Common Interview Questions ... And How To Answer Them
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR DRIVE FOR ACHIEVEMENT
Q Tell me what you know about our business?
This question falls into this category as the new employer will be assuming that you want to join their firm because it is a sound and progressive career move for you. It is, isn’t it? That's a hint ... Again, this question will come up time after time. You expected it to be asked. Didn’t you? So you went onto the Internet and ‘Googled’ their name. You went onto the corporate website and noted down some facts and figures.
Well, you employ some 15,000 people in over 12 countries, your main areas of operation are in textiles and in paper, your ...
Zzzzzzz – I’m asleep already. Any fool can regurgitate facts from a website. It doesn’t mean you know anything about the company at all. Now while I’m not suggesting that you don’t quote them some devastatingly interesting statistics around their niche market specialisms etc., what I am saying is get behind the facts that they present to you. What is their market share? Who are their competitors? What threats are there to their continuing growth? What opportunities might they wish to exploit? What did their CEO say in their last annual report?
By all means use the net, but don't just settle for the party line. Find out who their competitors are and what they are saying. Find out the registered office of the company and telephone their marketing department and request that they send out to you a copy of the most recent annual report. By law in the UK, PLCs must comply with this request from any person. I have had some fun over the years reminding junior clerks of this!
Can you imagine interviewing five people and all of them trot out the same facts and figures taken from the same source? What if the sixth interviewee reminds you that at the moment you are only number two in the world market; however, the CEO has a strategy in place to take you to number one, and that involves ... No contest! Get him/her back for a final interview!
I’m asking you to be a bit smarter than the average bear on this one. Be creative about how you illustrate what you know about their company.
Q Give an example of when you’ve experienced a setback
If you are asked this question at interview and you are unprepared for it you will probably make a hash of it. No question. it's the interviewer mining that negativity seam again and your auto-response will be to go into denial about it. After all, someone as brilliant as me gets it right first time, every time, don’t I?
The trick here is to recall a time when, although the eventual outcome was positive, the success was down to either your intervention or your realisation that what you were doing first time round was not working. There’s no shame in admitting that your initial approach to a situation turned out to be less effective than you’d hoped, but through your well developed sense of self-awareness, you changed some or all aspects of your approach and achieved the aim after all.
Interviewers will be expecting you to describe the situation, your thinking behind why you initially did what you did, how you reacted to the realisation that it wasn't working and maybe the reaction of others round about you. For example:
We had a situation in my last place where team leaders were identified as needing training in the various areas of management expertise in order for them to perform at the level at which the company expected them to. My initial thought was to get them an off-the-shelf training course which would supply these skills. I booked them onto a course at the local college, which meant they would attend on a half-day release basis on various days of the week. I informed their managers of what I had done, emphasising how I had arranged it so that not all the team leaders would be away from work at the same time. A few weeks passed and although I was getting anecdotal evidence from the shop floor about the course, when I got the first report from the college which showed nearly half of the employees who were supposed to be attending only did so intermittently I was shocked. I immediately arranged for these guys to come in and see me on a one-to-one basis to find out why they hadn’t been going. During these interviews I discovered that many of them were actually scared of the traditional classroom environment and for most of them, the last time they had been in that environment was when they were 16! It was obvious to me then that this methodology wasn’t going to work for all of them, so I took a poll of all of the team leaders to identify who would rather not be in the classroom environment. Of the 26 team leaders seven said they were actively resistant to it and two were unsure. I then did some research and found that I could have these nine guys do an NVQ-based qualification with the learning provider actually coming on site to deliver the more formal parts in our own training room. The qualification that they would gain would be broadly similar to those attending the college course, so that was a bonus. I also successfully negotiated a partial refund from the college for the guys we took out as they hoped to get more business from us in the future In hindsight, perhaps I should have had more dialogue with those who were going to be affected by the training and sought to supply a training methodology to suit their needs.
This answer contains all the essential elements: an outline of the circumstances; your initial approach; your recognition that it wasn't working; your gathering of data to come up with an alternative solution; the implementation of that solution and its subsequent success; and finally a recognition of where you went wrong in the first place.
Q What have you done to progress your education to date?
Obviously I cannot state here what you should be saying in terms of formal education because you will all have different experiences. However, education comes in many forms – and you should talk with enthusiasm about this ...
Well, I left school with a few GCSEs and one A level and started in company ABC’s sales department. The company sold house and car insurance via their call centres. After I had received my initial training for the job I was taken on for, there were a few opportunities for me to attend short training sessions such as assertiveness training and customer care etc. but I realised I was capable of a lot more so I asked my team leader if I could perhaps spend some time in other departments such as the underwriters room. They seemed to be pleased with my enthusiasm so they let me spend a month watching and learning what they did in that department. As a result, when a vacancy came up I was the obvious choice for the role and got a position in there. When I was there, I asked the company to support me in going to night school to gain insurance qualification, and I'm pleased to say that they did – as you can see from my application.
This answer conveys several attractive qualities from the employer’s perspective: enthusiasm, loyalty, a willingness to broaden your skill base, a recognition of the importance of industry-specific formal qualifications and a desire to be proactive in your career.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR STRATEGIC THINKING
You may think that this section is not really for you and be tempted to skip by it because you've never worked in a role where you’ve been expected to think ‘strategically’ – don’t!! Strategy is not all about top-level corporate decision-making or ‘blue-sky thinking’ needing the mental capacity of Einstein. Its about thinking further ahead than the completion of the current task. I bet you do it all the time but just don’t give it such a grand name as ‘strategy’.
Once you’ve read some of my examples, have a think about times when you have looked further than the end of your nose. Maybe it was simply organising your diary or even playing the ‘long game’ in terms of office politics.
Q ‘In what past situations have you shown most evidence of visionary/strategic thinking?’
This question is aimed directly at you to get you to describe an occasion where you thought about things from a wider perspective. The trick here is not to go into too much detail because that will ultimately bore your interviewers. They will not have the same terms of reference that you have and will not be able to know about the characters involved. Like all your answers in the interview, they should be concise but with sufficient detail to get the highlights across. A typical answer would be:
In my department we basically processed papers that came from another department. Once we had done our bit, the papers went to a third department for them to work on. It meant that each of the three departments was only aware of their bit of the puzzle. Looking at each piece of the process like that was just the way things had always been done. In reality what it meant was that there was lots and lots of communication via e-mails and telephone conversations throughout the day where people were seeking confirmation of something being done or clarification on a point, etc. We were even on different floors in the building, so nipping into the next office wasn't on either. I took a proposal to my boss outlining my plans for multidisciplinary teams, teams made up of representatives of all three departments. My rationale was that we could each have a client base or set of key accounts so that between us we would handle all their needs from enquiry to dispatch. It also meant that the client could have a single point of contact with our firm for all their enquiries, no matter what the subject was. I explained to my boss that there would be training needs for us all where we would all need to acquire the skills necessary to do two jobs previously done by others. It would also mean some office moving and equipping, because I thought that we’d need new, round tables, so each team could work facing each other making it easier for information to flow round the team. We had had a problem with people leaving before due to the repetitive nature of the work, and I was sure that this new way of working would help counter that due to the increase in variety for the individual. The customer would receive a slicker operation too. I’m pleased to say that we trialled it in our branch and it worked so well that we rolled it out throughout the country. My boss complimented me on ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and made mention of it during my appraisal.
This answer not only shows a continuous improvement attitude, but that you were able to demonstrate an ability to think of the wider implications for the organisation, not just the team you were working in.
Q What do you see as the main threats to our business in the long term? What can we do to ensure long-term success?
As I have said earlier in this book, most employers will expect you to have researched them to some extent on the Internet or in the library. This approach will give you lots of statistics and facts about them – ones that they wish you to know. What a company's website will not give you is information on their competitors or the state of the market that they are in, or developments that their competitors have that may influence their position in the marketplace. My advice to you then is that when you do your research, find out who their direct competitors are and go to their websites too. Try to get a global viewpoint of their market as a whole. Ask yourself what external influences there are on their products or services – for example, changes in legislation such as the introduction of smoke-free workplaces may have a negative effect on those organisations that make products related to smoking – tobacco, paper, filters, etc. – but may have a positive effect on those organisations providing employers with ‘no smoking’ signs or who manufacture smoking shelters etc. A typical answer would be:
As your organisation manufactures bread and bakery products, I believe that it may be subject to external influences such as the price of grain because poor harvests in grain-producing countries can have a dramatic effect on your raw material costs. I’m sure the Atkins Diet craze had a negative effect too through people consuming less carbohydrates, but I think these effects are more likely to be short lived. I’d bet that if we had a long, dry summer, more people would be having barbecues, and as hamburgers are very popular for barbecues, then people will need more bread rolls to put them in. During my research on your company and its competitors [it's great if you can actually TELL them you’ve done research] I see that XYZ Bakeries and Ubiquitous Bakeries have both opened new plants in this part of the country. This would tell me that this is still a growing market for them to invest in new plant and they might see benefits from economies of scale as they get larger which would drive their costs down, making them more profitable and therefore more competitive. I also saw that XYZ have developed a new process which reduces the baking time of a loaf by 20 per cent. This will also make them tough to compete against.
I would say in order to secure the long-term success of your business you will need to ensure that you are keeping up with technological advances in the manufacture of your product, you will have to tie your suppliers down to deals which secure your supply of raw material with minimal fluctuations in price and you will need to ensure that your distribution system is at least as good as your competitors for you to keep abreast of them in terms of goods to market as fresh as is possible.
This answer demonstrates your commercial and business acumen by offering the employer a chance to see that you can develop an opinion based on various sources of information and not just regurgitate the corporate blurb.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP BUILDING
In the vast majority of working environments, people are required to interact with others on some level or other. Your potential new employer is looking to reassure themselves that you will ‘fit in’. ‘Is that strictly necessary?’ I hear you ask in a fiendishly clever, Devil's advocate sort of way. Look at it this way: how do you feel about new people coming to spend time with you? Be truthful, would you more expect them to fit into you and your group’s social ‘norms’, or feel that it's more you and your group’s responsibility to fit in with the new person? Hmmm, call me psychic, but I’m betting it's the former.
The employer is using these questions in a two-pronged approach. Firstly, he or she may be exploring whether or not you can build relationships as that is part of the job requirement, or he/she might be seeking confirmation that you are of a similar personal disposition to the team where the vacancy lies.
My advice to you is, once again, to be true to yourself. If you try to adopt a persona that you feel is the type suited to the team in question and you get the job, it will not be that long before your true self comes out and that may be in conflict with others. There are not many people, actors excepted, that can carry off displaying behavioural characteristics that are different from their own for any length of time. You may also find that you have talked yourself into the job and regret it because your new colleagues ‘are not your kind of people’ either!
Q Tell me about a recent situation when you had to build a relationship with a new colleague. Why was the relationship important?
This question can be answered equally well from the point of view of a subordinate or a manager. As a manager your relationship with your direct reports will often influence how well your department performs, therefore it's imperative you get your team pulling for you as much as they are pulling for themselves. A typical answer might be:
When I took over as Team Leader in my last job, I realised that I’d have to gain credibility really quickly. I decided not to trot out the old platitudes about ‘my door always being open’ etc., but rather tried to make myself seem grounded and definitely on their side. I knew that one of the team had applied for my job and had the potential to undermine me from within, so one of my first tasks was to take him aside (I did 1-2-1 meetings with all of my staff in my first week) and shared with him my views on being new in the role. I told him I needed someone whom I could trust, to be my guide to office politics and to steer me through the minefield of the organisation's policies and procedures. He was delighted to be separated out from the rest of the team like that, to be treated like a trusted aide so quickly. However, I knew this was a high-risk strategy as he might have reacted negatively in a fit of pique, but thankfully it turned out well.
From a subordinate’s position, a good answer might be:
When I first joined the team I realised that I had to fit in really quickly. I made sure I asked lots and lots of questions relating to my job, but I took an interest in people’s personal lives too – without prying of course. I made sure that I remembered people’s partner’s names etc., and to ask how their children had got on at sports day, for example, if a colleague happened to mention she was excited about her son taking part. I was scrupulous in meeting deadlines or getting back to people when I said I would and I was always honest enough to admit when I didn’t know something or couldn’t help someone. That way people would trust me and I would be seen as credible and reliable.
Q Think of someone who's particularly effective at building and maintaining relationships with others. What do they do exactly?
This question is not only about you having self-awareness, but also the ability to spot such traits in others. You can use a bit of poetic licence here if you wish. After all, if you describe this person in the correct way, it could be Hamish McTavish from Glasgow (who might not even exist) to Sir Richard Branson (who may or may not be as you describe him). Either way, the crux of the matter here is for you to describe this person, ficticious or otherwise, using the right type of adjectives.
I used to work with this chap called Ewan. I’ve never seen someone who could get so many people to do things for him when he needed them to or to be so readily accepted in any company. From my observations of him I saw that he always communicated in the same relaxed and friendly manner with everyone, no matter what their position in the company. He’d occasionally work late in order to get things completed for other people. He genuinely seemed to care about others and always made a point of being extra helpful to new people. I once asked him what he thought he did that made people trust him, and he simply told me that he always treated others like he expected to be treated: he was truthful, kept his promises, didn’t make excessive demands on others, and acted on the basis that people are intrinsically good and would rather do you a good turn than a bad one. I suppose you might say that some could’ve thought him naïve, but I didn’t. He lived up to his own ideals which made people round about him live up to them too.
Q How do you behave when you meet new people?
The reality might be that you might behave differently each time you meet new people. However, they really wouldn’t ask you a question like this to get such a bland answer as that would they? No. If you didn't answer ‘no’ at this point, go stand in the corner and come and see me at home time.
What they are getting at here is – are you self-aware enough of your own behaviours and how they affect others? Can you adapt depending on the character or nature of who you are with?
I’m conscious that I don’t dominate the conversation when I meet new people. I genuinely like people, so I ask a lot of questions – not enough to be accused of prying, but I always try and remember the details of what they say to me. Maybe it's their interests, or things they’ve said about their family. I then drop it into conversation and the response is usually positive.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR COMMERCIAL AWARENESS
Your initial reaction to seeing a section devoted to commercial awareness might be ‘Well, I don’t really have to be that commercially aware do I? There are loads of people for that such as accountants, finance controllers etc.’ The truth is, you really SHOULD have a commercial awareness no matter what line of business your employer is in. After all, if the enterprise is not successful, it won't be in existence for very long. Be aware that each and every employee, some way or another affects the bottom line of a business’s balance sheet and you should be prepared to demonstrate how you contribute and your awareness of the ‘bigger picture’. You may be looking to work for a non-profit-making organization. In this context, look at ways of minimising expenditure, which makes the money that does come in go that much farther.
Q Why, in your opinion, do customers choose our products and services?
The initial question here is almost designed for anyone who ever took a marketing course in the past or has a basic grasp of common sense (I know, I know, it's in short supply).
Well I think first and foremost your organisation has built up its brand to a point where people automatically think of you when they think of (their product/service here). My view is that people regard Company XYZ as one of the leaders in their field supplying this particular market in such a way that people know what to expect: a good product at a good price at the right time.
Q How could we make them more competitive?
‘It is a basic fact of business that you can only make more profit by either (a) selling more product at the same margin, or (b) increasing your margin, and you can only increase your margin by either raising selling prices or reducing selling costs. I don’t really know enough about your particular business model to offer a serious opinion on what I think you should do. Do we have time to explore this further?’
Here again we have used honesty in admitting we don't have all the facts. The candidate who makes bold statements on how the people interviewing him have actually got it all wrong thus far is not brave, merely foolish! Again, you have shown good time awareness by asking if there is enough time to go deeper into this question.
Q What are the market trends that affect us?
Here is a chance for you to shine. You NEED to know the factors that affect your prospective employer’s business.
For example, if they make items which are not considered to be good for us or the environment – cigarettes, sweets, 4 × 4 cars, nuclear reactors, etc. – then you should be aware of the mood of the country at that moment. Maybe there has been a lot of press coverage on childhood obesity and it's a boiled sweet manufacturer you are trying to work for. You might want to lead with
Has Company XYZ examined using sugar substitutes in its products?
I see the Chancellor has put the road tax levy up again for SUV vehicles. Is the industry lobbying Parliament to try and have this decision reversed? With the advent of biofuels, I’d have thought that the type of vehicles you make were ripe for this change in motoring.
There is no substitute for research here. Prospective employers will choose every single time someone who demonstrates a knowledge of their market over and above a candidate with specific knowledge of their business they’ve gleaned from the corporate website.
Q What opportunities have you had to identify cost savings in the past? Give an example.
Again, this is your most direct opportunity to demonstrate your contribution to the bottom line. If every employee came up with a single idea which saved the company money or increased its profitability, then that company would be successful beyond the dreams of avarice. It may seem like Utopia, but it's what employers want. Do yourself a favour and stand out from the herd by showing how you have been and will continue to be a positive item on the balance sheet!
In our department we kept a number of forms which employees needed to complete, such as a ‘car registration form’ which entitled them to a free parking pass on site, a ‘holiday requisition form’ and a ‘bereavement leave application form’, etc. This involved them leaving their place of work and calling in at our office. Employees always came during working hours, not break times. Sometimes they brought a mate with them to keep them company. I thought it was daft for them to come to us and the forms should be more local to them. My first thought was to supply all our team managers with paper copies so they would have their own supply, but then I remembered that we had a company-wide intranet site where forms could ‘sit’ and be downloaded only when needed. I had the IT people put them up on the site and then sent a global e-mail telling people about the changes. As a result, the traffic slowed to a trickle and lots of time was saved by people no longer coming over to our office.
Q How did you choose where to make the savings?
Our company was on the verge of going into austerity measures and we were all asked to think of ways to save money. We had lots of the usual ideas: using both sides of paper, trimming faxes so no blanks went through the machine, doing away with Post-it notes, etc. It just dawned on me that the biggest cost for us was people’s time, so the more time we could save, the better. I then realised that it was actually other people's time in coming to see me and my colleagues that was the biggest waste, so I came up with the intranet idea.
When you come up with your own answer to this question, be sure to incorporate an element of you comparing options and going for the most practical/cost-effective/easily achieved, etc.
Q How much money do you think you saved?
At first we couldn’t think how we were going to quantify the savings, but then we simply took an average number of calls a day we used to receive asking for forms, multiplied that by the average number of minutes the whole journey to and from our office took and then multiplied that by an average hourly rate figure given to us by finance. We reckoned on saving over £4,000 a year.
Never, ever, make wild claims on any savings you made – you might very well be asked to justify them.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR LEADERSHIP OF CHANGE
More and more these days, the philosophy of ‘continuous improvement’ is being adopted and applied by organisations in every sector. By the very nature of continuous improvement, change is inevitable and indeed welcomed – but not by all. Some individuals react well to change and see this as a way of enriching or improving their working lives. Others are fearful of change and either resist overtly or by more subtle methods.
You may very well be asked about your experiences of change in the workplace and possibly how you have initiated or led change. This does not have to mean formal change programmes with milestones and Gantt charts and the like. It may mean simple changes to the way you have worked in the past that has accrued a benefit for the organisation. It may mean how you have reacted to a change thrust upon you. Either way, there is nothing as sure as change as organisations develop and evolve over time, so you should be equipped with the types of answers that employers want to hear.
Q Tell us about a recent time when you had to adapt to a major change.
- How did you adapt?
- What was difficult about the transition?
The clue to a good answer for this question is in the use of the word ‘major’. Your interviewer is not looking for some answer in relation to how you changed suppliers for the photocopy paper for example. This is BIG change they are on about. Granted, you may not have been subject to big change, as not everybody has, so if you haven't, just say so.
I worked for an organisation which was a plc and the culture and style of how we worked was very much as you’d expect from a large organisation. We had the best equipment, flexible working practices, cheap gym membership, etc. However, the company's shares were bought by a group of venture capitalists and that’s when the changes began. After a while, once the dust had settled, we started to get visits from people who were working on a ‘synergy project’. We soon found out that this meant they were looking for ways to identify savings by seeing where we had functions and processes that could be carried out by the new owners’ existing staff and they could cut costs by axing people and jobs at our end. After the HR function was moved to their head office along with finance and marketing, we realised that ‘we weren’t in Kansas any more’ and that things were going to be a lot different. Where we always had a human being to talk to in relation to personnel matters, we now had to talk to a voice on the end of the phone and our calls were logged and we were given a ‘case number’. Most people hated this and many complaints were lodged about it. I had heard of the ‘Business Partner’ approach to HR which has first-line managers carrying out many of the less complex functions of HR. I looked into this and suggested to my department head that all first-line managers get a grounding in discipline, grievance, recruitment and the like so that we could deal with our team members’ basic stuff without them having to phone this hated ‘hotline’. He put the idea up the chain of command and I’m pleased to say that we had a number of seminars on personnel subjects and we were given basic guide books to help us out. So what started off as a terrible situation turned out to be one where a lot of us were pleased to be receiving new and interesting training, and we provided a solution to the problem of there not being a human face there when people had problems.
Q Tell us about a recent time when you questioned or challenged a way of working.
- Why did you question it?
- What alternative did you suggest?
- To what extent were your ideas used?
I worked in a factory where most of the jobs were not particularly complex, but nevertheless there were training periods required for someone to become competent in each of the roles they might be asked to fulfil. The system the company adopted was one where an inexperienced employee would work with someone who had more experience (although sometimes not a lot more) for around two weeks. The team leader would then go through a checklist and tick off all the various boxes which were supposed to indicate that the new person was competent in that role. I was asked to take part in what is known as an ‘intervention’. This is where a focus group made up of employees from various departments around the factory would examine a particular issue and find ways to resolve whatever the perceived problem was. The problem we were looking at was the quality of training of new starts. During this intervention, I was given the task of reviewing these ‘competency profiles’ as the checklists were known. After a little while I noticed that the wording of these checklists was weighted towards what inputs the employee had been given. For example: ‘Has the employee been shown where the red emergency stop button is located?’ and ‘Has the employee been told what is the correct personal protective equipment to wear?’ What struck me was that someone could have been told vital information – such as how to halt the machine in an emergency – but there was no guarantee that they had absorbed this information and could put it into use! As a lot of the plant and equipment was potentially dangerous, I flagged this up to the intervention leader. I suggested that we change the wording on all the checklists to record that the individual has demonstrated their knowledge, not just record the fact that they'd been informed. For example: ‘Can the employee demonstrate the location of and correct usage of the red emergency stop button?’ and ‘Can the employee demonstrate the correct personal protective equipment they must wear and how to use it?’ I also flagged up the fact that we had team leaders who were signing off people as competent on a machine or process that they themselves had not been trained on.
After a discussion with the members of the intervention team, we made this one of our key recommendations of the project. As a result, each team leader was tasked with rewriting each of the competency profiles in use in their area and they also had to be signed off as competent on each machine or process that they were signing other people off on.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS
There comes a time in many people’s career when they move up the greasy pole and take on the responsibility for others’ work as well as their own. Many people only describe success in their chosen careers in terms of how far up the corporate tree they have climbed (to mix my metaphors). As yet, other methods of measuring career success have not fully been assimilated. So for the purposes of this chapter, we will treat any role that involves leading others as a ‘good thing’. But have a look at what others have said about leadership before you decide exactly what type of a leader you are:
Dwight D. Eisenhower: ‘You do not lead people by always hitting them over the head. That’s assault, not leadership’.
Faye Wattleton: ‘The only safe ship in a storm is leadership.’ Who also said: ‘Whoever is providing leadership needs to be as fresh and thoughtful and reflective as possible to make the very best fight.’
The former British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, said: ‘A leader must have the courage to act against an expert’s advice.’ A more recent British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also famously said: ‘The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. Its very easy to say yes.’
The answers I have given below are written from the perspective of someone who has actually led others before. However, it is always going to be a difficult position for someone who has never been a leader before to get across how good they ‘would be’ as a leader, as they have not been tested. However, if you can grasp the underlying principles of the answers here, then you can adopt your response accordingly, to a ‘... well, if I had been in that situation, I would have ...’ etc.
Q Describe a time when you had to coordinate the work of other people.
- What were you trying to achieve?
- How did you go about organizing the work?
This is the classic version of this question. This is the big pink neon sign that says: ‘C’mon! Show us just what a brilliant leader you are!’ You can adapt your answer to fit depending on whether or not you have experience in leadership.
I was working as a member of the production staff at XYZ Co. and this year they conducted an employee satisfaction survey. Once all the results were in, a focus group was formed to look at the results. I was nominated from our area to be part of this group. I thought at first it was just a matter of turning up and expressing my opinion about the results. I quickly found out that the company was deadly serious about making changes based on the results of this survey. One of the results that came out was that people often felt that they were kept in the dark about what was going on with the company. ‘Mushroom management’ was the way one person described it! An action was formulated that stated a sub-group would examine the options for improving communications on site and I was designated the ‘action point owner’. I was given a free hand to choose three or four people from the entire workforce – both blue and white collar – to work on this with me. I had a timescale for feeding back recommendations to the focus group. I thought the best approach would be to have team members with different skill sets to help us achieve our goal which was effectively to provide the employees by suitable means with the type of information that they wanted to hear. I thought about the various elements of the action point and had an idea of who I wanted in the team. I convened a meeting quickly and designated each team member with a particular role. I had a secretary devise, distribute and collate the results of a simple questionnaire to determine what exactly people wanted to know about; I chose one chap from our buying department and he was tasked with finding out exactly what ways we could use to get our message across. That meant he was pricing up plasma TV screens, text-light boards, the cost of printing newsletters, etc. I chose one chap from our planning department who drew up a progress chart itemising all our actions and milestones. I chose one lady from production who I knew was a member of a writers circle. She would be tasked with producing the actual wording of anything we produced.
Over the course of the six-month project we met regularly to discuss our survey’s findings, to come up with ideas for the media we would use to get the messages across, to iron out any difficulties we had and to discuss factual information such as the cost of buying and installing large-screen televisions etc.
My approach was that, like any good football team, you needed a mix of specialists. You couldn’t win trophies with eleven strikers on the pitch. I was very fortunate in that we all worked well together. However, I am aware that sometimes there can be conflict in teams for any number of reasons, including personality clashes, but I did not have to cope with that. It was not all plain sailing of course as people had other commitments to attend to outside of working on this action. I had to learn diplomacy skills quite quickly to ensure that each team member contributed their bit on time and in full. As a result, we produced a set of recommendations, some of which were adopted without change and some were adopted in a less expensive form. In all I think I did well and received positive feedback from my manager, my team and the focus group.
Q Think of someone who is particularly effective in providing leadership. What do you think they do successfully?
Do you have a business hero? Honestly? I watched a certain BBC series recently. The premise was that 12 ‘candidates’ lived together in a posh London house for 12 weeks and were split into two teams and had to take part in business simulations on a weekly basis, after which some poor sod from the losing team was ‘fired’. This process went on until there was only one candidate left. The reward for the overall winner was a job with a well-known London-based businessman and a six-figure salary. Towards the end of this so-called ‘job interview from hell’, the business guru pulled in three of his closest advisers to conduct face-to-face interviews with the remaining five candidates. I hesitated to describe them as ‘interviews’. Out and out maulings would be a better description! I’m happy to report, constant reader, that these were far removed from how 99.999999 per cent of employers, enlightened or otherwise, would behave during the interview. I digress. One of the interviewers asked one of the candidates why he wanted this particular job. ‘Oh, Sir Albert Sweetner [name changed] is an all-time hero of mine. I was aware of him as a boy growing up and I’ve always wanted to work for him.’ As you can imagine, the interviewer was close to throwing up (as was I watching this). When challenged on his strange taste in boyhood heroes, our extremely clever but demonstrably addled candidate continued along this line leaving the interviewer shaking his head in disbelief. The point I’m making here is that if you do chose a public figure to illustrate your answer to this question, don’t go overboard on your praise for them. Be sure of your facts and figures, history and anything else you wish to use for why you think they are a good leader.
A far safer strategy would be to describe someone your interviewer has never heard of. Far be it from me to encourage you to make use a fictional example...
I used to work for a manager called Albert Einstein. He was head of a team of eight people including myself. I found him to be an excellent leader because, although he was not the most charismatic person in the world, I trusted him. He was consistent with his treatment of people. When he gave you something to do, you knew what he wanted, how he wanted it and when he expected it by. When he pointed out something you had failed in it was never in a condescending way and he never shouted at you. He pointed out the error and asked you to come to the conclusion of what the root cause was and then asked what ‘we’ could do to prevent it happening again. He was loyal to his team but not to the point of blindness. He was always encouraging us to stretch ourselves and do more complex and important tasks. He could definitely keep to himself anything you told him in confidence. He also liked us to have fun at work. He actively encouraged celebrating people’s birthdays or the birth of a baby. He was an all round good egg and I wish there were more managers like him. As I progress in my career, I intend to model myself on him.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT
If you are applying for any sort of role within a company, particularly in the manufacturing sector, then it is almost certain that you will find yourself being asked questions about ‘continuous improvement’. For those who do not know, continuous improvement is a philosophy which does exactly what it says on the tin: it's about looking for changes in the way people do things or processes are performed which provide incremental gains for the organisation. Larger organisations have whole continuous improvement departments where ‘lean thinking’ and ‘just in time’ approaches are commonplace. To survive, an organisation must always look to be increasing or maintaining its profits. (Yes, I can hear you say: ‘But what about non-profit-making organisations, smarty pants?’ These organisations do need to make a profit, perhaps not just in terms of money. Their ‘profitability’ may be a measure of the impact they make in their field. They will still need to have made a difference compared to their starting point, otherwise what would be the point of their existence?) There are only a limited number of ways to improve profits: sell more, sell at a higher price or spend less on your operations. For the individual employee, the easiest way for them to contribute is in the last area – reducing the cost of what we do.
The Japanese have a word for this philosophy: ‘kaizen’, which literally translated means ‘little – good’ demonstrating that the cumulative effect of little actions can have a dramatic effect overall and modern organisations these days recognise that every single employee can contribute to the success of the company no matter what their role. Each employee should be adding value in some way and everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of the way the business works.
While it may be obvious to those who are at the front line of manufacturing for instance to demonstrate savings made by actions they have taken which have increased productivity, candidates for any position should be ready to provide examples of where they challenged the status quo and made even the smallest of improvements. Below are some examples.
Q Tell us about a time when you initiated an improvement at work.
I worked for company XYZ Ltd in their purchasing department. In the days before routine ordering via e-mail or the ability to order online, for urgent orders we used to fax them to our suppliers. Now, being a really busy office with many urgent orders, we were sending loads and loads of faxes every day. We had recently had a circular memo reminding us of the costs of leaving lights on etc. and that our telephone bills were really high. I noticed one day that when we were sending faxes, the last page of the order documents often only had a little bit of text at the top and a lot of plain paper underneath. This wasn’t planned; it was just the way the text wrapped from one page to the next when it came off the printer. It struck me that every time we sent a fax like that we were paying for a piece of plain paper to go through the fax machine and this was at our expense because the telephone link with the receiver’s fax machine was still open. I made a suggestion to the office manager that we tear off any white paper at the end of the fax to use as scrap paper – people used to use Post-it notes for scribbling on – and that way, when the last, short page went through the machine, the fax would cut off and shorten the time we were on the phone line. Now I’ve no idea how much we saved in terms of the phone bill, but I did see loads of home-made scrap pads from the saved pieces of paper, so it must have been a reasonable amount.
Employers love this type of story. Anything that you have done to save them money translates directly to the bottom line. Each pound/dollar/euro/whatever saved in expenditure is one they can reinvest in the company to secure its future! Never, ever think a small contribution like the one illustrated here would go unnoticed, and it will always earn you brownie points in an interview.
’When I worked for Mega Crisps Ltd at their potato crisp factory, I was employed as a machine setter. One of my jobs involved removing a circular drum which had around 20 sharp blades in its circumference through which the potatoes passed to be sliced into their final thickness before they were fried, flavoured and bagged. I was instructed to watch a display which showed an ever reducing time reading counting down from four hours down to zero. At that point, I was to remove the drum and replace the blades before putting it back into production. The blades which sliced the potatoes only had a production life of four hours before they became too blunt to slice cleanly. I realised after a bit that I was taking a drum offline, replacing the blades, then putting the drum back into production again. The whole time that this took was around 35 minutes from taking it off to putting it back again. I’d then wait until the next line was due to be dealt with. This might mean a wait of around 45 minutes before the next one was due. I just had to busy myself with cleaning etc., but a lot of the time I was just mooching around waiting to work again. It struck me that if we only had one more drum, I could fill that up with blades while all the machines were operating and then use it to replace the first one as soon as I’d taken it offline. This operation only took five minutes, so the line was only unproductive for five minutes instead of 30. I’d then replace that drum’s blades and wait for the next one to require changing and so on and so forth. So over a shift we got an additional 60 minutes of production time for each line. This meant a massive leap in productivity over the year. I got a cash award for that suggestion.
The above was an actual example given to me during an interview. it's a great example because the candidate didn’t just follow instructions. He demonstrated a genuine interest in his own job and how he could contribute to the productivity levels. He was directly responsible for increasing the profitability of his organisation and was rightly rewarded for it. Now not everyone will have such an obvious example that they can quote at interview, but I would urge you to think hard about the time when you perhaps acted outside your strict remit and gave that little bit extra for your employer.
Q Tell us about how you normally cope with a lot of work.
- Where do you start?
- What do you do to ensure it all gets done?
- What prevents you from getting it all done?
I have deliberately included these questions in the continuous improvement section as good answers to these will demonstrate your ability to recognise and set priorities and be flexible in your approach, all of which show that there is no one answer to any problem and that the ability to make improvements and adjustments to your approach make for a continually improving performance.
I have worked in many roles where I am under pressure to get the work done accurately and on time. I start every morning with a modified ‘To Do’ list. Apart from being a simple list of things I need to get through, I divide them into four sections: ‘Urgent’, ‘Important’, ‘Not Urgent’ and ‘Not Important’. I then look at the tasks and decide which categories they fall into. Of course they can be ‘urgent’ and ‘not important’ or ‘Important’ but ‘not urgent’ too or any combination, and it's the ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ that I work on first, with the ‘not important’ and ‘not urgent’ going to the bottom of my list. Of course, a task’s status can change at any time and may move up or down the list, so to make it easier for me I have a clipboard permanently marked with the four categories onto which I stick the tasks written on post-it notes. That way its easy to see where any task is in terms of status. When a task is complete, I remove the Post-it from my clipboard.
I ensure it all gets done by referring to the ‘expiry date’ I write at the bottom of each post-it note and make sure these deadlines are met. At the end of the day I always go over what is left on the board and reconsider their status. If a deadline is looming I may move it into the urgent category for instance.
What prevents me from getting it all done? Well, the usual things, I suppose: telephone calls, e-mails, colleagues and bosses interrupting me! My approach is to try and be disciplined with my time. I will have set times for answering e-mails or making calls where possible, although you have to be flexible too to cope with what the job throws at you.
What you have done here is demonstrated an excellent grasp of time-management skills – as taught by many reputable and fine organisations. Even if you don’t employ such techniques, at least be aware of them so that you might quote them in the interview situation.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER AWARENESS
Q What, in your view, makes it difficult to relate well to certain customers?
This question is typical of the approach many interviewers take nowadays. Instead of asking questions that allow you to demonstrate how easy it is for you to do your job and how wonderful everyone thinks you are, the questions concentrate on what some might consider as ‘failures’ or at least times when things haven’t gone so well. Again, fear not, as it gives you a chance to show how resilient you are and how flexible and adaptable you are.
For this question you should be focusing on the fact that customers come in all shapes, sizes and types and that there will be, on occasion, times when you encounter a customer that you don’t naturally ‘gel’ with.
On occasion I have had to deal with a shouty, irate, greedy and downright rude customer. While inside I might feel mortified and offended at their behaviour, I realise that I have to be professional and maintain a calm demeanour. I allow them to rant and raise their voice for a bit and at all times I keep my voice on an even level. I allow them to blow themselves out. I don’t take their views personally because it's not me they are really having a go at, but their frustration is being vented at me, as the public voice/face of the company. I would never react like that to a similar situation, so I cannot really understand what motivates them to be so awful. So while I may not be able to relate to them on that level, at least I can still deal with them in a way that I know is professional and hopefully will resolve the problem.
Q Tell me about a recent situation when you had to build a relationship with a new customer.
For all customer-facing roles you can almost guarantee that this question will come up. A business can only grow in two ways. The first is by selling more to existing customers. (This can be difficult – the amount they purchase from you is determined by factors totally beyond your control. Growth in sales to existing customers tends to be a slow process. Imagine it like the relationship between a man and a woman. At first the gifts come thick and fast before levelling out to being just at Christmas, birthdays and special occasions...). The second is by increasing the sales base by attracting new customers.
What the interviewer does not want to hear is an account of your fantastic cold-calling skills and how many new customers you attracted by sheer strength of your personality. Rather they are looking for a specific instance where you secured a sale with a notoriously reticent customer or where the sale was a direct result of YOUR efforts.
I remember a time a few months ago when I received an enquiry from a local business relating to a product we stocked. This gentleman had very specific needs and was able to quote the exact specification of the item almost as if he had designed the thing. I calmly noted down his enquiry and took his number so that I could call him back. Aware that this could lead to bigger and better things, I asked HIM what would be the best time to call him back with the price and delivery information he needed. I could’ve actually given him his answers there and then, but I wanted to run past my supervisor first my idea about giving this new customer our top-level discount and having the part taken over to him that day. After all, I thought, if it had been an existing customer, we’d have only made the smaller margin anyway, and in terms of the cost of same day delivery, it was a ‘sprat to catch a mackerel’. I’m pleased to say that the customer was delighted and we got lots of new business from him afterwards. I made sure though in the early days it was only me who dealt with him in order to build a sustainable relationship with the customer. I suppose you could say it was because that I took personal responsibility for us keeping our promises to him. I was even aware later on that some of the items we supplied to him he could have sourced elsewhere locally a bit cheaper, but obviously the good service was what mattered to him the most.’
Its clever to put this last bit in, as all companies would like to pride themselves on their level of customer service, and would see themselves in you by your obviously highly developed customer service skills!
Q Give me an example when you have given excellent customer service.
Again, the temptation here is to cite some example where you climbed up to the summit of Mount Everest, sought out the expedition leader and said: ‘Here, you left your change on the counter!’ Interviewers are realistic (honest) so a more mundane example of where you just did that little bit extra and helped someone’s day be that little bit better is perfectly acceptable here.
We received a request in our office for an application form for an office role we had advertised. One of the guys came in from the shop floor with his greasy overalls and mucky hands to collect one. He was a bit self-conscious given the nature of the role he was applying for was white collar and he had always been a blue collar worker. During the process of getting the blank form I chatted to him the whole time telling him how good it was that he was applying and how he would stand a good chance of getting it with his experience in the company etc. As well as giving him the form, I gave him an A4 envelope so he wouldn’t need to fold the form, and then put the whole shebang into a bigger envelope so the stuff wouldn’t get dirty from his hands. The look on his face made me realise that I had made a good impression on him. This was backed up later after he didn’t get the job when he popped in to see me to say thanks for the support.
Nothing earth shattering, but a touching little story which shows your skills.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR DECISION-MAKING SKILLS AND JUDGEMENT
Questions like these are used in every context, however junior the position may be that you are applying for. We all have to make decisions every day and it's the methodology of how you reach your conclusion on how to act that the interviewer is looking for here. As much as you may think you have a natural innate skill and are getting it right, the reality is that you WILL follow some form of logical process in your mind before you make a decision.
There are no right and wrong answers here, but my top tip for you is to realise that different forms of decision-making are appropriate for different sets of circumstances. It may well be that in an ideal world you would sit down and gather all the facts in front of you and weigh each one up carefully before modelling possible outcomes and consequences of each route you might take before deciding on the one course of action that offers the least risk/biggest return etc., but life being what it is you will sometimes have to make decisions based on gut instinct or incomplete facts. it's how you treat this situation and how you react to the result that is important here. As I have said elsewhere in this book, do not be afraid to share an experience that was less than happy in its outcome. If you can demonstrate a lesson learned you will have demonstrated both resilience and the ability to progress to your interviewer, and both of these qualities will earn you big Brownie points!
Q Tell us about a recent situation in which you had to be reach a decision without having all the facts.
Although this example may seem trivial, it demonstrates maturity and an ability to approach work conceptually. The interviewer will want to know that you understand that just getting the job done isn’t enough. Your response should show resourcefulness and initiative.
When I was on work placement from university, my supervisor, a marketing manager, asked me to assemble five hundred press kits for a mailing. I wasn’t sure in what order the pages and press releases should go, but my supervisor had already left for a client meeting. Afraid of putting the information together in the wrong order, I managed to track down her mobile phone number and called her in her car. She explained the order of the materials over the phone, and in the end I managed to prevent a mistake that would have cost hours of work and a delay in the mailing – not to mention a few headaches.
Q How do you usually go about solving a problem?
The interviewer will want to hear the logic you use to solve problems as well as the outcomes you’re able to achieve. Are you decisive? How do you narrow the options and make decisions? What do people say about your reasoning skills?
When I need to solve a problem, I often start by writing down as many ideas as I can think of about possible causes. Next I look for relationships among the causes so I can group together symptoms of bigger problems. Usually, after I study these groups of problems, the real cause becomes readily apparent. I can then devise a route to getting a resolution.
Q Would you say you are good at making decisions?
It's time once more to admit your fallibility I’m afraid. There is not a single one of us who has not made a decision in our lives that has turned out to be the wrong one. This answer is short and sweet, but irrefutable.
I do have my own preferred style of making decisions and that is, like most people I guess, in circumstances where all the facts are to hand and I have enough time to weigh up the options properly and then come to a reasoned decision. That is not always possible of course and sometimes we have to go with what’s available. We’ve all made decisions which turned out to be the wrong one. Hindsight is 20–20 vision after all. However, I hope that any wrong decision I have made in the past has left its mark on me so that I can learn from it and avoid making the same mistake again.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR INFLUENCING SKILLS
For the vast majority of us, our ability to make things happen through other people will come from being able to influence them rather than by our directing them. While we all may work in organisations that are hierarchical in structure, the stark reality is that most changes of direction come through decisions being made following acceptance of a point of view from individuals requiring the changes to be made. That’s not to say that there are no direct ‘chain of command’ decisions, it's just that these tend to be for the more formal, strategic or tactical decisions, not the minutae of everyday workplace life.
Think of it this way: where would we be without lies in our society? Your immediate thought might be ‘in a much better world‘. Would we? it's the little lies which are recognised by all but acknowledged by no one that oil the wheels of our social transactions. How many marriages would still be intact if the truthful answer to the question ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ were given? We are all subject to influence from our subordinates, peers and superiors at work without the need for formal orders being given or followed. While there are some roles which will obviously require you to have a fair amount of influencing skills – sales staff, marketing people, etc. – enlightened employers will recognise too that there may be occasions where you need to get things done by others when, strictly speaking, you don’t have the authority to demand or instruct them to be done. For example, production people will always be at odds with maintenance people due to the conflicting agendas they have: production will always be wishing to produce, while maintenance will always seek to have production stopped in order for maintenance to be carried out properly. So, as you can see, you have probably applied for a position where your ability to influence others is an important part of your job – whether it is in the job description or not!
Q What are your strengths in terms of influencing people?
- What’s your approach in influencing others?
- What could you do to make yourself more effective in influencing others?
I think the strength I have in influencing others lies within my ability to communicate well with others in order to get them to share my vision of what success looks like. I have found that people are on the whole suspicious of anything which effects change without their understanding of the thought processes behind the decision which would result in change. Its simply impractical to involve everyone in every decision-making process; what I like to do is to take the time to reiterate the current state, then say why the changes are necessary. I give a broad-brush picture of what was being thought about when a solution was being worked out and tell them of the reasons why I or we decided on a particular course of action. I’d then describe what likely results would come out of this change and I would be sure to make them feel that they were recognised as important in the achievement of the new objective and thank them in advance for them helping out. I think I could improve my influencing skills if I slowed down a little bit. Sometimes in my enthusiasm I skip over points that to me are obvious, but to the person I’m talking to might not be. I sometimes then have to backtrack to explain what I meant on some points. Maybe I could plan my discussion with them better. Maybe I could write out some bullet points to make sure I covered all the bases.
The final element in this answer shows that you are human. As I’ve said earlier, employers far prefer to see a candidate who has a high level of self-awareness and knows their development needs than to interview someone who is so smug that they never admit to having made a mistake in the past or need to change in any way.
Q Give an example of when you had to settle a dispute between two people.
There were two colleagues within my section whose relationship deteriorated to the point where the atmosphere was terrible. As they couldn’t resolve it, I decided to see what I could do. My aim was to first take any heat out of the situation by calming down the individuals. Then I arranged a three-way discussion later in the day away from the section in a meeting room so we wouldn’t be disturbed. I made sure that I was in charge of the discussion of the issues, the reason being to arrive at an agreed positive way of going forward or a compromise. I think it's important to understand each person’s standpoint and feelings, without necessarily agreeing with them. It wasn’t pretty at first, with both of them just trying to score points. But I suppose I used my diplomatic skills to get them to see that there was no future in the current situation and that a compromise was the only possible solution. After about an hour, we left the room with a shaky compromise, but I made sure that whenever possible afterwards I encouraged them to be first more civil, then in time more friendly towards each other. The result was an easing of the atmosphere and then a return to normal.
Q Have you ever had a conflict with a superior? How was it resolved?
Yes, I have had conflicts in the past. Never major ones, but certainly there have been situations where there was a disagreement that needed to be resolved. I’ve found that when conflict occurs, it's because of a failure to see both sides of the situation. Therefore I ask the other person to give me their perspective and at the same time ask that they allow me to fully explain my perspective. At that point, I would work with the person to find out if a compromise could be reached. If not, I would submit to their decision because they are my superior. In the end, you have to be willing to submit yourself to the directives of your superiors, whether you’re in full agreement or not.
Q Some people are easier to persuade than others. Which people do you find it hard to persuade?
- What is it that makes persuading them so difficult?
I think the people I find most hard to persuade are people who have opinions based solely on prejudice or bias. People who are bigoted, racist, misogynistic, etc. can often have views that are so entrenched that they are unlikely ever to change. I think you have to make a judgement call as to whether or not it is really your place to attempt to change these people, or whether or not you have to accept that while you may disagree strongly with their views, you might still have to work with them. Of course, you might be forced into a situation where you have to confront someone about their views if it is against your employer’s dignity and diversity policy for instance, but you can still ask them politely to keep such views to themselves in the working environment. I think you have to develop your own skills in deciding when enough is enough-when you are not going to get that sale, when you are not going to convince your boss to give you that rise, or when it's simply time to stop banging your head against a brick wall!
This answer conveys some good points. It shows that you are aware that you can never change the world entirely, that you can employ diplomatic skills when necessary, and that you can also cry ‘enough!’ when it is warranted.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR DEVELOPMENT OF SELF AND OTHERS
Q What do you consider to be your weaknesses?
Time and again, this question proves to be the one interviewees most dread. I bet you've heard it before, and I bet you hated it! In the many, many years in which I have asked this particular question, it is the one that most often provokes a ‘rabbit caught in headlights’ look.
Take heart, because all is not lost! You do not need to launch into a list of your failings and foibles, exposing your lack of self-worth and insecurities and ultimately giving your interviewer a hundred and one reasons NOT to employ you!
Perhaps you would feel more comfortable if it were couched like this:
Q What would you consider to be your development needs?
Now doesn't that sound better? I can hear you breathe out as you read this new, more touchy-feely version of the old classic. In fact, they are exactly the same question and really designed to illicit the same kind of answer. Think of it like this: why would an interviewer expect you to tell him something about you that absolutely rules you out of getting the job? It wouldn't make any sense. It would be asking you to prove a negative. An interviewer’s job is not only to find out if the candidate is the best fit for the job now, but also to see if they can grow within the company and expand on their existing skills and ultimately become a more valuable asset to the company.
A good answer to this question might be:
I'm glad you asked me that. I periodically take time to review my skills and recently I thought I might like to expand my commercial knowledge a little. I thought perhaps a more formal training course in business finance might compliment my general commercial awareness. Also, I have found that recent developments in software package XYZ may help me be more productive. Perhaps I will buy a manual on the subject or go on a refresher course.
The key is never to come across too cocky as if you have nothing new to learn. We can all do with at least some refresher training in at least one aspect of our skill set. How long ago was it since you qualified? If the company you are hoping to work for has an international dimension, perhaps you'd like to learn a new language. When was the last time you used the more obscure functions of a spreadsheet programme? Are you really Mary Poppins? (Practically perfect in every way.) No, probably not.
Do not be afraid of this question. It is one that you are very, very likely to be asked at interview, so be prepared for it. Think of something you are reasonably good at (at least good enough for the job as it's been described to you) and then decide how you could be even better at it. It is better to have over-capacity of skill than under.
Q In what past situations have you been most effective in developing others?
This question is aimed at determining your ability to act outside of your own personal silo. If you have occupied roles in the past where it was part of your responsibilities to develop others, then all well and good. Draw upon those experiences to highlight a good example of developing someone – perhaps illustrating how their appraisal rating improved following your help. If not, then you should be thinking about occasions when, through sheer generosity of spirit of course, you went out of your way to help someone improve or progress, for example:
I remember the time when one of our more junior members of staff was struggling to get to grips with the human resource software we had. She had been given the usual training that we all had and a photocopied manual. To be honest, the manual was like one of those flat-pack instruction booklets, and not much good to anyone really. She was the type of person who didn't like to complain and occasionally took flak for mistakes she had made. I took her to one side and asked if I could assist. We agreed that for half an hour each lunchtime I would sit with her and we would go through the parts of the package that she was less than sure about. In the end it took about two or three weeks, but I was happy to help her and she rarely made mistakes like she had before again. On my birthday she bought me a big bunch of flowers to say thank you. I was really made up!
Remember, interviewers very rarely ask a single question and let you answer it fully before moving onto the next one. They may wish to drill down into what you've initially told them, so be prepared for this. For example:
Q What did you do specifically that was effective?
Having known this girl for a short time, I knew that if she was pointed towards our training department for help it wouldn’t work because she’d see it as a sign of failure, and that others were recognising her shortcomings. By lending a hand in an informal way, it was less of a big deal and she responded to that. If anything, it was me who plonked myself down beside her each day with my sandwiches so she couldn’t go anywhere until we had her knowledge at the level she needed to be successful. So I suppose you could say it was my persistence and my approach that was effective.
Q What was the last piece of learning you undertook?
Now instantly you are thinking back to the last formal course or qualification you took. In the words of George Gershwin, ‘It aint necessarily so‘. Most professional institutions such as the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development require their members to demonstrate continuing professional development and cite reading articles and books, watching TV shows, attending lectures or seminars, secondments, etc. as just as legitimate learning experiences as the more traditional types of learning such as courses of study which lead to a qualification.
This might be a typical answer:
I was watching the news only the other evening and there was a piece on the new anti-smoking legislation coming into force in England and what it would mean for employers. It struck me that there had been no discussion about this at work and it made me think we might be unprepared for what was coming. I went onto the Internet and downloaded the actual statutory instrument as well as all the comments on the ACAS and DTI websites and I also looked at discussion forums. I then took all this information to the HR officer. I was right. We were unprepared and I have been co-opted onto a committee which is looking at all the aspects of the legislation and we are tasked with coming up with policies and proposals for practical measures to make sure we comply.
Don't for a second think that this will make you look like a swot. Employers are desperate to find people who are prepared to ‘go the extra mile' for them and use their own imagination and creativity to resolve problems and issues. This type of answer demonstrates to the interviewer that the candidate has an awareness of the bigger picture, a bit of get-up-and-go to do the research, and a willingness to help colleagues from other departments.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR TEAMWORKING SKILLS
For the vast majority of us, we will during our employment be required to work as part of a team. This may be a small unit of two or three people; alternatively it may be a larger team altogether. Good management practice has it that the maximum number of people any one person can manage well is around 12–15. If the number is any higher than this, then there is usually simply not enough time to devote to each team member to get the best out of them. Conversely, a manager should be able to spend more time with their team the smaller the number of members. Its in everyone’s interest that a team performs well. It should perform better than a simple sum of its parts. A good team is made up of people with an array of talents which compliment each other. After all, you couldn’t field a cup-winning team of 11 strikers or 11 goalkeepers! Your interviewer will probably already have a good idea of the attributes of those in the team for which they are recruiting for and will be looking to see if you possess the necessary complimentary attributes. Its easy and glib to say ‘Oh yes, I’m a good team player’ but what does that actually mean? Let me give you some killer responses to these types of questions.
Q Tell us about the last time you worked as part of a team.
- What did you like about working in the group?
- What did you dislike?
The last time I worked as part of a team was when I worked for XYZ Co. I was part of a team in a call centre which sold new and renewed existing motor and home insurance policies. The team I worked in was around 10 or 12 in number and the group was fairly stable with not many starters or leavers. I really appreciated the fact that the team was made up of a diverse range of people in terms of their age, their background, their ethnicity and character. I felt it gave us a rounded view of things because of the variety of life views. There were some who were experts in the home market and some who were experts in the motor market. We were encouraged to share tips and tricks with each other and to bond as a team socially as well. I suppose the selling type environment would foster a strong team anyway, but I think it was more than that. When we socialised we always made it as inclusive as possible. For example, a couple of members of my team were Muslim girls and couldn’t go into pubs, so we made sure that we didn’t always suggest drinking as a social activity. I honestly believe that our closeness as a team of individuals made us better as a team collectively. What did I dislike? Well I think that sometimes it can be harder to be recognised for any special efforts you have made personally and that maybe you could get lost in the crowd a bit. Although, I think its probably down to the individual at their annual appraisal not to be shy in demonstrating what they’ve done well. I wouldn’t say there’s too much not to like about working in a team for me, maybe its not for everyone, but I thrive in that environment.
Q Tell me about a time when you had to get people to work together more supportively.
- What caused the original difficulties?
- How did the others respond to you?
- What would you do differently next time?
These type of questions may appear to be aimed at people who control the activities of team members, i.e. supervisors. However – and remember this because it is a truism not widely understood – while there may be a titular head of a team, there are also the unsung or unrecognised leaders of teams. These are those who, through respect from their peers or by a natural ability, actually influence the work of others. These people are often natural coaches and mentors, and while they may not have any leadership type of job title on their contract, are as much a driving force behind a team’s performance as their appointed leader. So, even if you have not held a leadership position, you may be able to describe instances where you influenced others.
I remember this time at XYZ Co. when I was working as part of a team who were brought together to plan and execute an office move to another building. The management thought it was a good idea to get people involved from all areas of the company, although some cynics said it was to get it done on the cheap rather than hiring a specialist firm. I tend to think that the management were enlightened enough to think that the whole experience might just be good in terms of the team members’ personal development as well as tapping into the existing talent pool. We were led by a manager who had had some experience in project management and the firm didn’t appear to be taking too big a risk by appointing her. In the early meetings I was aware that we were going through a normal process of jostling for position, trying to ‘bags’ the better tasks of the project and finding our niche in the whole thing. I know from my studies of group dynamics that new teams go through a stage of ‘storming’ initially, they then settle and find their shape in the ‘forming’ phase and then work unconsciously and consciously together in a stage known as ‘norming‘, that is they all work to the same standards. I was acutely aware that our project leader, while very hot on detail and the mechanics of project management, failed to recognise what I was seeing which was that people were being paired up to work on elements of the move in a very haphazard way. She was not taking notice of what’s people’s backgrounds were or attempting to play to their strengths. After a while it became clear that a number of people in the team were really quite unhappy and when I asked them if they had brought it to our project leader’s attention, they said they didn’t want to upset her or rock the boat. After I realised that around half the team of 12 were unhappy I took what was, I suppose, a risky step. I called a private meeting of them and we aired our grievances to one another. Now this could have been a pretty unproductive activity if I hadn’t made a point of going round the table and getting everyone to say what they would rather be doing and why they felt they were right for it. As it turned out, we were able to produce a proposal to shuffle people round in order that they may contribute more fully – for example, one team member was tasked with dealing with the telephone provider over the arrangements for our telephony requirements in the new place yet she had a background in sales. She swapped with one of the IT guys who was happy to take it on. She ended up negotiating with removal men over the costs of the move. Once we had an alternate plan I arranged to meet the project leader privately. I broached the subject carefully saying how this was not an attempt to undermine her authority, but, realising how busy she was, it was an effort on my part to take to her a solution, not just a problem. She was taken aback a little at first, but I talked her round into seeing the plan’s advantages and she then ratified the changes at the next team meeting. What would I do differently? I probably would have had the guts to approach her myself much earlier on, because on reflection, it maybe did seem to appear a bit rebellious on my part.
THE ‘...AND FINALLY’ QUESTIONS
One of the reasons that human resources has occasionally received a hard time over the years was the propensity of some of its practitioners to put questions the purpose of which the interviewee couldn’t understand, nor could they see how what they might give as an answer would have any relevance to the role they had applied for.
We have already seen that one of the factors in successful performance in a role is the ability of the post holder to assimilate into the culture of the organisation, or at least to ‘fit in’ with those around them. Therefore it would be a legitimate aim of any interviewer to get an impression of the kind of person the candidate is in terms of character, interests, etc. Of course, the interviewer may just be nosey!
What follows are what I call the ‘... and finally’ questions. I have named these after the more frivolous news items that came at the end of news bulletins in the UK. If you are asked these types of questions, they will most likely come at the end of the interview. Obviously there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, only your own answers.
Here are some for you to consider what kind of answer you might give:
- Q What would constitute a perfect evening for you?
- Q What would be a nightmare evening?
- Q Would you rather have an extremely successful professional life and have a tolerable home life, or have a fabulous home life and a merely tolerable professional life?
- Q If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one new ability, skill or quality, what would it be?
- Q Who is your hero/heroine (alive or dead)?
- Q Who is your biggest villain?
- Q Describe the one person who has had the single biggest influence on your life.
- Q Has anyone told you that you have been their inspiration?
- Q How forgiving are you? Give me an example.
- Q Have you ever made a big sacrifice? If you have, is it something you have kept to yourself or do others know about it?
- Q Has anyone ever made a big sacrifice for you?
- Q What percentage of people your age do you think are having a better life than you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?
- Q Tell me about the last time you laughed at yourself.
- Q Do others laughing at you bother you?