How to Answer Any Behavioral Interview Question, with Gina Riley

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 216:

How to Answer Any Behavioral Interview Question, with Gina Riley

Airdate: November 6, 2019

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

You’re in a job interview. And you keep hearing phrases like, “Tell me about a time.” Or, “Give me an example.” And, “Describe a situation.”

These are behavioral interview questions. And our guest today says if you want to answer them well, you need to prepare before you walk into the interview room.

Here to talk about how you can answer any behavioral interview question is Gina Riley.

Gina is an executive career coach and leadership search consultant with the Talence Group.

She joins us here in person at the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.

Gina, here’s where I want to start, what is behavioral interviewing?

Gina Riley:

Behavioral interviewing is a technique; it’s a way of getting answers from a candidate through a structured interviewing process. And the idea is that the interviewer is going after the knowledge, skills, and abilities of those candidates. And the only way they can do that is through preparing really exceptional questions to get the stories from the candidate about things they’ve done in the past that relate to, maybe, what’s going to be taking place on the job in the future.

Mac Prichard:

And why do employers do behavioral interviews?

Gina Riley:

The reason why an employer would do a behavioral interview is to get evidence about those past stories. If an interviewer is going to ask hypothetical questions, or intrinsic questions, or things that are not related to the job, they will not be able to assess the skills that are needed and required to the job that they’re interviewing for.

Mac Prichard:

Do some employers mix interview styles? Can you be in an interview and get some behavioral interview questions, but also find yourself in another setting where it’s… the conversation from start to finish is structured as a behavioral interview?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, there can absolutely be a blend. We have client companies that we go in and we do interview training for, and a piece of what they do, once they learn how to structure those behavioral interviewing questions, is they will also tack on a technical interview. A candidate might be in a room with three engineers and they give a problem and that person is up at the whiteboard and they’re working out a problem. So, there can be a blend in that way, so that the candidate can showcase what they know in different ways.

Mac Prichard:

In your experience, do most candidates understand how behavioral interviews work, and are they prepared for these conversations?

Gina Riley:

It really depends on the level and the experience of the candidate, and how often they’ve had opportunities to interview, and/or if they’ve been in a leadership position where they’ve used behavioral interviewing in their own companies, so it really depends.

Mac Prichard:

Do you find that behavioral interview questions are only used in conversations about senior positions? Or can somebody who’s applying for an entry-level position expect to get behavioral interview questions?

Gina Riley:

Anyone can expect a behavioral interviewing question. The question I have though, for anyone that goes through those interviews, is whether or not the interviewer is really prepared to ask the right kinds of questions to get the stories about the skills that that candidate has in order to showcase what they know. Versus random behavioral questions that might have been pulled off the shelf.

You can open up a behavioral interviewing book or you can Google these kinds of questions; if you just pull those off the shelf and you’re asking candidates random things that don’t relate, it’s really not going to be a productive interview.

Mac Prichard:

Why does that happen? Is it because hiring might be something that’s added to the responsibilities of somebody who’s really responsible for something else? Whether it’s operations or engineering or graphic design.

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, we’re really not trained to interview very well. Going back to school, all the way through to when we start our career, depending on what you’re doing, unless you’re actually in human resources or in recruitment, you may not have been trained on how to interview and it is a critical skill. It’s a critical skill for leaders, supervisors, managers, and teams who are involved with doing the interview process.

You really need to know how to ask the question, and you need to know in advance what you’re asking for, and that comes from having an awesome job description. A job description that really outlines what the company is going after when they open up that job.

Mac Prichard:

I know a big part of your practice is training people, hiring managers, on how to conduct successful behavioral interviews. Our show, of course, is aimed at job seekers, so putting yourself in the shoes of someone who’s in that interview room, an applicant, how do they recognize a behavioral interview question?

Gina Riley:

In my mind’s eye that’s very easy. They’re going to hear a prompt, and the prompts are generally something like, “Tell me about a time when…”

“Describe a situation you were in.” Something like that. Interviewers, no matter where they’re coming from, whether it’s standard recruitment or an engineering role or supervisor, you’ll know when it’s very rote if they’re only starting off with, “Tell me about a time when – fill in the blank.” Each question starts like that. It really needs to be more of a conversation.

An interview is a conversation in order to extract the knowledge, skills, and abilities from the candidate. You want them to show up in their best light in that moment because they only get an hour with you typically. So, it’s an interviewer’s job to come prepared to ask the right questions, to let that person shine, and if a candidate knows they’re being asked these questions and they don’t sense that it’s really tied to the job at hand, then they need to be asking questions in the interview about, “What’s really essential about this job? What would I expect when I show up on the job? What kind of skills do you need me to have?”

Mac Prichard:

It’s important for an applicant to understand two things: first, you need to be prepared to answer behavioral interview questions, and I want to talk more about how to answer them effectively, but the other thing I’m hearing you say, Gina, is you need to recognize that the person interviewing you may not be an HR expert, probably isn’t, and they may have these questions, and they know they have to ask them, but they may not know how to make the most of that conversation.

Gina Riley:

Absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

You as an applicant have a second opportunity here, to kind of take control of that conversation and direct it in a way that’s helpful to both the employer and to you as an applicant.

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, and it might actually be a relief to the interviewer if you’re engaging in conversation about the job to where it feels more conversational. Oftentimes, interviewers are nervous, too. Especially if they don’t have to do it very often.

Mac Prichard:

I think that will surprise many of our listeners because often people who have applied for jobs, and we’ve all been there, we’ve all been in the applicant’s seat, but we’ve all felt that anxiety, haven’t we?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, and when we do our interview training, which is a six-hour course actually, and it’s kind of a springboard off of Dr. Paul Green’s work — he’s kind of the forefather of behavioral interviewing, back from the ’80s.

I’ve worked with senior leaders who are astounded and surprised about what it takes to craft really effective questions. And we will actually have them work with current job postings that they know that they need to recruit for and start crafting questions around that.

A lot of times these folks have made it all the way through their careers using their gut feel, and when you’re relying on your gut, a lot of times you hire in your own likeness; you hire people that look like you, talk like you, and you’re not assessing for skills, which dilutes your

diversity within your organization. So, there are a lot of reasons to really craft effective questions.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about that and let’s break it into those two parts. First, let’s start with the applicant. How can an applicant answer a behavioral interview question effectively?

Gina Riley:

Well, the first thing that any candidate needs to do before walking into an interview is you need to research the company. You need to be prepared with the questions that you’re most curious about, not only about the company, but about the actual job, and the team, and the challenges that they will be facing.

So, coming in prepared is the first thing that you need to do. Because if you go and you sit down in that chair and you just walk in blind, you’ve got your resume in your hand, how will you know how to guide the conversation if you have an interviewer who isn’t very good at interviewing?

Mac Prichard:

What do you focus on when you do that research?

Gina Riley:

I personally, if it was me, I would be getting on Google and I would be Googling the daylights out of the organization, finding out where are they in the news? Look up their financials, depending on what level of employee or what you’re applying for, but you can go to LinkedIn, you can research some of the personnel that you might be working with or working for, so that you can go look at the backgrounds and you can be prepared to ask questions.

Maybe they went to the same university as you, so you can establish rapport just by doing a little homework on those folks and saying, “Hey, I noticed that you went to Oregon State. You know, I just graduated from Oregon State.” Whatever that is to build rapport and then springboard into conversations that will be effective for you.

Mac Prichard:

So, it helps you break the ice knowing about those personal ties or connections. What about those behavioral interview questions though? Because there’s a strategy behind the question and there’s also a strategy to answering these questions, isn’t there?

Gina Riley:

There is. My recommendation is taking the job description that you have, that is published and go through that line by line and make some extrapolations from that.

Oh, it looks like I’m going to be working on a team so I might get asked questions about working in a team environment.

Or maybe it’s a fast-paced environment, maybe that could cause, you know, friction or conflict, so coming up with stories from your past as you look through your resume, which is your storytelling marketing document, and then you prepare your stories that will tie to the job description.

The thing that got posted, this is what we’re looking for. These are the challenges that you will face, assuming that it’s a well-crafted job description.

Mac Prichard:

Why are those stories important to have when you’re sitting in the interview chair?

Gina Riley:

The way to distinguish yourself in an interview situation is to bring your past work experiences to life and to show that future employer the kinds of challenges you have faced, how you overcome them.

What we want to know on the recruitment side is not only what you know how to do, and the results you know how to get, but we want to know how you get it done. So, we want to know the functional and technical skills and we want to know the leadership capability. And that could just mean leading yourself. I’m not talking all the way up to the executive level; I’m saying first-line employees, the younger generations, they want to be leaders, too, and even if they’re not leading people, they lead themselves among a team.

Mac Prichard:

You’re looking for examples, not promises.

Gina Riley:

Correct. Oh yeah, and that goes back to the hypothetical, “What would you do when…?”

If you get a question like that, that’s really going after guessing about what you would do in the future. Which, that’s great, but it’s not hard evidence, and it also doesn’t give us anything to hang our hat on when we go back and evaluate apples to apples, different candidates.

Mac Prichard:

As you speak, I’m thinking of managers who get anxious when someone might say not, “Here are the steps I’m going take.” Or, “Here’s how I’ve handled it in the past.” But, “Don’t worry boss, I’ve got it covered.”

Well, I want to take a quick break, Gina, and when we come back, I want to ask you if you have any other advice about how candidates might answer behavioral interview questions, but I also want to talk about your second point which is, what applicants can do if managers aren’t particularly experienced at interviewing and there’s an opportunity there for the applicant, isn’t there?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

Alright, we’ll be right back.

I hope you’re enjoying my conversation with Gina.

I wanted to have her on the show because so many job seekers tell me they struggle with answering behavioral interview questions.

Has that ever happened to you?

By following Gina’s great advice, you can handle these questions smoothly and stand out from other candidates.

We’ve also got a free resource at Mac’s List that can help. It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

You’ll get a practical four-step process for answering any behavioral interview question.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

You’ll also find in our free guide a list of the 100 most common behavioral interview questions.

It’s like getting the answers to the test ahead of time.

That means you can prepare for the most likely questions an employer may ask.

And when you do that kind of homework, you’ll be more successful in your next job interview. And that makes it more likely that you’ll get the offers you want.

Get your copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know. It’s free.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

Mac Prichard:

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio and I’m talking with Gina Riley. She’s an executive career coach and leadership search consultant with the Talence Group.

Well, Gina, before the break, we were talking about what applicants might do when answering behavioral interview questions. Any other tips you might want to add, besides looking for those personal connections, doing the research that will help you raise examples of how you solved problems that matter to the company?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely. One tip I have is to be prepared to talk about what I would call, “good experiences and bad experiences.” What we want to know on the recruitment side is, are you humble, can you admit the mistakes or missteps that you’ve had along the way? And so knowing that you can share those stories and then how you overcame them, or what you did to course correct. Or maybe it’s coursework that you had to take, or who knows what, but we want to know that you’ve had successes but we also want to know that you can admit the times that you may have failed.

Mac Prichard:

What’s your advice for people who are afraid or concerned, rather, about being vulnerable and sharing a mistake and worried that it might reflect badly on them, or even torpedo their chances for the job?

Gina Riley:

Most of the situations I’ve been in with interviewing people, they’ll give you examples that are fairly reasonable. You want to be careful not to come up with something that’s really contrite and the kind of backhanded, I’m really trying to think of a good example. “I’m really uptight about being on time and so I…” You know, just something really silly like that.

Mac Prichard:

“I’m a workaholic. That’s my greatest weakness.”

Gina Riley:

Yeah, thank you, I was really grappling there, but you don’t want to come up with something like that. Come up with something real and even students can do this. High school students, college students, even if you’ve worked in a team, there’s always a teammate that fails to show up and the rest of the team has to cover. There’s always a story about where things didn’t go well and you had to confront someone or…there’s just stories. We’re all human, there are stories. There’s no perfect person, so to show up and act as if you are perfect is disingenuous and people can see through that.

Mac Prichard:

It’s also probably important to share the lesson that you’ve learned from that mistake or experience, and perhaps even provide an example of how you applied that lesson in a later situation, isn’t it?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, 100%. “This is how I do things differently now.”

Mac Prichard:

What’s the most common mistake you see applicants make when answering a behavioral interview question?

Gina Riley:

The number one mistake is rambling. In my experience. So, I’ll ask a question that’s quite targeted, if you will.

I have categories of things that I’m going after, and remember I am typically interviewing at the leadership level, executives. However, I’ve interviewed at every level and it’s when the candidate may have misheard it or they’re nervous and then they ramble.

Now, an experienced interviewer can break into that and say, “Hey, thank you, but I’m going to focus you here. I really need to know about how you work in this situation. I’m going to ask you the question one more time.”

To give them a chance to shine, but if you know that you’re a candidate who will get nervous and you’re rambling, you should train yourself to stop and take a breath and ask the interviewer, “Am I on track with answering this question the way that you were hoping for? Am I answering correct– not correctly, but what you’re asking me for?”

Because if you take up 20 minutes rambling in a one-hour interview, you’ve blown it.

Mac Prichard:

The analytical side of me wants to know, what’s a good length of answer?

Gina Riley:

Just long enough to really tell the story. What you want to do is say, “Here’s the situation, this was the problem, or this was the good stuff that was going on, and here is the outcome.” That’s the results. We want to know you increased profitability by X%, or you gave great customer service to this many people in a day. It doesn’t matter but we want to know, what was the situation? Tell us a little about it. What was the result? Next question.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, so it’s the classic hero’s journey, isn’t it?

Gina Riley:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

Challenge, and then journey, and then climax.

Gina Riley:

Exactly, we use SOAR, some people use CAR statements.

Mac Prichard:

Can you break down those acronyms for our listeners?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, so we train on the SOAR methodology, which is all very similar. So that’s, what was the Situation? Tell me about what the Obstacles were. Tell me the Actions that you took. And what was the Result?

Mac Prichard:

Okay, that’s SOAR and then the second acronym?

Gina Riley:

So CAR is…oh gosh, what is it? It’s…

Mac Prichard:

Challenge?

Gina Riley:

Challenge, action.

Mac Prichard:

Approach?

Gina Riley:

Oh yeah, and then Result. Yeah. I don’t use it so yeah. Tripped me up a little bit.

Mac Prichard:

I was intrigued before the break, you talked about, that applicants have an opportunity, if managers aren’t well trained in behavioral interview questions, to actually perhaps turn that to the advantage of the candidate. Talk more about that.

Gina Riley:

I think it is an opportunity, so long as you’re doing it with grace and not railroading over the interviewer. I had a very executive-level candidate interviewing for a senior-level role with a more junior HR person, who was actually answering the questions and it was all, “Tell me about a time when…” “Tell me about a time when…” “Tell me about a time when…”

And so what his method was, was to just try to ask about, “Okay, you’ve asked me this question, what’s underneath it? Tell me a little bit more about what you want to know.” And then helped prompt a conversation to jiggle that person out of just the rote, nervous, conversation.

That’s one way to do it, is, “Okay, so you’re asking me this question, how does it relate to the job so that I can tell you a story that might relate from my past?”

Mac Prichard:

By doing that, you’re also getting a better understanding of the employer’s problems and challenges, aren’t you?

Gina Riley:

Exactly, because really they’re hiring a person to come in and relieve some kind of problem; there’s an opening for a reason.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, I want to talk more about storytelling. You mentioned those two approaches, SOAR and CAR, and the importance of telling stories. Why are stories so important when answering behavioral interview questions?

Gina Riley:

It’s incredibly important. The most important thing in the preparation process, other than doing the research for the company, is you need to know yourself. You need to know your own career story and you need to have practiced it, and not just with someone who’s going to tell you that you’re awesome and great. You need to go in front of people who are willing to give you constructive feedback. So, if it’s students, let’s say, in high school or college, there’s plenty of people on campus that can do that for you and then for those of us who are already in the professional world, there are trusted mentors and there are other colleagues that can give us that feedback, if you will.

Mac Prichard:

Look for the feedback, do the preparation, how do you recommend people prepare these stories?

Gina Riley:

That’s a great question.

Well, what a person needs to do is really understand their strengths, their skills, their values, and then how their personality shows up. One way that I think works really well is using something called the You Map process, where it uncovers your strengths, from the strengths finder.

Mac Prichard:

The “you” is Y-O-U. It’s about you, the applicant.

Gina Riley:

Y-O-U. The creator is Kristin Sherry and she has come up…she’s a lifelong career coach, and she’s come up with this methodology where you can assess all four of these pillars of career satisfaction, and then infuse them into your resume; so that as you are creating those results-oriented statements and helping bring out those stories from your career results, you’re also able to infuse the human piece of you. How you do your work, not just what you do.

Mac Prichard:

That’s one tool, there are probably other tools that you can use and the point here is to do that self-assessment and know yourself.

Gina Riley:

You really need to know yourself because people are hiring people. People are hiring humans and so you want to show up and be able to say, “This is how I work in a team and this is what I value, and this is how you’re going to see me present myself. Here are some stories that are going to showcase that.”

And then be ready to tell those stories; you need to have a list of those stories ready to go that really do relate to what you’re going to be doing on that job.

Mac Prichard:

A moment ago, Gina, you mentioned high school and college students, what advice would you have for people who are in high school or college, and might not have a lot of work experience to draw on when it’s time to tell their stories?

Gina Riley:

I volunteer in our local high schools and with other organizations, and everyone’s got a story. I’ve only run into one or two students, when I’ve done interview training and mock interviews at the high school, that literally have nothing to say for themselves.

Most students have worked on a team, many students have been on a sports team, have been on yearbook. There are leadership opportunities all across the board and there are stories about success. There are sad stories about uncomfortable times, and there’s also failure.

The other thing is recognizing that when you babysit or when you are doing landscaping work, and you’re just getting paid cash from your neighbor, that is work. You had to show up, you had to do a good job, did they rehire you? How many kids were you taking care of? Did you sleep overnight for a weekend while the parents went away? That’s a major responsibility, there are always stories.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation.

Tell us, Gina, what’s next for you?

Gina Riley:

Oh goodness, we have a lot of interview training, actually, coming up with some of our client companies, so we’re really busy going into the fall with that. We’ve got quite a few executive clients that we’re doing coaching and Talence Group, as always, has a number of executive-level positions that we’re also sourcing for, and like I mentioned before, I just got my You Map certification, Y-O-U-M-A-P,  and so I’ll be looking forward to infusing that work into my coaching work with my clients.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know people can learn more about you and the Talence Group by visiting talencegroup.com. And I know you also welcome invitations to connect on LinkedIn as well, don’t you?

Gina Riley:

Absolutely, and I always recommend when you reach out to someone on LinkedIn, me included, put a personalized note. “Hey, I heard you on the podcast on Mac’s List. I’d love to connect.” Make sure you do that so that it’s not random and do that with anyone on LinkedIn.

Mac Prichard:

That’s such great advice because again it’s, I mean, I’m grateful for it, but I get many LinkedIn invitations, but about one out of ten have a personal note. And so if you want to stand out, no matter who you’re reaching out to, that’s a great way to do it.

Gina Riley:

Absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

Great.

Well, Gina, you’ve shared so many useful tips today. What’s the one thing you want our listeners to remember about how to answer any behavioral interview question?

Gina Riley:

Okay: prepare, know your stories, and be ready to control the interview if you need to.

Mac Prichard:

Two points really stood out for me in my conversation with Gina.

One was something you hear a lot about on this show and that’s the importance of preparation and knowing, before you go into the interview, possible answers to those behavioral questions you’re going to get. And especially making sure you have those stories that you need to illustrate your answers.

The second point that stood out was that you have an opportunity to take control of the interview if the hiring manager isn’t particularly well-versed in behavioral interview questions and other techniques.

Obviously, as Gina said, you don’t want to abuse this, but recognizing that opportunity can give you an advantage.

Now, if you’re thinking about preparation and you need some help, we’ve got a new resource that can help.

It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

It’s a free guide. It’s from Mac’s List and you can get your copy today by going to macslist.org/questions.

Make sure you’re ready for your next job interview and know how to answer the behavioral interview questions you’re going to get.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

Do you know where you want to go next in your career? Many people let events — a layoff, the arrival of a new boss, or the posting of an interesting job  — drive their career decisions.

Our guest next Wednesday is Bruce Hazen. He says the people who find the most satisfying work ask and answer strategic questions about who they are and what they want.

Bruce and I will talk about those questions and why you need a career strategy and how to do it.

Join us next week.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

In most job interviews, the hiring manager will lead with questions like “Tell me about a time when …” Or, “Have you ever faced a situation where…?” These are both examples of behavioral interview questions. Before you walk into an interview, you need to be ready for every possible iteration of a behavioral interview question. Find Your Dream Job guest Gina Riley emphasizes that behavioral interview questions give you an opportunity to showcase your skills, demonstrate how you work with a team, and highlight how you’ll excel in the role.

About Our Guest:

Gina Riley is an executive career coach and leadership search consultant with Talence Group. Her experience in recruitment, interviewing, and leadership talent development led her to develop a career coaching program to help executives clarify and better articulate their career stories. 

Resources in This Episode:

  • If you’re ready for executive-level coaching or recruiting, visit Gina at Talence Group.
  • To better understand your strengths and skills, and how your personality plays into your job search and career, check out You Map