Looking to the future for your big idea

Q: I’m going for an interview in my own company next week. I’m currently a senior salesperson in the business and the position of sales manager has come up. To be honest, I don’t think the current incumbent has done a good job. He has been slow to introduce innovations and hasn’t built good relations with his sales team. He’s just got a new position in another company and, as far as I can read it, most people here are happy he’s going. I have two questions: how blunt should I be in my assessment of his performance, and should I outline ideas I have for the job during the interview? I’m afraid of showing my hand if I throw out some ideas, and I wonder too if that could be construed as criticism of the man who’s leaving. What are your thoughts? (Laura, email).

A: You raise a very interesting question, Laura. You have to appreciate that it is almost impossible for me to offer an opinion on this based on a slim piece of knowledge, as you’ve provided. I must also allow for the fact that you are presenting the story from your side, and that can colour an issue even if take care to present it in as balanced a way as you possibly can.

‘Reading’ an interview panel is very important. Criticise too much, and they may think you’re a) someone who thinks they have all the answers and/or b) a troublemaker. If they were to adopt that stance they might even wonder (and perhaps ask you) what you did to correct all that was wrong. Perhaps you did loads, but just be aware that might be one of their reactions.

Fail to criticise and they might wonder why you haven’t spotted the problems. Have you been asleep on the job? Are you too passive and accepting to drive real changes in the organisation?

So you walk a tight-rope. What I would say is that you know the people involved and you should be able to make an informed calculation.  My own hunch is to be very even-handed in any criticism you may offer. Criticise actions, results, outcomes and strategies – not people or personalities. Keep it professional.

But I think the real opening for you here lies in the second part of your question. Yes, present ideas. This is one way of showing you know that things haven’t gone well – but without explicitly shooting down the person who went before you.

A sales manager should have ideas – for promotions, for new sales strategies, for motivating the staff, for opening up new territories. Have those ideas fully thought out before you go in there, rather than trying to form them ‘on the run’.

A few good ideas can have a huge impact on an interview. Ultimately everyone in that room should be focused on the future. How are we going to build sales? How are we going to deepen relationships with customers? How are we going to perform more efficiently?

Let them see you as the person who will create this better future.

I wouldn’t worry about showing your hand. I’d be much more inclined to take the view that if you leave those good ideas outside the door, you are neglecting to give yourself the best possible chance of landing this job.

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