It happens all the time—an employer makes a hiring decision that I don’t understand. I’m the one who set up the interviews, but the hiring manager can’t tell me the exact reasons why one candidate was hired and another turned down. They just can’t describe what it was that was so impressive. When pushed, their reasoning sounds really wishy-washy.
That missing piece is sometimes described as the “it” factor. A client will say, “Although Joe is a better fit technically for the role, I think that we need to hire Angela. She has it—you know, what we’re looking for.” This isn’t helpful. It just sounds like a vague, catch-all phrase, and I’m as much in the dark as I was before.
But, after 30 years as a recruiter, I’ve come to recognize some of the elements of the “it” factor—and how you can capitalize on them to optimize it for yourself.
Ingredients of the “it” factor
Now, I interview managers in great detail to determine what they consider the “it” factor. But even with such upfront efforts, clarity on these intangible qualities that lead to success can be fleeting. Senior staff members say things like, “Well, I don’t know how to put it, but I’d say that Candidate A would do better here because he’s clearly more open and willing to fit in. I’m sure I’d enjoy working with him.” Or, “I’d say that Candidate B has more interest in the role; perhaps presence or charisma best describes the difference in her interview.”
Presence? Charisma? Both are important, but they don’t really describe all of what “it” is.
Another challenge is that you can’t teach charisma. It seems to me that people either have it or they don’t. But certain elements of charisma can be practiced by anyone. You don’t need to have a “rah-rah” salesperson personality. You don’t need to go into an interview with practiced lines right out of books with titles like 100 Snappy Answers to Tough Interview Questions. Instead, you need to integrate certain elements of the charismatic personality, that interviewer with “presence,” into the way that you interview. When you break down the elements of what these hiring managers see that they like, it’s achievable—even for the introvert who is not naturally charismatic.
Here are four ingredients of the “it” factor that everyone, regardless of personality type, can and should bring to the job interview:
Confidence. Do your best to leave your anxiety at home and be comfortable. Don’t try to guess what question you’ll be asked next. Just listen well, maintain friendly eye contact with the interviewer, and provide responses that align with the general mission you’ve set out with for the day—that is, to be seen as a problem solver. Don’t fixate on being “right” with your answers. Just ensure you tie them into the company’s needs as best you can.
Passion. No one hires people who are in the business of science without a core passion for some aspect of that science. The “tell me about yourself” section of an interview is a great place to show how passionate you are about your science.
Enthusiasm. Tied to passion in many ways, enthusiasm needs to be real. When you talk about your thesis work, visibly convey your excitement about it. Your questions about the company and its focus should be accompanied by sincere enthusiasm and appreciation for the opportunity to interview.
Authenticity. This element can only be achieved when you have relieved yourself of anxiety. Sure, it’s an important day, so some anxiety will always exist in the background. But you’ll do far better if you’re a friendly version of yourself, not a nervous wreck. Remember that, as employers interview you, they are wondering, “What’s it like to work with this person on a daily basis?” You want to leave them with the feeling that it will be a comfortable fit, which you can only convey if you are true to your authentic self.
Harness your body language
Hitting all of these points might seem overwhelming, but you have a great tool at your disposal: your body. In a TED talk I really enjoyed, Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy describes how important body language is to our interpersonal relationships—and how it can impact job interviews. (It isn’t until considerably into the presentation that Cuddy discusses this aspect, so watch to the end.) Her research highlights how pre-interview exercises can help you feel at ease during an interview—a critical step toward achieving that elusive “it” factor.
Cuddy’s work suggests that the postures you assume prior to walking in a potential employer’s door actually affect your body’s biochemistry. What struck me as most interesting is that the “power poses” she recommends are not used during the interview itself, but in the moments before it begins. There’s been some discussion about whether these findings are robust, but regardless of whether you find her science overblown, it can’t hurt you to try it yourself. And for me personally, I believe in it for a very good reason: because I’ve used it for years and it works.
Before giving a talk to a large audience, I have always stretched and assumed my own power pose for a few minutes prior to walking onstage—from the restroom or outside the meeting hall, of course! Picture the kind of arms outstretched overhead victory pose you'd see from a runner at the end of a 100-meter dash. Until listening to Cuddy’s TED talk, I thought this was my own unique quirk and just the way my mental batteries recharged. Now, I realize that it could be based in my body’s biochemistry.
“[O]ur bodies change our minds. And our minds can change our behavior,” Cuddy says. “And our behavior can change our outcomes.”
Care less, win more
It’s tough to address topics like the “it” factor when the elements seem so intangible. But, if you focus on those items above before you go into the big day, you’ll do a much better interview than most.
Anxiety, in particular, is a job offer killer, so it’s critical to do what you can to keep it to a minimum. As an anxious person myself, I know that, for many people, it's nearly impossible to go into an important event like a job interview and not be concerned and anxious about the results. After all, interviewing and anxiety just seem to go hand in hand.
But there could be a solution to your anxiety: Care a bit less about the outcome. It may not sound right to you at first, because the interview is such an important element in your job search, but you’ll do better on the big day if you can shift your focus away from the end result and instead concentrate on making everyone around you comfortable. Concentrate on being authentic. Care just a bit less about winning, and more about being yourself and making others comfortable, and you’ll emerge with some of that all-important “it” factor—which just may land you the job.