When the need or opportunity arises, you’ll want to be able to deliver a strong interview explains Shelagh Donnelly

How do you feel about job interviews? Perhaps you’re fulfilled and secure within your current role, and don’t anticipate any changes. Or you may find yourself on the other side of the interview table; you’re the one who does the shortlisting and questioning of candidates. Interviews are something to be undergone by others, not by you.

It could be that some of the assistants reading this actually are set for the rest of their careers, enjoying stimulating or otherwise dream jobs and working with principals who themselves have no intention of making any changes.

Situations change

It’s wise, though, to be prepared. Other factors also have the potential to impact your labour market. Independent of the Brexit-fraught UK, 2018 saw some challenging trade negotiations that represent risk to more than one economy. I’m writing from Vancouver, Canada, just north of the 49th parallel. On a low traffic day and with my NEXUS (trusted traveller) card in hand, I can drive from our home in Canada’s third largest city to the US in about 67 minutes. Even my fellow Canucks who live much further from the border have long been familiar with the adage that, “when the US sneezes, Canada catches a cold”.

There’s a parallel adage between China and Australia, where – as of mid-December – China’s slowing economic growth was a factor in the Australian stock market having declined by almost 16% in 2018. As of that point in time, the S&P/ASX 200 had reached a two-year low. The reality is that there are growing concerns about global economic health, and no corporate Kleenex can stop the sneezes that start in one country from spreading more broadly than they might have in past decades.

Then there’s artificial intelligence, also known as AI. Many of the assistants I interview and touch base with through my Weekend Polls are comfortable that AI won’t displace them. However, personal and corporate use of technology is on the rise. I’ve been speaking about AI and other elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0) at conferences for some time now. I believe that digital disruption will likely at least change some aspects of the assistant’s role. In an ideal scenario, it could imply recalibration of roles that generate new opportunities for which assistants may want to apply.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Just as AI may lead to traditional roles evolving to become more project management-focused or drawing on other strengths, peoples’ priorities shift. When I returned to an office environment once our two young ones were both in school, I chose to reboot my career more than a few rungs down the organisational chart from the role I’d held in my twenties. During the interview process, I needed to be able to convince interviewers that someone who’d worked with a COO just a few years earlier wasn’t intending to use their opening as a short-term stepping stone.

On the other hand, you may find that the job that has suited you so wonderfully for years one day isn’t as challenging or rewarding as you’d like. Your principal may move on and you may inherit someone who isn’t quite as good a fit. Or your organisation may evolve and grow, and there may be an appealing new internal opportunity, one that requires an interview process.

Whatever drives the decision, you want to be able to deliver a strong interview when the need or opportunity arises.

How well do you interview?

Some of us are very much at ease walking into an interview; be it a one-on-one meeting with a CEO or a five-person panel. Others consider interviews to be among the most daunting forms of torture, and their entry to an interview room can be a self-imposed gauntlet. Once inside, it may be only the candidate’s clenched grip on the arm of the chair that keeps her or him holding steady.

Some time ago, I coached an assistant who was firmly in the latter camp. Respecting her privacy, I’ll call her Jen rather than her actual name. Jen had good office skills and had built a reputation for being one of  the most reliable, helpful people in her office. She worked for a major employer and had garnered a series of temporary appointments. Given the temporary nature of these requirements, HR didn’t typically require interviews after an individual’s first short-term placement.

Despite all Jen’s attributes, she’d consistently failed to secure anything other than temporary positions within the organisation. She’d applied and interviewed for ongoing positions but came away from each interview without a job offer. Jen very much needed both the benefits package and the confidence that came with the success of landing a full time, “permanent” position.

Finally, after being shortlisted, interviewed and rejected yet one more time, she was open to some supportive coaching.

Speak for yourself

With a specific job opportunity in sight, a couple of us arranged to have informal get-togethers with Jen. We reviewed the job description and developed some interview questions of our own. I asked Jen to provide us her resume, review the job description and prepare herself for a faux interview.

A few days later, the three of us gathered around a table and two of us took turns asking Jen logical interview questions. It soon became clear that, rather than focusing on the questions we posed, Jen was relying on her resume to speak to her skills and attributes. Her discomfort with the situation was evidenced in the way she prefaced her responses with, “Um … “, or inserted phrases such as “Like …” or “You know …”

During our faux interview, we asked Jen about her educational qualifications relative to the role. That was a typical interview question with this employer. It was disappointing, then, to hear Jen talk for two or three minutes about her professional development (PD) and say nothing about her education.

While it was good to know about Jen’s PD (which was a subsequent question we’d drafted), she had missed the point. She was applying for a job in which interviewers were locked in to a system. In the interest of fairness, they had to treat all candidates consistently and allocate points based on candidates’ responses to each interview question. Even though Jen met the educational qualifications for the job, interviewers would not be able to assign points if she didn’t articulate the information during the interview.

Even if Jen hadn’t been interviewing in a point allocation environment, her response to the question would fail to impress a recruiter. It could imply that she either wasn’t a good listener, or that she could be thrown by simple questions.

The takeaway? However effective your CV or LinkedIn profile may have been in securing an interview, you need to treat that as the extent of their purpose: getting your foot in the door. When you’re faced with questions, you need to do the talking.

Roll up your sleeves

We gently offered Jen good news along with constructive critiques of her weak points. We’d identified opportunities to help her improve. All that was required was good old-fashioned hard work. These principles, which we recommended to Jen, apply to in-person and web or telephone interviews.


Read and analyse the job description or posting. Understand the position, the desired and required competencies, and map out how you bring those attributes to the table. Write this information out, and practice making such statements until you’re comfortable offering them without referring to notes.


Anticipate behavioural questions; the recruiter needs to know how you have handled circumstances that may arise in the position for which they’re recruiting.

Build your confidence

Do all you can to support your confidence before you walk into the interview. Research not only the job, but the people, department / division and the organisation. When you’re invited to an interview, ask if it’s appropriate to secure the names of the interviewer or interview panel. Then, learn what you can about these individuals’ professional roles in relation to the position you’re seeking. The more you know, the more comfortable you can be.

Develop questions you will ask 

Beyond identifying the questions you think you may be asked, consider that you will have the opportunity to ask some questions of your own. This portion of the interview, usually toward the close of your meeting, is your additional opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Find a Lesley

Emulate the best, while never losing sight of yourself. This goes to my early days, when I identified someone I recognised as a true professional. I observed her ways of conducting business, how she dressed, and how she treated people from all levels of the organisation. I admired the fact that she was business-like and treated everyone with the same level of respect. Lesley was, to me, the consummate professional and she still represents a standard of excellence in my eyes.

The fact that she was the President’s right hand was secondary to my impressions; it was her efficient, effective ways and her approach to people that I admired. Whether you’re interviewing for a new opportunity or striving to enhance performance in the role you now hold, you’d do well to find your own “Lesley”. Identify an assistant or two whose professionalism you admire, and their qualities. Then, assess whether you might do well to adopt or drop some habits to elevate your performance.

When you head into your interview, be yourself but imagine your Lesley by your side, encouraging you to acquit yourself professionally and effectively.

Talk to the mirror

Nothing beats good old-fashioned hard work and practice. If you’re not prepared to invest effort in researching the position, the organisation, the people and their needs, why would you expect them to invest in you?

I encourage even the most poised among us to talk to the mirror. This goes back to Jen. After our first faux interview, we scheduled a couple more. Each time, I encouraged Jen to go home and practice talking to the interview panel … in front of her mirror. The point was for Jen to see herself as interviewers perceived her. My premise was that, in order for her to expect an interview panel to accept and want to hire her, she should first be able to face and accept herself as a candidate.

Jen struggled desperately with this the first few tries. She was a busy mother of teens, and she wound up resorting to locking herself in her bathroom with a list of anticipated interview questions and some responses she’d written down.

Jen sometimes broke into giggles in front of her medicine cabinet. Initially, hearing their mum talk and giggle in the bathroom, her kids wondered if their mum was quite all there. They became accustomed to it, as did Jen. Other times, she’d mentally beat herself up for inappropriate grammar or responses. After three weeks, though, she made it past a hurdle she’d never previously cleared. Jen faced her interview panel with a better sense of preparedness and confidence than any she’d brought to any other interview … and she landed an ongoing job with full benefits.

Interview Day

Just as I’d encouraged Jen, I suggest that you focus on the opportunity and not on any nerves that may get in your way.

Dress the part

Confidence also comes from sorting out well in advance what you will wear to the interview. You needn’t break the bank to buy a new outfit. You do want to ensure that everything is clean and pressed, and that your attire is appropriate for the position you hope to land. If uncertain, scope out the office; how do the people you hope to join present themselves? How does your “Lesley” dress?

Less is more

While I love perfumes, scents can distract from the process – and many workplaces now have scent-free policies.

Arrive prepared and listen carefully

I’ve interviewed my fair share of assistants during my career and think that this may be among the most significant issue for some candidates. Like Jen, they focus on (or misinterpret) a couple of words in a question and launch into a response that’s unrelated to the actual question.

Bring a pen and paper to the interview; ask near the outset if you may jot down thoughts during the interview. If permitted, this may help you focus your responses on the questions at hand. Then, listen to the questions being asked. If you’re uncertain about something, paraphrase the question or ask the interviewer to repeat the question.


Acknowledge that, while you may be excited, nervous and hopeful, it’s not all about you. Have some empathy for the busy people who are investing time in their search for the right assistant. They didn’t invite you to the interview to intimidate you, or make you break out in a cold sweat. These people have a need they’re seeking to fill, and the sheer time involved in vetting and interviewing likely means they’re sacrificing other business needs in order to get this right. Thats their focus.

Don’t rely on your resume/CV to speak for you

This is another area where candidates can fall down. It’s also easy to resolve. Remember that the interviewer or panel needs to hear you articulate why you’re the right person for the role. In some environments, they cannot assign you points/credit for your education, PD, skills or experience if you don’t speak to them during the interview. Keeping this single point in mind can dramatically improve interview success.

Avoid rambling

Focus on the question at hand and then answer it. Strike a healthy balance between providing terse “yes” or “no” responses and telling your life story. If in doubt, ask the interviewer if you’ve captured what s/he was seeking, or if s/he would like you to expand on your answer.

Grammar tells a story

It tells a story about you. While some workplaces are less formal than others, consider your use of language; there’s no place for slang in an interview and you want to display good grammar. Practice your responses and check yourself for the use of “um”, “like”,“me and …”, “you guys”, or “you know”. Then sort out a way to eliminate such language from your interview vocabulary.

It’s up to you. Do your homework, find a mirror, and then go shine in that interview.

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A compelling speaker, trainer and thought leader, Shelagh (think “Sheila”) Donnelly lives in Vancouver, Canada. She walked your walk for almost three decades, and is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. Shelagh brings her authentic, positive and ... (Read More)

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