I fell into the world of people and culture by accident.
It wasn’t my first choice, and I didn’t know how I’d navigate it. However, the very fact that I was a newcomer helped me break through a lot of would-should-could-must expectations on how we worked with people. I started questioning a lot of frameworks and processes as an employee first. There was no point playing a game of leverage, of one-upmanship while interviewing if we wanted someone to come and buy into our vision, our goals and our dreams. Why alienate someone you’re trying to bring into the fold?
When I started my current role at a Venture Capital fund, I rethought many aspects of how we make the first connection - interviews. On a weekly basis, I’m speaking with at least 10 people - even when we don’t have any open roles. I’m constantly having proactive meetings, explaining what careers in VC are like, learning about what candidates are looking for in the workplace of the future, and (more subtly) what they aren’t willing to do. The best experiences have been when candidates have turned the microphone around and made me feel like I was giving the interview! So I wanted to share some creative, and possibly disruptive, ways to approach the interviewing process if you’re looking to find a career ‘home’ for yourself, and how you can use more than the first 7 seconds to make a lasting impression. These are all things I’ve experimented with when I was looking for my next role, so they come with some proven results. My hope and wish for you is that the right company will recognise these as signs of diligence, commitment and thoughtfulness.
- Interview the company and the manager. Today, job searches are a two-way street. It’s as much about choosing the employer you want to commit to, as it is being chosen from a pool of candidates. One way to make sure you’re making the right choice is to ask for ref checks from previous employees who worked for them. Controversial? Not really! It’s just another form of due diligence - and an open workplace will encourage it. A great place to slip in this question is towards the end when you’re asked if you have any questions for them. If you’re in the final stages of an interview and speaking with your potential boss, it’s a great question to ask them for past employees who they think would be able to give a good sense of working with them, and what their management/leadership style would be, so that you can assess if it’s going to be a good fit for you as well.
- Ask for more money and offer to do more work. One of the best ways to negotiate a salary increase is to offer to add on additional responsibilities as you’re negotiating an offer. But don’t expect to be paid for two people’s work. There is honestly a lot of slack in companies and roles, and bringing more things under one roof invariably helps an employer, but also puts you off to a great start. That said, do it only if it’s aligned to your core role and offers you a chance for learning and future growth. You may need to get a little creative here and find out more about the company and team structure to propose an option - one tip that usually works is to try and understand the priorities of the person hiring you, and everything they need done that’s currently a gap for them.
- Find a job and industry that matches your pace of life. Weird to think about this, but it’s possible. Some people want the fast action, the daily hustle and the pressure of high targets. Some people want depth, learning, a drawn out time period where you can experiment and iterate. Make sure you choose the right industry as well - know the seasons of the year, know when are high and lows. Everything cannot be on all cylinders at once all the time. Venture Capital has longer feedback loops and takes longer to evaluate an employee’s performance, a consumer product company will have shorter, faster time frames. Content and Design may be cyclical. Finance may be a constant low hum. Try to pick the job to match the life you want to lead.
- Stalk, stalk and stalk again (legally!) There are zero excuses today for not researching a company and wowing the HR team, or the leaders you interview with. Speak to current employees, read content, speak with clients as well, if you can. You’re signing up for a big thing - don’t just take what is shown to you. Do some consumer feedback reviews if you’re speaking to a D2C brand, do a UI/UX review yourself if you’re speaking with a consumer tech/app co - share insights and feedback. It’s a good way to make a second impression after your quick first one.
- Look at the whole package. Don’t fixate on a fixed salary. Easier said than done, but this is the first and most important place you can signal commitment, initiative as well as flexibility. Salary bubbles are going to burst at some point - look for benefits you can get that still give you leeway + growth. Be realistic about your skill sets and what compensation you’re looking for. Always propose a counteroffer, and propose something radical - ask for higher variable components that push you to perform as well, ask for tenure-linked rewards. Ask for budgets for learning and development. Ask for structured time off to pursue passion projects after a minimum commitment. There’s been little to no innovation in the space of compensation packages in India - you’ve got nothing to lose by proposing something that makes both sides feel like a win-win!
- Chat about the Cash. After two initial conversations (or even after the first), it’s okay to ask about the compensation range for the role before proceeding with future interviews. If you’re doing this process right, you’re investing time and energy into the interviews and you also need to protect yourself before getting too invested into a process that may take up a lot of time. Many companies generally tend to skirt around the issue and try to peg compensation to your current salary. If you’ve done your research right, you’ll have a good sense of the market and you’ll know based on the range shared if they’re also valuing the role similarly. If the range shared is within 10-15% of what you expect, it’s okay to share that and proceed with conversations. If it’s way off the mark from what you were looking for, you have a chance to consider if it’s worth taking a lesser pay for more benefits. Leading to my next tip…
- If it’s worth it, take the pay cut. Your worth isn’t tied to a number. The most innovative and groundbreaking companies are doing things differently, and their structures and processes won’t look the same as any existing ones. Don’t just compare salaries. Look at accelerated growth paths, leadership roles, team management opportunities. The right company will recognie your worth and make sure it’s aligned along the way with the market as growth happens. You may end up striking a deal to supplement the job with a side-hustle on your own time. Many companies are open to this in a structured way.
- Culture Cheat Sheet This one’s for the brave, but if you feel comfortable enough in the interview, ask the hiring manager or the HR lead who was the last person asked to leave the company and for what reasons. This question will be a bullseye shot-on-target to understand a company’s culture. One of the biggest signals of culture is who gets hired and who gets fired - you’re part of the hiring, but it’s good to know what the company’s tolerance levels are and what are absolute non-negotiables when it comes to culture and values. This one question may give you the comfort that you’re looking to join the right place - a wishy-washy answer may just make you pause and reconsider! A company that is proud to showcase where their alumni have gone is one where you know learning and growth will be positive conversations.
- Balance is out, integration is in. An interview is a great place to start ‘bringing your whole self’ to work, as the saying goes. As more and more people look at jobs to connect with a personal purpose, you can also expect that the lines between work and life may get blurred. Whereas earlier you could expect - and be expected - to switch off at 6:00 pm, more and more candidates are now willing (without being forced) to put in hours after getting home purely because they enjoy the work they do. But there are some limits and you need to ensure that you’re not taken for granted or putting in a lot more time than you need to. The right language to use today with employers is to speak about work-life integration rather than work-life balance. Many employers who want to build empowered teams and cultures are happy to give more ownership with more accountability - as long as the job gets done, they’re not going to micro-manage. So if you’re looking to get back to a workplace that’s full-time but still recognises parts of you that are equally important (like going for that school concert, or getting your annual medical checkup done) without questioning your commitment, ask for examples of how employees and leaders integrate personal commitments into their work time and vice versa, and how employees can deal with life situations that come up. It’s the same point, just couched in a different approach that can be the deciding factor for how a workplace views the personal/professional split for an employee.
- Date a company you like for a while. I think people around me have gotten tired hearing this, but I’ve come to believe that the best people aren’t available when the perfect roles are open, and vice versa. The best way to interview ….. is to not. It is to be remembered when a role is open and have someone in the company reach out to you. How do you do that? Find team members whose work you connect with, who have recently met a big milestone, released a report, made a big impact and connect with them through a crisp cold email. Share something that may help them or give them some new information about a topic they’re working on. It’s a shot in the dark but it may start helping build some recall. Stay in touch, send leads, send intern/job candidates their way for other roles. This isn’t really a tip, more of a long-term game - but when the time comes, and the stars align, you may just find an email one morning asking if you’re interested in a role. This tends to work best when you know you’re looking to be part of a particular company, culture, or work with someone specific regardless of the role or designation - and you are willing to put in the time to wait for something to open up.
It’s hard for companies to change many existing ways of doing things and be seen as being open and candid - and interviews are a big part of that process. It’s a complicated activity that requires a lot of thought if you want to go beyond just the resume and the JD. It’s the culmination of an elaborate matchmaking process, if done right, with both sides actively choosing each other today amidst the options available. Companies can no longer afford to hold back information as leverage - the more you put out there, the more you signal a commitment to finding the best people for your journey. The time has come, I believe, for organisations and workplaces to be held to higher standards as we espouse values of transparency, balance, culture and growth. There’s really nothing to lose.