I’ve never met anyone who loves participating in job interviews. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy them. I’m not sure what to think about those people though. For the rest of us, we need all the motivation we can get heading into an interview. It’s as if searching for a job isn’t stressful enough, now they’re going to stick you in front of a panel of business professionals that will grill you for an hour or more with any question they want.
Over the years I’ve screened thousands of resumes and have interviewed hundreds of candidates (okay, maybe not hundreds, but definitely more than a single hundred). Before becoming a hiring manager in my day job, I spent two years freelance recruiting with a friend who owned a small recruiting business. Like most things, getting good at something typically requires a lot of practice. Being interviewed is a great way to get reps, but so is being on the other side of the table.
While I’ve worked for the same company for almost 13 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview for internal positions multiple times. Behavioral interview questions have been part of every process. The better prepared you are, the less nervous and more personal you’ll be during your interview.
This post is being written in April 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a lot of unknowns right now in the job market. However, one thing we do know is that companies will continue to hire (maybe not as aggressively) and there will be many people out of work who may be looking for new roles. Open positions may have more competition so it will be more important than ever to stand out during the interview process.
What is a Behavioral Interview?
Behavioral interviews are designed to get insight on how a candidate has behaved in the past in a certain situation. It’s by no means a perfect way of assessing past performance, but it does seem to do a better job than standard interview questions such as the good old “what is your greatest strength/weakness”.
Behavioral interview questions generally start with “tell me about a time when”. A few examples of behavioral interview questions include:
- Tell me about a time a customer got upset with you.
- Describe a major mistake you made and what you did to correct it.
- Tell me about a time when you were right and others were wrong.
- Describe a time when you had to adapt to big changes at work.
To answer a behavioral interview question, you generally want to start by describing the situation, then lay out the problem, followed by going into detail about the action you took to solve the problem, and finishing with the end result or any lessons learned.
As you can see, it can be tough to anticipate answers to these questions. Behavioral interviews can span a wide variety of situations and circumstances. They are designed to catch you off guard a bit. Not to trick you, but to get you to describe the situation as if you were reliving it in your past.
During the remainder of this post, we will outline the step-by-step process that I’ve used in the past to prepare for behavioral interviews. Follow these steps and you’ll be sure to dominate your next interview.
Preparing for a Behavioral Interview
What is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety in any situation, especially a job interview?
The problem is most of us don’t know how to prepare for a behavioral interview. If you don’t know what questions the interviewer will ask, how can you ever feel confident that you are prepared? Well, hopefully this step-by-step preparation process will allow you to feel more confident when you walk through those doors.
Step 1: Gather Your Stories
How do most people prepare for interviews? They usually go out and try to find practice questions online and then run through a number of examples. This isn’t a terrible approach. At least it’s something. The problem is that it’s a reactive approach instead of a proactive one.
The key to mastering the behavioral interview can be summarized in one word – stories. Well organized and compelling stories are the key to nailing your behavioral interview. How do you do this? Keep on reading.
Your goal is to come up with eight to ten stories that you want to tell during your interview. Great stories get people hired.
Your first step is to brainstorm dozens of potential stories that will eventually be narrowed down to eight to ten. Sit down and just start writing out topics. Go through old performance reviews, emails, or task lists to jog your memory about potential stories. Write down anything that comes to mind no matter how good or bad.
Next, step away for a few hours. When you come back, review your brain dump of potential stories and narrow the list down to eight to ten stories that you feel compelled to share during your interview.
Step 2: Write Out Your Stories
Once you narrow your list of stories it’s now time to start writing them out in detail. You will want to ensure your stories follow the process outlined below.
- Describe the situation
- Lay out the problem
- Detail the action you took to solve the problem
- Finish with the end result and any lessons learned
Again, don’t cheat yourself here. The key is to take the time to write out each of your stories in detail.
Here’s an example.
Two years ago I was asked to lead a project to determine if there were cost efficiencies in our business line. This project required me to collaborate with peers and senior members of the team, and then sell our ideas to senior leadership. This project was especially challenging because I relied on input from busy individuals several pay grades above me. Thankfully, I had invested in relationships with these individuals prior to this project so there was a level of trust established when I needed assistance. Selling the team on the “why” of the project was the most important factor in getting others on board.
Upon completion, the project received positive feedback from senior leadership and two measures were implemented to reduce costs by 10%. More than anything, this initiative taught me how to lead a team of peers and with seniority through relationships and influence.
Easy enough, right? Do this eight to ten times with different stories from your past. The job description of the position you’re interviewing for will help you determine the focus of your stories. For example, if communication is mentioned several times in the job description then ensure you have several related examples. In general, your stories should be more heavily weighted to more recent experience.
Step 3: Rehearse Your Stories
When you have a list of eight to ten detailed stories you should be able to apply them to most any behavioral interview question. If you go to your favorite search engine and search “behavioral interview questions”, you’ll find thousands of questions that you can practice with.
Even better, sites such as Glassdoor may provide the examples of questions candidates were asked during the interview process. This is especially true for larger companies as there will be more data points. After registering for a free account, there is a section dedicated to the interview questions candidates were asked during the process.
Spend an hour or two reading through sample interview questions and think about what story applies to each. Maybe run through a few examples in detail talking through exactly how you would answer the question. There is such thing as over-preparing as well. Rehearse too much and you may come across as robotic during the interview. You want the interview to be more conversational than overly rehearsed.
Step 4: Ace Your Interview
Now that you’ve prepared your stories and have rehearsed, it’s time for your interview! Below are a few suggestions to help you ace your interview.
- Research the organization to show you have interest in the company you’re interviewing for.
- Be prepared to share what it is about the position or organization that interested you. Also, be prepared to share why you left or are leaving your most recent organization.
- Ensure you know the parking or mass transportation situation. There’s nothing more stressful than circling around a downtown area trying to find parking last minute. Take a drive to the organization a few days before if time allows, and if not, use Google street view to get a feel for the location.
- Unless explicitly stated, always dress in business professional attire for an interview. Even if via video conference.
- Nothing will help you better prepare than a great night’s sleep. Don’t stay up all night preparing at the risk of losing sleep.
- Plan to arrive at least 15-30 minutes early. Many large companies have a time consuming sign-in or security process that you may need to go through.
- Being prepared is the best way to show up relaxed. During the interview, be polite, positive, and confident. Never say anything bad about a previous employer or boss.
- Prepare two or three questions about the position for the end of the interview. Questions such as “what do you like most about this company?” are generally well received as it shows that you have interest in learning more about what it’s like to work at the company.
- Be flexible and agile as there will almost always be at least one question that catches you off-guard. Also be prepared for additional personality, cognitive, or technical testing if you advance through the process.