How To Answer Interview Questions

So you have just walked into the room and introduced yourself to the people who will be interviewing you. Click here for tips on shaking hands. 

Undoubtedly they will ask you to take a seat and they may offer you a coffee or a glass of water. If water is readily available, I usually accept their offer because you will be talking a lot in the next hour or so and a drink can keep your voice refreshed and alive. I don't tend to drink coffee during a formal interview because it will usually be cold by the time you get around to drinking it and who wants that?

Behavioural Interview Questions

Before we get into specific interview questions, it is important to understand that a very common approach to interviewing these days is "behavioural interviewing". The idea here is that by asking you open ended questions about previous experiences, the interviewers will get an idea or sense of how you will respond to similar situations in the future.

The key to answering these questions well is to put your answer in the form of:

  • Situation
  • Action
  • Outcome

So with this in mind and keeping the three or four elements of your brand in the forefront of you mind:

  • acknowledge the question and if necessary take the opportunity to clarify it or restate it in a manner that is consistent with the message you want to convey,
  • briefly define the situation to provide some context for your answer,
  • tell the interviewers what actions you took, how you responded and/or your reaction to the situation,
  • describe the outcome and/or consequences of your action.

If you answer the questions this way - you will be providing the interviewers with the information they are looking for and the interview will progress with "ease and grace". The interviewers may also ask for additional detail and/or for further information or clarification on your answers. This is a good thing - if they didn't care to learn more, they would be moving on to the next question!

Sometimes people get misled into providing too much detail or too much contextual information in their answers. Remember, the questions are about you, not about your previous company or the market situation in who-knows-where. They want to know about you!

Okay now for some very common questions.

Common Interview Questions

Please tell us about yourself
Some people dislike this question but there is no doubt in my mind that you have just been given a gift! The gift is the direct opportunity to tell the interviewers what you want them to know about you. They want to hear about your brand!

I have seen people squander this opportunity by providing their life story or asking diminishing questions back such as: "Are you specifically interested in my career?" Huh? They just asked you to tell them what you want them to know!

This is no time to rely on their incredible powers of intuition and insight to piece together an accurate impression of you. Tell them what it is you want them to know. Don't leave this to chance!

Here is a sample:
Well there are a number of things I would like you to know about me. The first is that I am a very hard worker. I really pride myself on being focused at getting the job done and done right the first time. One of my first jobs as a student was unloading semi-trailers and one time I had unloaded the trailer so quickly that the superintendent decided to give me four hours on my time sheet in spite of the fact I had only been there for two! That experience really reinforced the importance of having a strong work ethic in my mind at a young age.

Another thing I want you to know is that I am really committed to continuous learning and self development. In fact, I really don't want a role where I am not challenged to learn new things, acquire new skills and develop my potential. It is really important to me that any organization I work for, see our relationship as an investment in personal growth that pays a huge return for the organization. And, not surprisingly, because of this attitude, I am a quick learner.

I'll wrap up my answer to this question by reinforcing what is already on my resume. I am a strategic thinker with a "common touch". What I mean by this is that I tend to see opportunity and options in situations that others don't but rather than just appreciating this insight - I am very good at figuring out how to translate the insight into action. A big part of this is the way I communicate with people. I can form very strong connections with a wide variety of people from sales people on the showroom floor to investment bankers looking for a good investment. In short, I love seeing opportunities for improvement and then translating them into actions that deliver on the promise of increased productivity.

Of course this is just an example, but you can see by the way I have answered the question that the question itself was a gift. They are basically asking you to tell them what you want to know about you - so make the most of it!

If I have a caution here it is to not drag on forever. Really - if your story is a good one - they will ask questions about it if time permits. If not - well, what a great incentive to get you back in for another interview!

Tell us of a stressful situation you have faced and how you handled it and the outcome.

There is literally always a question in an interview these days that deals with stress. The interviewers are looking for a few things here:

  • What do you find stressful?
  • How do you handle situational stress?
  • How do you handle stress generally?
  • What have you learned?

So, while your answer may not be work related, make sure that it touches on these points. Here again is an example:

Well, I think stress is a normal and healthy part of life but I am willing to admit there are times when it can get a bit over the top! Often a big stressor for me is when I feel I have to sacrifice quality for speed or timeliness. For example, one project I was running required a significant piece of equipment be shipped from Italy and delays in manufacturing ate up our contingency so we had a decision to make whether to ship it without inspection and keep to our schedule commitments or take the time to inspect it properly and suffer a delay on the project.

To manage the stress of this decision, I engaged a number of my key staff, peers and superiors in a dialog to ensure I had as much of the whole picture as was possible. Based on informing everyone of the situation and making sure I had as many of the facts as were available, I then made the call to ship the equipment.

In essence, I managed my stress by satisfying myself that I had done my best to make a decision that was based on fact and collaboration while retaining accountability. As it turns out there were a few flaws in the equipment when it arrived but we were able to address these on site with minimal consequence.

Before we leave this question though, I would also like to state that I believe our capacity for stress goes up when we are resilient and robust. To make sure I can handle the stress of the work I do, I make sure that I spend time with my loved ones to keep my emotions well centered. I also exercise regularly to keep my physical energy levels up and I take vacations or what I like to call, "sabbaticals" to keep my mind refreshed and sharp. I think by looking after these three areas on an on going basis, I am very able to handle any workplace stress that may arise.

In this example you will note that I provide an opening statement about stress supplemented by an example and an outcome. I also then take control of the question to reinforce how I am confident in managing stress on an on going basis. This reflects the format for successful interviewing.

Tell us of a situation where you found yourself in conflict with others. What did you do to resolve the situation and what was the outcome?

Just as there is usually a question on stress - there is also usually a question on conflict. And, the same points apply here as did for the stress question, i.e., what are sources of conflict for you, how do you respond to situations of conflict and how are they resolved?

Here is a sample response to indicate how you may wish to answer this sort of question.

I'd like to answer this question in two different ways because by far the biggest source of conflict I face personally is internal. This usually happens when I am expected to do something that I don't believe is the right thing to do. An example of this was to purposefully invalidate a contract with a long term supplier so that we could renegotiate it with more favorable terms. In this case, I understood the short term business opportunity but felt we were sacrificing the long term mutually beneficial business relationship we had developed with this supplier. The internal conflict was around determining the "right thing to do".

After much reflection, I came to the conclusion that my conflict was around integrity and fairness and so I decided to engage the supplier in the process. I told him that if we didn't renegotiate the deal, he would retain the short term benefit of the existing contract but might forsake future work due to his pricing, while renegotiating the current contract would put him in a highly competitive position for more work in the long term. In short - I resolved my internal conflict by being open and honest about the business reality of the situation and we ended up with a renegotiated deal that served both parties.

In cases of external conflict where there is obviously a lot of energy and passion around differences of opinion, I use two tools to assist in resolving the issue. The first is my calmness. I am just not an excitable person and by remaining calm I tend to inspire calmness in others. The key to this is to restore "rationality" to the dialog. If the passions are too inflamed, then communication stops and little can be resolved.

I had an employee situation that would fall into this area of external conflict. He was not pleased with his merit increase and felt he was being unjustly penalized. Eventually once he had blown off steam, I was able to engage with him at a calm and rational level to explain my decision.

The other tool I use to great effect is curiosity. When faced with a conflict situation, I get very curious about where the other party is coming from, how he is seeing things, what is important about what it is that he is contesting etc. I have observed that when people are listened to with openness and interest that much of the "anger" leaves the area of conflict. In short - I have found that more than anything, people want to have a voice and be heard. This of course doesn't work all the time but there are formal mechanisms of negotiation and mediation to use if less formal approaches fail to resolve this issue.

Other Very Common Questions

In addition to stress and conflict, you can usually expect to see a question around the following areas:

  • Leadership: Tell us of a time when you had to take charge of a situation and what you did and how it turned out?
  • Communication: Communication is a very important part of keeping an organization functioning at an efficient level. What is your experience of this in organizations where you have worked?
  • Teamwork: Please provide an example of where have you seen teamwork yield tremendous benefits and a situation where it did not.
  • Decision Making: What is your decision making process and where has it worked well and where have you made an error in decision making?
  • Managing Change: Please tell us of a time when a change was imposed upon you and how you reacted and the outcome.

As you can see, these questions can all be answered by starting with your brand. For example if you were asked the question on communication and part of your brand was being a "self starter", then you might answer something like this:

"I agree that communication is literally the grease that allows for the smooth operation of any organizational machine. It is incredibly important! My experience with communication really stems from one of my key strengths as a self starter in as much as I am not usually one to wait around for someone else to start the communication process. As a self starter, I am well known as an individual who goes out of his way to initiate the conversation. For example, a co-worker at one point indicated to me that there was a rumor going around that our department was going to be asked to relocate outside our office building. Now I am not a person that spreads rumors but this one was spreading like wildfire and causing a lot of anxiety among my peers. So - I asked for a closed door meeting with my boss and let him know what was happening in the "rumor mill" and that he might like to find an opportunity to clear the air. By taking the initiative and communicating directly with my boss about the state of affairs in the department, he was able to convene a quick meeting and let people in on some of the decisions that were being considered. This reduced the stress for everyone while helping him maintain his credibility. For me, communication is so important, that I don't leave it to chance - I take appropriate action and, coming back to my earlier metaphor, make sure there is grease between the gears of our organization."

Answering questions by using your brand as a foundation makes sure they hear and respect your brand as authentic. They will remember you based on how you answer the questions and how consistent they are in leaving an "impression".

Strengths and Weaknesses

It is also not unusual to get a question on your strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind this is likely more about understanding your self awareness than it is about wanting to highlight areas for growth and development.

Of course your strengths are going to be closely aligned with your brand although if you have done a great job of articulating your brand so far in the interview, you can add in some other elements such as your "acknowledged strengths" from your resume. It is a great idea to reinforce your communication styles this way - what is on the resume is also what gets articulated in the interview.

Now as for the weaknesses, I always encourage people to think in terms of their "opposite brand". I know it sounds like I am harping on this but, it works. Your opposite brand is basically the other side of your strengths so for example:

  • Strength: Attention to detail, Weakness: keeping the 80:20 rule in mind. Management Strategy: Validate important of detail and accuracy for the work in question.
  • Strength: People oriented, Weakness: struggle working in solitary situations. Management Strategy: Usually listen to iPod or radio when working in solitary situations.
  • Strength: Creativity, Weakness: Sometimes reluctant to make a decision. Management Strategy: Engage others in the process to help in making timely decisions.

You will notice of course that each weakness requires a management strategy, not because everyone is supposed to be perfect! Far from it. This is really about acknowledging that we are all different and have different strengths (self awareness) and that rather than fixing our weaker areas, we need to manage them to limit our risks and exposure. Really it comes down to those two things. Self awareness and exposure or risk management.

Do you have any questions for us?
On the next page of the interviewer's gift catalog is the question: "Do you have any questions for us?". What makes this a gift? Well, it provides you with a forum to not only learn more about the organization but to also demonstrate your wisdom, maturity and awareness. How? Read on!

When asked if you have any questions for them, you always, always, always need to respond with: "yes, I do and I wonder how much time we have left as I don't want to violate our time contract".

If you have more than a few minutes, here is the approach I recommend. The key here is not to get tactical and practical yet. There will be plenty of time to talk about salary, start date and benefits packages after the offer comes in. Right now, we are going to razzle dazzle them by asking "staged" questions that show them the kind of individual you are.

Question 1 - is usually about the job itself. Some examples are:

  • What would a typical day look like for the successful candidate?
  • What would constitute a bad day at the office for someone in this role? What about a great day at the office?
  • What will tell you six months from now that you had made the right choice in selecting an individual for this role?
  • What are some of the key challenges the successful candidate will face in being successful in this role?

Question 2 - is usually about the leader that the successful candidate will be reporting to.

  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • What would your worst employee say about you as a leader?
  • What are some of your strongest convictions and beliefs when it comes to leadership?
  • What are you most proud of in your leadership role?
  • As a leader, what is it that you are working at improving?

Question 3 - is usually about the company.

  • What do you see as the competitive advantages of this company?
  • What are the most significant threats being faced by this company in terms of its future success?
  • Where do you believe this company will be in five years and what will get it there?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to the success of this company?

Question 4 - is usually about the industry.

  • Where do you see this industry going in the next five years?
  • What is the biggest opportunity for this industry?
  • What is the biggest challenge being faced by this industry?
  • How is the voice of this industry represented in the public eye and/or to the government?

So by staging the questions this way, you are demonstrating both a breadth and depth of interest and understanding that goes way beyond the tactical stuff associated with the position. These sorts of questions really cause people to think and reflect well on your interest level as well as your business wisdom.

A couple of cautionary notes. Firstly - limit your questions to one in each category. You likely don't have an hour to ask questions. Secondly, gauge the response of the interviewers. If they are reflective and interested, then great. If they shuffle their feet and look around struggling to come up with a decent response - well - you now know a lot more about the organization than you did and there is little reason to embarrass these people any more.

The final point here is: Don't forget to thank them for the time and the interview. Even if you don't get this job - you want to leave them with a very positive impression of you for other opportunities that may arise.

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