Hiring managers want to hear your story. They know that past behavior predicts future performance, so they ask for specific examples of times when you navigated office politics or delivered measurable results.
The technique is called the behavioral job interview, and you know it's coming when you hear the prompt, "Tell me about a time when you . . . " The next phrase can be almost anything: Assumed a leadership role, saved your company money, disagreed with a boss, juggled multiple tasks or overcame an obstacle.
Interviewers do not ask these questions because they enjoy watching you squirm. They are trying to assess whether you have experienced situations, organizations, cultures or projects similar to the ones you would encounter with the new position.
Effective storytellers understand this, and they come prepared with a library of anecdotes that reinforce a strong personal brand. Citi executive Joseph Colca, who recently shared advice with University of Maryland MBA students, says stories should combine to portray a track record of progressive results coupled with increasing responsibility.
"The important factors are how well the student can clearly and concisely articulate the story of how their background fits into the program here at Citi, how they can add value, and how they will be successful," Colca says.
Building a library of compelling stories takes time. Waiting until after an interview is scheduled is like trying to lose 10 pounds in two days.
Regardless of the prompt, the best responses during a behavioral job interview follow a three-pronged framework called Situation, Action, Results or SAR.
A SAR story begins with a career-based situation from your past. Younger job candidates or others without significant experience can use examples from internships, school and extracurricular activities.
Remember that employers are most concerned with what you learned, not all the details of what happened. So don't spend too much time describing the situation. Usually about 15 percent is sufficient to provide context and convey what led up to the event.
Spend the bulk of your time - about 60 percent - describing the actions you took to overcome the problem.
Use the final 25 percent of your time to focus on the consequences and quantifiable results of your action. When possible, include an explanation of the long-term strategic impact your actions had on the company in addition to the immediate results.
Here are some additional tips:
_ Be brief. Unless the hiring manager asks for longer responses, most stories should take two or three minutes to tell.
_ Be strategic. Remember that behavioral questions address specific dimensions or qualities that companies are looking for in a new hire. Create eight to 10 stories that focus on skills aligned to an organization's mission, values and core competencies such as leadership, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, motivation, creativity, adaptability and integrity.
_ Be prepared. Since most of us are not natural storytellers, it helps to plan what you are going to say. It also minimizes the risk of drawing a blank or telling the wrong story in an interview. Practice, practice, practice. But don't over-rehearse or memorize your answers. You will seem insincere.
_ Be mindful. Remember to listen carefully to what the interviewers are asking. Is it a question around leadership? Teamwork? Initiative? Are they assessing your fit with their firm? Some questions might not be stated so obvious as, "Why are you a great fit for our company?" It might be phrased as, "When have you been most satisfied in your career?" This question is designed to get you talking about your experiences from your prior work history and see what you choose to highlight as aspects for your happiness.
_ Be memorable. Show excitement when telling your stories. People remember unique stories, especially ones that convey emotion. One technique is to create titles for your stories. "Let me tell you my 'Refrigerator Story.' "
_ Be flexible. SAR prompts do not always start with the phrase, "Tell me about a time when you ..." Hiring managers also invite stories when they ask questions such as: "What is the riskiest decision you ever made?" "What do you do when your schedule is suddenly interrupted?" "What kinds of people do you have difficulty working with?" "Why should I hire you" and "What motivates you?"
_ Be positive. Some questions address the negative: "Tell me a time when you missed an obvious solution to a problem." "Tell me a time when you failed." Remember, it is important to always end on a positive note. For example: "Although we were over budget, we were able to reallocate resources for the next quarter."
_ Be the star. Emphasize the key role that you played in assessing each situation and delivering results. Do not pick stories where you merely "helped" do something. Use "I," not "we" to convey the impact that you had.
_ Be the icing on the cake. Most organizations are looking for employees who have a thirst for learning and a passion for continuous growth. When describing the results you achieved, be sure to close by sharing the lessons you learned (i.e., "Reflecting back, I learned that great teamwork starts with building trust with your coworkers.").
Preparing an effective SAR library is time consuming, but remember: Stellar resumes land interviews; stellar stories land jobs.
Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems, a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.