Interviewing like a STAR
Here you are. About to walk into a room where everything you say and do will be observed and judged. Your career depends exactly on what will happen in this room and you think you have little to no control over it.
The good news is that all of the above is a lie.
As a recruiter, I match people to jobs and companies. As part of that task, I also prepare people for interviews (both candidates and clients) which is by far the most challenging part of recruitment. Below are further explanations on how to master the art of interviewing.
The most common type of interview is called “competency based interview”, you may also have heard “situational questions”, “experience based interview” or “targeted selection”…. They all consist of the same principle: questions designed to elicit information on know-how as well as behavioural competencies and you don’t need to do anything else than being yourself.
Depending on the role you are interviewing for, this type of interview is specifically relevant at early stages of a process: when understanding values, personality traits and general ability to get the job done. The further you go into the process, the more targeted (and sometimes technical) will be the questions.
Every role requires some key competencies and as much as employers are able to provide technical training, the softer skills are the ones managers are struggling to find (or spot). The following example questions will give you an idea of which skills are being probed and how:
- Tell me about a time in which you were required to produce something to a high standard in a limited amount of time (Organisational Ability)
- Tell me about a disagreement you and your manager had (Interpersonal skills)
- Describe a situation in which the cause of a problem was not initially clear (Problem solving skills)
- Tell me about a decision you had made objectively despite your own personal bias. (Judgement ability)
- Tell me about a time which your creative ideas were ignored (Innovative thinking as well as ability to deal with frustration)
- When was the last time you had to do something you disagree with? (Integrity and ethics)
You may wonder why things need to get that deep during an interview and why companies use this technique. There are 3 main reasons:
The idea is that your past behaviour is a key indicator in predicting your future behaviour. It’s a legally defensible process that can also be customised, has been proven to work well and doesn’t leave space for evasive unstructured questions (which leads to waste of time for both interviewers and interviewees).
This format of questioning is ideal for hiring managers who are not often involved in recruitment and therefore may also not have the necessary emotional intelligence to spot values or personality traits. These questions are designed to spot existing skills but also to identify potential for growth and talent.
The last reason is that companies are made of values and the secret to a successful hire is when employees’ personalities match with these values. These targeted questions help gathering the needed information from a candidate to ensure the cultural match is strong enough to keep this person happy on an everyday basis, ideally for as long as possible.
Now, the difficulty in this type of interview is exclusively based on how to answer the questions (which is often where candidates fail) rather than in the content (if someone knows about their experiences it should be the candidate himself!).
There is a well-known process to follow when answering the above questions: S.T.A.R. This acronym helps to answer well and by that I mean put the right structure to your answer making sure you don’t miss any key information nor get too distracted with details.
S for Situation – Simple description of the overall situation and context:
Example: During my last year at university, I conducted a quantitative research project on consumer brand loyalty and customer satisfaction. My project received an undergraduate research grant from an external organisation of which I conducted my research in.
T for Task – What was exactly the responsibility you were given:
Example: In order to provide valuable information to the organisation financing my research project, and maintain my grade average over 70%, I was required to conduct high quality research, within the project deadline of 4 months, and achieve a grade result of 70% or above. Simultaneously, I was required to continue with my part time job, volunteering activities and extra assignments.
A for Action – What did YOU do to achieve your objective:
Example: To ensure that a high quality project was produced prior to the deadline, I first attended additional training on quantitative research methodologies; I attended a short course in academic writing business, and I conducted a pilot study prior to my main projects to gain preliminary data.
*Here, it is very important you are clear on your specific involvements within a team effort and make sure you use the first person when talking about a task fully completed by yourself.
R for Result – What was the exact outcome of your actions (and how would you approach the task again, looking back)
Example: Despite a heavy workload and significant pressure, my undergraduate project received a grade of 75% and was published in the journal of consumer marketing. The organisation which provided the research grant incorporated the findings of my project in their overall marketing strategy and offered me a 7 week paid internship in their company.
The last point I would like to cover is that the above will only be of little use if you can’t spot the competency being probed and chose a relevant example to answer. In order to do that, there are important hints and facts of where to find these competencies prior to as well as during the interview for you to be able to prepare and make sure you give an accurate answer.
Prior to the interview:
- YOURSELF: review your key competencies and skills and link them to specific examples from your professional experience.
- The job description: Make sure you are clear on the key responsibilities of the job itself. They tend to be listed on the job description and they will give you a good idea on what types of skills are needed for the role, which will be the ones probed during the interview.
- Companies’ values: By reviewing the website of the company you are about to interview for you will find some key words or values that reflect the company culture. These are very good indicators of soft skills your future employer is expecting you to have or show but might not be mentioned on a job description: Diversity, Curiosity, Commitment, Consumer focused, Fearless…
- There is another way of finding out extra information that won’t be on a job description and will give you a better idea of what the company is really looking for: talking to past or recent employees. Check out your network! LinkedIn is a great source of information in this case; you can see peoples’ backgrounds, get an idea of the turnover of employees, how active the brand is overall on social media. You can also go the extra mile and drop a quick message to anyone you know who has worked directly or indirectly for that firm: how was it? You may be surprised by how open people are about their past employers even when you don’t know them personally. Here you also need to be careful with interpretation: as on Glassdoor, not every bit of information is based on facts and therefore not to be taken too seriously.
Bear in mind that if you work with a recruiter, you should expect to be provided with the above information as part of your interview preparation. These guys can make your life so much easier in these situations!
During the interview:
- Listen carefully the full question (don’t interrupt)
- Take a few seconds to compose your thoughts before answering or even mention to the interviewer that you need a minute to thing about your answer
- If any doubt, ask for clarifications (DO NOT ASSUME!!)
- Speak clearly and don’t use slang
- Try to vary the examples you are referring to
- Use the STAR approach!!
- Ask questions yourself
By following all of the above, you will gain clarity on whether or not a job is right for you. You will also re-align your existing skills with your professional goals. As stressful as an interview can be, a good preparation is the only key to a successful one: not necessarily because you get the job, but more importantly because it leads you to the right decision.