Essential job interview preparation: Eleven lessons from interview coaching

A job interview should be preceded by preparation. It’s surprising how many people just wing it on the day rather than adopt a strategy for preparation. For those who do prepare, there are key areas to focus on. My coaching experience points to common factors that people struggle with.

  1. Explaining interest in a role

Applicants for APS roles may be asked to explain their interest in a role or agency in an application and/or at interview. Setting aside obvious and self-interested reasons, such as promotion, better salary and working conditions, a response needs to be based on information that speaks to motivation and contribution. Motivation could stem from knowledge of a particular subject or issue; relevant personal qualities, such as a strong commitment to integrity, attention to detail, ensuring projects are delivered; recognition of relevant strengths; career progression. Motivation then leads to what contribution you wish to make to a team, unit, organisation, profession.

Arriving at a coherent and convincing response takes time and thought, plus rehearsal to make the response succinct and coherent.

2.  Identifying value

Related to explaining interest is identifying what value you offer. Explaining value can link to strengths – what strengths you have and why they are relevant to a team leader or manager role – how you will provide leadership and ensure work gets done and staff are happy; as well as more broadly as to why your combined skills, experience and knowledge will be an asset to a team, unit, organisation, profession.

To work out value you need a good understanding of the role you’re applying for, the context of the role, and how what you offer will make a difference.

3.  Selecting relevant strengths

Applicants bring a range of strengths to any role. Only those that are relevant need be mentioned when asked to identify strengths. Listing strengths that will not be used in a new role will not be a useful answer.

As with value, you need to understand the role and its context in order to identify the relevant strengths. Plus what you pick should ideally tick boxes for the panel when considering the selection criteria.

4.  Identifying expertise

The term ‘expertise’ should not be taken too literally. While it doesn’t mean encyclopaedic knowledge, it also means more than a passing acquaintance with a subject. If you handle issues or problems that require analysing information, assessing options for action based on legislation, policies or procedures, then you’ve likely developed more than foundational knowledge. Your expertise may also be backed by qualifications.

If you don’t want to claim expertise but know you have plenty of knowledge and experience to offer, then find a way to express your claims that is acceptable to you. For example, you could say you have in-depth knowledge of subject A based on three years’ experience and relevant training courses. An example could then support the level of complexity you deal with.

The APS Work Level Standards Differences document lists Knowledge as a level differentiator which becomes evident at the APS 3 level when ‘Functional expertise that contributes to team goals’ is expected.

5.  Describing leadership

Applicants need to understand the difference between being a manager and being a leader, and how anyone at any level can and should demonstrate leadership. One aspect of discussing leadership is to be able to describe one’s leadership style.

This insight can come from training programs, self-reflection, coaching, feedback. Two points to keep in mind are firstly, a democratic style if generally preferable, and secondly, a leader needs to be flexible to adapt to different circumstances. A democratic style may not be useful in an emergency.

6.  Demonstrating leadership

There are numerous definitions of leadership. One trap with defining leadership is to limit it to a position of authority in a hierarchy. This is but one, limited idea about leadership.

Leadership is more a practice than a role or position. A significant behaviour is the ability to influence others’ behaviour, decisions and actions. How leadership is expressed will depend on level and role.

Behaviours that demonstrate leadership include:

  • Modelling professional practice and ethical behaviour.
  • Taking responsibility for actions and mistakes.
  • Providing thought leadership or expertise.
  • Sharing understanding of vision and objectives.
  • Representing a team or unit, such as at meetings, working groups, seminars.
  • Adopting a position in the face of opposition.
  • Contributing to change.
  • Suggesting improvements.
  • Identifying risks.
  • Providing accurate and specialised advice.
  • Ensuring compliance with legislation, regulations and procedures.
  • Maintaining team cohesion in the face of challenges.

Where any of these result in influencing others’ behaviour, decisions and actions, leadership has been demonstrated.

7.  Handling conflict

Conflict is a broad term referring to disagreements, particularly where there is a perceived threat to needs or interests. Disagreements about how to act, think and feel are natural and occur because people hold differing views about what is important to themselves. Conflict can arise between individuals, as well as within and between groups.

There is a range of terms relevant to conflict: misconduct, disruptive behaviour, unsatisfactory performance, grievance, dispute. It’s worth understanding what these terms mean so as to select relevant examples. It’s also worth being aware of how workplaces vary in their culture, processes and traditions. This means that conflict management systems will look different in every organisation. A conflict resilient workplace is one where conflict is managed well, and not allowed to escalate. Add new article

While conflict usually involves people, disagreements may stem from competing timeframes, priorities, resource demands, political policies. You may identify such conflicts in a situation before dealing with any people, and this understanding may inform your approach to handling the situation, including any people involved.

8.  Handling difficult people

Selection panels are fond of asking questions about dealing with difficult people as a way to assess interpersonal skills. Some people are blessed with rarely having had to deal with a colleague, manager, client or stakeholder who was a challenge to deal with. Most of us, at some time, do come across such people. The issue may not be huge. Difficult doesn’t necessarily mean aggression. Some difficult people situations are more subtle: misunderstandings, siloed thinking, turf protection, conflicting priorities.

9.  Poor response structure

Even if content is not as strong as you would like, the structure of a response needs to have coherence as a story, particularly when giving an example to demonstrate behaviours. While the STAR structure is widely recommended, the CAR structure, which covers all elements of the STAR structure, is my preferred option as it places more emphasis on the context of the example.

Traps applicants fall into with such examples are:

  • Not giving enough contextual information to establish the complexities, risks, obstacles, strategic elements.
  • Giving too much action detail that is lower level to that of the role applied for.
  • Not giving the results of the actions or not giving the full range, such as the flow-on consequences of action.

10.  Hearing question wording

Nervous applicants may not listen carefully enough to what is being asked. ‘Give an example of’ is a different question to ‘outline your experience of’. The former asks for a specific example, the latter asks for an overview. Applicants need to consider the full range of potential questions and know how to modify their responses.

11.  Demonstrating teamwork

Applicants need to understand how a team of people work well together and how they contribute to that collective effort. There is plenty of material on what an effective team is and the relevant skills and qualities.

Teams vary in composition, purpose, productivity and location. Examples of variations include:

  • virtual teams
  • different time zones
  • different physical locations
  • different professions
  • diverse teams – e.g. age, education, ethnic background
  • different lengths of service/experience
  • similar levels of authority
  • newly created/long established
  • clear/unclear/few goals
  • low/high morale
  • low/high standards.

Behavioural adjustments are needed to cater for these variations, which will depend on whether you are a team leader/manager or team member.

Picking an example where there are clear challenges that demanded your contribution to achieving a team outcome is likely to be an effective response. Using the CAR structure you would outline the challenges, risks, goal, your relevant behaviour, and the outcome.

Talk to the contact person

Applicants may fall into these traps because they don’t have sufficient understanding of the role they are applying for. Part of preparation before applying for a job is to talk to the contact person in order to fully understand the role, its requirements, and the details that are not included in the job description, such as whether the job is new, results from a restructure, whether the team is productive, what the culture is like, what are the key issues in the next six to twelve months. Once you’ve been asked to an interview it’s too late to find out this information. With this information, your responses are likely to more relevant, tailored, informed.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.