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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