Joe Regenstein, CPA, FPAC

How To Improve Interview Performance

Interview Panel After posting a summary of a book regarding resumes, I was asked about hiring the right candidate. Since we are hiring, I have some insights into the interview process and what a candidate should be mindful of during the interview, especially if they have never conducted an interview themselves. Success requires answering the questions clearly and concisely while accentuating strengths and minimizing weaknesses.

How interviews are conducted varies wildly by company. At Verizon, we have a formal hiring process to avoid many pitfalls such as asking questions that lack a clear objective which won’t provide valuable insights into the candidate’s ways of working. The interviewer’s job is to determine if the candidate is willing and capable of doing the work. We want examples of how they performed in situations similar to what they will experience in the new role. We want to see the candidate’s problem-solving methods and how they overcome difficulties. People who interview well are good at progressing through their career stories with sufficient detail. They know their job history and how it relates to the position they seek. They can provide an impressive answer that links marketable skills to the organization’s needs. They make it easier for the interviewer to take notes and ask follow-up questions.

One standard way of answering a behavioral question goes by the acronym STAR, which stands for situation, task, action, and result. The best answers always start with a description of the situation, adequate background, and factors that add to the complexity. Then the candidate is set up to discuss what they did and how or why they took those actions. Lastly, they end their answer with the results. Bonus points if they are quantifiable, which I discuss in the summary of metric story points (MSPs). Once you finish answering the question there may be an uncomfortable pause in the conversation; embrace it. Give the interviewer time to complete their notes and prepare to follow up with additional questions.

It takes practice to answer questions in this format. It can be more challenging when your previous job doesn’t directly align with your desired role. Before joining Verizon, I was a Certified Financial Planner developing financial plans for clients to achieve their goals, such as retirement. My interview task was to link examples from personal finance to corporate finance, which is further apart than it might sound. I could talk about asset management and helping people achieve goals, but I would have missed the mark. Instead, I choose stories that demonstrate the ability to identify problems, collect data for analysis, and articulate solutions, which are transferable skills. Another challenge is having lived the experience; it feels unnatural to go through the detail of the situation or explain why you took action. Discussing what you did and how you did it only requires reciting the process. If you stop there, it doesn’t demonstrate that higher level of cognition that separates the rockstars from the rest of the pack by providing “why” you did something.

The worst responses are challenging to follow or don’t answer the question. We all know interviews are stressful and expect to repeat questions or give examples to clarify. But if the interviewer is left scratching their head trying to figure out how the answer is relevant to the question and, therefore, the position, you’ve lost an opportunity to prove you are a match.

To prepare, I suggest mock interviews with your manager or a peer. I took advantage of a leadership program where you took turns asking and answering questions with opportunities for feedback. In addition, I also interviewed for various positions over the years, in some cases unsuccessfully. Even though the questions differed each time, I got better at preparing and answering thoroughly. I developed a list of stories I could tell and ensured I knew them well. On my notes, I had multiple categories with several bullet points, each a short description of an example I could provide. The risk is having only one story for a category such as “Leadership” and having to use the same instance twice (or getting stuck trying to come up with an example on the fly). Although I rarely used the notes, preparing them made a significant difference by providing the thought exercise and building some confidence.

Beyond how to answer a question, there are additional considerations when trying to leap from individual contributor to people leader. For leadership questions, try substituting the work you did leading a project or solving a problem. My former manager called this leading from the middle, getting those who don’t report to you to cooperate to achieve a goal. Leading people isn’t easy, but getting peers or more senior collaborators to work with you when they don’t necessarily need to is impressive. Another area is strategy; most roles aren’t responsible for developing strategy but have situations where the next steps aren’t always clear. Here I would substitute how you align processes and support your superior’s initiatives. When doing this, it is imperative to articulate the “why” and how it positively impacts the customer and business. Evaluating the implications for your work, where there are risks, and how you ultimately contributed to the company achieving its goals is excellent (even if it wasn’t your idea in the first place).

Next, we can cover what to do when your resume is light in a particular area. We are currently interviewing for financial planning and analysis roles with some technical skills listed as good to have but not required. One example is the structured query language used to extract results from a database (SQL). We don’t need someone who can build tables or maintain a database. We need people who can understand what a current script is pulling and have some ability to modify it if needed. SQL is just one example, but if a skill is on a job posting, there are ways to get some knowledge before interviewing. While interviewing to get into Verizon, I learned the department was looking to use Tableau, a visualization software I had never heard about before. I found a book that had tutorials and utilized a free two-week trial of the software. While not an expert, I could discuss what I thought about the software, provide examples of what I learned, and convey confidence in using the tool. That was a long time ago; there are many free or inexpensive resources to learn these technical skills. I suggest looking within your company’s training, LinkedIn Learning, or simply doing a google search to see what is available. Returning to the SQL example, it may take two or three short online classes to learn enough to identify different parts of an SQL script and establish a foundation you can develop over time. If this skill is emerging in your field, answering with “I have no knowledge” is problematic.

Another example is the six sigma process improvement methodology which has several levels of mastery signified by colored belts similar to martial arts, with white being the first and master black belt as the highest. Some jobs may be looking for a green belt, the level of process improvement knowledge to lead a small project. Getting certified takes a minimum of two weeks of training, completing a project, and is expensive. Since it wasn’t a requirement, I obtained an inexpensive white and yellow belt. These certifications were self-paced, affordable, and had a small time requirement. These bottom two levels signify knowledge of the six sigma processes, calculations, and standard tools without needing to complete a project or take two weeks off for in-person training. When asked about the green belt, it was better to say I don’t have it but have these other certifications, which is the basis for the green belt. On a side note, I ultimately earned the green and black belt certifications in company-provided training. I have used these skills to complete several projects and improve my ways of working.

Suppose I was changing careers and interviewing for a business analyst or project management role. I could partially lean on these projects but would be at a disadvantage to someone already in a similar position. To better close the remaining gap, I would read highly recommended books in the field, talk to someone doing this work, and find some online resources. With this knowledge, I would pick better examples, utilize industry keywords, and survive follow-up questions that test deeper understanding.

Think about your next job and how you can close the skills gap with minimum effort and time. Most large organizations have these resources available at no cost. The examples I provided took a small investment of time and money but had a significant ROI. At a minimum, you neutralize a weakness, show you are a self-starter and have the drive to improve continuously. Best case, you outshine the competition.

The effort candidates put into their work and interview preparation become evident within a few questions. I hope this helps provide some insights and the extra push to get over the finish line.

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