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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

The Mystery Interview: When You Don't Know What Position You're Up For

When you’re on the job hunt, you’re probably reaching out to your network and passing along your resume to anyone who might possibly be able to help you get a new gig. (And if you’re not, well, get on it!)

And in this scenario, it’s not uncommon that your contact info gets into the hands of a friend of a friend—who happens to be the hiring manager at a very cool company. She gives you a call, says she wants you to “come in and talk about your background,” and before you know it, you have an interview scheduled for next week.

Problem is, you’re not quite sure what kind of position you’re even “applying” for!

Don't fret. You might be able to figure it out pretty quickly—and if not, this is a great opportunity to showcase your best skills and land a position that’s perfect for you. Here’s what you need to know to knock the mystery interview out of the park.

1. Clarify Upfront

There's a good chance that you're coming in for a generalist-type informational interview because the HR manager liked your background and is curious to see if you could be an asset to the company. However, there's also a chance that the team has a specific position in mind for you—in which case, you definitely want to know ahead of time.

I recommend emailing your contact and using some variation of: "I'm a big fan of your company, and I would be flexible in terms of roles and departments. Should I prepare for any specific open positions you are considering me for, or is this more of a general meeting?"

If you hear back that you're being interviewed for a specific position: great. You're all set (and you should start working on our Interview Prep Guide!). If not, keep reading.

2. Lead With Your Culture Fit

So, you're officially doing a mystery interview. In this case, since you can't show how well your background would fit with a specific position, your job is to show what a good fit you are for the company.

There are two main elements of fit: the company’s culture and its mission. I think of culture as being the DNA of the company. Is it collaborative or competitive? Flat or hierarchical? Design-oriented or customer-driven? Watching a few video clips of executives or employees talking about the company can often give you a good sense of this.

Mission has a lot more to do with the impact the company has on the world. Does it publicize its values or mission statement? Read them. Do your research to see what makes the company tick, learn the story of its founding, and understand the strategy behind any big launches it’s announced recently.

Once you have a real sense for how this company is on the inside, prepare examples from your background that highlight how perfect a fit you are for the team. Think: “I love the fact that you have such a collaborative, team-focused culture here. In my last role, that’s exactly the type of environment I tried to create within my department,” or, “I see that sustainability is a huge focus for the company. I currently serve on my company’s sustainability task force, and I’d love to share with you some of the things that have worked for us.”

3. Come Prepared

Now that you know how to put your "best fit forward," you should prepare to help your interviewer help you. Spend some time thinking about what skills you would bring to the table, the projects, teams, or departments you’d like to be part of, and how you would apply your experience to those areas. It’s completely fine to say things like, “I think I’d be a great fit for your PR team,” or, “My background is in project management, and I’d be open to any role that has a strong operations focus.”

Better yet, think about specific needs or untapped potential the company might have. (This is an especially good strategy with smaller companies or startups.) Is the marketing team missing an opportunity to acquire users by only updating the blog once a month? Good thing you're an accomplished writer who thrives on social networks! Notice that the company hasn’t expanded to an industry vertical that would love its product? Lucky that you have sales experience in just that area!

Prepare your ideas in a thoughtful and constructive way, and you'll not only showcase what a good teammate and problem solver you would be, but you might also suggest issues the company didn't realize it had. I've seen this be so successful before that the interviewee created a position for himself!

4. Follow Up

Now, I'll warn you ahead of time: Even if you totally killed it, the timeline for a job offer after an interview like this might be a little more drawn out. So, it's even more important that you follow up to stay top of mind with the hiring manager. Make sure to do the classic post-interview thank you email, and connect with her via LinkedIn. In addition, set up notifications to get updates on your contacts and Google alerts to see when the company is in the news. Hearing about a big grant, a round of funding, or a new initiative can be a signal that the company is hiring, and that’s a great time to check in with your contact and remind her of your interest.

Not every interview comes about by applying for an open position. Sometimes, there won’t even be an open position on the table! But no matter what, the same interview strategies always apply. Show off your skills, convince the hiring manager why you’re the best fit for the team, and make sure she doesn’t forget about you.

Photo of woman interviewing courtesy of Shutterstock.