Guest Comment: the interview question we all dread

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"How, specifically, did you achieve that?" is the interview question everyone finds difficult to answer. Here we provide you with some tips.

The need for specific business skills to lead and manage a division or a team through the current downturn is regularly discussed. Whether it's a need for harder skills in relation to achieving greater productivity, increased performance or profitability, or softer human qualities such as communication, problem solving, managerial courage or engaging staff, it's clear that these skills are in demand.

This article provides example leadership competencies frequently required by finance-sector employers and most importantly, how you can best demonstrate these competencies whether your are applying for a new role or preparing for a performance review.

Executive search consultants who are engaged by clients to source specific skills, behaviours or experiences that are required to navigate their clients through the current recession, are expecting candidates to be able to articulate how they have achieved relevant outcomes.

Explaining your achievements isn't so easy

As an executive recruiter, we meet countless financial-sector managers who can clearly articulate their responsibilities and quantifiable achievements, whether related to growth, new market penetration, increased working capital, cost cutting or new business acquired etc.

However, the way in which they achieve these outcomes is often neglected or "skimmed over" by candidates. Many candidates, although certainly qualified to undertake a role, provide weak behavioural answers, and subsequently disqualify themselves.

Behaviour-based interviewing is a method many employers and executive recruiters utilise to assess candidates against key competencies. Based on the concept of assessing past behaviour as an indicator for future behaviour, there are various methodologies, but perhaps one of the most common is the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result).

When faced with this type of question the universal framework to structuring your answer is to firstly describe the situation or task, then describe the action you took and conclude by describing the outcome or the result.

As a brief example, you may be asked by the interviewer to demonstrate a competency relating to achieving business growth within your department. The situation could be to deliver increased profitability and increase profit margin by 5 per cent. You approach the task by deciding to cut operating costs.

Show me where the action is

Now here is the critical part, the action. So often neglected, the action is the part that you need to be able to elaborate on. In this case, you determined a strategy to cut operating costs by 55 per cent. You accurately determined costs and discontinued services/ products that do not add to the bottom line. You streamlined operations, eliminated budgetary leaks and increased process effectiveness, without compromising customer service.

Finally, the result, which provides an opportunity to discuss at the interview, the impact of your actions upon the bottom line of your employer.

In the current market, another potential question may relate to problem solving. The role may require an ability to identify and follow a determined course of action, after developing various alternatives based on researched factual information, while taking into consideration the availability of resources and organisational limitations.

In this instance, the critical key actions could include: defining the decision criteria; considering the alternatives based on researched facts; and also considering the pros and cons and the communication to relevant stakeholders.

Managers and leaders are faced with the significant challenge of applying appropriate leadership behaviours, communication styles or tactical skills in the current market. So when required to demonstrate these key competencies, you should take the time to prepare for clearly articulating the way in which you have achieved these outcomes (with a particular emphasis upon the action), whether you are attempting to position yourself for an internal promotion or an external opportunity.

It's a worthwhile investment and in our experience, has often made the difference between being a close second or successfully moving your career forward.

Richard Pooley and Andre Waitsman, Dean & Ling Executive Search

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