Wisdom//

Stephen A. Schwarzman Gives His Best Interview Advice

It all starts with the airplane test.

Courtesy of Andrii Zastrozhnov/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Andrii Zastrozhnov/Shutterstock

Being a strong and accurate assessor of talent is perhaps one of the most critical skills required of any entrepreneur. I’ve been thinking about how to do this well since those early interviews on Wall Street.

Finance is a field that is filled with capable, ambitious individuals looking to leave their mark. But being capable isn’t always sufficient. When I interview people for Blackstone, I’m looking to understand whether an individual will fit our culture. At a minimum, this includes the airport test: Would I want to be stuck waiting at the airport with you if our flight were delayed?

After thousands of interviews, I have developed my own style of interviewing. I rely on a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, looking to see how a candidate reacts to my attempts to engage. I don’t have a set formula, but in every case, my goal is to get into candidates’ heads to assess how they think, who they are, and whether they are right for Blackstone. I prepare for an interview like most others do, by reading a candidate’s résumé. I look for consistency in terms of a narrative and make special note of any anomalies or standout pieces of information. Sometimes candidates are surprised that I have read their résumé so closely, but mostly they are relieved when I can ask them about a familiar topic or interest.

My goal is to start the conversation with something that both the candidate and I will find interesting, but I won’t know how I’m going to start until we are in the same room. I choose my course by intuition.

Sometimes I go straight to one of the anomalies on the résumé. Other times I’ll take a lead from what their body language tells me before they even say a word. Do they look happy or sad, alert or tired, excited or nervous? The more I can get candidates out of interview mode and into a natural conversation, the easier it becomes for me to evaluate how they think, react, and might adapt to change.

In some cases, I ask candidates if they had fun meeting people at the firm, if our people met their expectations, and how Blackstone is different from the other organizations they have worked or interviewed with.

Other times I will have just finished doing something exciting and will tell them about it to see how they react. Most candidates don’t expect to be drawn into my world so quickly, and how they respond can be telling. Do they withdraw, or are they able to find a way to actively participate? Does the unexpected situation make them nervous or uncomfortable? Even if it’s a topic or experience they know nothing about, are they able to find common ground and enjoy the conversation?

Alternatively, I’ll ask about something fascinating or newsworthy. If they are familiar with the topic, I’ll look for how they approach the discussion. Do they have a point of view? Is their assessment logical and analytical? If they don’t know what I’m talking about, do they admit it and find a way to move on, or do they try to fake it?

In reality, this is all an exercise in evaluating their ability to deal with uncertainty. Finance, and investing especially, is a dynamic world in which you must adjust to new information, people, and situations quickly. If a candidate doesn’t demonstrate the ability to connect, engage, pivot, and change course within the bounds of a conversation, chances are that person won’t fare well at Blackstone.

Our people are all different, but they share some common traits: self-confidence, intellectual curiosity, courtesy, an ability to adjust to new situations, emotional stability under pressure, a zero-defect mentality, and an unwavering commitment to behaving with integrity and striving for excellence in all we choose to do. Being nice — thoughtful, considerate, and decent — doesn’t hurt either. I will never hire anyone who isn’t nice regardless of his or her talent. It’s also important to me that Blackstone remains free of internal politics, so if jockeying for position is part of your nature, we don’t want you.

Here are my rules for how to have a successful interview:

  1. Be on time. Punctuality is the first indicator of how much thought and preparation you have put into an interview.
  2. Be authentic. Interviews are a mutual assessment, a bit like speed dating; everyone is looking for the right fit. Be comfortable and natural, and chances are you will be liked for who you are. If you share who you are and the interview results in a job offer, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, it’s likely that the organization wasn’t right for you either. Better to know and move on.
  3. Be prepared. Learn about the company. Interviewers always enjoy discussing what’s happening in their environment. Plus it’s a good way for you to hear how enthusiastic an employee feels about the place where he or she works. Describe what draws you to the company and why. An interviewer wants to understand your motives and whether they fit with the organization’s culture.
  4. Be candid. Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s on your mind. Focus less on impressing the interviewer and more on being open and striving for an honest conversation.
  5. Be confident. Approach the situation as an equal, not as a supplicant. In most situations, employers are looking for someone who can hold the table. Provided they are not arrogant.
  6. Be curious. The best interviews are interactive. Ask questions, ask for advice, ask your interviewers what they enjoy most about working for their organization. Find a way to engage interviewers, and always make sure the conversation goes both ways. Inter- viewers like to talk too, so that they can share what they know.
  7. Avoid discussing divisive political issues unless you are asked. In which case, be straightforward. Describe what you believe and why, but don’t be argumentative.
  8. Mention people you know at an organization only if you like and respect them. Your interviewer will be judging your taste in people.

Excerpted from What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, a New York Times bestseller by Steve Schwarzman. Excerpted with permission from the author and publisher.

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