Scott MauriceIt happens every time. The hiring manager and you have closed out a fairly traditional and unsurprising back-and-forth. Hopefully, you did your due diligence and excelled thus far. Every question he or she threw in your direction was an opportunity for you hit a homerun, and you managed to accomplish exactly that. Then, the HR representative agrees to open the floor to questions. You are somewhat tempted to sit back and relax, resting on the laurels of your great answers up to this point. Whatever you do, resist the urge to slip into autopilot. This moment is as make-or-break as any other in the interview scenario.

Just because you are the one asking the questions does not mean the dynamic will change without a concerted effort on your part. Step one is to refuse to lob him or her the easy ones just to coast at the same frequency you have already established. This portion of the conversation can (and should!) be much more than just a formality. So eschew the old interview model. Do not ask the polite questions you know you are “supposed to ask.” What does that really achieve for you and your professional success in the long term? More likely than not, it won’t be much.

Instead, ask yourself prior to the interview what it is you even need. Do you just need a job? Do you need to know if you can tolerate this one, or is it important for you to now that you will sincerely love it? Could you stand to benefit from some overall career advice? Identify how you can most effectively leverage this chance to sit with an official representative of this company for your own benefit, and then execute once you two are face-to-face. Walking in with an agenda almost always throws the interviewer off and sets you apart. Even though the contrived interview has come to be accepted as fact, it definitely does not need to be.

Every question you ask will be evaluated and scrutinized. So, ask questions that can help you out in two ways – illustrate your capability to dominate in a professional environment and extract the kind of information from a person that you could never get from a website or brochure. To do this, you will need to prepare and tactfully deliver strategic inquiries. Instead of just asking if the workplace is “fun” so that the HR manager can spoon-feed you the company line about culture fits and happy hours, dig deeper. Figure out what “fun” means to you, and then ask questions about that. On the flip side, remember to demonstrate your value as well. If you want a workplace with a mentoring program, and this one lacks it, could you be the one to start it after you were hired? Those sorts of follow-ups are fantastic indicators of leadership and investment on your part.

This is easiest when you set your mindset accordingly beforehand. At the beginning of my career, I was ready to move into my next opportunity and lined up about a dozen interviews. I accepted an offer from the third company with which I spoke, but then needed to figure out what to do with the rest of my scheduled conversations with different potential employers. Once I knew that I already had a job, I totally transformed the way in which I approached those talks. Instead of over-stressing impressing the hiring manager, I finally prioritized learning. And, just like that, I abandoned the back-and-forth interview in favor of real conversations that would add real value to my professional success.

Co-opting the interview situation into one that is beneficial for you requires planning and commitment, but the payoff is well worth that time and effort. It’s a chance to improve your skills in relationship building, negotiations, research, and more. Walk in with your head held high and eyes set on the prize, which should almost always bigger than just the specific job on the line. Put your career first in the conversation, and you will be surprised by what you stand to learn.