Don’t Tell Them – Show Them: Insider Secrets on Acing Your Next Leadership Behavioral Interview

For those of you who have been on the receiving end of a behavioral interview question, you know that they’re tough and can sometimes be intimidating. Here’s the thing – they’re not supposed to be easy. Many employers use this form of questioning to improve their overall quality of hires because it allows them to easily differentiate the best from the rest. By adding structure and consistency to the interview process through challenging behavior based questioning, the front runners in the candidate pool become quickly apparent.

Behavioral interviewing forces candidates to reflect on past experiences, providing the interviewer with greater insight into their knowledge, skills and abilities. From an employer’s perspective, it’s really all about showing them what you’ve got versus just telling them. It’s much easier to say during an interview, “I’m a strategic leader, strong collaborator and communicator.” It’s another thing to prove it by pulling an example from your past experience that truly explains how you’ve demonstrated these behaviors. Employers believe that by understanding how you’ve handled past situations will be a clear indicator of how you’ll handle the same situation if you worked for them. In other words, past behavior and performance predicts future behavior and performance.

Helpful insight on what to expect, how to prepare and how to answer.

What to Expect

Behavioral questions typically begin with phrases like, “Tell me about a time when…”, “Describe a time/situation for me when…”, “Give me an example of when…” However, sometimes interviewers will ask the questions differently, but are looking for the same type of response pattern. You might hear something like, “Have you ever had to lead a cross-functional project team? Tell me about that experience.” Another example might be, “Tell me how your past colleagues or team would describe your leadership style.”

The questions asked of candidates really depend upon what’s happening in the organization and what’s important to them at a given point in time. When building candidate selection tools, organizations identify the competencies that are most critical to success in a given role, both from a cultural and business perspective. Even if the company doesn’t have a structured process in place, hiring managers, recruiters and HR professionals are still approaching the interview in the same way.


If the organization is experiencing a great deal of change, chances are you will be asked questions that measure your adaptability and ability to manage change. If organizations are looking to promote greater cross-functional collaboration among its leaders, you’ll be asked questions that will work to uncover your ability to lead across groups, build camaraderie and inspire others to take action. If there is turmoil in the organization or there are “difficult” leaders that you would be interacting with in your role, you may be asked about your ability to manage and resolve conflict. If you are interviewing for a new role where there are major talent voids or weak performers among the team, you will most likely be asked about your ability to manage performance issues and build and develop a team.

How and What to Prepare

As you prepare for interviews, think about an example from your past experience that demonstrates your ability in every possible leadership skill area. The following is a list of some universally critical leadership competency areas along with probing questions that will get you thinking about your experiences. These are broad in scope, but will provide you with a good starting point from which to build. Even if your next interview isn’t behavior based, this is still a good exercise to work through. It will help to stimulate ideas related to your prior leadership roles and draw out your unique strengths and accomplishments that you’ll want to highlight in your next interview.

Influence – Think of a time when you had to persuade a person or team to adopt a particular point of view, agenda, process or initiative that may have been initially met with resistance. What specific actions did you take to win them over and attain buy-in? What negotiation tactics did you employ? How did you convey your point of view in a manner that was persuasive and achieved the desired results?

Collaboration – Think of time when you had to work across teams to accomplish a specific objective, implement a new initiative or project. How did you work to build alliances? How did you encourage shared thinking, actions and accountability? How did you gain commitment to coordinate efforts?

Project Management – Think of time when you had to lead the full scope of a project from inception to completion. How did you organize your efforts? How did you identify actions, timelines, resources, and major milestones? How did you obtain the resources you needed for the project team? How did you match people’s skills to project tasks? How did you communicate the project goals to the team? How did you measure team progress?

Adaptability – Think of a time when you had to remain flexible to unexpected changes in events or business plans. How did you adapt and embrace the change? How did you manage to overcome the obstacle and persist in the face of adversity?

Strategy – Think of a time when you had to reinvent your department’s strategy to align with a change in business direction. How did you identify issues, opportunities and risks and then develop strategies/solutions to address them? How did you communicate your vision and gain commitment to deliver on it?

Team Leadership – Think about how you have ensured roles, responsibilities, reporting lines, and deadlines are clearly defined and understood among your direct reports. How have you worked to clarify roles and responsibilities? How did you set and communicate expectations? What have you done to ensure that deadlines are met? How did you monitor team/individual progress?

Performance Management/Team Development – Think about how you have provided constructive feedback to and supported the development of your direct reports. What actions have you taken that demonstrate your commitment to talent acquisition, management, and retention? What have you done to ensure you select the best employees for open positions? How did you manage your direct reports to ensure they perform their best? What have you done to ensure turnover of your direct reports is kept to a minimum?

How to Answer

Use examples with positive outcomes. The examples you provide should always have positive outcomes unless you are asked directly to share a difficult experience from your past. For example, if asked to share a time when you had to influence others to gain buy-in on a new initiative and your example is a time when your new project failed to gain the momentum you had anticipated, this is probably not the best one to cite. You do, however, want to be sure you have a few examples of times when things didn’t go exactly as planned. For example, you may be asked a question like, “Describe how you have learned from feedback from others, difficult experiences, unsuccessful projects, or mistakes you have made.” Be prepared with one or two examples of these types of situations.

Provide the right level of detail. As you respond, you should be providing the interviewer with enough detail that fully answers the question. The goal here is not to be probed. The best candidates provide a detailed enough response, which clearly demonstrates their ability in a given skill area without further questioning or commentary from the interviewer. If you’re being probed, you’re not answering the question.

Keep it under 90 seconds. As a general rule of thumb, you should be able to tell your story within 90 seconds. If you’ve exceeded this mark, you’ve definitely gone on too long and will lose your audience. Try writing out some of the key points you’d want to cover in your example and practice telling your story. As you practice aloud, time yourself to ensure you’re hitting the high points and keeping on pace.

Outlined below is a simple way to remember what your answers should include and the types of things you should be thinking about as you respond – the CARE model. Following this response pattern will help to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases.

Context – This is where you’ll want to provide some background and shed light on the situation. What was the circumstance/issue? How did it come to be?

Actions – This is where you’ll want to clearly state the actions you took. What was your role? What specific measures or steps did you take? What behaviors did you demonstrate? What was your personal involvement or influence? How did you impact the outcome?

Reasoning – This is where you’ll want to share what prompted your actions. Why did you do what you did? What was your thought process behind your actions? Why did you think your actions were necessary? What did you anticipate would happen?

Effect – This is where you’ll want to clearly state the consequences of your actions. What was the outcome? What specific results did your actions produce?

From my experience, most candidates can easily describe the situation at hand and communicate the result, but struggle in identifying and clearly describing their actions and reasoning behind them. The how and why of what they did is missing. When thinking what to convey in your behavioral example, ask yourself probing questions to dig deep and uncover the most important details.

Bottom line: be prepared to support your interview responses with a clear and succinct example from your past leadership roles.

Knowledge is Power in the Interview

Knowledge is Power in the Interview

Think of an interview as a potential sales transaction. Your goal is to sell the product (you) to a prospective buyer (the employer). In order to influence them to make the purchase (hire you), you have to fully understand their needs. Discovering as much information as possible about the company, role and hiring manager prior to your interview will enable you to determine which aspects of your skill set and past experiences would benefit the employer most and the major selling points you want to highlight. The more information you can arm yourself with in advance, the greater your chances of closing the deal. As is true in most situations, knowledge is power.


If you’re interviewing for a leadership position that requires building a department from the ground-up, you’ll want to highlight those aspects from your past experience where you’ve had to create a new organizational structure, identify and define critical positions, hire a team, establish performance metrics and develop business process, policies and procedures.

If you’re interviewing for a small, growing company and you’ve only had large company experience, then you’ll want to prove how you can operate in a less structured environment with limited resources, highlight the ways you’ve functioned as an entrepreneur in your past roles and stress what you’ve done to innovate in your areas of expertise.

If you’re interviewing with a hiring manager whose background differs from yours, you’ll want to emphasize how your skill set would work to complement theirs and what new experiences, perspectives and skills you could bring to the department.

Do Your Research

Uncover everything you can about the company and the hiring manager. Reach out to people in your network who may know current or past employees. Has the company been in the press? Is there a public blog or message board? What information can you learn from their corporate website or social media vehicles? Use LinkedIn to view the profile of the hiring manager, as well as other key people within the organization.

Use Recruiters and HR Wisely

If you have the opportunity to meet with the recruiter or a member of the HR team prior to your interview with the hiring manager, use it to your advantage. This is your chance to gain additional information that you may not have been able to ascertain from your preliminary research. Ask questions to learn all you can about the company’s business, financials, culture, work environment, organizational structure, key processes and people.

You will find that most recruiters and HR professionals are extremely forthcoming with information and want to provide you with as much insight as possible. They want you to be well-prepared for additional rounds of interviews and make an informed decision. If they are moving you along in the process, they want you to shine. If they think you’re a strong candidate, they want others to feel the same. After all, it’s their reputation on the line. Use your meetings with them to ask questions. The more dialogue you have with them and the more questions you ask, the better able you will be to assess their needs. Remember, it’s a two-way street. You’re assessing fit on your end just as much as they are determining whether or not you’re the best candidate for the role.

In addition to function/role specific questions, here are some you may want to know the answer to prior to your meeting with the hiring manager. These will help you to uncover needs and determine if the company is the right fit for you.

About the Business…

  • What are the company’s major goals/priorities?
  • What is the five-year business plan?
  • Is there a growth strategy in place?
  • Who are the company’s major competitors?
  • How does the company differentiate itself in the marketplace?
  • How did the business perform last year? What are the projections for this year?

About the Role…

  • Why is the position vacant?
  • Who would be your primary business partners?
  • What are some of the skill/experience gaps within the department that you can help to fill?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges the department is facing?

About the Hiring Manager…

  • What is his/her leadership style?
  • What are his/her greatest priorities?
  • What are the most important skills and attibutes he/she is seeking? What does he/she value most?
  • How are your backgrounds similar or different?

About the Company…

  • How’s the organizational culture? What is the work environment like on a day to day basis?
  • How many employees?
  • How is the organization structured? Is the company flat or hierarchal?
  • Who are its key leaders?
  • What’s the average length of service of an employee?
  • What’s the annual employee turnover?
  • Does the company invest in training and development?
  • How is performance measured and rewarded?
  • What is the company’s internal promotion process and potential career path for this position?

Bottom line: don’t walk into an interview blind – you need to understand the needs of the company and hiring manager before you can sell yourself effectively.