Always on the Interview

Always on the Interview

You never know when a job might find you. Here’s how to be ready to show your worth at a moment’s notice

What if every encounter you had throughout the day could morph into a job interview? Would you present yourself differently? Have an elevator pitch on the tip of your tongue?

Consider the chance meeting between Ralph Lauren and the inspiration for his women’s clothing line. Virginia Witbeck was simply expressing her sense of style, as always, when Lauren spotted her at a New York restaurant. She had on a man’s jacket, corduroy pants and an old fur jacket she’d turned into a vest. Liking her look, Lauren hired her on the spot. Without so much as a job title when she first went to work for him, Witbeck went on to become a senior design director. Later, Calvin Klein came calling, and after eight years with him, she started her own design company.

The story of Witbeck’s discovery by fashion mogul Ralph Lauren, as told by Sydney Finkelstein in his book "Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent" (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016) is even more relevant today than when it happened in the 1970s. That’s because in today’s job market chances are even better that you’ll find work through informal channels and chance meetings as opposed to traditional job search methods and networking events.

It’s not just that hires are happening right on the spot, Finkelstein says, but positions are being created right in that moment to accommodate stumbled-upon talent. Successful, inspiring leaders – or "superbosses" – have a knack for "sniffing out talent in the craziest of places," he says. "You should always be on the lookout for opportunities. You just never know. That goes for both sides, for both the jobseeker and the talent scout."


Does that mean you should wear your interview suit out on errands? Of course not, but "you should be able to describe to anyone in the space of 15 to 20 seconds what’s special about you, what energizes you and what you have to offer," says Finkelstein, the Steven Roth Professor of Management in Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

Be prepared to market yourself "even if – especially if – you already have a job because that’s when you are most attractive to hiring managers," advises Laura Allen, founder of, her business of helping jobseekers and entrepreneurs hone their pitches. " Choose a niche that you can be known for – best at Excel, best at closing deals, best at understanding the complexities of real estate. Always have that niche and that pitch in mind."

Your pitch should be "short, to the point and all about what you want to do, not what you have done before," Allen says.

Even if a recent setback or layoff is the reason you’re in the market for a new job, Allen advises against referencing this turn of events. "No one wants to go near that. They don’t want the responsibility," she explains. "They probably have friends and relatives in the same boat and are more likely to spend their limited time and resources helping them."

However, people typically do want to help if you make them feel powerful rather than put-upon. That means being specific about how you can be helped. Instead of saying you are between jobs, summarize your experience and your goal. For example: "I have 15 years in financial services and I want to work at Merrill Lynch."

When your pitch hits the right ear, "you make them think, ‘I know someone at Merrill Lynch! I can help,’" Allen says.

Allen and Finkelstein agree it’s a mistake to "aggressively self-sell," as Finkelstein puts it.

"You can avoid this by being a good conversationalist," he says. "Ask about the other person first. Engage them. They will start to like you" and be more receptive to your pitch.


While it’s not necessary to dress to Ralph Lauren standards at all times, "you should think about having a personal brand" and present yourself accordingly, Finkelstein says. " Everything you say or do either clarifies that brand, helps it grow and supports it, or it doesn’t."

That furry vest of Witbeck’s? Her 1970s contemporaries would have called it her sense of style, but today we see it as personal branding.

Although opportunities arise in unlikely places these days, traditional networking events have not gone the way of ’70s couture. "People still work with people they know and trust, and the best way to get to know someone is face to face," says Allen, adding that consistency is key.

"Don’t join every club or attend every event. Pick two that you like and go consistently," she advises. "The point of all this – the pitch, your presence – is to be the person someone thinks of when an opportunity comes up. The best jobs are never listed."

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