by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
For more information on using stories to demonstrate skills to prospective employers, see our main article, Use Stories to Prove Your Skills.
Want to powerfully demonstrate to employers that you possess the skills you claim to have? Tell stories to show how you've used your skills. In this sidebar to our article Use Stories to Prove Your Skills, see sample stories that illustate various skills.
These are interview-length sample stories; the job-seekers using these stories could edit them down to much shorter versions for resumes and cover letters.
TEAM LEADERSHIP Skill Story
I found myself applying to my university because my cross-country coach told me not to. He advised me to take the free-ride cross-country scholarship to another school. I reasoned that academics and cross-country would be too much for me to handle there. So I applied to my current university because I felt I could compete comfortably while also excelling in my academics. My high-school coach was not too thrilled. He said, "You are making the biggest mistake of your life." He went on to tell me that the other college had a better cross-country department, and I would be running with a nationally ranked team. I challenged my coach and told him that with leadership and devotion, any team can be nationally ranked. Of course he laughed at my statement and restated that I was making a mistake.
Once I enrolled at my chosen school, I saw that my coach had been correct about the facilities and the character of the people on the team. The team members were not motivated, not athletic, and needless to say, lost every race they entered. Three other freshman who had walked onto the team joined me in deciding to change the team members' attitudes. However, animosity was abundant between the upperclassman and the freshman. While we won races, the upperclassmen felt inferior, causing internal conflict in the team. Regardless, I was determined to persuade the team to mesh well to create unity. Consequently, the upperclassmen quit the team. Still, after winning our state title, we advanced to the national level, where we were expected to compete against the college my coach had wanted me to attend. We won the meet against that school, beating them out of a third-place medal. The moral of this story is that when I was challenged to do the impossible, my devotion, character, team leadership, and tenacity persevered, while also helping the team.
GOAL-SETTING Skill Story
I grew up in a poor, broken home, yet decided that golf was my great passion in life. I creatively used my meager resources to buy golf clubs and later a junior membership for $180 at a local club. Every day for two years, I walked through the woods to the golf course where I would play, practice, and compete throughout high school. I eventually got a job at the club so I could buy myself a few necessities. I wanted to play in college but was nowhere near the player I needed to be to play or even get on the team. So over the summer before college, I worked on my golf game to the point where I won almost every tournament I entered. I spent every hour I had during the day to make myself a better all-around player. I eventually walked on my freshman year and was exempted from qualifying because I played so well in my first outing. Through the years my decision to play golf has influenced every part of my life 100 percent.
I didn't give up on a dream, and although I am not competing with Tiger, I realized all of the good decisions I made were based on the fact that I loved the game, but better yet, didn't give up on a goal.
WORK ETHIC Skill Story
My stepfather was a role model and a strong influence in my life. He taught me about character; he taught me the tough lessons in life that some people learn too late or not at all. In one instance, he taught me the value of standing up for yourself. When the kids in his family (the "stepfamily") failed to accept me, he advised me that I would have to take the initiative to learn how to handle situations in which people passively exclude me -- that I would have to do something that could get their attention. I soon learned to gather a couple of people and start up a card game or another fun activity to direct the focus on the activity instead of clashing personalities. I later realized that through this process, I had learned creative techniques to influence group dynamics.
In another situation, he taught me the value of hard work. After volunteering to do yard work one day, I got tired of the project after mowing the lawn. Hot, sweaty, and tired, I started to leave before the project was done, and he told me I couldn't leave. After several hours of pulling weeds, watering, weed-whacking, fertilizing, trimming, and prepping flower beds while my father supervised from his comfortable lawn chair in the shade, I had learned that completing only a portion of a project is not acceptable when completion is expected; that there usually is a lot more work that goes on in the background of a finished product; that there will always be someone in that comfortable lawn chair watching others work - and that I wanted to be a supervisor in life.
DECISION-MAKING Skill story
When I was a receptionist at a photography company, a man came in claiming to be the father of a student who was there to pick up the student's pictures. I asked him for identification, and he said that he had forgotten it. Normally, if the student is present with the parent and verifies that it is the correct parent, then we give the pictures to them. That wasn't the case here. There was no student. I refused to give him the pictures, and he became angry and left. Later that day, a different man came in to pick up those same pictures. This man had photo identification with him, and I told him about what had occurred earlier that day. He told me that his child was being stalked, and that the family had a restraining order against that man. I took the stalker's image from our security cameras and posted a picture behind the counter that indicated that he was not to have any contact with the pictures of that student. My decision-making skills helped prevent a dangerous situation because he has continued repeatedly to come into the store posing to other employees as the parent of that student.
CUSTOMER SERVICE Skill Story
As a customer-service rep for a video-rental company, I once had an irate customer who left three messages on my voicemail in about 10 minutes demanding a call back. I contacted the customer, who was now even angrier because I had been in a meeting when her call came in. I listened to the customer explain that she was upset because she had purchased a loyalty program membership from us, and then several days later, we were giving away the same memberships at no cost. I apologized to the customer and asked her how I could help. She stated that she wanted her money back and she would no longer be a member. I agreed to refund her money. I then bought her a thank-you card and enclosed her refund and a free membership to our loyalty program. I also noticed that several times during the phone conversation, she had stopped to yell at her children, so I also enclosed two coupons for free kids' rentals. I thanked her for her business, apologized for not meeting her expectations, and invited her to bring her children in for a free video rental. I also enclosed my business card and asked her to call me directly if she was ever disappointed in any way while visiting one of our locations. She telephoned me when she received the card and told me that was the nicest thing any person had ever done for her when she was upset with a business. I again thanked her for her business and told her that she was my bread and butter. If she wasn't happy, then I couldn't be either!
MANAGING CHANGE Skill Stories
Sample #1: I was a consultant, for a company that had been under the umbrella of a large government contractor that decided to sell off its commercial division to focus on its military applications. A venture-capital group came along and bought the company, which then lost its controller to the original owner, the government contractor. The newly purchased company had tried to replace the controller, but the new hires just didn't stick. It was a very challenging environment. I was there for six months and got them through their first year-end close and their first audit as the new company. I stayed with them long enough to where they got their new controller on board, and I got him settled in for a couple of months and fully trained. As a consultant you have to be smart and fast because the client wants to see results quickly. You've got to be able to very quickly absorb the basic organizational structure and learn the key players. Then you have to quickly learn their software and processes -- and look for ways to improve them.
Sample #2: The strategic repositioning and closing of the training center where I am director of organizational development has been a significant change. A major contributor to the stress has been the high level of ambiguity during the past year and the fact that people are at different places in the grief and transition process at the same time. My style in times of stress and ambiguity is to try and find something productive I can do both personally and for the larger community. So, I have chosen to deal with this change by being proactive and leading an effort to offer career-enrichment programs at our sister training center. I've also collaborated with outside vendors to design a development program to support supervisors and staff through this transition, provided one-on-one coaching for the center's leadership, and provided individual sessions for teams. These sessions have been well attended, and I've received very positive and appreciative comments from staff members who attended them.
Sample #3: In my current job, I am working on a project to increase efficiencies in the customer-service area, one component of which is to better control the way customer service handles the mail. I questioned the administrative clerk, who's responsible for receiving and distributing the mail, about how she does her job. She gathers mail from the P.O. box, reads the recipient, and passes mail around to be handled. I asked her what would happen if mail is lost. How would we track it? If someone doesn't handle the sender's inquiry in a timely manner, how can we know? I presented with her many questions of real and hypothetical situations where the ball was dropped somewhere so I could find out from her if she had a plan in place to deal with those situations. The clerk at first, felt confident in her work, took great pride in being industrious, and didn't feel passing mail around was a broken process, but after our conversation, she began to see the situation from my point of view and became receptive to new ideas and change. I needed and attained her buy-in so that I could create change and add value to her job. Together, we've developed a process to ensure that customer inquiries don't slip through the cracks.
Sample #4: The bank in which I worked instituted a policy that centralized the lending process. An application was to be taken from the client and sent off to be approved or declined, processed, prepared, and returned to the branch to be signed by the client. While the process was streamlined, it also took away valuable face-to-face knowledge about the client and the loan. If the employee did not have any prior lending experience, he or she couldn't answer simple loan questions from the client. While I appreciated the newly created time in my schedule, I felt that the clients were being slighted. I proposed to my boss a small adjustment that would permit brief face time with the client. My boss implemented my idea, and now we have the best of both worlds, face-to-face time with clients without taking significant time away from the streamlined process.
Sample #5: In my senior campaign-management job, I was the pinnacle person for a diverse group of project managers. I had many representatives from all the product bases constantly coming to me to develop databases of customers they could sell to. They wanted to know who they could market to. I would collaborate with them, asking questions like, what's the budget, how many pieces do you want to direct mail? Or do you want to call these people? What media will you use? I worked to ensure each group got all the demographics it wanted. I'd pull the requirements into the data. And I'd be darned if the group didn't change its mind and ask for a different demographic. Or something unpredictable like a hurricane would mean the group couldn't mail to a certain region. So, I'd have to throw all the data back in to the pond and re-fish. And the changes wouldn't happen with just one group; they would happen with all of them at one time. I dreaded my pager going off at 7 a.m. because a project manager had a thought while sleeping last night: "Ooh, I would love to see how many prospective customers wear toenail polish." But whatever their requirement was, I said, "I'm on top of it." I enjoyed the analytic aspects and the busyness and the constant go, go, go. Change drives me. It's something I enjoy because it's an extra challenge.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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.