Interviewing: Digging Deeper to Explain What You Did

In an earlier post I wrote about interviewing basics. I emphasized a high level approach that generally leads to success.  I’m going to dig into some specific areas in the coming weeks.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews as a hiring manager at several firms and a mentor at the Carlson School. One of the consistent differentiators in “behavioral interviews” (Those are the ones that ask questions like; “Tell me about a time when you had to…”) is a candidate’s ability to not just get through the facts of their resume, but to show depth of knowledge, judgment and professional maturity.

I’m looking for you to consistently show that you: 

1) Understand what you did – What actions did you take? Why? What was your rationale?

2) Get what did or didn’t work – What happened? This will vary widely by question and example. What went well or poorly? Why?

3) Have continued good practices or improved weaknesses (if necessary) – What have you changed since? What have you continued that worked? I don’t expect you to have succeeded at everything, but I do expect you to learn.

I often come back to two examples in my career that stick out. The first is the person who couldn’t articulate what must have been deep experience and the second spun gold from thin experience.

First, the sad story.  I had a candidate in my consulting days with deep manufacturing experience that looked really good on paper. Nice progression, good roles, meaningful results; all the right signals on a resume.

Then came the interview. Painful. Every answer was literal and closed-ended. I thought to myself “OK – maybe they just aren’t a talker, so I’ll probe”. Nothing. I tried to drill into the examples on their resume and they couldn’t get below the surface. They had little demonstrable conceptual knowledge of process (which really matters in management consulting). I obviously called into question what their role really was and couldn’t pass them along in interview process.

Was I the best interviewer 15 years ago? I don’t know. But this was one of the single worst underperformances relative to resume I’ve experienced. I still remember it.

Now, the good stuff. An acquaintance of mine with thin experience on paper managed to get a position with a prestigious strategy consulting firm. I wasn’t there, but knowing him and the firm, I have a strong hypothesis about how he did. I’ve had people do the same with me.

He demonstrated deep analytics and insight related to what he had done and convinced multiple hiring managers that he could project it into a corporate environment. As an aside, I couldn’t even get him an interview at my firm because of his lack of prior experience.

A Simple Way to Frame Your Experience and Knowledge

When asked a question like “Give me an example of a time when you dealt with a difficult teammate. How did you handle it and what was the result?” –  the classic interview answer technique is the “STAR” method. STAR stands for Situation/Task/Action/Result.

The STAR method is intended to help you remember to clearly lay out a fully fleshed out, specific example.

Situation: What is the context and problem as you see it?

Task: What were you trying to accomplish?

Action: What steps did you take?

Result: What was the outcome? (Quantify if possible.)

It should take you roughly 2 minutes to get through the entire process, leaving the interviewer time to probe and explore. It is critical to describe what you did. It’s great that the team was successful, but I’m hiring you and not the team. So don’t be shy.

Performance Levels

Level  0 – You just don’t get it

Similar to the negative interview I described above, you just don’t have it. A candidate that never really moves beyond their resume, gives surface answers and falls down under modest probing doesn’t get to second round interviews.

I have had candidates refuse to get specific with me. They want to keep everything high level. Trust me – interviewers want you to describe a specific, tangible situation that is relevant to the question.

At this level you are likely done in the first 5-10 minutes of the interview. Your introduction was probably weak and it got worse from there. Dead end.

Level 1 – Not a STAR

You have some structure, but aren’t answering crisply or deeply. Often this takes the form of “fishing” or rambling. Fishing is trying to probe me for what I’m looking for rather than answering directly, while rambling is running on until you stumble over something good. (Like Mark Twain’s famous quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”) An eight minute answer to a two minute question indicates either lack of preparation or lack of clear thinking. Neither is good.

Another fatal example is answering the wrong question. I often get people who miss the crux of the question by either giving a poor example or outright misunderstanding what I’m looking for.

At this level, you aren’t rocking it, but it may not be fatal if your example is good and what you did is significant. It depends on how the pool of candidates performs.

Level 2 – You’re a STAR!

You are using STAR or a similar technique and crisply banging out 2-3 minute stories that show what a good thinker, leader and teammate you are.

At this level you are definitely in the running and it depends on your fit for organization, the competitiveness of the pool and other factors beyond you. Remember that you can perform great and other factors tip the decision another way.

But at this level, you have controlled your performance.

Level 3 – Super STAR

You are consistently taking it to the next level by not just answering questions, but under pressure being able to fully explore scenarios and extrapolate into other environments. This is best when you can project into employer’s situation and engage in a dialogue about their business.

If the interviewer is lingering on examples and pushing you hard, odds are you are here or at least flirting with it. Most of us don’t push people we don’t think can handle it.

There is admittedly a fine line between levels 2 and 3. In my mind the crux of the split is that at 2 you are well rehearsed, smart and polished. But you may not be intuitive and creative. At 3, I see some special spark that convinces me that you’re “digging deeper” is intuitive – not just rehearsed.

I honestly believe that everyone can get better at this. Even if you don’t consistently hit the highest levels, marginal improvements can be important in differentiating you in a candidate pool. So remember to apply STAR and to dig deeper to get the offer.

In the interest of space I didn’t build a mock interview example. Let me know if you’re interested and I can publish one in the next week or so.

One thought on “Interviewing: Digging Deeper to Explain What You Did

  1. Thanks Phil for such an insightful article.
    You use the situations and words that just hits the chords and i feel you are great at this.
    Well as hirings have started i would be really helpful if you could publish a sample interview.

    Sachin Malik

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