In almost every interview, there are some standard questions you can expect to be asked. “How do you manage your time?”, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, “What has been your biggest challenge?”
Sound familiar? It’s up to you to turn these classic questions into opportunities to place in a potential employer’s shortlist of candidates.
When I worked as an executive director for a small nonprofit, we ran interviews in a panel format consisting of myself and our two manager-level staff. Here are two real-life examples of memorable answers that wowed us—and some tips for upping the "wow factor" in your next interview.
“How do you manage your time and juggle competing priorities?”
The home run: “I use a calendar and to-do list like most people, but I also find it is important to tune into my own energy and work on tasks that fit where I’m at that day. Deadlines aside, it doesn’t make sense to force myself into a particular task, so I try to use that to guide how I divide my time and manage tasks over the course of the week and month.”
Why it wowed us: While the candidate used the same standbys that most folks use to manage their work, like to-do lists and calendars, they didn’t stop there. Their answer around personal energy ebb and flow showed us a surprising level of self-awareness. Plus, their focus on both weekly and monthly time management showed their ability to balance day-to-day tasks with longer-term priorities.
How you can use it: It’s easy to answer this kind of question almost by rote, because don’t we all use digital calendars at this point? But don’t make the mistake of treating it like a throwaway. Drill down into the component parts of time management. Be clear about why the way you manage time is effective for you.
You may consider addressing:
- How you prioritize things daily/weekly/monthly;
- How you address workflow interruptions;
- How you plan for the day ahead; and
- How you differentiate what is important versus what is most urgent.
“Can you tell us about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker or supervisor, and how you addressed it?”
The home run: “When I was a manager at a restaurant, I had to discuss chronic tardiness and absenteeism with one of the servers I managed. I told her that when she had to call out without notice, the impact was that I personally covered her shifts, which meant none of the crucial behind-the-scenes operations were being completed. We had a good rapport, and she confided in me that she had some health issues. The restaurant not scheduling shifts far enough in advance impacted her ability to schedule personal appointments in advance. I ended up discussing our scheduling protocols with the owner, advocating for a policy change that would better support servers and other employees.”
Why it wowed us: This candidate broached the subject directly, using the “When you do X the impact is Y” model of feedback. They didn't only make the connection between the server’s behavior and broader policies in the restaurant, but also initiated feedback to upper management. They treated their direct report compassionately, and managed up to advocate for the server at the same time. This example showed us in a concrete way how restaurant management experience could translate into leadership skills in our organization.
How you can use it: Think about what skills you want to demonstrate through your example, and outline the story so that it hits those key components.
You may consider addressing:
- Delivering negative feedback;
- Receiving negative feedback;
- Navigating personality differences; and
- Challenges you've faced with office culture.
The importance of "show" vs. "tell"
The best interview answers are almost always specific examples from past experience that help the interviewer envision how you would perform as a member of the team. Think about some of the standard categories of questions interviewers typically ask, and create a cheat sheet of your workplace or volunteer experiences that shows rather than tells.
Here are two more common interview questions, and sample answers to demonstrate how “show” is different from “tell.”
"How do you stay organized?"
Tell: "I like to use color-coded hanging files to keep things visually organized, and I set up automatic filters on incoming emails so my inbox doesn’t get overwhelmed and save myself time."
Show: "I like to use color-coded hanging files, and set up automatic filters on incoming emails so my inbox doesn’t get overwhelmed. In my last position, keeping up with email was a challenge for our entire team. I taught myself how to create email filters to take some of the decision-making out of staying organized, and I took the initiative to show my teammates how they could create their own filters, too. Once I established these filters, I reduced my time processing and sorting emails by 30 minutes each day."
Why "show" is better: The story hits on other important skills, including this person’s ability to take initiative in their own learning, their ability to teach other people new things, and the impact of the organizing system they put in place (e.g. time saved).
"How has your past experience prepared you for this position?"
Tell: "I have excellent customer-service skills. In my internship this past summer, I learned how to manage a front office and provide quality customer service, from answering a multi-line phone to processing mail, faxes, and voicemails for our director."
Show: "I have excellent customer-service skills. In my internship this past summer, I learned how to manage a front office and provide quality customer service, from answering a multi-line phone to processing mail, faxes, and voicemails for our director. One day there was a mix up in the director’s calendar and someone arrived at the office for a meeting on the wrong day. They became very upset because they had traveled more than an hour to get there. I offered them water, apologized for the confusion, and was able to work with the director to get them a short appointment that same afternoon so they did not travel to the office for nothing. They were much more calm after that and thanked me for my help."
Why "show" is better: Answering phones and making a front office run is important, but beyond that, this story shows how this candidate can work under pressure, even in the face of a client or customer who is angry or upset. It demonstrates their listening skills and problem solving skills as part of the overall picture of “excellent customer service."
By focusing on the "show," you can turn your work, volunteer, or internship experience into short stories that demonstrate your skills and impact.
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Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.