Research is an often ignored or minimal aspect of job search. Given the massive wave of business changes over the past decade, this is especially dangerous. Many of today’s big and small names are a totally different company than they were even a year or two ago as mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, and business focus has been in ongoing flux.

Today we are going to create a “cheat sheet” for your job search and career success. It will help you uncover critical issues. You can also review this to prepare for targeting the best companies for you. Plus, it will help with every interview you get.

This process helps you organize your thoughts, research, and questions. It is a useful starting point. Modify it as necessary and appropriate for you. Don’t forget to add items specific to your personal and professional goals!

Some questions shown will depend on the level or type of position you seek. Sections or questions shown with an asterisk* are more useful to those seeking mid-level management to executive positions.

You are seeking to assess and learn, via this process, enough to target the best employer matches for your needs. Every company is not your target – you need to discover which have the right work and match your needs and values. This research can also help you learn of potential employers you do not recognize.

Getting Started
Begin your research with employer profiles on local business resources, social media, and job boards. Move on to engaging employers’ websites for more depth and detail. Search for external reviews and information from trade/business publications. Then check the employee reviews on Glassdoor and Vault.

Use the cheat sheet questions during networking to learn more about the realities of each target employer.

When you get to the interview stage, ask a number of specific questions of each interviewer. Assess the answers you receive compared to the results of your research about the organization. Ask several interviewers the same general questions – the more you ask, the better you will be able to assess the reality versus the “sales pitch.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during interviews! This process helps you assess each potential opportunity and how it matches your goals and needs. Experienced hiring managers will evaluate you on the quality of your questions. “How much vacation will I get,” is a negative since it doesn’t show any interest in the work. “What are the critical few goals for the first three months,” is a positive. Asking no questions is often interpreted as a lack of interest.

Let the “cheat sheet” help you think about the essential information you need so that you can make a solid choice. This is by no means an exhaustive list! But it should give you a good start on creating your own.

A. The Organization (research website & public sources, ask your contacts)
What is the Vision? Mission?
How is the vision manifested in the organization?
What is the current strategy?
* Is there a strategic plan? How is it used?
* Who is involved in strategic planning?
What is its reputation as a place to work within your career field?
What is the culture?
Does the existing culture support your goals and needs?
What are the organization’s stated values? Actual values?
How do these compare to your preferred values?
Who are the major competitors?
*What is this organization’s market share in comparison to competitors?
*How is market share changing?
Is there potential for disruption in the business arena?
What are the critical business issues facing the organization?
Does the organization have formal development programs in your function?
Does it tend to promote from within?

B. Immediate Manager’s Views (from interviews and contacts)
What is the function’s role within the organization?
Is the function seen as effective as is?
Are there plans that will change the role in the next year?
* How are current staff members seen within the organization?
*Who are peers to this position? Subordinates?
Who has to interview and approve this hire?
What are the critical relationships outside the work unit for the person in this position?
What other functions does it support?
What development opportunities exist?
What are the ‘critical few’ objectives for this position in next 6 months? Year?
* What are the key projects related to critical business issues, strategic plan, business development, operations/business plan, internal initiatives
* What is the budget?
How will performance be measured?
What is the timetable of performance reviews, informal and formal?
*What is the current level of turnover in the company? In the function?
Why is the position open? How long has it been open?
Are there internal candidates?
Previous incumbent’s successes?

C. * The Executive/Senior Management View of the Function (from public sources and interviews)
What is the function’s role within the organization?
What are the current critical issues?
What are long-term critical issues?
How do these relate to primary business issues?
Is the top person in the function a member of the executive staff?
What role, if any, does the top person have with the Board of Directors?
What does each executive you interview see as the role of the function?
What experience does each executive have with your potential role?
What are the ‘critical few’ objectives for the next six months? 12 months?

Assessing and Maintaining Your Interview Cheat Sheet
To start, modify your ‘cheat sheet’ as needed:
OMIT the questions which are not useful for your level or goals.
ADD those items which are essential to you and match your goals and values. Consider your needs versus wants, such as specific projects, professional growth, ability to mentor others, a short commute, or whatever.

Later, as you begin interviewing, you may want to revise this list of questions again to reflect both your goals and the marketplace.

Bottom Line
This cheat sheet is a starting point. As you do your research and informational interviewing, you should find other questions which will give you insight.

Don’t be afraid to bring your questions into an interview or to make notes about the answers you receive. Many interviewers gauge interest by the questions asked and some by whether you take notes.

Always compare the answers you get in interviews with those you got from your network and in your research of the organization’s public information. Sometimes the “talk” is not reality.