By Jason Warner — I’ve been interviewing people for a very long time. Sometimes I think maybe too long. You have to go back to my very first recruiting job at Microsoft to understand. This was when Microsoft was The Place to Work in the Technology World, circa the mid 1990s.
In this well-defined and very measured job, my objective was to interview candidates 7 hours a day via the telephone. Sometimes it was 8 or 9 hours a day, but on average it was 35, one-hour phone interviews per week, for an average of 7 hours a day. Because of this experience, I’m pretty sure that the limit of human capabilities when it comes to interviewing is an average of 7 hours a day. Anything more is perhaps dangerous.
Now, most professional recruiters would call this phone-screen-Hell. I suspect many of the candidates may have felt that way also, come to think of it. In essence, I would sit at my computer, headset perched on one ear, and interview until late in the day at which point my brain began to melt, all while tapping furiously on my keyboard to take notes.
I did this job for approximately 18 months, which is pretty remarkable given how tedious it was. By my math, I did approximately two-thousand, six-hundred and twenty five interviews during this part of my career (and I’ve done probably half that many again since). That is a lot of interviews. So I got pretty good at it.
One of the things I learned during that time was to structure behaviour interview questions, so I could determine what a candidate’s competencies were. These competencies have names like “Interpersonal Savvy” and “Planning and Organizing” and “Drive for Results” and the theory is that they are supported by behavioural examples – times in a candidate’s life when they’ve demonstrated behaviors which reflect these competencies.
Lest I bore you with HR theory and practice, what I’m getting at is that knowing how interviews are done will make you a better candidate, and one of the keys to any interview is structuring your answers correctly. I’d say less than 3% of all candidates frame up their answers in this way, and the ones who do really stand out. That should be you.
Not every question will be best suited to this approach, but it works well on any of the questions that start with phrasing like, “Tell me about a time when…”. I know, you hate those questions. But here is how to answer them.
Many of the questions you are asked can be answered using a 4-part sequencing to your answer. An easy way to remember this is an acronym called SARI, and it stands for Situation, Action, Result, and Interesting Features. You can remember it by considering if you don’t learn this interview technique you may be SARI.
So, let’s say that the question is, “Tell me about a time that demonstrates your leadership capabilities…” You should structure your answer like this:
Situation: Explain the situation in a way that gives the interviewer context. Less detail is better, but give enough detail to paint the picture.
So, in our example, you might say, “I was transferred into a new department at work, and had to take on a whole new team. One of the key factors was that morale was really low because the department was not resourced properly and turnover had spiked.”
Action: Here is where you explain what you did. Note that I said you, not we. Referring to the action in terms of the intangible “we” is one of the most common interview mistakes I see. You are the one interviewing, so your answer should describe specific behaviors that you actually did.
In our example, you would say, “So the first thing I did was to schedule 1:1 meetings with everyone, to really understand what the issues were, and what was troubling with the team. I also asked them what they thought I should I do, and what the biggest challenge was that each of them faced. I then followed up with everyone as a group. And the most important step I took was I took action quickly against the issue that was causing the team the most grief…”
Result: Here’s where you share the net result to the business. You should quantify this with numbers or other business metrics, even if they are fudged or fuzzy. It probably goes without saying, but always try to pick an example where the net result was positive. (Hey, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard.)
In our example, something like this, “The net result of my leadership actions was that morale was significantly improved after 60 days – you could just feel the energy in the department. Most importantly, we reduced turnover from 40% annualized to zero during the first 6 months…”
Interesting Features: This where you tell the interviewer something special and/or memorable about the story, so that they really remember it. If you can, tie it back to competencies to strengthen your answer.
“I think this example really demonstrates a servant-leader approach to generating business results. In fact, my team still talks about the turnaround today. I am proud of this example because I think it demonstrates strong leadership.”
So, by now you are probably thinking, “This is great, Jason, but there’s no way I am ever going to remember all this in the middle of an interview…” And you are right, unless you practice.
This is easy to practice. Simply have a friend or your significant other ask you a few “Tell me about a time when…” questions and then practice answering them using the 4-part sequence SARI.
After just a few questions, it will become second nature.