How the Top 1% of Candidates Ace Their Job Interviews

You’ve done it.

You’ve made it through the initial screening process. You’ve just earned an interview with one of the most prestigious and successful companies in your industry. As you’re waiting in the office with three other candidates, a fourth candidate walks in.

He has an interview scheduled, the same as you.

There’s something odd about this interviewee. He already knows everyone there. He’s on a first-name basis with the receptionist. Everyone likes him and thinks highly of him. Instead of waiting in the lobby with the rest of you, he’s immediately ushered into one of the offices.

Who is this guy?

This is an everyday reality for elite job candidates

How is this possible?

Candidates like these are pretty uncommon. Not because they’re so special, but because of their decision-making process. What makes these candidates so special?

  • They win coveted jobs and promotions in the face of intense competition
  • They ask for and receive substantially higher salaries than their coworkers
  • Employers create positions specifically for them (to keep them)
  • They earn positions before they’re publicly available
  • These job candidates seem to receive preferential treatment wherever they go

Something is going on, but what?

These elite candidates have a very different set of attitudes, behaviors, and habits than most other employees. Is it simply because they’re better than everyone else?

Not at all.

They’ve simply decided to make different choices. We’re going to go through these choices; then we’re going to break them down a bit.

  1. Price’s law
  2. Peter Thiel’s value formula
  3. The can’t/won’t principle
  4. The 5+50+100 rule

1. Price’s law

Information scientist and physicist, Derek de Solla Price discovered the concepts behind Price’s law, a mathematical formula and variant of the Pareto distribution demonstrating that (1.) value creation is asymmetrical and (2.) incompetence is exponential; competence is linear.

Several thought leaders have popularized this in recent years — you may be familiar with it.

It goes like this.

The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work.

What does this mean?

  • If there are 100 people in your company, 10 of them do half the work
  • 10 developers on your team? Three of them do half the work

When it comes to Price’s law, there’s a significant amount of pushback. Some people feel it’s a case of overgeneralization. Others feel this mathematical principle is overblown and overused. Many believe it’s an accurate description of the world we live in.

Here’s the point almost all of them miss.

Price’s law is a choice.

You can choose to be one of the “square roots.” You can choose to become the kind of designer, developer or creative professional who produces far more (e.g., quantity and quality) than your peers. The problem? Most people don’t want to do it.

Should you do it? If you want:

  • To create work that makes an impact
  • More free time
  • A larger income or salary
  • Significant career advancement opportunities
  • Insurance against layoffs or mass firings
  • A (much) stronger negotiating position

The answer is obviously yes.

Why aren’t most employees doing this already then? They refuse to do it because:

  • Incompetent employees tend to feel jealous of or threatened by these “square roots,” choosing to lash out.
  • Other people may frequently take credit for your hard work.
  • A manager has punished them for taking the initiative, secretly assuming that “they’re after my job.”
  • There’s no immediate or foreseeable payoff for going the extra mile.
  • Some needy managers and clients are never satisfied. They continually demand more.
  • C players in your organization attempt to force A players out because they make them look bad.

This is why most designers and developers decide against becoming one of the “square roots” in their company.

2. Peter Thiel’s value formula

We’ve just discussed outperforming and outproducing your peers. How exactly do you go about doing that? With Peter Thiel’s value formula. I’ve discussed this before in a previous post. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and founder of Palantir, shared his value formula.

Here’s that formula again.

  1. Create X dollars of value for others
  2. Capture Y percent of X.

That’s the formula in a nutshell.

If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown outlining how you go about creating and capturing value in and outside your workplace, you’ll want to read 5 Simple strategies to double your salary. Who are the “others” in this formula?

  • Your employer
  • The boss (and his boss)
  • Clients you may interact with from time to time
  • Coworkers (including the ones you despise)
  • Colleagues at other organizations (related and unrelated)
  • Tangential sources at loosely related organizations

Wait a minute.

Am I suggesting that you create value for each of these groups? That’s a whole lot of extra work for a payoff that isn’t guaranteed. Why go out of your way to do all of this? If it’s not guaranteed, it’s not worth it, right?

Wrong.

When it comes to reciprocation, humans have specific beliefs, values, and norms ingrained in us. These structures ensure, more often than not, that we get our (somewhat) just rewards. Life isn’t fair. Think of it as the professional version of “you reap what you sow.

  • The Matthew effect: this adage is often summarized as “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” It’s a concept that applies to a variety of areas including fame, social status, and economic stability. This is all about developing a cumulative advantage.
  • The Ben Franklin effect: a phenomenon where asking people for favors means they’re more likely to offer a favor in the future. A side effect of this phenomena improves likability as a way of resolving any potential cognitive dissonance (i.e., people help those they like. I helped you so I must like you).
  • The law of reciprocity: a social or cultural norm where we repay, in kind, the behavior that was done to us. You do something kind for others, they do something kind for you, and vice versa. Variations of the reciprocity effect include the door-in-the-face technique and the foot-in-the-door technique.
  • Virtuous and vicious cycles, a complex chain of events that reinforce themselves via a feedback loop (i.e., crime creates more crime). Doing great work or great things for other people creates a virtuous cycle. Creating harm typically creates a vicious cycle where circumstances get successively worse.

When you create value for others, they’re highly motivated to return the favor. If you’re doing it right, you’re not worried about whether you’re “repaid” for your good deeds. You’re simply trying to create value for as many people as possible.

What if your colleagues are selfish?

What if they take advantage of your generosity? Or worse, they feel threatened by the amount of value you’re creating and they decide to punish you for it? Here’s what you can do to eliminate that problem. Focus your attention on the giving profile of those around you.

Here’s a quick recap.

Adam Grant Ph.D., Wharton professor and author of the book Give and Take says there are three types of givers.

  • Givers give with no strings attached and no expectation of return. Selfless givers give indiscriminately and are abused while Otherish givers are smart about when and how they give. When Otherish givers meet a taker, they become a matcher.
  • Matchers preserve balance. If you give, they give. If you take, they take. They punish takers for their selfish behavior and they do their very best to reward givers for their generosity. They do their very best to follow the law of reciprocity.
  • Takers are focused on themselves. They take without giving until there’s nothing left to receive. They complain when things aren’t to their liking and they look for opportunities to take without reciprocation.

Want to identify your giving profile? You can find out here.

This is a straightforward strategy you can use to counter selfish takers. Simply become a matcher. When they give, you give. It’s an easy way to deal with an inconsiderate taker. This strategy works well because you’re able to protect yourself without provoking retaliation. What about those who feel threatened by the value you’re providing?

Find creative ways to include them in your success and build them up. You can:

  • Ask them for advice on a particular area of expertise
  • Request their help on a small component or subset of the project
  • Thank them for direct or indirect contributions they’ve made to your project

This a genuine way to build your teammates up so they don’t feel like you’re making them look bad, but it’s also a subtle way to use social pressure to minimize the amount of direct/indirect aggression aimed at you.

3. The can’t/won’t principle

The can’t/won’t principle is a simple way to add tremendous and lasting value to those around you. It’s a simple way to increase your value in anyone’s eyes, even if they’re more connected, powerful or influential than you.

Here’s how it works.

  1. You make a list of the outcomes or results your targets are looking for
  2. Create a list of the tasks you can do to help others achieve the outcomes or results they’re looking for
  3. Identify the list of tasks others can’t do or are unwilling to do
  4. Do those tasks for your targets, then subtly, let them know that you’ve done it

Here’s an example.

You work for a SaaS HR startup that generates leads for local companies. You’re on a team with three other developers. Your boss is stressed out about generating enough leads for sales to close. They’re struggling to generate cash and they’re not sure whether they’ll be able to make it through the next six months.

You see the problem and you step in.

You create a lightweight assessment tool for your local clients. They enter their info into a brief questionnaire then you provide them with a list of candidates your boss can refer to their customers. Your boss now has fresh sales leads to sell to his clients.

He’s so happy he hugs you.

You’ve just saved the company. The sales and marketing teams couldn’t do it. The other three developers on your team wouldn’t do it. At least, not for free. You did it because you see that your boss is a giver. He’s trying his hardest to do the right thing.

In his mind, you’re a different breed of developer.

Continue to create exceptional value for him and you change his mindset permanently. You become legendary. Indispensable, even.

4. The 5+50+100 rule

Judy Robinett was a shy social worker from a small town in Idaho. Today she’s a bestselling author, entrepreneur and venture capitalist. She’s received awards from presidents and she consults with Fortune 500 companies. Robinett is known as the woman with the “titanium digital Rolodex.”

How did she do it?

She worked to connect and build relationships with the right people. She used a personal power grid to build influence and develop relationships with powerful people, even though she had zero contacts at the start.

Why bother building relationships?

“Other people have the answers, deals, money, access, power, and influence you need to get what you want in this world. To achieve any goal, you need other people to help you do it,” says Robinett. “Skill is fine, and genius is splendid, but the right contacts are more valuable than either.”

In her book the 5+50+100 rule, she shows readers how anyone, even a shy social worker in small-town Idaho, can create deep and lasting relationships with influencers, power brokers and connectors of the world. Robinett states that relationships are built by consistent, resilient contact.

Research shows this is accurate.

Research from Jeffrey Hall, Associate Professor at the University of Kansas shows friendships require a specific amount of time to grow. It takes roughly:

  • 50 hours of time together to move from acquaintance to casual friend
  • 90 hours to go from casual friend to friend
  • And more than 200 hours to go from friend to close friend.

But there’s a limit to the number of friends you can have.

Dunbar’s number suggests there’s a cognitive limit to the amounts of friends we have. This figure suggest that people can have no more than 100 to 250 relationships in a group. This figure varies depending on the researcher; however, this isn’t the most important part.

It’s the fact that there’s a hard limit to the number of people you befriend.

Wait a minute.

Why are we talking about friendships when we want to network with influencers, power brokers, and connectors to win and ace our job interviews? Here’s the secret most of them won’t tell you.

These elites don’t want business relationships.

They want relationships. These influencers want deep, genuine, truly meaningful relationships with the right people. People they know have their best interests at heart. If you approach these elites with the goal of building “business relationships,” they’ll simply ghost you.

So how do you build these relationships?

You follow the steps I’ve just laid out. You decide to become a square root, a person who, as a general rule, contributes significantly more than those around you. Next, you work to create value for the right people wherever you go. Finally, you do what other people can’t or won’t do to make yourself exceptional.

Here’s where 5+50+100 comes in. You contact your:

  • Top five relationships (e.g., spouse, best friend, family members) daily
  • Your key 50 relationships (e.g., coworkers, boss, friends, acquaintances, etc.) weekly
  • Vital 100, people who have a direct impact on your personal or professional life, monthly

Remember, it’s a high-value investment over the long term. The relationship begins with you adding value, well before you ask for any favor in return. You’re constantly looking for opportunities to help them reach their goals, whether there’s something in it for you or not.

If you’re avoiding takers, good things will come back to you. So how does this get you an interview at the company of your choice?

It’s simple.

You follow the steps I’ve laid out and you use it to befriend specific sources.

  1. Direct sources: Your clients, boss, coworkers. HR and accounting reps, colleagues – powerful people inside your organization.
  2. Tangential sources: Your company’s suppliers, related corporations. If you’re a developer working at an ad agency this could be other notable designers, marketers, related companies outside of your organization).
  3. Competing sources: These are both people inside and outside of your organization. They serve the same clientele, customers or employer you do. They’re competitors, but they’re looking for value all the same.
  4. Unrelated sources: These are people or organizations with a similar set of values, culture or support systems as the ideal scenario you want to be a part of.

Makes sense? Good.

You’ll want to create a list of these people. Next, you’ll want to create a relationship with them and begin adding value, just like we’ve discussed. If someone you know is looking for a particular library to produce a specific outcome, find it and give it to them. Someone in your company has a boss that’s dropping unnecessary work on them? Offer to help out whenever you can. Expect nothing in return.

Look for tiny ways to add value. Here are a few ways you can add value.

  • Become a contributing member at PHP.net, Ruby on Rails, jQuery, Sass, etc. (tangential sources)
  • Begin taking on more responsibilities at work (assuming that your existing work is A+)
  • Create a helpful list of libraries, tools, and resources for people in your industry
  • Start a blog. Interview high profile people in your market. Introduce bosses and coworkers as needed
  • Create an archive of useful, non-public information your coworkers and colleagues can’t get from others
  • Reach out to other developers or creative professionals at other companies and help them in some way
  • Connect with influential researchers, scientists, and statisticians in your field. Work with them to create value for your manager, company and yourself

These ideas are intended to be a helpful start.

Do what other developers refuse to do. That’s the mundane secret to this incredible strategy. If you’re doing this consistently for others, it’s easy to ask for an opportunity when the moment arises. It’s how elite employees seemingly develop connections with companies they aren’t already a part of.

Elite employees serve. They add value.

It’s easy to win a job at your desired company of choice when you’re close friends with the right people. On the surface, this sounds incredibly unfair, and it is. But it’s also the way the world works.

Use it or it’ll be used against you.

How do we know this works? Again, the research tells us. Lauren Rivera at Northwestern University discovered that employers are often far more interested in hiring playmates than they are in hiring people who are best qualified for a particular role.

See what I mean?

Most employers are looking for friendships first. Is this what employees are already doing?

Nope.

What’s the first thing many people do when they meet someone on Twitter or LinkedIn? They add a friend, then they spam them with messages.

That’s a hard sell — this person immediately decided it was a good idea to demand a favor. If you’re like most people, you ignore, block or remove them. It’s a common mistake many good people make in their personal and professional lives.

How does this help you ace your interview?

In case it isn’t obvious already, the work done to ace your next round of job interviews is done well before the first meeting is scheduled. If you’ve built a relationship with the right people in your target companies, you’ve created the trust and goodwill needed to produce the kind of results you want.

Interviewing with a friend is easy.

It’s also how these elite candidates ensure the interviews they take on work in their favor. They do this work for others, sharing evidence of incredible results they’ve been able to achieve. It’s hard work and it also explains why candidates don’t want to do this work.

Success is the everyday reality for these elite candidates

The top 1 percent of candidates have a very different set of attitudes, behaviors, and habits than most other employees.

These employees win coveted positions and earn higher salaries, and consistently receive preferential treatment. It’s not a case of bias or unfair treatment. It’s a reward for exceptional choices.

These elite employees make different choices: they create value wherever they go. This puts them in high demand. You can accomplish the same amazing results too. Make the right choices and you’ll become the kind of designer, developer or creative professional who’s among the top 1% of candidates.

Choose wisely, start slowly, work hard. In time, you’ll find you automatically attract the rewards of a one-percenter. No extra effort necessary.

Replies

  1. So… which of these points in any way relates to the opening scene? Or acing your interview?

    None of the bottom points actually relate to knowing everyone at the company, or being on a first name basis with the receptionist. Or how you actually accomplish this without already being an employee OF the company…

  2. Oh, so the secret to having everyone know you and trust you, and wanting to hire when you come to an interview, is to get to know them before, and be the kind of person they want to hire?
    Great stuff!

    Next up:
    How to cure a hangover, by not being the kind op person that drinks the night before.

  3. Nice article, I believe that the key is in the confidence, not everyone knows everything but whatever they know, they should be a 100% sure about it, and this is what ever good recruiter looks in a candidate. I still remember an interview that I gave at a software development company, they didn’t exhausted me with a gazillion questions, just put a scenario in front of me and asked for its solution. I believe that should how interviews should be.

  4. 99.9999% of the time in these sorts of interview questions, they don’t give a toss about the solution. What they care about is how you came to the solution. I don’t ask a candidate the 25 Horses question to be told “The answer is 7”. I ask to be told how they got to 7 as their answer. Even better if they can show me how they got there in a way that i can understand.