In my last post, I talked about the background to my recent job search, and the start of the process in terms of interview preparation - taking time to really get to know yourself!
With that done, you are now in a better position to begin to think about how you put your best self forward in CV’s, job applications and interviews.
Identify and document your key achievements
This is an area I struggled with initially - I was used to writing a CV as, effectively, a list of achievements, but very technically focused e.g. “I delivered X. I rolled out Y. I developed Z.”
However this conveys nothing about how you did so - and I don’t mean the technical details.
Rather than say “I was responsible for a team of x people” or “I delivered a major project on time”, you have to completely rephrase your achievements to highlight your skills and strengths in a way that’s clear to a potential employer what your value to them would be.
It all goes back to the “So what?!” question.
So how do we approach that?
The STAR Technique
In talking with a career adviser, I was introduced to the STAR Technique which is a technique to help you frame your skills and experience in the most positive and easy to understand way.
It stands for Situation, Task, Action, Response - STAR.
The idea here is that instead of bland, detail-heavy bullet point lists which don’t highlight all your skills and strengths, you structure your achievements so that it is clear to everyone in the room what the situation was, what was required, what you did (and how) and what outcome and benefit it delivered (answering the “So what?!” question).
So for example, instead of:
“Designed and delivered mitigation of security vulnerability blah in response to deprecation of protocol blah for affected systems”
You might instead say:
“Provided senior technical guidance and design for mitigation of blah weaknesses following it’s deprecation, which included successful analysis of affected systems in the estate. This included design, implementation and security sign-off of mitigations including software upgrades, configuration changes and additional defensive measures to eliminate exposure to blah exploitation.”
Which one tells your prospective employer more about you and if you have the right approach and behaviours plus technical skills to help them succeed? I’d hope you would think the latter!
Remember the person reading your CV may be an HR person and not a techie. Similarly if you get to interview stage, not everyone in the room is necessarily going to be a technical person - but still needs to assess if you are worth hiring.
Another variant to STAR is What, How, Result - What was the problem, how did you tackle it, and what was the result.
The end goal is the same and is also something to have in mind in answering interview questions - especially for competency based questions which are designed to determine the probability of future success from past achievements, focusing heavily on behaviours.
These are often asked in the positive such as:
- “Tell me about a time when you achieved something even though you didn’t think you could do it?”
- “Describe a situation where you had to make a split-second decision, and did not have time to plan or research?”
They are also sometimes asked in the negative, such as:
- “Describe the most stressful situation you have ever been in?”
- “What task did you least like in a previous job?”
You may also be asked followup questions to extract more information from you - expect those!
One thing to be careful with is that for the negative questions, your example is one where you turned a negative around into a positive outcome rather e.g.
“Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult colleague or customer?”
For that one, you absolutely don’t want to be making negative comments about anyone, or saying that you swore at them and stormed off! You’d like this company to hire you!
So, if you have an example where you had a difficult colleague, talk about steps that you took to improve the situation and turn it into a positive, such as steps to try to understand where they were coming from, what their challenges were and working together to come up with a solution that suited all parties or improved a process.
That’s the kind of positive behaviours an employer will want to hear about. (And again, be truthful - so select examples you are happy to talk about and be questioned further on).
Examples, Examples, Examples
“To fail to prepare, is to prepare to fail”
I alluded to it above but the key thing in preparing for a competency based interview is examples.
- Research typical interview questions (see the end of this post for some good resources)
- Write down your answers to them
- Review them to see if they align to STAR
- Refine them
- Memorise them
- Find more examples.
The more you do this, the more you will find that the different examples and how you might answer them will stick in your head - perhaps not verbatim, but enough so that you are not fazed if you get asked a question that wasn’t one of the ones you researched. In other words - you’ll be able to adapt because you were well prepared. An old adage but a good one - “To fail to prepare, is to prepare to fail”.
Nobody would be the slightest bit surprised at you being nervous about a job interview - it can be stressful for a number of reasons:
- You want the job
- You want to make a good impression
- You don’t know the people in the room
- You don’t know the environment
- You’re not comfortable saying nice things about yourself (even though they are true)
So, it’s important to take steps to calm yourself before and during the interview.
Being prepared helps and the more interviews you attend, the less nervous you’ll hopefully be about them (and remember, you might have several applications ignored or rejected, or attend several interviews before you are successful in securing a role - that’s all to be expected and nothing to beat yourself up about).
A few things to help include:
- Be mindful of (but don’t obsess over) your body language - that means try to smile often, make eye contact with the interviewer (and if there is more than one, make eye contact with the person who asked the question you are answering), try not to slouch, try not lean back too far (or lean in too far), rest your hands on your lap (don’t fold your arms, that can be seen as defensive/unapproachable).
- Dress appropriately (e.g. generally smart business attire - it’s better to be over-dressed than under-dressed! Rocking up in jeans and a t-shirt is probably not going to work out well in a corporate setting!)
- Make sure you are well groomed, clean and tidy
- Arrive ahead of time so you have time to have a cup of tea or coffee nearby and still arrive on time after a relaxing walk without being flustered or sweaty. (Coffee - can make you jittery, or sweaty, or give you bad breath - my approach was to have a small americano with a small snack (e.g. a small cookie/biscuit - just enough to calm the nerves without giving you indigestion. Also, have breath mints with you))
- Don’t arrive at the interview location way too early - 10-15 minutes before is about right.
- Breathing exercises before your interview can help keep you calm - as simple as breathing in for 3 seconds, holding the breath for 4 seconds, and breathing out over around 5 seconds - repeat 4-5 times.
Build a network
Not strictly related to interviews, but I strongly recommend taking the time to build a network of friends/colleagues/suppliers/vendors over time and maintain that network. That means keeping in touch with those contacts, helping them where you can (sharing with them job roles you become aware of that may be a good fit for them for example). I use LinkedIn for this, as well as email/phone/text for those I’m closest/friendliest with.
If you are reliable, if you seek to help others and are known to be good at what you do, others will be inclined to help you or keep you in mind when roles come up in their organisation. It’s a two-way street, you get out what you put in!
In my own experience, my best leads, be it introductions to recruiters, or finding out about jobs I might otherwise have missed on job sites and LinkedIn job searches, all came through people I’ve known for many years, people I’ve worked with, or people I’ve met at community events.
None of that guarantees you a job - but it can help you get to the interview stage at least. Someone vouching for you, or putting you in touch with an HR contact rather than going through automated CV screening looking for keywords, can allow you the opportunity to then sell yourself and put your best foot forward.
Research and Feedback
Take some time also to research the company you are applying for and the role - it will come across in your interview if you’ve done so by the questions you ask - that’s right, you can ask questions too (but don’t go overboard, a question or two at the end of the interview, can really impress if you ask insightful questions about the role or how you can help with their business challenges).
In the event you are unsuccessful in a role you applied for or interviewed for - remember to ask for feedback on how you might be more succesful next time.
Good feedback can really help you grow, and the act of asking for it can help maintain a good relationship that may serve you well with that company or interviewer for a future role.
One last point - if you are invited for an informal chat with a hiring manager, or if you are approached by a recruiter - treat those conversations as you would an interview - remember you want to put your best foot forward. If a recruiter doesn’t like how you come across - why would they recommend you to a client?
In summary, take the time to prepare, not just once but repeatedly, until even the things you were uncomfortable with at the start begin to flow more easily - the more effort you put in, the more that will show in your interview.