A few months back I was helping a client with a search for a new Director of Sales. We narrowed it down to the top two candidates and set up meetings for each of them with the President of the company ("William"). He decided he wanted to meet them at a coffee shop - partly because the location was more convenient for him that afternoon, and partly because he enjoys assessing how candidates present themselves outside of a typical interview setting - i.e., Are they relaxed? Can they maintain eye contact despite the distractions all around them? Can they handle a cup of coffee without spilling it? etc. For the sake of convenience, William asked me to join him at the interviews so that we could debrief afterward.
On the day we were scheduled to meet with "Sue" at 2 PM I was coming from another appointment. Rather than go to the office in between meetings I decided to head to the coffee shop early and check my e-mail there. I arrived at about 1:15. I got a drink and was logging onto a computer when I saw Sue come in. Sue had impressed me early in the interview process with her insightful questions and her compelling examples of prior achievements. I watched as she briskly ordered a drink and then marched directly to a small room in the back of the coffee shop.
On her way, she passed the computer station and spotted me. We made eye contact and she visibly blanched. She fumbled to look at her watch and blurted out, "You're not supposed to be here until 2!" I was a bit surprised to see her so rattled and calmly told her that I had some time in between appointments and had simply come in to check e-mail. I assured her that she had plenty of time to prepare and that William and I would see her at 2 as planned.
She hurried on to the back room. From my vantage point I was able to see her, and I watched with interest as she began to rearrange the furniture. First she pulled two small tables together. Then she pushed them up against a wall and arranged the chairs so that there were two with their backs to the wall, and one in front facing them. Finally, she pushed the other tables nearby back a few feet in order to create an "island" for her interview.
Given what I know about William, I knew immediately that her plan was not going to work. I went over to re-greet her at 2 PM on the dot. Sue was the calm, gracious professional we had seen in earlier interviews. William cruised in a minute later. Just as I suspected, he took one look at the mock boardroom Sue had arranged, then grabbed a chair from a nearby table, pulled it in the general direction of Sue and I, and plopped down. Sue conducted most of the meeting staring straight at me with occasional nervous glances to William at her side.
After about 35 minutes of small talk and a few Q&A's about the position, William stood up, apologized for being short on time that afternoon, thanked Sue for her time, and told her I'd get back to her within a few days. I'm sure you know the outcome...
I feel badly for Sue because I think she was trying to demonstrate that she is a take charge individual who can run an agenda at a meeting, and who can interact as a business partner at the C-level. I've written before that the interview is a conversation and that you shouldn't go in planning to just sit back while the hiring team asks all the questions. It's important to be prepared with smart questions, to have your own agenda for an interview, and to interact on a peer-level with the people who are interviewing you. I think that's what Sue was trying to do. So what went wrong? Lots of things.
Overall, what went wrong was that Sue tried too hard to control the meeting. Sue didn't take the time to assess what might be the purpose of meeting in a coffee shop, and what might be the intentions of the interviewer. If she had taken even 30 seconds to look at William she would have seen that he is a big, energetic guy. Sitting in squashed in a corner was not going to be a comfortable situation for him.
She also didn't demonstrate that she was there for a mutual discussion - the physical arrangement she established made it clear she intended to control the direction of the meeting. As a result, she was not able to react well when her plans went awry. Her blunt comment that I was too early was ungracious and out of line - my schedule is not her concern. And when William declined the chance to sit squashed against a wall, she was not able to adjust her positioning to include him in the conversation, and continued with an arrangement that she decided she wanted.
The lesson from Sue is to relax your need for control and remember who is in charge of the interview. Yes you want to be prepared, yes you want to interact as a peer, but be smart about it. Assess the signals the interviewers are sending you and adjust your plans accordingly.