January 21, 2019

The Accountant’s Definitive Guide to Interviews, Part One

Continuing in efforts to best prepare you for your next job (maybe one you’ll land through GC Jobs) I wanted talk about interviewing.

By this point you have a nice polished resume and well worded cover letter. You networked your ass off (or called back one of the 15 recruiters that calls you every week) and landed an interview with a great company. Now it’s time to get down to the essentials necessary to succeed at the interview. Today we’ll touch on everything you need to do beforehand. We’ll touch on Game Day essentials in Part Two.

Starting with…

Know the Company and the Industry
My motto has always been that first-round interviews are very much like first dates. Each party knows a few things about the other and are open to meeting face to face to learn more. Just like on a date, it’s important to know both the company and the individuals you will be meeting. 
 
Individuals:
It is 100% acceptable to ask who you will be meeting with. If you earned the interview on your own, ask the HR contact if they know who you will be meeting with and how much time you need to budget for the interview.
 
If you are using a recruiter, ask them for details. Do your own poking around on LinkedIn as well — maybe the Controller went to the same university as you; maybe the HR Director is also part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Maybe the CFO’s previous stint was at one of your clients. These little connections can come in handy.
 
The Company:
This can be tricky. It is likely that the company is well established which means a trusty Google search is a good place to start. Begin with going through the company’s website and their social media verticals. Pop over to Google News and do a quick search and go back at least six months into their dealings. See any major red flags? See any star-studded, gold-plated news? Take notes. If they’re publicly traded, breeze through their recent filings on the SEC website
 
What if they’re a small company or a super secretive hedgie? Dig up what you can. Ask your recruiter for as much information as they have. Also, set up a Google Alert for the company. It takes two minutes to do and will send you a list of articles to review at your leisure. 
 
The Industry:
Take your research one step further and brush up on the company’s industry. It’s likely that the industry they’re in is also one that you’ve worked around during your time in public, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. That said, knowing a few anecdotes about the industry can bode well in an interview. For example, if you were interviewing at Google you should be well read on topics like PRISM (!!!) and something more positive, like tablet usage skyrocketing in the last year. Thinking about a career at Monsanto? Better read up on the newest wheat scandal. Not interviewing at Monsanto? *High Five*
 
Next page: Come heavy (with questions) or don't come at all.
Know Your Questions
Not having questions prepared for the end of the interview can be a complete deal breaker. Why? Because people are sensitive. Your interviewer wants you to ask about their company. “But I’ve wanted to work for the company for years and I read every article that comes through on my (creepily stalk-ish) Google Alerts I have set up about their company.” That’s great and all, but Google doesn’t know everything…yet. Asking questions about the company is important for two reasons: 1) It is a way of showing you’re interested and 2) You can find out information that you can use to bolster your candidacy.
 
Here are a sample of questions that — if you ask correctly — will allow you to leverage off of your skillset and general interests:
  • You mentioned you started in public accounting as well. Do you have any advice for someone looking to make the transition from public to private? DB: You are finding common ground with your interviewer.
  • What is the culture/work environment like here?" DB: You are moving beyond the Xs and Os of the job and trying to understand if you’d be a good fit for them. 
  • You mentioned that this role has been open for some time. Have you seen any challenges in filling the position? That is, what's the skillset you’re looking for? DB: This is a professional way to ask why the hell it’s taking the company 14 months to fill a controller position. 
  • This position reports directly to you. How can the person hired for this position really add value on day one? DB: They will likely ramble off a few things they’re looking for in the hire. When they’re finished, grab one and talk about how you have developed the trait for yourself.
  • The job description is very detailed, which is great. But how do you see this role developing over the long term, a year or two from now?" DB: You want to make it clear that you are looking for a long term fit; no better way to do that than asking about long term career trajectories. 
  • You mentioned that you have been with the company for twelve years. That’s great. What has kept you excited and energized about working here? DB: Again, you’re asking about the long term. 

Next page: You've got all (or at least some) of the answers.

Know Your Answers
With every interview you take, you will inevitably be asked questions that seem like a waste of time — they’re not. Leverage off the bland questions and talk positively (but humbly!) about yourself. Be prepared. Nothing sucks the life out of the room like someone stumbling over one of the basics.

Study up, seriously:
  • Tell me a bit about yourself. — This shouldn’t be a long answer. If you are interviewing for your first job out of public, touch on where you went to school (e.g. University of Virginia), where you started your career (e.g. PwC) and a bit about your time there. Transition your brief story with a line about why you are looking outside of your firm now, keeping things positive. “I’m looking to transition to a new and rewarding challenge” sounds better than “If I do one more busy season I’ll end up addicted to Adderall and Xanax.”
  • What are your major clients? — It is okay to speak about your clients in an interview. They are your calling cards, your body of work, etc. You should be proud about leading the team on a multi-million dollar engagement. Speak more generally about a client if you are discussing a specific issue relevant to the conversation. 
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? — Cliche yes, but you’ll be asked this at some point. My advice is also cliche but well researched — do your best to make your “negatives” be also positive. “I have a tendency to review my work in great detail, maybe taking time from other projects.” Stay away from brutal truths like, “I keep my staff late even when they don’t need to be at the office.”
  • Why are you interested in working here?  — Stroke their ego and touch on the intangibles — long term growth, the culture, the industry, etc. Use broad strokes in order to hit on personal nerve that they’ll relate to.
  • Give me an example of a time when you were faced with a difficult decision. (or) Tell me about a time when you were wrong and how you faced the issue. — There’s a difference between showing humility and being a total screw up. Walk the line carefully. 

Up next: Final planning

Grab Bag
  • Always ask how much time to budget for the first round of interviews — Then add 30 minutes. 
  • Know where you are going — Confirm the address and add time for commuting. A major pile-up on I-95 is bound to happen the day of your interview. 
  • Using a recruiter? Press them for previous candidate feedback. A good recruiter will prep you well for your interview, but sometimes you need to ask. They will know questions that were asked in interviews or curve balls you should expect to be thrown your way.
 
Have you been on an interview recently where you were asked an odd-ball question? Have any pre-interview tips? Share your stories in the comments below and stay tuned for Part Two of our guide. 

Related articles

accounting vs advisory

3 Reasons Why Accountants Should Move to an Advisory Job

Today’s businesses are increasingly looking to their accounting firms for services beyond accounting, auditing, and compliance. They want a true advisor—someone to help guide their financial future and evaluate all different types of transactions. This has created an opportunity for today’s accountants, one that some will find alluring, provocative, and potentially lucrative. But for many, […]