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Career Advice

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Interviewing

Answering the 'So What?' Interview Question

Tips on how to serve up your accomplishments with context in order to ace the senior-level interview.

By Rob Sullivan
FILED UNDER: Interview Questions.
Interviewing

In the last article, “Stop Taking Yourself for Granted,” we looked at strategies to acknowledge and appreciate the impact you have had on organizations and individuals. Now, we’ll take that to the next level with a four-part formula for quantifying your accomplishments and telling your stories in a memorable and compelling way.

The single biggest mistake people make when it comes to sharing their accomplishments is providing results without context. Saying that you grew revenue by 15 percent without noting the market conditions or goals doesn’t say much.

In other words, you haven’t answered the question, “So what?”

How did your approach compare to what the average person might have done? This is an important point many people miss.

Without the benefit of a parallel universe in which to test our theoretical comparisons, this may be difficult to assess with any accuracy. Nevertheless, the temptation on the part of many humble souls is to believe that anyone faced with the same facts and challenges would have done the same thing. Not necessarily.

Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? People may have recognized the problem or opportunity. They may even have come up with a way to address the issue. But if they didn’t take action, the insight is meaningless. Ideas are everywhere. Credit rightfully goes to the people who make things happen.

Converting your accomplishments into the STARs format will solve this problem.

  • What was the Situation
  • What was your specific role or Task?
  • What Action did you take?
  • What were the Results?

What was the situation?
This is where you explain what the real problem (or opportunity) was, why it was a problem, how long it had been a problem and what might have happened had the problem not been addressed. How and when did it become apparent that there was an issue?

What was your specific role or task?
Describe your role. How did you find yourself in a position to address the issue? Were you selected? Appointed? Elected? If you were selected or appointed, what was the title of the person who appointed you? Did you volunteer? Did you take on the project on your own initiative?

What action did you take?
How did you address the problem? What specific steps did you take?

What were the results?
This part is relatively straightforward, since it requires quantifiable evidence of your effectiveness. The biggest mistake people make in this area is limiting their thinking to dollars saved or earned. Money is just one quantifier. Challenge yourself to incorporate the other five:

  • Time
  • Quality
  • Quantity
  • Safety
  • Compliance

(By the way, if you can’t imagine how safety and compliance apply to you, don’t worry. They probably don’t.)

Here’s an example from one of my clients:

Situation/Challenge:
To address the waste and expense associated with the disposal of 30 55-gallon drums of waste coolant from machine operations per month. Disposal expense: $4,500/month ($150 x 30)

Task:
Selected by Operations Manager to streamline operations and reduce waste coolant expenditures.

Action:
Researched opportunities to recycle coolant and recommended a $10,000, one-time investment in coolant recycling equipment.

Results:

  • Total annual savings: $162,000. Recycling process eliminated:
    • $54,000/year in disposal costs
    • $108,000/year in coolant purchases.
  • ROI on $10,000 investment: Less than one month.

When quantifying is a challenge
In some cases, the quantifiers may not be obvious. One receptionist I coached insisted there was no way to quantify her accomplishments. On the surface, that would appear to be true. After all, it isn’t helpful, or particularly enlightening, to say, “I smiled at 87 percent of the people who walked in the door.” However, when I probed further, she revealed that her company, on three separate occasions, had eliminated her entire division. Each time, she was hand-picked by the executive team and became the only employee to survive the layoffs. From a potential employer’s point of view, that quantifier is like a third-party endorsement that says:

“She’s great. That’s why we went out of our way to keep her.”

As you may notice, this isn’t about bragging; it’s about evidence. People who come across as braggarts are the ones who can’t offer anything other than glowing generalities with no “reasons to believe.”

Stick to the facts, and the STARs approach will minimize the likelihood that your stories will come across as bragging. Instead, you will be leaving it up to the listener to judge the value of your efforts. I call this the “It’s a Wonderful Life Approach” to marketing yourself. In the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” George Bailey is given a chance to see what life would have been like for his family, friends, and town had he never been born. That is exactly what every job hunter needs to imagine as well. How are things different, preferably better, for your companies, co-workers, friends, and family? What happened—that might never have happened—were it not for your efforts?

If you can answer this simple question, you will be well on your way to uncovering the gold in your background and telling your story in a compelling way. Your goal is to find a way to get people to think:

“Wow, if she can do that for them, just think what she could do for us.”

Do that and you will have succeeded in doing something most job hunters never do.

 

Rob Sullivan is an author, corporate trainer, inspirational speaker and professional development coach whose passion is helping people recognize, leverage, and communicate the gold in their backgrounds. Rob has been a repeat guest on television and radio stations across the country including NBC, ABC and WGN. He was also featured in the Wall Street Journal and as a guest expert on “Starting Over,” an Emmy-winning reality show that airs nationally on NBC. Contact Rob Sullivan

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