The Mentorist

‘Tell Me About a Time When You….’: Prepping for the Behavioral Interview

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Perhaps their parents didn’t read them Harold and the Purple Crayon enough times.

Whatever the reason, job interviewers these days expect candidates to regale them with tales of personal derring-do.  Not just any old adventures, mind you.  Rather, the interviewer wants to hear tales that convince her you’re the missing piece in her company’s HR jigsaw puzzle.

Yes, behavioral interviews are all the rage.  But what exactly are they?  They’re interviews designed to ferret out how you’ve acted –- and, more specifically, what skills and personality traits you’ve displayed — in past work situations.

The premise underlying behavioral interviewing is that past performance predicts future performance (unlike with your investment adviser…).  In other words, how you’ve behaved in past situations is the best predictor of how you’re going to behave when facing those to come.  (For those in therapy, this is a discouraging notion.)

So, instead of asking traditional open-ended interview questions (the archetype being ‘what’s your greatest weakness?’), or hypothetical ones (‘what would you do if…?’), a behavioral interviewer asks for ‘proof points’ –- that is, specific examples from your past that show you have the qualities deemed essential for the job at hand.

If your interviewer starts the conversation with some version of:  ‘Tell me about a time when you showed [fill-in-desired-trait]…’ you’ll know you’re smack dab in behavioral land.

So, how can you possibly prepare for a behavioral interview, when every action (and reaction) in your life-up-till-now is up for scrutiny? Well, ….

  1. Determine What Traits Matter to the Company

    Hundreds of interview curveballs can start with the request:  ‘Tell me about a time when you.…’  You can’t possibly anticipate them all.

    What you can do is develop a good sense of the traits your potential employer is looking for.  Start by reading the job description the company has posted online or through an outside recruiter.

    After the section that lists required qualifications and experience, the job posting will typically include a ‘skills’ section (sometimes referred to as ‘competencies,’ ‘personal characteristics,’ ‘traits,’ etc.).  Read that section carefully.  It’s telling you what traits are likely to be ‘tested for’ in the behavioral interview.

    Case in point:  I just pulled two in-house legal job postings off the internet — one from a hiring company’s own website, the other from a recruiting firm’s site.  Each is a veritable road map to the questions a candidate should prep for.

    The first posting says the company is looking for someone ‘able to work as part of a team.’  So, expect to get an interview question along the lines of:  ‘Tell me about a time you had to work in a group to accomplish an important project.’

    The second posting says that candidates must be able to ‘work successfully in an ambiguous environment.’  So, be prepared to give specific examples of times you’ve had to make decisions without having all of the facts at hand.

    But, don’t stop with the surface-level questions.  You also need to anticipate the follow-on behavioral questions an interviewer might throw your way.

    Going back, for a moment, to the first posting’s ‘teamwork’ requirement:  Think about the issues that tend to arise in teams.  For one thing, they can be fraught with power plays and interpersonal tensions (or have I just been unlucky?).

    That means there’s a good chance your interviewer will want to know how you’ve handled those issues.  After asking for basic proof of your team spirit, she may decide to probe deeper, asking you something along the lines of:  ‘Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you disagreed with.  How did you resolve your conflicts?’

    After mining the job posting for a list of traits you’ll need to ‘prove,’ look to other sources for more clues about the company’s culture and profile:  Read the company’s website, do a google search on the company, talk to people who have a bead on its inner workings….

    Finally, think about the traits that are, just generally, viewed as necessary for the role you’re seeking.  (Applying for CEO?  Well, then, stockpile tales of leadership and strategic thinking.  For General Counsel?  Then, expect to be asked about times you had to make unpopular decisions and communicate hard messages. )

    Without knowing a single thing about the company you’re interviewing with, I’d bet big money the behavioral interviewer will ask for specific examples of times you:

    > Managed conflict
    > Worked as part of a team / collaborated
    > Worked independently / proactively improved a process or product
    > Showed creativity / innovated
    > Overcame adversity
    > Thought on your feet / had to change course ‘on a dime’
    > Displayed leadership

    Why these?  Working at most any company or firm –- regardless of size, structure or industry –- will put you in situations that require the traits listed above.  A behavioral interviewer will want to know how you’ve handled your past trails by fire.

  2. Collect Your ‘Proof Points’

    Got your list of traits?  Now, put them aside for a moment.

    To avoid being overwhelmed when preparing for your behavioral interview, try a reverse approach:  Don’t start by focusing on the company’s wish list of traits, grasping for real-life examples that prove you have each.

    Instead, spend time thinking back on your specific projects and accomplishments over the course of your career.  Ask yourself — with respect to each — what personal traits you had to draw upon in order to accomplish the goal.  Consider Project X:  How did you have to tap into your creativity while working on it?  How did it call upon your perseverance?  Your negotiating skills?  And so on….

    By reflecting back on these ‘accomplishment’ scenarios first, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to pull out a list of traits you displayed in the thick of action.

    After you’ve ‘organically’ identified most of your traits this way, you can then turn to finding examples for the traits still open on the company’s wish list.

  3. Rehearse Your Stories

    Behavioral interviewers are looking for stories. Short ones.

    Preparing for a behavioral job interviewWhen giving your examples, be succinct.  Be specific.  Spend no more than two minutes per answer.  (The interviewer can ask follow-up questions, if she wants more.)  Follow an arch — for each example, describe the:

    Situation:  What situation were you in?
    Task:  What was the task or mission to be accomplished – and why?
    Action:  What specific action did you take to address the situation? What was your contribution?
    Result:  What was the result or outcome? What did you learn?

    (In HR parlance, this arch is sometimes referred to as the STAR method.)

    Be honest, but cast yourself in the best possible light.  Stay positive.  (No trashing that coworker who got in your way.)  Realize there’s no right or wrong answer.  This interview is about ‘fit.’

    And if — after preparing thoroughly and acing the interviewer’s questions -– you don’t get the job, you might want to thank your lucky stars:  You’ve just avoided a bad marriage.  Better to learn now that you’re not a good fit than to take a role that later makes you miserable.

But here’s what I’m really wondering:  Can you tell me about a time you changed the world with a purple crayon?

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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