Monday, October 19, 2009

Behavioral Interview Preparation - Addendum

I was just preparing some interview questions for a round of interviewing I am conducting for a retained search, and got to thinking that the previous preparation update I gave didn't really go into any depth on how to prepare for behavioral interview questions. There is a pretty good guide here that covers most of what I would recommend.

I would say that there are very few companies that engage in full-on behavioral interviewing, most will use some combination of behavioral-based questions (tell me about a time...) and traditional questions (what are your strengths...). I generally tell candidates that preparing for a behavioral interview will make them more prepared for any non-behavioral questions as well. Therefore, it is important to prepare for both!

The idea behind behavioral interviewing is that if somebody cannot walk the interviewer through a specific situation, they probably have not done it. I had a candidate tell me in an interview that in 9 years as a supervisor, she had not ever had to discipline one of her employees. I found that hard to believe, but she seemed like a good candidate so I went along in the process. When I checked one of her references, I learned that she had not been a supervisor at all! This reinforced the premise of behavioral interviewing. That she couldn't describe an instance where she had disciplined somebody meant that she didn't know how to do it.

The most important part of preparing is to do a thorough reading of the job description to identify the key competencies for the position at hand. Sometimes, the description will just include them in a section simply titled "competencies." Other times, they will not. If they don't, look for competency-based language "must work well under pressure," "must have excellent problem-solving skills" etc.

Write each competency down, and think of a specific situation from your work history that demonstrates your competency in that area. The article linked above advocates a STAR approach:
Situation: Use specific details about a situation or task.
Task: Tell what led to the situation or task?
Action: What action was taken; discuss what you did and who was involved.
Result: Communicate the outcome.

This seems about right. I always tell people that few details are too mundane. Your interviewer will tell you if they've gotten the point to their satisfaction. The key is to have your situations ready to go for whatever competency is mentioned or seems appropriate, and to have a plan to address what seem to be the keys to the position.

Each answer should start with a description of the situation, so if the question is "Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker." The answer should start out: "Last August, another mechanical engineer and I disagreed about a design component for the new XJ-152."

Then backtrack and give the background: "She and I had been tasked with re-designing the actuation mechanism to the XJ-152 because the previous design failed in live testing 20% of the time, which is far more than the 5% that is deemed acceptable."

Then go back and describe the situation in more detail: "I was convinced that pneumatic actuation would be a more stable mechanism than the existing hydraulic system, but she was convinced that we only need to redesign the hydraulic actuation."

Then discuss how it was resolved: "I proposed that we step back and make a matrix of the customer requirements and go through the designs point-by-point to determine the best result."

Then discuss the result: "In the end, we determined that my design really was more stable, but that given the pricing requirements of the customer, it was clear that the hydraulic design was the only one that would be feasible. I was able to identify two key places where stability was compromised in her proposed design, and we worked together to resolve those and come up with a design that we were comfortable with."

I am not an engineer, so hopefully a scenario like this would include more technical details, but you are demonstrating your ability to resolve disagreements in a process-oriented fashion and give your interviewer a really good idea of how you would handle similar situations that arose. You can demonstrate this similarly even if the question is asked in a non-behavioral way, like "How do you deal with conflict?" or even "How would you describe your ability to work in teams." Describing this kind of situation in that level of detail will tell your interviewer more about you than an answer that you would typically hear to those two questions "Well, I try to work out conflicts in a way that best achieves customer goals." Or something like that.

Going into an interview with 5-10 specific situations that highlight your strengths and successes will make you a more effective interviewee, regardless of the techniques used by the interviewer.

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