When preparing for an interview, most people get ready to show their skills and motivations. The small talk before and after the interview is usually not prepared. However, I would suggest not to improvise because this apparently innocent discussion can have a big impact on the perception your interviewers get from you.
The question is : who are you interviewing with and which seniority level do you target ? Customize and adapt your small talk accordingly !
Over the last years, I realized that the topic a candidate picks on their way to the interview room already reveals their current responsibility level and their aptitude to assume a leading role. No matter what is said later in the interview, the image people have of the candidate is already well established. The thing is, when we do not prepare the small talk, we all naturally tend to land on junior related topics : that is because those are the easiest to come up with.
So when preparing your interview, you need to think of a couple of topics that will resonate with the seniority level of the position you’re aiming : junior/ manager/ executive – and also the image you wish to give.
A junior employee is concerned about their learning curve and is incentivized on their individual performance : so typically a junior candidate tends to address individual related topics. He/she has checked the linkedIn profile of the hiring manager, has read the careers page of the company website and might stick to this information. For example the candidate for a quite junior role may draw the interviewer’s attention to the fact that they went through the same university. He/she’d also ask questions about the work life balance or the working style of the company. The small talk he/she picks might tend to be very operational, down to the earth.
A manager is normally more focused on organizational topics as he/she is incentivized on the performance of their team. So a manager tends to address organizational topics on the scale of the division or the company. For instance, he/she might address the pros and cons of a remote shared service center set-up, the difficulty to retain millennials or the impact of a divestiture of a Business Unit on the teams, etc.
The C-level members of a company are incentivized on the performance of the group. So executive tend to naturally address topics in relation to the business: macro economic facts on the industry, information on the competition, change in equity ownership. For example : the drop of the Yuan having an immediate effect on the sales of their competitor abc; Brexit reducing the order intake by 10% of the whole industry and naturally the fluctuation of the share price.
As a consequence, pick your topic carefully. For instance, when applying for an executive role (CFO), try to bring market information to the table, with ideally facts your interviewer does not know yet. When being on this high level of communication, you already send the message that you evolve above daily operational considerations and that what keeps you awake at night are strategic matters. It’s an excellent start to convince on your capacity to lead before the interview has actually started.
Maybe you won’t get a chance to address all topics. This can be frustrating but in my experience, being prepared just in case already gives you a certain level of confidence people will feel. A good tip is to prepare a plan A (executive level small talk), a plan B (management level, already easier) and a plan C (individual level, much easier).
Of course, the small talk you have prepared needs to come naturally to you. It would be awkward to jump on the topics you have prepared, while skipping the first necessary polite and neutral questions : greetings, would you like a coffee, what a bad weather it is today, etc. But remember : to the question “did you find our offices address easily?” the only possible answer is “yes”. No other option! 😉