by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Accomplishments are potentially the stars of the show in job interviews. Most interview questions can be answered with an accomplishments story, and employers will appreciate it if you tell these stories copiously because they provide solid examples of the qualifications hiring managers seek — whether skills, experience, values, subject-matter expertise, industry knowledge, or other criteria. Employers “want to hear stories that point to a specific and relative outcome or accomplishment, experience, or even a failure they can measure against their perceived needs,” writes Allan Hay in Memory Mining.
More than in resumes and cover letters, you can elaborate on your accomplishments in an interview and provide greater detail. Just as in resumes and cover letters, always endeavor to communicate your accomplishments in a way that helps the prospective employer envision you performing the targeted job. Research the key performance indicators the employer seeks in the new hire, and describe accomplishments that align with those criteria (especially important if you seek to move into a new field). See more in this section.
Let’s look at the common types of interview questions and examine whether an accomplishment could be included in a response to each type:
Traditional interview questions: Essentially, traditional interview questions are those that don’t fit into the other categories described. They are also the kinds of frequently asked questions you’ve probably been asked in interviews and that you can find lists of all over the Internet — questions like: “Tell me about yourself.” “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” “Why should we hire you?”
Your response to most traditional interview questions is to use a phrase such as “Let me give you an example…” as part of your response. Let’s see how this approach works in practice with some questions in this category:
Question: Tell me about yourself.
I’m a problem-solver. I can walk into situations, review symptoms, talk with people, analyze data, and work my way down to the fundamental problem. Once I’ve uncovered the problem, I then quickly move forward to devising a solution. For example, I was hired as marketing director for an under-achieving consumer Web start-up. The founders were great tech guys — and the Website had all the bells and whistles, certainly the top in its class. But sales were extremely disappointing, and they hired me to turn things around. So, I did what I do best. I spent a few weeks talking with key personnel, studied traffic and purchase patterns, and produced a quick-and-dirty live survey with consumers while they were on the site. I had my hunches going in after my initial review of the site, and the efforts I completed in those first few weeks confirmed them — while the site was fresh and exciting and generated good traffic, customers were let down once it got to the purchase decision. There was no method for seeking help from customer service, very little product information, and many customers left the site before completing their purchases. I implemented some initial tweaks to the site that immediately raised customer conversion rates; we then conducted a more detailed analysis of our competitors and a thorough study of our customers and visitors. The final implementation of changes resulted in a fairly dramatic turnaround in sales. When I arrived, the conversion rate was under 1 percent; after our full-scale final implementation, our conversion rate had increased 20-fold to slightly more than 20 percent — and the numbers continue to improve.
Question: What are your strengths?
One of my greatest strengths is that I am an excellent organizer. For example, my service organization undertook a last-minute project to raise funds to help 16 children at The Children’s Home Society — to help give these underprivileged kids who came from broken homes a good holiday season. We had just a week to pull it off. I took the initiative to lead this challenge and orchestrated the event. We raised more than $1,500 in that short period. I get goose bumps talking about it because it is one of the things of which I am most proud – I really feel like I had a positive impact on a few lives, and that is what I live for.
Question: What are your weaknesses?
Accomplishments-driven response that emphasizes learning from a negative situation:
I’ve always had a knack — an instinct –for seeing the big picture. I can review an analysis of a situation and within a short period, develop a strategy that will result in positive return for the company. What’s been harder for me, though, is that I was raised in a family with poor people skills, and for many years when I first started in this business, this inability to talk to colleagues hurt my career. Luckily, when I was working for GE, I found a mentor who showed me the error of my ways and helped me get the training I needed. He flat-out told me that I would never advance beyond middle management unless I learned how to communicate with people. It was an eye-opening experience, and while I still believe my greatest strength is my knack for strategic problem-solving, I can honestly say that I am now quite good at communicating that message in a way that motivates my employees and helps move the company forward at an even more successful rate.
Question: Why should we hire you?
Anyone can say they do a better job than others — and at this level, I certainly hope there is at least some truth in that belief. But rather than simply saying, yes, I can transform the marketing functions of this company better than anyone else can, let me give you an example of why I am confident I can do a better job than any other candidate.
As the marketing director for Hansen Beverage Company, I built on the founding family’s early — but regional — successes with high-quality all-natural beverages and leveraged the marketplace by introducing new products and expanding distribution nationally. Within just a few years, I transformed this regional and rather small company into the leader in the natural alternative soda and energy-drink markets. I accomplished this transformation — supported by an amazing team — by understanding our core consumer base. I carefully analyzed changing consumer preferences and identified strategic opportunities. We also outwitted our competition while spending much less in marketing and advertising costs. For example, our Monster Energy drink is one of the most popular products in its category, yet we do very little advertising for the brand – relying more on a carefully crafted mix of powerful word-of-mouth and strategic sponsorship agreements. We also encourage our customers to comment about the brand and offer suggestions — and from these conversations, we have added several flavors that quickly became top sellers.
I bring to the table experience and expertise in all aspects of marketing, from branding and advertising, to customer relationship management, to pricing and packaging. My strengths lie in understanding a brand’s core consumers and strengthening existing brands while developing new brands that exploit an opportunity in the marketplace. I thrive in a competitive environment where my marketing initiatives take share away from other brands – all while focusing on existing and emerging marketing strategies that are both efficient and cost-effective.
Question: YES or NO Questions, such as “Are you a team player?”, “Are you goal-oriented?”, “Do you handle conflict well?”, or “Do you handle pressure well?”
Accomplishments-driven response to “Are you goal-oriented?”:
I sure am. Let me give you an example. When I was hired as vice president for training for a very large accounting firm, top management told me the company was experiencing a systemic problem with decision-making. Decisions were being made based on “the way we’ve always done it” rather than strategic, big-picture approaches that looked at the long view. I made it my goal to — within a year — change the way decisions were made and save the company a bundle of money wasted through ineffective decision-making. I sought facilitator training for me and my sharpest deputy. We then initiated a series of workshops for managers in which we stressed teamwork, creative problem-solving, and planning. We taught managers to look for and analyze the root causes of problems, as well as how to anticipate the issues that might crop up after implementing new decisions. I set up a program to recognize and reward instances of the new decision-making process that yielded bottom-line results. I also developed an offsite retreat for the senior leadership team to apply the new techniques to work through decision-making simulations based on real situations in the company. At the end of the year, I had exceeded my goal. The new decision-making process was much clearer and more strategic. I calculated that the process saved the firm $65 million that first year and would save hundreds of millions over the next decade.
Behavioral interview questions: The interviewee is asked about past behavior in various situations, based on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior on the job. Behavioral questions are tailor-made for accomplishments responses. Be aware, however, that these questions often have a negative flavor to them, which is why it’s wise to brainstorm accomplishment stories that started negatively but ended positively. The interviewer is looking for ways you surmounted obstacles, overcame challenges, learned from your mistakes, and solved problems.
Behavioral questions usually begin with a phrase such as “Tell me about a time when … ” or “Describe a situation when …” or “Give an example of a time when …” Since a behavioral question is already phrased in such a way as to invite you give an example, you have no need to introduce your response with “Let me give you an example …” Here are a few accomplishments-driven responses to behavioral questions (again, keep in mind that virtually all responses to behavioral questions will be – or should be – accomplishments-driven):
Sample behavioral questions — and responses:
Question: Tell me about a time when you creatively solved a problem.
When I took over as CEO of the Snicky Snax Company, growth had come to a virtual halt, and performance was stagnating. The snack-food products had once been the leaders in the market. But when I arrived, the snacks were thought of as being targeted at grade-school kids, while competitors were seen as hipper and more desirable to preteens and teens with discretionary money to spend. Distribution channels were very narrow and limited. The staff was conservative and set in its ways. The few people who injected creativity into marketing the products were scorned, especially by the former CEO.
When I came in, I immediately developed an action plan that introduced the idea of change and a new spirit of creativity — gradually so the conservative staff could get used to the new ways. I gathered a task force to conduct a competitive analysis to see where Snicky Snax was vulnerable. I held a retreat where teams could brainstorm creative ideas. To honor the roots of the company that the staff so respected and clung to, I used the Appreciative Inquiry technique, which asks employees to look at what’s working in the organization and ask how we can do more of it. I created an atmosphere in which creativity was encouraged and rewarded. I brought back to the company one of the innovative folks who had quit in frustration. I communicated a vision of a growing company that energized and empowered its employees. In the Appreciative Inquiry exercise, we noted that teens and pre-teens had fond, nostalgic feelings about our market leader, Snicky Chips, but tended to abandon them because they felt they were “kids’ stuff.” So we hit on the idea of extending the brand to a hipper, teen-targeted line with more sophisticated packaging and bolder flavors. I was proud to be the one who came up with the tagline: “Snicky Chips: All Grown Up.” We repositioned the brand and opened up the distribution channels to target teens and preteens. The new line was a runaway smash hit. Perhaps even more importantly, creativity began to flourish at Snicky Snax.
Question: Tell me how you have applied knowledge from another job or other area of your life into your most recent position.
This might sound kind of funny, but it’s a true story and one that I actually discuss with new hires — to show them that not everything they need to know about their work comes from the classroom, textbooks, or even past business experience. I am an avid gardener, and have always had a garden wherever I lived. About midway in my career, however, I took a position with Time-Warner in New York. I lived in the city, and thought that might be the end of my gardening until I found there was a community garden a few blocks from my co-op. To my dismay, the garden was in complete shambles. The story goes that the garden was one person’s dream, but when he passed away, no one stepped up to keep it going. That’s where I entered the picture — a young hotshot manager who thought he could march in there and take charge of the garden. What I learned in those couple of summers was that there was much more to leadership and teamwork than simply having a good plan. You need people to buy into a plan – most often long before the plan is even fully developed. You need to understand people’s motives and goals, and most importantly, you need to understand their personalities — understand what makes them tick and how you can use that information to form a cohesive group focused on a common goal. It was a truly enlightening experience for me, and one I still use to this day in working with colleagues and in leading and managing my staff. Oh, and it did take a few summers, but before I left for my next position, the garden had a vibrant group of gardeners and a small volunteer board that ensured its continued success long after I left.
Situational interview questions: A situational interview is similar to a behavioral interview, except while behavioral questions focus on a past experience, situational questions focus on a hypothetical situation. For example, in a behavioral interview, the interviewer might start a question with, “Tell me about a time you had to deal with…” In a situational interview, the interviewer asks, “How would you handle…” The best way to respond to a situational question is to treat it like a behavioral question. The most credible response to how you would handle a situation is to describe how you did handle the same situation in the past. Your introduction to your accomplishment would go something like this: “I can tell you precisely how I would handle that situation because I’ve faced that exact situation in a past job. [Describe accomplishment that matches the situation.] Here’s an example:
Question: How would you handle a difficult subordinate?
I’ve been in that very situation, so let me tell you how I handled it. When I was CEO of a group of assisted-living facilities, I had a problem with the executive director. On one hand, she was brilliant and innovative, developing many initiatives that attracted new clients and raised our visibility. For example, she came up with an intergenerational program in which our residents had the opportunity to connect with young children and play grandparent roles with many of them. Knowing that family members worry about abuse to and theft from their loved ones, this executive director put webcams in residents’ rooms so family members could monitor their treatment. Her innovations really put the organization on the map and helped grow the number of facilities.
However, this person was also abrasive, tactless, and completely lacking in diplomacy. She alienated employees and members of the board alike. The issue with her irritating personality came to a head when representatives from a pharmaceutical firm were touring our flagship facility because the company was considering sponsoring a new recreational program. The executive director made an extremely offensive comment about dementia patients. The worst part was that a reporter had come along on the tour, and the reporter included the remark in her coverage, prompting public outcry. I was under pressure from the board to fire this executive director. I could see their point, but I also knew how valuable her ideas were and how she had contributed to the organization’s bottom line.
After asking the board to give me one more chance to rehabilitate this executive, I tackled the problem in three steps. I insisted that she write heartfelt letters of apology to those she had offended, including the employees. I then told her she must work closely with an executive coach to improve her communication skills. Finally, I promoted a mid-level manager to a new position as executive director for communications, making him the new spokesperson and public face of the company. Without really taking anything away from the executive director’s position or prestige, I simply added a buffer that would keep her blunt remarks from doing further damage. The company flourished with this solution, enjoying the benefit of the executive director’s brilliance while ensuring better communication.
Resume interview questions: This line of questioning focuses on the content of your resume. The interviewer uses the resume as an outline and asks questions such as, “Tell me more about this job and what you did.” This type of questioning, again, provides an excellent opportunity to talk about accomplishments. Every time you’re asked “what you did,” deliver a results-rich accomplishments story.
Question: Tell me more about your job as a Forest Service District Ranger and what you did.”
My proudest accomplishment in that job involved the partnerships I was able to foster with key constituencies — county officials, local ranchers, loggers, environmental groups, ORV enthusiasts, hiking and biking organizations, and the general public. These partnerships — real working partnerships — were critical to the successful development and implementation of our forest-management plan. Many of these groups are skeptical of the forest service — and of each other — and it took my best efforts of communication and persuasion to bring them all together to agree not only on a basic set of principles, but on detailed plans related to forest grazing rights, motorized and non-motorized trail development and access, managed logging for forest health, and designated conservation areas. By working with these groups both individually and in public meetings, I was able to help forge a 10-year plan in which all parties compromised on some of their initial demands because I helped each group understand that the result would be a plan that was to their benefit — as well as to the prolonged health and life of the forest itself.
Tips for Presenting Cccomplishments in Job Interviews
Choose interview themes and accompanying accomplishments. When communications professionals learn media relations, they are taught to develop one or more messages. No matter what the media asks them, for example, in a press conference, they integrate the message(s) into their response. Similarly Tim Tyrell-Smith suggests developing three themes for each interview. The set of themes will likely vary according to the employer you are targeting, although plenty of overlap will occur. To implement this approach, choose an employer you want to target, identify the three most important selling points that you want to convey about yourself, and then develop a accomplishment for each of these. “Research your target company, target position, and interview team,” Tim writes. “What are they looking for? What does the perfect candidate look like? What skills and experience are they drooling over?” Choose themes and accomplishments that align with your research.
Practice mental juggling so you can adapt the same accomplishment to many interview questions. Because interview questions — especially behavioral questions – are unpredictable, you may find yourself needing to adapt one accomplishment to a variety of questions. You would not, of course, tell the same accomplishment over again in response to multiple questions. The idea is that you might be able to recall only a limited number of your accomplishments while under the pressure of the interview, so you might have to do some mental tweaking to make a recalled accomplishment fit into your response.
You can practice your ability to mentally juggle and tweak accomplishments. Choose a single accomplishment from those you brainstormed using the prompts in Chapter 4. Ideally it will be an accomplishment that (a) encompassed multiple skills (b) began negatively but ended triumphantly thanks to your efforts and (c) involved teamwork or collaboration. Next, think about each of the interview questions in the Appendix, and see if you can tweak the accomplishment in your mind so the response would fit that question. No need to write down the tweaked versions of the accomplishment; the idea is to stretch your brain and practice this skill. Test your accomplishment against as many questions as you can. You can also try it with additional accomplishments.
Try a strengths-based response to “Tell me about yourself.” The most commonly asked interview “question” is “tell me about yourself.” As I write in the article here, the proprietary Dependable Strengths Articulation Process (DSAP) provides an excellent accomplishments-rich way to respond to the “tell me about yourself” request. DSAP participants are taught to respond like this:
“There are a number of things I do well. Three of those are [strength], [strength], and [strength]. Which one would you prefer I talk about first?”
After describing a accomplishment that illustrates your effectiveness using the strength the interviewer has asked to hear about, you can ask the interviewer if that’s the kind of information he or she is looking for. Then you can offer to elaborate on the other strengths.
The most effective way to complete this exercise is to partake in an 18-hour Dependable Strengths workshop; however, users can attain the benefits in two other ways.
- Read about the process in this article, and informally identify your three top strengths that would fit the above interview response.
- Take Dependable Strengths for the Internet for $24.49
After identifying three strengths, develop accomplishments about them as though you were responding to the “tell me about yourself” request.
Keep responses concise. Responses to interview questions should be no more than two minutes long, and even that timeframe is pushing the limits of what an interviewer can listen to in our attention-deficit world. Tell a rich, meaty accomplishments story as your response, but trim the fat and don’t ramble.
Back-burner family and personal accomplishments. Particularly when asked a broad question such as “What is your proudest accomplishment?”, many interviewees are tempted to respond along these lines: “Marrying my spouse…”, “Having my children …” Those responses aren’t terrible, but since they are not job-related, they aren’t nearly as effective as achievements that reflect on-the-job results. They also open up uncomfortable lines of conversation with the interviewer, who must avoid asking you questions that suggest the possibility of discrimination (Are you married? How many children do you have?). If you feel you simply must give a nod to a family or personal accomplishment, make it a postscript onto a more substantive response: “By the way, I’m also very proud of having raised my three children.”
Address employer needs with your accomplishments. A good interviewer will ask you questions that require you to describe accomplishments that apply to specific needs and challenges the hiring company has (“What have you done that’s comparable to [description of specific requirement] of the job you’re interviewing for?”). If you, however, approach the end of the interview, and the interviewer hasn’t asked any questions like that, you can ask, “What’s the greatest challenge your organization faces?” Ideally you’ll be prepared with an accomplishment about handling a similar challenge in a current or past job. Your accomplishments-rich response gives you the opportunity to strengthen your bond with the employer by empathizing with the challenge – and even better, showing how you tackled a similar issue in the past.
To prepare for this approach, research your targeted employer, and try to predict what the interviewer’s response would be to “What’s the greatest challenge your organization faces?” Next, develop a accomplishments-driven response following the structure below:
I understand what your organization is experiencing. My current/former employer had a similar crisis/problem/difficulty/dilemma. [Describe the situation in accomplishment form]
My current/former employer endured the same trials/tribulations/made the wrong decisions/took incorrect roads. I wanted to change the situation. [Tell the accomplishment of the action you took to change the situation.]
I figured it out, and now I’m sharing it with you. [Tell how you could apply your action/solution to the interviewer’s organization’s challenge.]
Ask about goals beyond the job description/job posting. Given that crafting job descriptions/job postings often involves a number of people and evolves over time, Hay advises asking these questions:
- Since this job description was written, are there additional goals you would like to see accomplished in this job? If so, what would they be?
- Other than the functions listed in the job description, are there other projects or objectives you would like to see this position accomplish in the first six months or upcoming year?
You will then be able to tailor your accomplishments-driven responses directly to the interviewer’s answers because you’ll know which of your achievements lines up with the stated additional goals. Best of all, no one else is likely to ask these questions, so you’ll have an advantage.
At the behest of the employer or on his or her own initiative, an interviewee may deliver interview content in the form of a presentation, often accompanied with slides. In “Consider Delivering a Sales Presentation in Your Job Intervie w,” Eric Kramer suggests including a section of the presentation called Success Stories — “examples of when the candidate was at his or her best – these success stories are ‘behavioral’ examples of what the candidate has done in the past and what he or she can do for the prospective in the future.” As long as you’re using slides, why not also include photos or even videos of yourself in action?
As with accomplishments you choose to spotlight in your resume, cover letter, and non-presentation interview, be sure to research the employer and prioritize achievements according to the employer’s needs. Practice your oral delivery so you can smoothly connect your past successes with the issues facing the prospective employer. Don’t say: “I did X, X, and X.” Say: “My success in doing X will contribute to my ability to do XY for you.”
Back to Communicating Your Accomplishments: Samples for Every Phase of the Job Search and On the Job.
Need more interviewing information, tools, and samples? Go to our Job Interviewing Resources for Job-Seekers.
Read more about brainstorming, tracking, and leveraging career accomplishments in Katharine Hansen’s book, You Are More Accomplished Than You Think: How to Brainstorm Your Achievements for Career and Life Success
Career and Work Accomplishments Section of Quintessential Careers
Find expert job-seeker accomplishments tools, resources, samples — free expert advice about maximizing career accomplishments in this section of Quintessential Careers: Career-Job-Work Accomplishments Resources for Job-Seekers.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.