Career Tips

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Tell me about a time you’ve had to persuade someone to do something

The Real Question: People are tricky creatures. Do you know how to handle them?

Top-line Tactic: Focus on how you persuaded people, not just that you managed to convince them.

We’ve been through several of these competency-based Tell me about a time you . . . type questions already, so you might ask what’s different about this one? It’s a good point—the basic mechanics of the STAR method remain the same for all of these, so what’s left to consider after you have that mastered?

The next level of analysis is simply to consider the competencies behind the question. What quality or skills is the interviewer hoping to see you demonstrate in your answer? Here, for instance, this question about persuasion is a classic attempt to gauge people skills. The interviewer is probably looking for competencies like:

  • empathy
  • charm or rapport building
  • confidence and possibly assertiveness
  • flexibility
  • ability to handle conflict/difficult conversations
  • ability to put your ego aside, humility
  • ability to understand and motivate others

Of course, the exact skills required vary depending on the role and company culture, so take a moment before answering to think about what abilities the interviewer wants to see. Then use STAR to weave an answer that demonstrates them, for example:

When I was at ABC I was managing a group of six designers. Several of them came to me asking for more flexibility in their schedule and whether they could work from home occasionally. I’d done some research into productivity and I knew that creative people often benefit from this sort of freedom, but that management is often reluctant to give it them. In order to persuade my director, I put together a small presentation from the management literature that included several studies on the effectiveness of flexible work programs, their positive impact on hiring and retention, and best practices for running them.

I knew my boss would be worrying about productivity, so I came up with some key indicators we could track to hopefully counter that concern. I arranged a meeting with the director and also roped in HR, because they would need to approve the policy change. My boss wasn’t wild about the plan, but I stuck to my guns and ran through all the facts, countering each of his objections. He said he was impressed with my preparation and would think about it. After a week, I got the go-ahead to implement the change. My team was over the moon, and not only did productivity rise 20 percent, but soon after that I was able to hire a truly stellar designer, who said one of the main draws of the job was the flexible schedule. Notice that this answer doesn’t simply check the “ability to persuade” box but delves deeper into how the candidate went about persuading others, highlighting key constituent skills like empathy (foreseeing the director’s objections), consultation (roping in HR and listening to the designers) and tenacity (sticking with the debate despite objections).

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Work Organization

Are you organized at work? Lets find out.

Tell me about a time you’ve worked to/missed a deadline

The Real Question: How do you prioritize tasks, organize your work and handle time pressure?

Top-line Tactic: Apply the STAR technique, but be human.

In this section of the article, you’ll probably very quickly notice a pattern: lots of these questions start with Tell me about a time you . . . If you find your interviewer is using lots of this type of question, it’s a clear sign that you’re dealing with what’s known as a competency-based interview.

The idea animating this technique is that specific past examples are a better gauge of a candidate’s likely future performance than general assertions about skills. So if you want to know if someone handles time pressure well, it’s better to elicit a story about a time they worked under a tight deadline than it is to ask point blank, How do you cope under pressure?

The theory is simple, but if you’re expecting a more traditional interview style, a competency-based approach can throw you. Don’t let the apparently open-ended nature of these questions rattle you. There is a simple, structured technique to help you organize your response.

In the introduction to this article I mentioned the STAR acronym: Situation, Task, Action, Results. (Alternatively, some experts use CAR, swapping “Context” for “Situation/Task.” They pretty much amount to the same thing.) Here’s how to use the technique to shape your answers:

  • Situation/Task (or Context): Explain whatever background the interviewer needs to understand the story you’re about to tell. What’s the situation you were facing? What tasks did you need to undertake to resolve it? Include how important or difficult the situation was as well as any constraints on your actions. Make sure you’re crystal clear about your goal. Think of this as “setting the scene.”

Example: At Acme Ltd, I was responsible for representing the firm at trade shows. My second year there, it happened that three events we usually attended were scheduled within a month of each other—generally they were spread out over a much longer period. It meant a tremendous amount of work was compressed into a really tight window. These shows were a huge source of lead generation for the company, so it was essential we attended and presented our products in the best light.

  • Actions: What concrete actions did you take to resolve the situation? You always want to present yourself as the driver of the successful outcome. Don’t hog credit, but never cast yourself as in need of rescue or the victim of circumstance. Always consider what skills the interviewer is probably looking for and try to illustrate those.

Example: I enjoy a challenge, but I took a long, hard look at the situation and realized preparing all three up to the standards I’d want was going be impossible, so I had to prioritize. One was much less relevant to us than the other two, so I agreed with my manager that we’d focus on only those two. Once that was settled, I could draw up a detailed to-do list with interim deadlines for each item so that I’d have all the materials I needed to really represent the company well.

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Working Decisions

When it comes to work making decisions is crucial.

What was the last big decision you had to make?

The Real Question: How do you think through problems? Is your approach appropriate for this role?

Top-line Tactic: Give the interviewer a window into your decision-making process, stressing the particular type of reasoning that is most important for the job at hand.

Everyone makes tough decisions at work, but not everyone makes them the same way. This question is designed to get inside your head and figure out how you reason and weigh alternatives.

Answering should be fairly straightforward: be honest, pick a recent choice you made and talk the interviewer through the decision and your thought process in a clear, succinct manner.

Much depends on the sort of role you’re applying for. Is this a management position that requires an iron nerve to balance business objectives and human concerns? Choose an example of a time you had to weigh those trade-offs.

I had to decide whether to end a relationship with one of our suppliers. We’d worked together for years but the quality of the components they supplied had been declining for quite a while. We’d warned them several times, but there had been no improvement. I had a good working relationship with my contact and I knew that terminating the contract would be a blow to the firm, but my first priority had to be our customers, so after researching the alternatives I changed suppliers. It was a hard decision to make because I knew I was affecting other people’s livelihoods, but I still think it was the right way to go.

Are they looking for a math whiz to crunch numbers? In that case your best bet is to choose a situation where you made a data-driven decision. Pick a decision that allows you to highlight your quantitative skills as well as your ability to apply them in a complex human content.

The idea here is to select a decision you made in a domain that emphasizes the key type of decision making for the role you’re applying for. That may entail stressing your empathy and strong sense of people’s quirks, your analytical chops, your stomach for tough calls, your ability to think about the bigger picture, your coolness under time pressure, or your intuitive grasp of questions of design, branding or aesthetics. As always, if you find yourself struggling to fill out a hypothetical answer, the job description will show you the way forward.

Are they looking for a math whiz to crunch numbers? In that case your best bet is to choose a situation where you made a data-driven decision. Pick a decision that allows you to highlight your quantitative skills as well as your ability to apply them in a complex human content.

The idea here is to select a decision you made in a domain that emphasizes the key type of decision making for the role you’re applying for. That may entail stressing your empathy and strong sense of people’s quirks, your analytical chops, your stomach for tough calls, your ability to think about the bigger picture, your coolness under time pressure, or your intuitive grasp of questions of design, branding or aesthetics. As always, if you find yourself struggling to fill out a hypothetical answer, the job spec will show you the way forward.

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