Master Your Interview With Deeper Stories
Much of my recruiting leadership work involves teaching companies effective interviews and candidate assessment methods. As a career coach, I help candidates improve their interview results by explaining the “behind the scenes” interview process.
Typical interview advice recommends candidates walk in ready to share applicable stories. I agree, but this advice doesn’t go deep enough. I teach my clients to ask detailed follow-up questions. The reason: Without preparing to give detail in your career stories, the interview won’t go well.
The Shallow Story
I'll give you an example from several years ago. My company was interviewing for a Java developer and brought in a candidate for a first round interview. I was the first interviewer and noted his latest project mirrored our current needs.
I asked him about it and got a high-level answer: “We were building a county-wide tracking and information system.” My next question was a logical one: “What did you do on the project?” His answer: “We were building a county-wide tracking and information system.”
I re-asked the question again, only to get the same answer. Slightly exasperated, I told the candidate he wasn’t answering my question.
After a nervous silence, he said, “I documented the source code.” In other words, he did no direct coding and was putting comments in the existing code to explain the process.
We quickly ended the interview.
Peeling Back The Onion
Obviously, the candidate didn’t have the experience we needed and hoped his cursory answer would be enough, but it wilted with a simple follow-up question. This is the core of a successful interview: having relevant stories with solid detail. And it’s the detail that often makes or breaks the interview.
My key advice to candidates: Go deeper as you develop your interview stories. Prepare by “peeling back” your own onion.
How do you do this? The first step is understanding the two core areas of an interview: competence and culture fit.
For hiring teams, I teach them to get a full picture of a candidate’s competence. We need to know the candidate possesses both the knowledge and experience needed for the role. A typical question is, “Based on your understanding of the role, what’s an example where you did similar work?” This is the invitation to prove your competence.
A well-prepared candidate will give a top-level summary of the comparable project. It’s a bonus to add where there are similarities. Candidates need to explain what’s needed to solve problems. They may not have a complete solution, but they will share their process to find an answer.
Here are recommended interviewer follow-up questions:
• What were your key contributions to the project?
• What were two or three big challenges you had to overcome? What did you do to overcome them?
• Looking back, what would you do differently?
Evaluating Culture Fit
I believe culture fit is just as, if not more, important than competence. So having strong stories and the ability to provide strong details is critically important.
In my interview training classes, I describe the expected outcome: "The candidate will be a strong peer and make positive contributions to the company’s culture. They are helpful to others and team-oriented."
To assess, I recommend focusing on two areas of culture fit. The first is handling adversity and ambiguity. The second is assessing a candidate’s situational learning.
Adversity and Ambiguity
Successful candidates have stories that demonstrate handling tough situations and projects that aren’t clear. Sample questions to discern this include:
• Give me an example of a time you handled adversity.
• What roadblocks did you face with that challenge?
• Tell me when you had to solve a problem and were short on resources. What did you do?
• Tell me about a project where there was a lack of clarity.
Candidates who effectively learn to deal with uncomfortable situations and possess the ability to learn are often good culture fits. These skills are the core of situational learning. A key assessment question is, “Tell me about a situation or project you learned a lot from." To assess answers, interview teams will consider:
• Did they talk about the team or just their work?
• What did they learn from it?
• Did they blame others or integrate the experience?
Assessing A Candidate
Once the interview is complete, I advise interview teams apply these questions in assessing a candidate and their stories:
• Did they tell a story of success or failure?
• What did they learn from it?
• How do their stories match with our needs and culture?
Candidates need to have relevant stories and expect detailed follow-up. With good stories, this shouldn’t be difficult. If you can’t “go deep” with a story, it might not be the best one.
Stories around competence help interviewers match candidate skills to their need. Candidates should be clear about the job requirements and have stories that demonstrate their match.
If you're a candidate, don’t provide vague answers. Interviewers often assume a candidate doesn’t have relevant experience. Your best bet is to ask them to restate the question.
Be conversational, not rigid. Don’t tell the whole story with all the details all at once. Let interviewers ask questions to further understand.
Finally, candidates should also be evaluating the company and the interviewers. Use this experience to decide if they are the right fit for you.