Q: An employer asked me to do a mock pitch about an actual business challenge as part of an interview process. Where do I draw the line between showing them my expertise and value, versus giving them free consulting and a work product if they don’t hire me? Why do companies ask for a pitch or presentation? I feel like I’ve seen more job postings that require a presentation as part of the interviewing process. Why is this? Is it okay to say no or put limits on preparing the presentation?
A: The company asking you to do a business challenge as part of the interview process is trying to enhance its understanding of what you can bring the organization. If you feel you’re giving them free work product, then perhaps this isn’t the employer for you. There has to be a certain level of trust between the interviewer and the interviewee as they approach the partnership of trying to find the right match for the position.
Many organizations do this kind of screening in an interview process, and you’ll find more employers doing it now due to remote interviewing. It’s challenging to have unstructured conversations in a formal video conference setting. In unstructured conversations, the interviewer gets more insight into how people solve problems, how resourceful they are, how they think about business issues, and without having that kind of interview process, perhaps over lunch or coffee, everything becomes much more structured. Because organizations can’t meet people face-to-face to have these more informal conversations, they may be asking candidates to do more work that demonstrates the range of their expertise.
You want to be able to show how you would approach this business challenge: how you do your research, how you might do a competitive analysis of other organizations, whether you are data driven or intuitive, and how you have dealt with similar situations. It’s the process that they’re looking for as much as the outcome of this free work product.
So, outline the process that you follow, outline the kinds of questions you would want to ask others in terms of this business challenge, and put together an approach recognizing that this isn’t going to be a consulting project, but it does give the hiring company insight into how you approach your work.
For example, if you are the candidate who does the entire process without having asked any colleagues for their input, that delivers a certain kind of message about you. If you’re the only candidate who asks for an extension, that delivers a different message about you. If you use metrics and an Excel spreadsheet as part of your presentation, that gives specific information.
Many candidates would do this assignment without doing research or contacting colleagues, and come up with a finished product. Others would involve colleagues, ask questions, do external research, use metrics to define why they came to a specific conclusion, present a conclusion, and then go on to identify how they would define, measure, and report on success.
Rather than decline to participate, you can ask for parameters or add your own. You do have the option to put parameters on the assignment and say, “I’m happy to do this, and I will do…” It’s like asking a writer for a writing sample – no one’s asking you to write a book for free, but asking you for 1,500 words is very appropriate in terms of how you would approach an assignment, how you would follow the prompt, and if you understand the organization’s tone and voice. An organization might ask a software engineer to write a program or demonstrate mastery of specific development methodologies.
In order to fairly compare submitted projects, organizations might say, “We’re looking for your best product and spend no more than four hours on it.” Four hours is a reasonable amount of time to prepare for an interview, develop materials, and then present those. In this kind of a challenge, ask for a verbal discussion to understand the purpose of the mock pitch or business challenge, as well as an opportunity to present, not just submit, what you’ve come up with. Your goal is to make the situation as interactive as possible so that you can explain what you’ve actually done and demonstrate your expertise. Also ask for a debrief session to get feedback and answer questions.
Whether you are asked for a sample of past work or to respond to a specific project, this can be a great opportunity to showcase your skills and attitude. Everything that you do as part of this business challenge shows what you would be like as a colleague and how you would approach projects if hired. So again, it’s not always the content they are looking for. It’s also the process you go through to make your work happen.