Friday, December 15, 2006

Effective answers to commonquestions

By now, as well as recognising the basic ingredients of a good
interview response, you should also be able to put together your
own effective answers. You should know how to:
• find out as much about the job as possible before finalising your
• use the four steps to bring together the major parts of your
answers, including what you did, how you did it, the context in
which you did it and the outcomes;
• put all your information together so you can articulate clear and
coherent answers which do not meander all over the place;
• answer a broad range of questions, including those concerning
duties that you have performed before, duties that you have not
performed but whose skills you have mastered and duties that
you have not performed and don’t yet have the skills for;
• use your body language and other interpersonal communication
skills to establish and maintain rapport.
There’s no simple formula for a good answer
It is important to reiterate at this juncture that, even despite useful
guidelines on how to answer questions, there is no single blueprint
or structure for an answer that is applicable to all interview questions.
Sometimes it may be appropriate to give a three-part answer which
includes the context, what you did and how you did it, and an
outcome. At other times it may be more appropriate to talk about
your ability to do the job, your cultural fit and motivation levels.
Often, it may be more appropriate to mix and match from the above.
At the end of the day, it is up to you to recognise a suitable structure
or approach for each question. And one approach may be just as
good as the next—remember, there’s no perfect answer. Practice will
give you the ability to provide the best possible response.
This chapter presents some good and not so good answers to
common interview questions, as well as brief explanations of why
they work. By learning to recognise a less effective answer, you
should be in a better position to avoid it.
Question: Why did you choose this job?
Good answer
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in this line
of work. What attracts me to it is the opportunities it gives
me to interact with people, solve problems and work
autonomously. I love the fact that one day I could be out on
the road helping clients with their problems whereas the next
day I can be in my office working with a team of people
trying to solve a complex technical problem. I very much
enjoy working in a service industry such as ours where I can
satisfy clients.
Not so good answer
Actually I stumbled into it quite by accident. I always wanted
to be an actor, but getting work was next to impossible.
I suppose the reason I’m still in this line of work is because
I’ve picked up all the skills and knowledge and know my way
around the traps. I’ve been doing it for a while now and I
suppose you could say I’m an old hand and know how to
deliver the goods.
The first answer responds to the question promptly and then proceeds
to highlight the main duties of the job—interacting with people,
problem-solving, etc.—as the reasons why the candidate chose the
job. Just as importantly, we get a strong sense of the candidate’s
high motivation levels and the desire to give good service. It also
implies that the candidate enjoys working in a team and can do the
job, thus addressing the three things employers want to hear.
In the second answer we have to wait until the third sentence
before the question is addressed—far too late. Despite the candidate’s
experience, we get a strong sense of indifference towards the job.
We’re left with the impression that it’s just a job, whereas the first
answer is brimming with enthusiasm.
Question: What factors do you think determine a person’s progress
in an organisation?
Good answer
In my view, there are three things that determine a person’s
progress in an organisation. These are, first, an ability to do
the job well, including a willingness to learn new things and
adapt to changing circumstances; second, to be able to fit in
with the culture of the organisation (i.e. be able to get on
with colleagues); and third, to have high levels of drive and
motivation. Certainly these are the three things that I insist
upon for myself in the workplace. If at any time I feel I’m
not at my very best in all three areas, I stop and ask myself
what I can do to improve matters. I don’t think anyone can
truly be happy in their work if all three areas are not being
satisfied. So far they’ve held me in good stead.
Not so good answer
Keeping on the boss’s good side is probably the number one
thing I can think of. It doesn’t matter how good you are—if
you don’t get on with your boss, I think your days are
numbered. Of course, it also helps to be good at your job,
but being able to play the game—that is, navigating through
the minefield of organisational politics—is I think more
important. I realise this may sound somewhat cynical, but
all of us know that to get to senior management one needs
to know how to play the game.
A question such as this should immediately be recognised as an
opportunity to highlight your strengths. The first answer talks directly
about the three things all employers want to hear—ability to do the
job, cultural fit and motivation (see Chapter 2)—and then goes a
step further and states that all three are qualities that the candidate
offers. The second answer is far too cynical and fails to emphasise
the candidate’s strengths. There is little doubt that an ability to ‘play
the game’ can have a bearing on a person’s progress, but to throw
all your eggs into that basket is a fatal mistake.
Question: Why would you like to work for our organisation?
Good answer
Yours is the sort of company in which I could maximise my
contribution. All my research has revealed that you are not
only market leaders in service standards and product
innovation but that you also have a great work culture.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has talked about the high levels of
support, training and recognition employees receive. You offer
great career prospects, interesting work and family-friendly
policies. Above all, I’ve always been very keen to work for a
company that offers challenging and cutting-edge work.
Not so good answer
I know your organisation really looks after its people—
everybody I talked to wants to work here. You pay well and
look after your employees. You’re a large company, which
means that my prospects for career enhancement would be
increased and hopefully I wouldn’t be doing the same kind
of work all the time. I like the idea of getting rotated and
learning new things.
The tone of the first answer is set in the opening sentence, where
the candidate talks about wanting to contribute—which is the sort
of thing that excites employers. The answer recognises all the good
things about the company, but very importantly links these plusses
to contribution on the part of the candidate. In other words, it’s
not just about what the candidate can get from the company but
also what the candidate wants to give back.
The overriding problem with the second answer is that it’s all
about what the candidate can get out of the company. No overt link
is made between what the company offers and how these factors
can increase the candidate’s contribution.
Question: What do you want to be doing in your career five years
from now?
Good answer
I’d like to be doing what I’m doing now—that is, enjoying
my work, working hard and contributing to the best of my
abilities. Of course, I’d expect that in five years time my added
experience would hold me in good stead for greater
responsibilities, which is something I look forward to taking
on when the time comes. The most important thing, however,
is to be happy, productive and a valued member of the team.
Not so good answer
Basically, I’m ambitious and hard-working, so I expect to
further my career considerably. My aim is to work hard and
get as far as I can. I think I’d be looking at some sort of man-
agement position with greater responsibilities and of course
greater rewards.
There’s nothing crushingly wrong with the second answer; in fact,
it makes several good points—namely, it gets right to the point and
promotes the candidate’s hard work and ambition to get ahead. The
reason it is not as good as the first answer lies in its limited approach:
the candidate’s primary goal is one of promotion only. The sub-text
is that if there’s no opportunity for promotion, the candidate might
leave. On the other hand, the first answer acknowledges the
importance of hard work and promotion but very wisely goes on
to say that getting promoted is not the only thing that matters. The
first answer is less egocentric and more aware of the importance of
making a contribution to the company.
Question: Describe your ideal job.
Good answer
This job that I’m applying for contains many, if not all, of
the ingredients of my ideal job. It contains a lot of variety,
is intellectually challenging, will allow me to work on my
own as well as in a team environment (the best of both
worlds), and will also allow me to offer creative solutions to
clients. I’ve always thrived in challenging and results-driven
environments and this job offers me all of that.
Not so good answer
My ideal job would be one in which I’d work hard but I
wouldn’t be too stressed out all the time. It would have lots
of variety and a good amount of challenges with plenty of
opportunities for advancement. It would include great people
to work with as well as a good boss.
One of the reasons the first answer is so effective is that it links the
candidate’s ideal job to the actual job in question. Telling an
interviewer that the job you’re applying for is one you consider
ideal makes a lot of sense. Note that all the main ingredients of the
job—variety, challenge, working solo as well as in a team environment,
and providing creative solutions to clients—would have come under
step 1 in the four steps.
Once again, the second answer is not a fatally flawed one. Its
major mistake is mentioning stress. The instant you mention stress,
the interviewer’s alarm bells will start ringing. They’ll want to know
how much stress is too much and what things stress you out—not
what you want to be talking about in an interview.
Question: What motivates you?
Good answer
There are lots of things that motivate me in the workplace,
but three of my biggest motivators would have to be problem-
solving—especially highly technical problems that require
specialised knowledge; learning new things and keeping up
to date with all the changes in my field; and working in a
cooperative team environment where we’re throwing ideas
off each other and coming up with creative solutions. I love
the camaraderie that goes with that.
Not so good answer
Probably my biggest motivator is having a fun job, one I
really look forward to and excel in. There’s nothing worse
than turning up to a job you don’t enjoy day in day out.
Also, I love having great work hours. I don’t mind staying
back occasionally and lending a hand, but I wouldn’t want
to be doing that all the time. I also love working in the city
because it’s easy to get to from where I live and it gives me
easy access to great shops and restaurants.
The first answer would only be an effective one if the duties mentioned
in it—solving highly technical problems, keeping up to date with
the latest innovations and enjoying working creatively in a team—
were all part of the job description . . . the point is that an excellent
strategy for answering the motivation question is to go to the main
duties of the job and talk about those (see Chapter 7).
The second answer begins well but fails to mention what
constitutes a fun job. Thereafter it is a fatally flawed answer. Working
hours and location of work may very well be motivating factors,
but they should never be mentioned because they fail to demonstrate
how you will add value to the job.
Question: What qualities do you think are important to be
successful in this field?
Good answer
The qualities necessary to be successful in this field would
include the skills and knowledge to actually do the job properly.
I’m not just talking about all the technical skills, such as
knowing how to operate the various software programs and
a comprehensive knowledge of the relevant legislation and
how to apply that legislation, but also an ability to get on
with people, possess great communication skills and know
how to plan and organise your work whilst working under
considerable pressure. I also think high levels of motivation
and drive are very important. These are all qualities that I
possess and can bring to this position from day one.
Not so good answer
The qualities necessary to be successful in this field would
include a detailed understanding of all the various software
programs required to complete operations. Not only does one
require knowledge of how to operate the software but also
how to fix things when they go wrong and something is
always going wrong. The same can be said for the complex
legal technicalities. As you well know, in our industry the
devil is in the detail and a superficial understanding of the
legislation can lead to a lot of trouble. As well as having a
thorough understanding of all the programming requirements
of this job, I also have a comprehensive knowledge of the
legal subtleties.
This type of question invites you to go directly to the main duties
of the job you’re applying for and use those as your answer (it is
the same strategy that’s used in answering the motivation question).
The first answer does just that. It is superior to the second response
because it covers more bases. As well as talking about the technical
skills, it also talks about getting on with people, planning and
organising, and good communication (the generic competencies).
The second answer is not a bad one, but it falls into the common
trap of only focusing on the technical side of the job.
Question: Tell us about a time you handled a difficult situation
with a coworker.
Good answer
Last year one of our colleagues was displaying a lot of aggressive
behaviours, including dominating team meetings, belittling
other people’s ideas and not cooperating. I approached the
rest of my colleagues about him and soon realised everyone
was feeling the same as I was. We decided not to take the
matter to our manager until we had the opportunity to talk
to him first. So we decided that at our next meeting we would
raise these issues with him. I was chosen to initiate the
discussion. At the meeting I avoided personalising the problem
and I avoided using inflammatory language. I also adopted
an upbeat and optimistic tone. The results were better than
we anticipated. He thanked me for the delicate manner in
which I raised the issues and also thanked us all for talking
to him first before taking it further. After our meeting, his
behaviours changed markedly for the better.
Not so good answer
There was one time when one of my colleagues was not pulling
his weight, nor was he being at all cooperative with other
members of our team. The manager failed to pick it up because
some members of the team covered for his mistakes and he
would always go out of his way to be extremely friendly when
the manager was around. So one day when he was being
uncooperative I pulled him aside and let him know what I
thought about him. Ever since that day his behaviour towards
me changed. He went out of his way to be friendly towards me
and he made sure all the work that I needed was done properly.
Unfortunately, his behaviour towards the other members of
our team did not alter at all. The lesson I learned was that you
have to stick up for yourself because no one else will.
The first answer demonstrates an ability to consult with colleagues,
the capacity to solve a problem on your own rather than immediately
escalating it to management, and an ability to communicate highly
sensitive information in an appropriate manner. It also demonstrates
a great outcome for everyone involved. The second answer is too
narrow in its focus. It solved the problem only for that individual
but fails to address the broader issue of team harmony and
Question: Tell us about a time you had to meet a very tight
Good answer
When I was working for the Interplanetary Commission, I
was required to meet multiple tight deadlines. I was able to
consistently meet all my deadlines by adhering to sound
planning and organising principles. These included planning
my work well ahead so there were no surprises, ensuring that
everyone in my team was well trained and well aware of their
responsibilities, always having various contingency plans for
when things went wrong, and never accepting more work
than we could handle. The effectiveness of these practices
was highlighted by the fact that my team never missed a
deadline and was seen as the standard-bearer for performance
within the organisation.
Not so good answer
The way I meet tight deadlines is by making sure that I stay
back and put in the hard yards. When something unexpected
arises or we are experiencing a particularly busy period, I’m
not one to shirk my responsibilities. If it means staying back
to complete the work on time, I’ll do it. In my view there’s
no substitute for hard work.
The first answer adheres to the classic components of the four steps.
It starts off by providing a context (step 3), then follows up with
examples of how deadlines are met (step 2) and finishes by stating
positive outcomes (step 4). It gets right to the point, provides multiple
examples of how to meet deadlines and states great organisational
outcomes. The second answer is commendable because of the
candidate’s willingness to work hard to get the job done, but it is
too one-dimensional. Meeting deadlines requires more than just
hard work. It also requires an ability to work smarter.
Question: What sort of manager would you like to work for?
Good answer
I’d like to work for a manager who knows how to do his or
her job properly as well as knowing how to lead staff. It’s
important that managers know how to do their job well,
otherwise they can lose credibility amongst their staff and a
manager without credibility will soon lose the respect that is
needed to be an effective leader. My ideal manager would
understand and practise sound leadership principles such as
consulting with staff, acknowledging people’s hard work,
providing regular feedback and not intimidating or bullying
people. My view is that a good manager is a firm but fair one
and knows how to gain the commitment of staff.
Not so good answer
I think it’s important for a manager to have good people
skills. The best manager I worked for was able to get on with
her staff in the workplace as well as outside. She was a good
friend to all and everyone knew they could turn to her in
time of need. She never turned anyone away and always tried
her best to look after us. More people turned up to her farewell
dinner than to the general manager’s.
The second answer is too narrow. Good managers need to be more
than just liked by their staff. They also need to be good at their jobs
and firm with staff when and if the need arises. It’s possible that
well liked managers may be operating inefficiently in order not to
lose popularity amongst staff. The first answer is a more complete
one. Not only does it acknowledge the importance of getting on
with people, but it also acknowledges the importance of being firm
when the need arises as well as having good work skills.
Question: Have you performed the best work you are capable of?
Good answer
Yes I have, and I’d like to think that I do it on an ongoing
basis, not just on so-called important occasions. Performing
the best work you are capable of, in my view, requires high
levels of motivation and a willingness to work hard and learn
from your mistakes. These are qualities that I bring to the
workplace every day, and I believe the proof of this can be
seen in the quality of my work and the praise I have received
from former employers. My work on the Odysseus Project,
where I exceeded all my targets and played an important role
in bringing home the goods, is an example of my daily work
rate and contribution.
Not so good answer
Yes I’ve managed to perform at my best on several occasions.
I tend to be at my best when the pressure is on. If I know
there’s a lot at stake I roll the sleeves up and really give it all
that I’ve got. If that requires working late and on weekends
then so be it, as long the job gets done. I love a challenge
and enjoy delivering the goods under pressure.
The strength of the first answer is its argument that performing at
one’s best is something the candidate does all the time rather than
an occasional approach reserved for special circumstances. It also
lists the qualities required for someone to perform at their best and
then goes on to give a specific example. The second answer is
commendable for the candidate’s willingness to roll the sleeves up
when there’s a lot at stake; however, an employer would like that
sort of dedication all the time.
Question: How do you deal with criticism?
Good answer
I view positive criticism as being the same as constructive
feedback—something which is designed to improve my
performance, which is important to me. If I’m criticised about
an aspect of my work I try my best to locate the source of
the problem and do my best to rectify it. Viewed in that light,
criticism can be a great learning tool. On the other hand, I
do not take kindly to criticism that is not constructive, where
the main objective is to hurt or undermine the other person.
In such cases I’m inclined to approach my critic in an open
manner so we can work things out. I don’t think there’s a
place for negative criticism in the workplace—it just under-
mines morale.
Not so good answer
I don’t like people criticising my work. No one’s perfect and
I never go around criticising other people’s work. Let he who
is without fault cast the first stone. Of course, I expect my
team leader to criticise my performance if I make a mistake,
but I think it’s important that the criticism be delivered in
the proper manner, with no belittling or bullying. I’ve seen
too many people get crucified over minor mistakes which
undermines their commitment to the organisation.
The first answer’s strong suit lies in its ability to distinguish between
constructive and negative criticism and its statement of how the
candidate would respond to each of those. The second answer’s
weakness lies in the candidate’s reluctance to be criticised by
colleagues. Even though the part about belittling and bullying is
good, one comes away thinking that the candidate may be a little
too sensitive to criticism.
The above answers have been written to give you an insight into
what an effective interview might sound like and the reasons
employers prefer to hear some answers rather than others. Used in
conjunction with the information provided in previous chapters
you will be able to construct your own original answers that will
impress even the most hardened interviewers. Note, however, that
while there’s nothing wrong with copying key sentences and phrases
from the good answers, they have not been designed for rote learning.
These good answers are meant to provide guidelines for what effective
answers might sound like; they’re not meant to be entire answers
to your interview questions. Your own answers will be better because
they will stem from your hard-earned experience.

Performing well at interviews is not as difficult as many people
think. The key to success lies with correct preparation and practice.
Knowing what to prepare and how to prepare, then giving yourself
the opportunity to apply your newly acquired skills, is a tried and
tested formula for success. Remember, great interviewees are not
born with effective interview skills—they develop their skills by
following this formula.
Completing this book means your awareness of the realities of
the interview process has increased significantly. It’s also highly
likely that your interview skills have already inproved. It is important
to note, however, that the more you think about your answers and
the more you practice them the better you will become. Great
interview skills are not developed overnight; they improve with time
and correct application.
Nine key points to remember from this book
1. Don’t waste your time looking for quick fixes—they don’t exist. They
could even make matters worse. Great interview performances come
from proper preparation and practice.
2. Avoid memorising other people’s answers.
3. Remember that interviews are about more than just giving good
answers; they’re also about building rapport and trust. And building
rapport and trust is contingent upon more than simply words—body
language and attitude are very important.
4. All interviewers want to know three things:
• whether you can do the job;
• how motivated or driven you are; and
• whether you’ll fit into the existing workplace culture.
5. Using the four steps gives you a simple-to-follow system by which
you can organise and bring together large amounts of disparate
information about your work achievements, to help you form clear
and articulate answers.
6. The vast majority of jobs have skills or duties that overlap. These
• being a good team player;
• planning and organising your work effectively;
• good interpersonal communication skills;
• ability to cope with change in the workplace; and
• ability to provide effective customer service (including to internal
Awareness of these allows you to anticipate the nature of some of
the questions you may be asked.
7. Do not fall into despondency if you have a bad interview. Everyone
has them, even good interviewees. The key is to learn from it and
get yourself ready for the next one.
8. Often, interviewers are not experienced and can ask questions that
are not well considered. Your job is to know how to handle both the
novice as well as the experienced interviewer.
9. Believe in yourself. Now that you know what to do there’s no reason
not to.
Good luck.

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