How to Knock the Interviewer off their Chair

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There are some big differentiators between top performers and others at interview. In this series of articles I have aimed to provide candidates with some off-the-beaten-track methods for creating an advantage and getting the right role. This article focusses on one of the big undercover secrets for separating yourself from competitors for the job you want, and in other aspects of your working life. Let me explain with an anecdote and then a story.

I never bet on a horse based on which courses it has run, though it may be a factor in my calculation. I primarily bet on its form. Its form is a sequence of numbers. Where it finished in each race, what position for each part of the race, and its time based on race course conditions (which are often numeric themselves). So why go to an interview and tell the interviewer where you ran (repeat your job description), rather than your form – numerically, how good you were at the role? Why should the interviewer bet on you?Anthony

Let me further explain with a real story:

I was sat on the top floor of a major hotel in London, and was due to undertake a 1-2-1 session with an about to be ousted Board member of a large UK bank. They had hired a large area of the top floor and I had been warned that he was a bully, so I thought I would teach him a lesson as part of my coaching him to find a future role. I was the expert, had the white coat, and I do not like bullies. So after pleasantries, I said (possibly with an evil grin on my face), “You have half an hour to complete these two pages with all of your achievements from the past five years. And I want numbers against each achievement”. I thought, “That will teach him a lesson and make him amenable for the rest of the day!” I came back after 25 minutes to revel in my glory and his misery, and to my surprise he had already completed both sheets with achievements and had numbers against each. Things like, “Opened x country as a market resulting in £2.5m profit at the end of the first year and a projected £37m for the next 5 years”. He knew his stuff, and it threw me off the back of my seat. He had taught me a lesson about one of the differentiators between those that make it really big in business, and those that do not. Knowing the business impact of what you do! I have seen this many times since.

What sort of interview is it likely to be?

The fact is that the interview is likely to be what is technically called an ‘episodic’ interview. More commonly this form of selection is called a behavioural interview. In other words, it is based on the premise that the best indicator of future performance or behaviour is past performance or behaviour. If you did it before, you can do it again. That means they will ask you for examples (episodes) against their job competencies. “Give me an example of …”, “Tell me about a time you….”

The process for knocking the interviewer off the chair

The process is as follows:

  1. Write down all of your achievements at work, but also include personal, sporting and charity-based achievements. How far do you go back? It depends on how many roles you have had and what you are looking to do. We are looking for a good spread in the types of achievement. We are really creating an ‘achievements bank’ that we can draw upon for different applications and different personal needs. Achievement examples might include:
  • Profit generation and cost savings.
  • Coaching, presenting and training (however informal).
  • Space savings, time savings.
  • Results in throughput v others doing the same role as averages.
  • Increases in satisfaction – staff or customers.
  • Development of staff to new roles, churn of staff.
  • Budgets controlled and savings in spending.
  • Negotiated outcomes, changes to supplier processes.
  • Internal changes to processes and systems.
  • New markets, exploiting old markets with new offerings.
  • Co-ordination of cross-functional groups.
  • Leadership of working parties.
  • Work delegated to you from a more senior manager.
  • Risk prevention.
  • Even as far as speed of call handling.
  • Everything is measurable! I had an American science lecturer (great University) ask me how he could apply this going from academia to commercial this morning. It’s fine for retail, but difficult for academics, he said. Sounded like a challenge, so I gave him 10 examples. It is all measurable, and as a rounded business person, it should be.

Now add numbers to them. All must have a number(s) or they are near worthless and you are just the same as other candidates. Saved £X; reduced the number of days for x from y to z; presented x days training to y number of people resulting £x increased sales. Some full examples are shown below. I have also prepared a hidden page on our web site just for you and full of example achievements. Use these to help you with ideas.

  • Once you have 15 to 30 achievements (you will start slow and then gain momentum as you begin to think this way), now think of the competencies or skill you had to use to get the achievement. Each achievement will have required multiple competencies (or skills) to achieve it. Log these next to the relevant achievement in your own language. For example:

 

  • Utilised as a change champion for under-performing branches with 2 turn-around’s resulting in an enhancement of £130K to the bottom line and an increase in staff retention of 30% compared to the previous year.
    • This required competencies or skills related to analysis, leadership, change, inter-personal skills, motivation, personal development, finance and others.

Or, for example, 

  • Streamlined procedures in line with the x manual providing a time saving of 130 people days per year within the branch as a whole (equivalent to £13K saving year on year). This pilot was replicated to 5 other branches providing a further £65k additional saving to the business.
    • This required competencies related to analysis, depth of understanding/ detail-orientation, cross-functional working, persuasion, co-ordination, and so on.

If the interviewer is good, they will now ask you how you did it, who you had to interact with, what were the business circumstances, together with further probing questions. Just be honest. If you are really good, you will learn to pre-empt some of these probe questions by supplying a fuller answer around the question itself. It just takes practise. In the reality of the interview, the format to the interviewers question of, “Give me an example of where you have had to persuade others across teams in order to achieve an objective” might go something like this if I was to use the last example achievement above:

“Whist I was working at xyz company, head office wanted to pilot an operations manual as part of an initiative to streamline procedures to enable better service for our customers. They asked me if I would pilot the use of the manual. I grabbed this opportunity with both hands. To make it happen, I had to brief and sell the concept to all of my managers, conduct short training sessions with staff, and then position help points on our intranet. It worked so well that I was then asked to champion the role-out to 5 other branches. Again, I had to use a lot of persuasion with peers and managers that I didn’t really know. They real keys to persuading this group was to sell the likely time saving and the increases in customer satisfaction. The end results were excellent. As well as increasing customer satisfaction (very satisfied) by 4%, the time saving equated to a value of £13k in my branch and a further £65k within the other branches year-on-year.”

Once the interviewer picks themselves up off the floor, we have now told the them a number of things. Firstly, this applicant is a business person and understands their impact – they are ‘rounded’ and not just in an occupational box (yes, we do like to increasingly box people to make sense of our complex world). Secondly, the ‘persuasion’ competence has a massive tick against it. Finally, the manager conducting the interview may be thinking how much this person can now help me with my objectives (there is always subjectivity in an interview).

Now learn your achievements, but only learn your numbers. You need to flow and not be scripted in the interview. It is up to you to adjust what you say to the precise meaning of the question. You never want to say in an interview, “I have already used this example, do you mind if I use it again?” Learn your achievements for your CV, interviews, business meetings when your credibility is challenged, and they will motivate you and make you realise how good you really are. Look at them when you want a little courage on your side. This is your track record, and it glows!

Before you go to interview, check the job description, person specification, or just the advert for likely competencies. As stated in the previous article, they tell you what they are looking for.

It is hard, but the rewards can be incredible

Most of us are brought up to be modest. In the UK we have sayings like, ‘Hide your light under a bushel’, or, ‘Better to remain silent and let people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt’. It is almost in our DNA to be modest, and that gets in the way when you are selling yourself at interview. I have run a lot of career development workshops, and understand how this may make you feel. So let’s deal with some of the common objections:

 

  • I can’t work out the numbers as I do not have access to some of the information. Estimates with your ‘hand on your heart’ are fine. Billions are loaned by banks each year to businesses based on a bunch of assumptions and estimates. It is the same thing. I want you to show that you understand the consequences of your actions as a business person. Let me ask you, which is better? An interviewer asks, “Can you give me an example of a time where you created a new system or process?”
    • Answer 1: “I introduced a new manual filling procedure for daily reporting.”
    • Answer 2: “I introduced a new manual filling system within a limited space operation resulting in a saving of approximately 3 minutes per query of which there were some 250 per day. That meant there was 12.5 hours saving for the office each day, and I simultaneously reduced the office space needs by some 4 metres squared.” If I really wanted to, I could have calculated 12.5 hours into average salary saving and come up with a cash figure, and then calculate the cost of office space based on the squared meter rental cost. Okay, that might be overkill, but with the right mind-set, it becomes that easy.

 

  • I feel a little strange doing this/just feels wrong. Firstly, as long as you know the method you used to work it out, you state these are estimates to the best of your knowledge, state your assumptions, and play on the side of caution if you have a spread of figures, you will be fine. Secondly, the next applicant will not feel that way, and you just lost that job. Finally, it is just that modesty thing getting in the way.
  • It was a team effort and not all my work. No problem, state as part of a team, your role in that team, and then the achievement. If you were the leader of the team, well you can claim that achievement as yours. “led a team of….”

Once you have worked out your achievements, practise it with close friends and get them to ask you for examples of different competencies that may come up in interview. It is very worthwhile.

As a consultant, do I use this? Yes, in every ROI calculation, in nearly all proposals, and always in marketing. I want my clients to know that I will impact their business positively. I cannot be bashful, or I will be out-competed by others. What is my best achievement to date?

Transformed a leadership team of a major multi-national by creating a range of complimentary interventions, and enacting these through Directors and all line managers, with resulting 450m Euro turn-around in sales in a single year.Anthony

I am very proud of that, so now be proud of your achievements! No matter what your beliefs, you are only here once in this shape and form. So capitalise.

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