There are a lot of different ways to conduct an interview.
Some people use the same fixed list of questions for every candidate, others take a more casual go-with-the-flow approach.
Some interviewers are experienced and trying to make you squirm, and others might be more nervous than you are and appreciate you taking control of the conversation.
No matter who you're talking with, though, you're likely to get some form of a question that asks you to talk about something you did in the past that will pertain to the job at hand.
These are called behavioral interview questions, and they are probing for specifics about how you handle something the company thinks will be important in that job.
Behavioral questions usually begin by with a phrase like "Tell me about a time when…" or "Describe how you handled a situation when…" and then give you a chance to share about something you've done in the past that will give an idea of how you'd do in the job at hand.
Is the behavioral interview dead?
Someone in one of my LinkedIn groups recently put forward a thought that behavioral interview questions were dead. I completely disagree.
Any interviewer worth their salt will ask a candidate to talk about what they've done in different situations.
What you did in one situation is a very good indicator of what you'll do when presented with a similar situation.
Asking someone "What would you do if…" can be helpful to see how someone thinks they might handle something, but asking them for a specific story about a specific situation in the past lets you see how they actually handled it. Behavioral interview questions aren't going anywhere.
What are some behavioral interview questions?
These are open-ended questions asking you to share something that will show the employer how you've handled situations they believe are similar to theirs. For example:
- Tell me about a time when you had a great deal of pressure and not enough time to get everything done, and how you handled it.
- Have you ever been in a situation where you didn't have enough work to keep busy? What did you do?
- Give me an example of how you set goals and objectives, and how you keep track of your progress.
- Describe a time when you had to make a difficult decision, and how you made the decision and got other people on board with your choice.
- Have you ever had a difficult situation with a boss? How did you handle it?
How can you prepare for behavioral interview questions?
One of the challenges of preparing for these questions is that you don't know exactly what they'll be asking you about. But that's OK, because you can prepare a few stories that you can then modify to suit different types of questions.
Here is how to prepare:
1. First, make a list of your key stories from your career.
Begin by making a list of five or six of the most interesting and challenging things you've done. This will become your story foundations, to use over and over again.
Did you help convert a software system in the middle of the year, and have to handle everything that went wrong? Did you join a company in financial trouble and have to manage a discouraged work force back to productivity? Are there special projects in your experience that you want to talk about?
2. Once you have your key accomplishments listed, prepare some stories about them to illustrate your ability to solve problems and get things done.
For instance, you can talk about how you recruited others to help with the software conversion, and got your manager to give you budget for hiring extra help. Or you can make notes of how you approached the situation when you realized your new boss had fired the last five people in your job, and you didn't want to be the sixth.
3. Review the job description and the company to look for hints about what might be important to them.
If the posting really emphasizes attention to detail, make sure your stories show how you notice all the little things. If it emphasizes being able to quickly adapt, make sure you have a story about needing to change direction quickly.
4. Then script your stories out with three parts: situation, action and results.
First, give a sentence that talks about the situation and the challenge you were facing. Next, say what the actions were that you took in that situation, and finally, give the results of your actions.
Make it short and sweet to begin, and leave yourself open for more questions if the interviewer wants you to go deeper with your answer.
5. Adapt the same stories for different situations, and add or subtract details of the specifics.
As an example, here are three different questions, and you can see how the same answer could work for both:
- Behavioral Question: Tell me about how you have set up a new office from scratch in the past.
- Behavioral Question: Describe a situation with extremely high expectations, and how you met the challenge.
- Behavioral Question: Give me an example of how you set goals and meet your objectives.
Answer: When I joined ABC Company in 2004, the CEO was working out of her home and there was no office at all yet. We had a very short timeline and a very limited budget. I called some of my commercial leasing contacts from my previous job, and got leads on several companies who'd had cutbacks so had surplus office space to rent out temporarily. By keeping a very detailed list of what needed to be done, and using my contacts and knowing where to get the best services for the best price, I had us in new quarters within six weeks, including being online, with phones, comfortable desks and all the basic services running.
You can see how you could easily adapt that answer to a question about a demanding boss, a pressing deadline, using contacts to get things done, or many other scenarios. By adding or deleting a few words, you can customize your answer to their question, while still using one of your foundational stories about your work experience to illustrate your abilities.
The behavioral interview question is alive and well, and with a little pre-planning, you'll make the most of your answer and impress the heck out of the interviewer.
More tips about interviewing: