Friday, December 15, 2006

Your potential to tackle newtasks

At times, you’ll be asked questions that have nothing to do with
your past duties and achievements. To make matters worse, the
skills inherent in these duties will be substantially different to the skills
you already have, thus making these the most challenging of all
interview questions. Typically, you are asked these type of questions
when you are starting off in your career, changing careers or going
for a promotion that entails brand new duties such as managing a
team of people. Clearly, when you have not performed the duties
before, making a direct link to past duties or skills becomes
problematic. However, there’s no reason for despair. There are plenty
of interviewees who successfully tackle these sorts of questions on
a regular basis. As you have already learned, the key to success is
correct preparation.
Break down the duties
The first step involves taking each of the new duties and breaking
them down into the individual skills and knowledge they comprise. The
individual pieces of information you come up with will constitute
the core of your answers. In terms of our four steps, this information
will go under step 2.
Breaking down a duty that you’ve never performed before can
sometimes be a tricky exercise, particularly if you’ve had no experience
in doing it. But don’t give up—after a couple of tries it becomes
easy. Here are some guidelines that you should find useful.
Begin by asking yourself the question, ‘In order to perform a
particular duty or requirement, what steps would I need to take?’
Conduct a brainstorming session. Do not overlook any detail,
no matter how trivial you may think it is. Write down everything
and anything that comes into your head. You can throw out the
unimportant stuff later.
What may strike you as being trivial and not worth mentioning
often turns out to be an important skill. A good example of this is
listening skills. Most people don’t even think about mentioning this
skill, yet good listening skills are critical to effective interpersonal
skills—including being a team player, problem-solving and conflict
resolution. It’s also a very hard skill to master, especially when you’re
hearing something that you don’t agree with.
If you’re having problems coming up with ideas, don’t worry.
Contact a friend, a work colleague, a former manager or anyone you
think may be able to shed some light on the matter. You’ll soon find
that two or three heads are better than one. Whatever you do, don’t
give up. You will do it—it’s just a matter of getting the hang of it.
If your friends can’t help, don’t panic. It’s time to consult a book
or an expert in the field. If, for example, you’re applying for a
manager’s position and you’ve never managed people before, it
makes sense to talk to someone who knows what’s involved.
As much as possible try to list the component skills in a logical,
sequential order.
Before you finalise your list, you must scrutinise your answers.
Because you’ve never performed these duties before, it stands to
reason that some of your answers may be somewhat naïve or just
plain wrong. Scrutinise the quality of your answers by talking to
someone who knows and/or by asking yourself the all-important
question, ‘Can I credibly support my answer if questioned in more
detail by the interviewer?’
In most circumstances, there are no absolutely right or wrong
answers to how duties are performed. Questions requiring highly
technical answers which need to be very specific are, of course, the
exception. As unique individuals working in varied environments,
we face differing challenges which affect the way we do things. So
the way I work in an entrepreneurial environment, or plan and
organise my work, may be different to someone else’s method—but
it is no less valid or effective. In terms of interviews, the important
thing is to provide a succinct and logical answer that can withstand
scrutiny if the interviewer decides to delve deeper into your answer.
And good interviewers always dig deeper.
You need to have faith in what you think is the right way to
perform a duty, but be sure you have thought your answer through.
Ask yourself, ‘Why would I take a particular course of action?’ By
all means consult experts and listen carefully to what they say, but
at the end of the day it has to be your answer.
Let’s look at a common example of a new duty: managing people
in the workplace. Managing staff, as anyone who has been thrust
into that position knows, requires a range of new skills—some of
which can be quite challenging. Given the importance most
organisations place on effective people management, how you
respond to this type of question could easily make or break your
interview. Here are a few examples of managing staff questions:
• How would you go about leading a team of highly trained
• As a manager of people, how would you go about motivating
them and maximising their performance?
• Describe your ideal manager.
Duties inherent in managing people in the workplace might include:
• delegating work appropriately, taking into account the abilities
of staff and multi-skilling considerations;
• giving timely and objective feedback;
• consulting on matters that affect staff;
• acknowledging and recognising their efforts;
• treating everyone equally.
Using the four steps, you would include these duties—or others
you might regard as important—under step 2 (see Table 5.1 opposite).
Create a relevant context
Given that you’ve never performed this duty, it stands to reason
that you cannot provide a real-life context as you would for the
duties you had actually performed. However, this should not prevent
you from making up a context—one that will be the same or similar
to the job you’re applying for. Doing this compels you to go a step
further by placing your step 2 answers in a ‘real life’ situation. By
doing this, you’ll be in a better position to make your answers sound
more convincing.
In an interview, you are likely to be asked a contextualised
question—that is, one which asks how you would perform a duty
within a certain situation or context. So, instead of being asked
‘How would you go about managing staff?’ (no context), it is likely
you’ll have to answer a question more like ‘How would you go about
managing a team of highly motivated professionals in a fast-paced
If you do happen to be asked a question without a context
(inexperienced interviewers have been known to ask decontextualised
questions), being able to put it into a context that is relevant to the
job you’re applying for is likely to impress the interviewer. Without
context, your answers will sound only half-completed.
Place your imaginary context under step 3 in the four steps to
interview success table (see Table 5.1 opposite).
Expected outcomes
Given that you’ve never performed this duty before, it’s nonsensical
to talk about real outcomes. However, it is a good idea to think in
terms of expected outcomes—that is, what is likely to happen if you
manage people effectively. The advantages of thinking about expected
outcomes are twofold. First, because outcomes are similar to goals, it
will demonstrate to the interviewer that you’re thinking in terms of
goals or final results rather than just process. Remember, it is achieving
goals that matters most to employers. Second, many interviewers are
fond of asking annoying questions like, ‘And what do you see the
results of your people management approach being?’ and, ‘What can
a good manager of people achieve with his/her staff?’ Filling out the
step 4 column with your expected outcomes will help you to formulate
effective answers to such questions (see Table 5.1 below).
Be aware that some companies prefer not to use the term
‘managing’ people. Instead they favour the term ‘leading’ people.
If you’re preparing answers to a set of managing/leading people
questions, make sure you acquaint yourself with the company’s
management language. Sometimes, just using the right word can
make a big difference.
Table 5.1 Your potential to tackle new tasks
Step 1
of position
Managing people
in the workplace
Step 2
What would I do to
ensure the duties
listed under step 1 are
performed properly,
including overcoming
• Delegating work
appropriately, taking into
account abilities of staff
and multi-skilling
• Giving timely and
objective feedback
• Consulting on matters
that affect staff
• Acknowledging and
recognising their efforts
Step 3
Managing a small
team of highly
professionals in a
Step 4
Expected outcomes—
organisational and
• Maintain or improve
motivation of staff, which
will contribute to
improved individual and
team performance,
including possible
improvement in rates of
absenteeism and
• Demonstrated an ability
to quickly learn about the
products I was selling
Putting it all together
Let’s take a look at a likely question and a possible response.
Question: How would you go about leading a team of highly
trained professionals?
I would certainly take into account the fact that I am dealing
with professionals—that is, highly trained people who should
know what they’re doing (step 3). In delegating work, I would
take into account their abilities, preferences and current
workloads. I would make sure that work was distributed evenly,
taking organisational needs into account (step 2).
I’m a great believer in giving people feedback. Without
feedback staff often are unaware of important matters relating
to their performance. I would ensure that my feedback was
timely and objective—that is, based on facts rather than
conjecture (step 2).
I also believe in consulting with staff in matters relating
to their work. Not only do staff feel more valued when they’re
consulted, but often management can be made aware of
important matters that they previously were not aware
of (step 2).
Acknowledging and recognising individual and team effort
is, I think, also very important—especially when it comes to
giving staff a feeling of being appreciated. I know that when
my manager acknowledged something special that I did, I
always felt good about it (step 2).
I strongly believe that effective people management is
vital to the success of any team. Good managers are able to
motivate and bring out the best in their people. This in turn
contributes significantly to the performance of the team. It
would be my objective to maximise the performance of my
team by implementing the techniques already mentioned
(step 4).
The strengths of the above answer are as follows:
• acknowledging the professional context of the team to be managed;
• articulating the points in a clear and sequential order;
• giving reasons why certain actions would be taken;
• finishing off with an expected outcome.
Suggested activity: Your potential to tackle new tasks
To help you prepare your answers to at least one duty which is
substantially different to anything you’ve done before, follow the
guidelines described above—that is:
• Break the duty down into its individual components.
• Use the four steps and put those individual components under
step 2.
• Use an imaginary context that is likely to come up in an interview.
• Include expected outcomes.
Summary of key points
• Questions about duties which are substantially different to anything
you’ve done before are generally the most challenging in an interview.
• There is often no one single answer (nor one right answer) about
how duties are performed. We all come from different work
backgrounds and bring with us different ways of doing things.
• The names of steps 2, 3 and 4 will change slightly, reflecting the
different challenges posed by these sorts of questions. In particular,
the context (imaginary context) and outcomes (expected outcomes)
headings change to take into account the fact that you’ve never
performed these duties before.

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