If you’ve interviewed for a professional role in the past few years, you’ve likely faced a “Tell me a time when..” question. There are lots of guides on how to answer these sorts of questions. I’ve found most of them to only be moderately useful. I’d like to share a 3 step process that I’ve come to use for these interviews.
Base line requirements. There are 2 base line requirements –
a) Create a behavioral matrix. Create a table with a few rows that list the various types of questions (typically – Leadership and Influence, Challenges, Failure, Success, Teamwork, and Approaching problems) and let the columns be Professional, Education and Personal. For each combination, list stories that fit the behavioral themes. The key here is not to miss important stories from various aspects of your life. While you are at it, also list the key starter questions – “Tell me about yourself,” “Why industry/company/role/you?” “What are 3 weaknesses?”
b) Really work on the main 5-8 stories. You will probably narrow down to a set of 2-3 super star stories and 3-4 good stories. Work hard on fleshing them out so they feel really concise. Flesh out the rest of the stories in bullet point fashion as well. Once you’ve fleshed them out, make sure you really know them by heart. There is no substitute to practice here.
Once you hit the base line requirements, you are ready for a behavioral interview. The 3 step process that needs to follow is –
1. Think deliberately about your strategy. The way to think about it is to ask yourself 2 questions – what is the one thing I’d like the interviewer to remember about me? And, what are three themes I’d love the interviewer to remember?
If your themes are wicked design skills, creativity and your ability to take initiative with the “wicked design skills” being the 1 thing you’d like the interviewer to remember, that needs to be woven in as a thread through the interview. Your “tell me about yourself” should have all 3 explicitly mentioned, your answers to “why role/why you?” should have them mentioned. Your weakness will probably be something along “think too much about design and not enough about implementation” since most great strengths moonlight as weaknesses.
The important thing is to start with your strategy and work it in through the stories. The best strategies will fit well with the company and role you are interviewing for. So, if you’re interviewing to be an interface designer, I would define what skills the best interface designer should have and see how your skills match. Great interviewees present a story that just makes sense. Deciding on a strategy and weaving it through is how you do that.
2. Answer the question. The famous “STARL” framework (Situation-Task-Action-Result-Learning) is a good starting point for behavioral interviews. Using the STARL analogy, don’t spend more than 20 seconds on describing the situation. This is very hard to do because it feels like we need to give the other person a real taste for the complexity of the situation. Don’t bother. It doesn’t matter. Just answer the question.
I’d recommend just paraphrasing the question and starting with a crisp situation before you dive into the details. Being succinct when you tell your stories is how you differentiate yourself.
3. Don’t just tell them what you did – explain your thought process. Let’s say you are asked a question – “Tell me about a time when you faced resistance to an idea you proposed.” You can pull off a great interview answer if you answer the question, weave your overall strategy in and talk about a time where you responded to the situation well and generated great results. That would work because that’s what most folks do.
Let’s think about the “why” behind behavioral interviews for a moment. They don’t exist because interviewers want to know what you did. They exist because they want to understand how you approach problems. So, make it easy for them. After succinctly describing the situation, explain how you think about it. An example would be – “Whenever I face resistance to one of my design ideas, I typically do 3 things – first, I speak one-on-one to the dissenter to understand the source of the dissent. Next, I take time to explain what my rationale and thought process was. Finally, if it is a easy fix, I make the change but, if I feel it compromises on the integrity of the design, I work to understand the decision criteria and see if we can bring an objective person to discuss it with us. I followed these steps when I was faced with this situation..”
In 20 seconds, you’ve explained how you think about dissent and then will have given him/her confidence that you’ve walked your talk before. Follow this process for each of your key stories and explain this thought process before you dive into the details – you’ll be golden.
I hope this helps.