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Put a lotto ticket in your thank-you note, and 5 other interview tips from the C-suite

Before John Robak ascended to the presidency at Chicago-based environmental engineering firm Greeley and Hansen, he spent nearly a quarter of a century in human resources. That means he can remember the days when doing your research involved the Dewey Decimal System. He’s hired at every level from administrative staff to senior vice president.

Although Robak is now at the top of a century-old company with 350 employees and 17 offices nationally, he hasn’t stopped thinking about how to find the best people around. “Hiring is one of the most strategic things we do as an organization,” he says. “A company that consistently focuses on hiring high-potential people is a high-potential company.”

Robak talked with Grid about what’s changed in the hiring process in the last 25 years, why you might want to gift-wrap your resume, and a few other interviewing tips.

Be brave. Demand attention.

So often, we rely on technology. But I still think there are ways to do traditional processes in a way that uses nontraditional means, funny as that sounds. Take the printed resume or cover letter or send it to me in a non-electronic way so I get it in a way that comes across my desk in a creative way.

A gift-wrapped package with tissue inside once came across my desk, and I’m thinking, what’s this? I open it up, there’s the person’s resume, in there with tissue paper. That stood out in an electronic world. Same with individuals who try to use creative follow-up approaches. Someone sent me a lottery ticket once, with a note saying my odds would be better hiring them than in the lottery. That person wound up getting the job because they were creative and innovative, they didn’t just follow the traditional approach. Lots of creative things you can do with tech as well, but it impresses me when individuals use creativity not only in the interview, but with how they follow up.

It’s not a chess match.

I approach interview as a dialogue. So often over the years, I’ve seen training for young people on how to go about the interview. It’s a tennis match, a chess game. I approach it as how to open a dialogue, how might you fit with what we’re looking for and what we’re trying to achieve.

When you can start to engage in that dialogue, the guard goes down a little bit and we can start to connect. If we have a great connection, why would I not be in contact with that person because some day there will be that position. As opposed to hit it out of the park and someday there’ll be that job. Even though people go through coaching and counseling, it’s forgetting the tricks and forgetting that someone’s trying to trip you up, and instead focus on who you are authentically.

Quiet the social noise.

Sometimes I call it social noise, where [candidates] are responding to questions again in a way they think they should respond versus their authentic response to that question. Savvy interviewers are able to read through that a little bit easier than candidates may realize. Be your authentic self.

Where people try to use politically correct answers or say what the employer is trying to hear, savvy employers recognize that. What [candidates] think of as selling themselves and positioning themselves in the best light, often times hurts them. When people tell me, “I’m a constant overachiever as a weakness,” it’s answers like those that are rather coached.

When you ask a question, care about the answer.

What impresses me the most is people who are prepared, their authentic self, people understand the organization and ask insightful questions.

What’s not a good strategy is to ask questions just for the sake of asking questions. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. It’s not so much the question itself, but more the level of engagement surrounding the question, their non-verbal communication when they’re asking the question or receiving the answer. Are they alert? Are they paying attention?

Stay in touch.

A gentleman, a PhD. working for us today, I spoke with 7 years ago, thought he was an outstanding individual. At that particular time he, wasn’t ready to make the change. We stayed in constant contact, not all of the time, you know, but periodically touching base. Five years later, we had the right opportunity and he was top of mind, and now he’s ready to make the change. He’s now been with the firm for two years. I reference that often because particularly in today’s tight labor market, it’s everybody’s job to focus on recruitment. We have 350 recruiters — they’re not in the recruiting department; they’re our engineers and accountants and everybody who works for us.