Note: This is an expanded version of an article originally published at the author’s blog, http://threshold-consulting.com.
Let’s face it. The phrase job interview conjures up feelings and images most of us would rather not entertain. And it only adds to our apprehension when interview advice references terms like targeted selection, behavioral interview, situational and stress interviews, and panel interview – just to point to a few! Nor does it help that most people seem to reserve interview prep for the time when they’re in active job search and feeling especially pressured to make a great impression in order to win a job offer.
Yet, it seems to me that there is a flaw in the typical thinking about job interviews: it is in the notion of being a job seeker preparing now for an interview. The real question, I think, is how does the interview fit with the long-term management of one’s career?
If we take the long view, managing one’s career involves having some degree of self-awareness of specific instances of one’s successes and failures. Ideally, we are able to capture the elements of those successes and failures to monitor, maintain, or improve our performance. And if we don’t, there is very likely someone else who will. It’s what performance reviews are intended to do, after all.
Taken as a whole, these individual instances of success and failure weave the story of our career, and perhaps even our life message. While seemingly disparate elements, they are episodes, or chapters, or plot lines that form a larger narrative. In fact, this relationship to story is not novel. It is clearly captured in the most fundamental approach to interview prep: create accomplishment stories to describe your experience. It’s what the STAR Technique is all about; namely, creating stories that tie together discrete situations and/or tasks faced, action steps taken, and results achieved.
Our careers represent our narrative, with stories that get told in formal performance meetings, in “water cooler” chatter, after hours with colleagues and friends, during mentoring conversations, and while networking generally. Indeed, our stories are what give us visibility and credibility inside of the communities of practice made up of the people who do what we do, and more broadly in brand communities that include the people we serve.
I believe that thinking of our careers as narrative has a powerful implication for how we conceive of professional interactions, in general, and job interviews, in particular. And it’s this: discussions of our professional experience are truly opportunities for shared narrative. Trading stories with a fellow professional or an interviewer about our experiences allows for a sharing of meaning, and supports the kind of bonding that takes place in discovering what we share in common. It is a fundamental human need that drives folklore, which is often a device for transmitting a culture’s morals and values.
Most of us have had the experience, during an interview, of an interviewer sharing his or her stories. When this happens, the overall interview tone usually changes, and with rapport going way up!! It’s not uncommon that these kinds of interviews can get us on the short list of candidates – and even win us the job. Perhaps this kind of interview owes to that elusive set of qualities known as “chemistry.” Yet, our ability to foster engagement can often allow chemistry to work – and part of that comes from trading stories.
While it’s typically not advisable, in a formal interview, to turn the tables and ask the interviewer for his or her experiences, it is possible to engage them by sparking their interest and curiosity. One way to do this is to borrow from public speaking and open our stories in ways that are more compelling. So, it’s possible to set a story telling tone by using a provocative statement or question that will engage the listener.
Here are some examples of how to set up a more engaging response to some frequent interview questions:
Interviewer asks: Can you tell me about a time when you proposed an idea that was rejected by your manager or team?
Interviewee says: Have you ever faced what seemed like a no-win situation? Well, let me tell you a story…
Interviewer asks: Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your manager, what was the situation, and how did you resolve the disagreement?
Interviewee says: You know how people always say two heads are better than one? Well, in 2007,….
Interviewer asks: Tell me about a time when project demands seemed overwhelming; what did you do, and how did you reach your objectives?
Interviewee says: You know, 80% of the value really does come from 20% of the process, let me give you an example from the my position at…
Interviewer asks: Have you ever dropped the ball with a customer; who was the customer, and how did you resolve the situation?
Interviewee says: Have you ever had a customer that you simply could not satisfy? … Well, let me tell you about one where…
Interviewer asks: Tell me about a time when a project you led required cross-functional support; what was the project, and who were the players, and how did you make it work?
Interviewee says: You know how the accounting department always seems to want…?
Interviewer asks: Tell me about a time when you achieved a truly remarkable result; what was it, and how did you do it?
Interviewee says: Achieving a net promoter score of 100% is a BIG deal, let me tell you how we did it…
More than being a glib way to start the response, each of these examples invites the listener into the story by getting them to identify with a common experience or idea. It promotes engagement, and the better the engagement, the more likely the listener will be to offer positive non-verbal cues, relate they have had a similar experience – and possibly share their own story. At very least, you can free yourself, and the interviewer, from the tedium of rote answers based on a STAR format.
If the final outcome of a job interview is to select the candidate who has not only the required skills but also represents the best cultural fit, then your ability to engage in shared narrative over the course of the process can have an impact on your success. Still, this is not something you should construe as just another interview strategy.
In a world driven by digital presence and always-on social networking, the ultimate approach is to step outside the analog, on/off thinking that conceives of discrete events that are part of a job search process. Instead, find regular opportunities to truly engage and share who you are in ways that ties you to the culture of your communities.