapchat player takeovers/day-in-the-life
    2.  Player/coach Periscope or Facebook Live Q&A with fans; questions sourced through Twitter, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc
    3.  Snapchat behind the scenes in the locker room, sidelines, press box, practice, etc
    4.  Merchandise giveaways through social media (trivia, contests, raffles, etc)
    5. Exclusive news reports and player features
  3. Ways to incorporate and monetize sponsorship into social media content
    1. Product placements (e.g., sports nutrition products, restaurants, cars or driving services, etc)
    2. Feature special filters on videos and photos containing custom art and logos from sponsors
    3. Sponsor product giveaways (e.g., gift cards, coupons, merchandise, etc)
    4. Naming rights sponsorships (“brought to you by”)
  4.  To develop thought leadership:
    1. Attend:
      1. Social Media Strategies Summit in Chicago
      2. Mobile X Fest in Atlanta
      3.  Social Media Marketing at MIT Sports Analytics Conference
    2. Develop whitepapers and webinars on:
      1. Social media content strategies and ideation
      2. Analytics behind media and correlations to revenue
      3.  Successful partnerships and media

The remaining three steps are significantly more difficult to illustrate through this article, so I will just provide a high-level summary.

For my resume, I would be sure to include a bullet point for each of my prior experiences that focused on sales, relationship building, presentations, content generation, or media management. I would draft a cover letter that highlighted the strongest two or three experiences I had in these areas and correlate them directly to the requirements or expectations presented.

Additionally, I would format this list of ideas in a similar manner to that of my resume and print it on the same type of paper, if I were mailing this application or attending the career fair. I would then peruse LinkedIn to research the potential hiring managers for this role to gain a better understanding of who might be interviewing me. Depending on the role or the manager, it may also be valuable to connect with them to learn more about their experience in that department and company overall. However, this must be done carefully and tactfully, as to not annoy them.

Finally, if I were to receive an interview for this position, I would create a more detailed roadmap behind 3-4 of the ideas I listed above. For instance, I may create a six month plan to develop partnerships with CVS or Target. Additionally, I would identify players and coaches that would be excellent for Snapchat takeovers, as well as a handful of sponsors that could be interested in partnering on the initiatives. I would also make sure these roadmaps were well-formatted and ready to share on the date of my interview (or perhaps sent out digitally prior).

All in all, this is my method for adding value, acting like you belong, and standing out. Some may argue that this is a waste of time and a practice that gives away good ideas for free. While I can see the merit behind this, I would argue that perspective is extremely short-sighted. Even if you don’t get the interview or the job by utilizing this method, you will still be noticed by the employer - ideally, on the shortlisted for the next opportunity - and will be building your idea generation muscle.

As Claudia Azula Altucher said in her book, Become An Idea Machine:

“Ideas are the currency of life. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke. But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth is a side effect of the ‘runner’s high’ of your idea muscle.”

*It is a good idea to have your name somewhere on the list of ideas, in the event that the papers get shuffled during the day and they can’t remember who gave it to them.

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