Coach, Help Me Out with This Interview

Experts offer advice on body language and image

Last year, Buck Baker came close to getting three job offers--but didn't get hired. Then a friend suggested that Baker, who had been laid off as head of marketing for a Milwaukee staffing agency, might be having trouble because of his communication style--not for any lack in his credentials. He advised Baker, then 47, to pay a few visits to Patricia Smith-Pierce, a Schaumburg (Ill.) executive coach, to hone his communication skills.

Baker did just that--and made some eye-opening discoveries. For example, Smith-Pierce showed him how his relaxed posture and habit of picking up anything within reach made him seem indecisive. So Baker practiced sitting more upright and keeping his hands at his sides. After two sessions and some phone consultations on this and other issues, he got a job as a management consultant for the Detroit office of Hewitt Associates. The cost of his sessions? $500. "It was worth every penny," says Baker.

In today's tough labor market, job hunters, even those with stellar backgrounds, need all the help they can get. More are seeking a makeover from executive coaches and image consultants, who charge $125 to $500 an hour to help clients create the impression they need to get hired.

Coaches will advise you on your body language as well as how to answer difficult questions, while image consultants will focus more on such things as etiquette to give you the desired polish. Both use techniques such as videotaping, audiotaping, and role playing. Coaches and consultants aren't licensed and come from various backgrounds, from human resources to counseling. To find one, the best method is word-of-mouth. Consider only advisers with at least three years' experience helping job-hunters. And ask for as many as 10 references to get a sense of their methods--and success rate.

BODY CUES. Coaches typically spend 8 to 10 sessions with a client. Most start with a one- to two-hour assessment. Often, coaches will ask for names of associates who can give insights. They may also ask clients to take a personality test. The early focus usually is on body language. That's because, as Baker discovered, such cues as how a job candidate holds himself can create more of an impression than what he says.

More often than not, most time is spent teaching clients how to assess communication styles--their own and especially that of interviewers. This is a critical skill, because people with one way of communicating are more at ease around others with the same approach. So a job-hunter needs to figure out the interviewer's style and conduct herself appropriately. That way, you create an environment in which the interviewer "can focus on the things that are important," says Smith-Pierce.

Cynthia Phillips, a regulatory affairs field director for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in Wilmington, Del., developed this skill three years ago. Phillips had been with Astra and was trying to get hired by the newly merged company. Her coach, Anne Warfield of Impression Management Professionals in Minneapolis, taught her clues for discerning communication styles. One type of communicator, the connector, likes to talk about personal matters and displays family photos in the office, while an analyzer, focused on content, skips the chitchat. To practice, Phillips did role-playing. Soon after, she had eight interviews for another job. Each time, she sized up the interviewer's style and adjusted her manner. She got the job and has since been promoted.

As for the nitty-gritty of how to answer questions, coaches often ask clients to list what they expect to be asked and prepare answers. Warfield focuses on key areas interviewers tend to cover, such as being a team player, and helps clients develop anecdotes that underscore the qualities they want to convey.

Some clients want the expertise of an image consultant as well. When W.L. (Trey) Crowdus, then a 41-year-old strategic marketing consultant in Austin, Tex., sought a CEO post three years ago, he had help from an executive coach and from Sherry Maysonave, an Austin image expert. Over six sessions, she worked on everything from Crowdus' clothing--his style was strictly T-shirt casual--to table manners. Within three months, Crowdus was hired as CEO of Ambiatech, an Austin environmental company, which he recently left for another company. In the interview game, coaches can take your play to a new level.

By Anne Field

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