No. 3 & 4 of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Candidates

  • Post published:14/05/2014
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Last month you read about how to handle a self-assertive and ambitious headhunter who is calling you on the phone. And also a presentation of the greatest resume mistakes ever. If you missed it, read it here.

This time, I’ll explain the interview techniques used by most executive search and multi-national companies: the behaviour-based interview. Well, some call it competency-based – but don’t let that fool you. It’s all the same. I will also be sharing some tips on how to get through the most difficult of all interviews: the telephone interview.

This blog is a part of the series on seven habits of highly effective candidates, one habit at a time, as a celebration of Stephen Covey’s book on the subject, which was published 25 years ago.

3. The behaviour-based interview technique

They say that leopards never change their spots and that a candidate’s past performance is the best predictor of future performance. You will need to provide detailed responses including specific examples of your work experience. The best way to prepare is to think of situations where you have successfully used your knowledge and skills. The simple explanation behind the much hyped behaviour-based interview technique is: if you have done it before, you can do it again.

Before meeting you, the hiring company has decided what skills are needed to be successful in the job and will be asking questions to find out if you have those particular skills. Instead of asking you how you would behave in a certain scenario or situation, the interviewer wants to know how you actually handled a situation in a real work-related task or situation. So it’s not about what you might do in the future but what you actually did in the past.

The professional recruiter will suggest you organise your answer by using the concept we call STAR. The devil is known by many names and you may come across abbreviations like CAR, SCAR etc. – all names that are same same but different. Back to STAR; ST stands for a situation or a task that you have encountered; A for the action you took and R for the result or outcome.

Here are some typical behaviour-based questions, basically all inviting you to dip into your memory and tell a real story from your work-life that demonstrates an experience related to the specific question the interview wants to hear:

  • Can you give me an example of when you [insert].
  • Could you tell me about a time when you [insert].
  • Tell me more about when you [insert].
  • Describe a situation where you [insert].

To better understand your actual role, there will be follow up questions such as: when did it happen, how long did it take to finish, what was your specific role, who else was involved, describe the environment and culture, what was the impact you made, what were the biggest challenges you faced, what technical skills did you use and learn, or how did your boss manage you.

It can at times be difficult to quickly think about examples of achievements; in particular when you sit in the pressure cooker we call an interview. It’s a good idea to prepare notes of your personal stories you want to talk about. Bring your notes about these achievements for the meeting and also take your resume along; place your papers on the table in front of you for easy reference.

Most answers during the meeting should be about one-to-two minutes long. If you talk for more than three minutes, you risk losing our interest and will likely be ranked as boring, long-winded, or too self-centered. If you talk for half a minute, you are most likely considered superficial, incompetent, or lacking interest.

This process is less stressful and more enjoyable than traditional interview sessions. No need to think about what we want to hear or what you would do in whatever situation. Simply talk about what you have done in real life work situations.

When employers say, “tell me about yourself,” state what you are currently doing and what you have done in the past three to five years, and not much more. Few employers are interested in the details of your early career or in your minor roles. The interviewer does not want your life story; they want to know your business capabilities. Get to the point by saying precisely what makes you ideal for the job.

Providing real examples from your career is the most important part of this exercise. Interviewers will use your examples to form their judgments about your competency. Most candidates talk in generalities so being specific with real examples is much more convincing.

4. How to prepare for a telephone interview

The number one mistake job candidates make on phone interviews is sounding tired, bored, or disengaged. As the interviewers cannot see you, they are paying extra close attention to your answers and anything else they hear from your voice. So, lackluster answers or low energy could be read as lack of interest — and can keep you from getting in the door for that next interview.

A few minutes before the interview, prepare by doing some power poses or stretching. Research shows that standing with your legs shoulder-length apart with your hands on your hips and your chest out for just two minutes raises your testosterone levels, lowers cortisol, and makes you sound more confident. You might feel silly, but at the very least, it’ll help calm some nerves. Definitely a good thing!

You want to sound dynamic and engaged. Sitting relaxed in a chair is not going to help. Instead, try positioning yourself like a speaker so stand up when you are on the phone. Have some relevant materials on a desk or table in front of you as you stand such as your resume and any other document or notes that you can refer to if needed.

Keep a pad and pen handy to take notes during your phone interview.

Have a glass of water by the phone and be ready five minutes early.

Be in a quiet place, turn off the television or music, get the dogs outside, and ask your family and children to be quiet and not disturb you during this important phone call.

Dress in a businesslike manner to put yourself in the proper frame of mind, and sit or stand with good posture. Although your interviewer cannot see you, these things affect the quality of the image you project through your voice.

Speak slowly and clearly, with moderate volume and plenty of enthusiasm, positive energy and inflection, keeping your mouth about an inch away from the mouthpiece.

Do not eat, chew gum, or smoke.

Smile. Smiling will project a positive image to the listener and will change the tone of your voice. Feel free to laugh! Yes, this is an interview for a job, but ideally it’s also a conversation between two mutually interested parties. Don’t make the mistake of sounding overly serious or timid.

Throughout the interview, use interesting, descriptive language and proper grammar-not slang (“yes” rather than “yeah”). Do not swear or use profanities under ANY circumstances, even if your interviewer does so. Avoid fillers such as “ums” and “errs”.

During the interview, most of the same rules of in-person interviewing apply. Never say anything on the telephone you would not say in person. Don’t chitchat; stick to business, and don’t let your guard down.

Never ask about compensation. If you are asked directly about your compensation requirements, try to sidestep by saying “Salary is important, but I am more interested in the opportunity at this time.” If asked again, state what you are currently earning (breaking out base, bonuses, and benefits).

In summary, the telephone interview is just like a personal interview, but shorter and without the benefit of non-verbal communication. If you take the telephone interview seriously, prepare thoroughly, listen carefully and respond effectively.

Tom Sorensen

Tom Sorensen is an executive search veteran with over 25 years of experience recruiting in Asia, Europe, and Africa. He has worked in executive search in Thailand since 2003 and is recognized as one of the country’s top recruiters and most profiled headhunters.