Get to know the job well

There’s only one interview technique that matters... Do your homework so you can listen to the answers and react to them and ask follow-ups. Do your homework, prepare.
— Jim Lehrer

My first leadership experience was the most unusual, most unexpected and most fleeting management role that I ever held. When I was a high school senior, I was asked if I could provide supervision in a kosher restaurant in Manhattan on Saturday nights. I didn't live too far from the place and wanted to earn some extra cash, so I agreed. The position, I was told, included oversight in the kitchen, and, because I could be in and out, manning the cash register.

The first night was going pretty smoothly. It took me a short while to learn the inner workings of the establishment's kitchen and how to operate the register. Not bad, I thought, for $10 an hour. But then, the head waiter told me that I had a phone call.

"Is this the manager?" asked the woman on the line. "Manager?" I thought. I hesitated, thinking that he had called the wrong person to the phone. I asked her to hold and went back to the head waiter. He explained to me that every kosher supervisor who works in that restaurant is also the manager, so yes; I was the right one to answer. I picked the phone back up. The woman, by now confused and a bit annoyed, asked incredulously, "are you sure that you're the manager?" With the confidence of a censored child I meekly replied to the affirmative. Let's just say that I've had better leadership moments than that one.

* * * * *

Most leaders assume their positions with a superior understanding of their job responsibilities than I did. But I have found that quite a few only know the general parameters of what they need to do. This may be because they received little mentoring, a vague job description, competing sets of marching orders, or a combination thereof. Additionally, so many responsibilities seem to evolve over time or to appear mysteriously on the leader's lap, oftentimes because there is no one else to do these tasks or they don't know how to delegate them (more about that later).

It is really important for new leaders to understand their roles and expectations before they sign up. Minimally, they need to be aware of what is expected of them before they get started, so that they can work with clear vision and purpose from the outset. Not only will this help you once you get the job, but it can often assist you in securing it as well.

It is important to remember that employers take note of candidates that are well informed about the job responsibilities as well as the company itself. This demonstrates that you made the decision to apply for the job after considering the facts, rather than just out of desperation for a job. Assume that the interviewer will ask you what attracted you to her company. Study up on such information so that you can respond with an educated answer, such as how the company's mission really resonates with you.

What can leaders do to ensure that they operate will maximal clarity and that their job turns out to be the one that they signed up for rather than the occupation that it evolves into? The following strategies can help.

  • Review the job description thoroughly before applying - In most cases, detailed job descriptions are available to potential applicants. Review the core job expectations and ask yourself if you are comfortable with everything that is listed. If not, make a note to explore those areas in particular during the interview to see if the job is really for you.
  • Fill in the blanks - As you review the description, try to keep in mind the other leadership tasks that were not included. For example, a posting for a Chief Operations Officer listing may include a wide range of responsibilities, but make no mention of fundraising, public relations and the like. Do your homework to determine if these tasks are being handled by others or if this will also fall under your jurisdiction.
  • Seek to understand the company structure - Try to find out where you will sit in the chain of command. Is there a board of directors? What about a corporate headquarters? How does the corporate face differ from the regional face or from the retail face?
  • Study the bigger picture - Visit the company's website and learn as much as you can about it. Find out what they do and where they do it. Learn more about their corporate location and structure. Find out such details as how many people the company employs and if the company has gone public. Google them and see what is being reported in the media. Read their blog and see what they are writing about. Visit their social media pages and read the posts and comments.
  • Look at the mission statement - While on the website click on the "About Us" tab. See if there is a posted mission statement or some other statement of purpose or values. This will tell you about what the company prides itself in, places its emphasis, and sees itself as being unique among its competitors. These may include transparency, environmental sustainability or superior customer service. As you consider applying, use this knowledge to determine how your values and objectives line up with theirs.
  • Who do you know? - See if there is someone in the company that you know that may have some inside information about the position, the organizational culture, and the like. If nobody comes to mind, search your contact lists and professional connections to see who does or did work there. Perhaps you know someone who does business with them, or would have other reason to be intimately familiar with the company.
  • Gauge flexibility options - Will this position offer budgetary and staffing flexibility in the event of change, such as shifting market trends, new technologies or other unforeseen demands? This is important to ensure that the leader does not get saddled with unwanted and misplaced tasks.
  • Make it contractual - When the contract arrives, make sure that it clearly details what you are responsible to achieve. This will help you focus your energies from day one. Another benefit is that it will allow for clearer feedback as well as an easier, more accurate and useful evaluation process. Lastly, it will cover you in case others' expectations of you change over time without your input or consent.
  • Define success - Success in the role should be defined in advance. For example, branch leaders in a multinational corporation need to know whether their success will be measured by the effective execution of existing strategies established in corporate headquarters or if they are being asked to build the business in their respective market as they see fit. School leaders should be clear as to whether their success will be measured first by improving student academic performance or addressing some other area of school function.
  • Set a time-frame - It is important to come to some form of agreement on the pace of transition and / or implementation. The ideal situation for new leaders is to spend several months getting to know the organization, building relationships and learning the business. However, that is oftentimes not an option. Regardless, work to set a clear timetable that will help you plan effectively and deliver on schedule.

Oftentimes, prospective leaders fail to go through all or part of this process, either because they are not aware of its benefits or they fear that too much insistence will jeopardize their candidacy. While this is understandable, it is the responsibility of a job seeker to do his due diligence and determine whether the new possibility really offer a good fit. If he fails to do so, he may get saddled with tasks that are onerous, unrealistic, and not what he signed up for.

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