Getting the Project: The Interview

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As a landscape architecture firm in a remote market (Alaska), we tend to be on multiple teams pursuing the same projects when we are a subconsultant on architectural project pursuits. We share this tendency the most with structural, and somewhat with electrical and mechanical. For most proposals this is a fairly clear and straight-forward process in that we provide generic proposal information to each team and then ask them to be specific with what we will generate tailored for their needs and approach. Things get a bit more complex when project or design development is needed for the proposal, but we’ve become good at compartmentalizing and ensuring that we are always acting in the best interest of our prime consultants.

Where things get weird is when we are on multiple interviews. Maybe its a strange skill to have, but we’ve shown how effective we can be when this happens. For the sake of this post I’ll just say that it’s exhausting being on four out of five interviews for a project where landscape architecture is brought forward as a significant role. I’ll just say that you need to become a character actor where you funnel each specific team and fit into who they need and want you to be. But… that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to provide an opinion on what a good interview looks like. An opinion developed from being on multiple teams having the same interview.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’d say it covers some of the basics and the obvious things that experience shows.

This is THEIR Project

For me, the most challenging part to an interview is anticipating what kind of interview is best for the client and their panel of interviewers. That influences everything that I list below, because something that works for one interview may be wrong for another. A good example of this is whether an interview is a presentation, or a conversation. Based on your proposal and being invited to an interview, the client should believe that you have the skills and experience to complete their project. They have a good feeling for what you can do. An interview allows them to get a better idea of who you are, and how well you perform. Part of performing is how well you listen and respond, and interact not only with your client… but the team that you bring.

Much of how you operate within an interview depends on your knowledge of the psychology of your client, and how quickly you can read the room when you are in the interview. Post interview debriefs sometimes relate to how a team just talked about themselves and what they can do, OR that they took the time to converse with the client and to speak about themselves and what they will bring to the client’s project. The same information can be conveyed two ways, but one illustrates that this is about the client and THEIR project.

Own the Space

You may be interviewing in the nicest room in town, or a basement storage closet. It’s always good to know ahead of time what you will have for a space in order to anticipate how you will use it. The number one thing that sticks in my head from successful interviews is how the team creates their own stage within an interview. This is as simple as bringing a number of graphic boards to put on easels behind them. This allows you to shape your space and to differentiate the visual memory of your interview from other ones. Keep them simple. Ideally they also provide the content for any presentation that you might have. Digital presentations can be good, but it just seems like they have the power to change the dynamic from interaction to watching. Some clients need their presentations though. Everyone is different.

Team Roles

You have four important roles on your team, that can be combined within person.

  • The conductor. This person is the leader of the team and sets the feeling and theme for the interview. Their role is to keep things flowing and on task. This is the person the client will remember something along the lines of: ‘that dynamic and trustworthy person with great skills’
  • The improviser. This person is focusing on the client in order to understand how to adapt the interview to their needs. You’ve already discussed some flexibility as to how the interview might shift, and they assist with this.
  • The time fascist. Just like you want to deliver a project on schedule, you want to show the client that you have an agenda for your presentation and that you are keeping it on time. Ideally you reserve more than enough time for questions.
  • The experts. You will have the people at the table that can apply their experience to this project, listen carefully and answer questions succinctly, and engage into the right level of dialogue.

Introductions

Introductions are a fantastic opportunity to gain intelligence that you can apply within your interview. Ideally have the client introduce themselves first, and assess if it’s appropriate to have them each answer why this project is special to them in their role, and also to them personally. When introducing the team, a similar tailored answer may also be appropriate. Depending on the client and project type, identifying personal ties/interests can help to illustrate commitment and also humanize the conversation. If possible, start with some easy humor within this to assess the feeling of the room. If people are open to laughing, you’re in a good spot. (*but… at this point it’s important to understand that I have my personal approach to how I’ve learned to interact with clients. When humor fails, it’s not a pretty sight.*)

Agenda & Framework

Set an explicit pathway along which you will be leading your presentation, and be clear about when you move into the next part as you are presenting. Your interview should be like a good story with a start, middle and end.

Set the Message

When you are preparing for your interview, ask yourselves the question: When the interview is over, what will the interviewers actually remember? They will remember how your interview felt. They will remember if they felt any obvious emotions (hopefully they laughed). They will remember that you gave satisfying responses to their questions. They will remember you prioritizing discussion with them. They will hopefully remember one or two take-home messages that you felt were critical. And hopefully they will have some kind of ‘theme’ that they associate with you.

The above are the qualitative aspects that you have significant control over. Within your interview planning, consider what theme(s) you want to be remembered by. And don’t be afraid to be completely literal with starting your interview with, “Our goal is that you leave this interview remembering us as the team that listens carefully and provides our clients with innovative solutions that reflect who our clients are.” I love it when presenters tell me what I’m going to learn! It makes it easy for me, and then at the end I know how I will evaluate them. Did they achieve their interview goal?

When interviews include quantitative assessment tools such as scoresheets, then you need to make sure you provide them with what they need to ‘check the boxes off’. Such scoring does usually have a qualitative overlay that benefits from how socially competent you were.

Personality & Process

Bring the right people to tell your story. An important part of this is whether they interview well or not. Don’t bring people that don’t interview well unless you can put them in a place where they can be their best. Sometimes subject area experts are essential… even if their social skills aren’t ideal. They might just need more practice.

Focus on illustrating that you have an integrated team. This gets easy when you have pre-existing relationships. When you don’t, make sure you take the time to have your team members get to know each other. This allows you to find the places during an interview where your team can speak about one another to illustrate such integration and a comfort in interaction.

Flow & Segues

With a rehearsed presentation there should be an easily followed and logical flow that is reinforced by good segue ways. As mentioned earlier, your interview should tell a story with a connected start, middle and end.

Message, message, message

Each part of your presentation should reinforce your themes. It doesn’t hurt to be explicit and explain how each part of your story relates to the whole message that you are providing.

Summary

Well. That’s about it. The key to all of this is to do your best to understand your client and what they need and want to get out of an interview. Then, it’s about good communication skills, psychology… and illustrating that you are the team that will deliver a product on scope, schedule and budget with a clear process. And if all goes well, that you are the team that will make it smooth, painless and as fun as is appropriate.

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