It’s common to be asked about your leadership skills when interviewing for a job. Of course, if you’re applying for management, executive, or coaching positions, questions like “What’s a time you exercised leadership?" or “Can you tell me about a time when you solved a problem for your team or employer?" are bound to pop up. But it’s not the only time they would.
“Everybody can lead at every level; there are no excuses," says Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of, among other books, “The Leader’s Checklist."
“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the front line or the top line. If you are given an office with the powers of that office, what do you add to the office above and beyond those powers?" he asks. “Do you excite and motivate people? Do you bring excellence and vision to what ultimately is the objective of that office or even the whole company? Everybody should be good at leading, whatever their level in the hierarchy."
That same thinking has become a preoccupation of organizations in today's increasingly uncertain and ambiguous world. As startups, global corporations, and even the mid-size companies in between the evolve, so does their confidence in their workers’ ability to rethink, challenge, and develop the business they’re in.
As a result, companies face a need to bring in leaders, whether in the form of a frontline worker, administrative support, salesperson, or the VP of Operations. Every employee has an important role to play.
What’s more, many companies look for candidates with leadership skills out of the hope that they can grow in their positions and acquire management skills and business acumen that’s necessary to take on senior-level and executive roles.
So, how do you demonstrate your leadership skills in an interview? With some preparation and practice, just about anyone can find a way to showcase their ability in this realm—and do so in a way that sets them apart in the job market.
The opportunity to underscore your leadership skills with a few work-related anecdotes may materialize through a question like, “Could you tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership?" At the same time, you don’t need to wait for the interviewer to ask you about leadership to give specific examples of how you demonstrated it in the past.
For example, if an interviewer asks about an accomplishment that you are proud of, you might respond by talking about your work turning around the marketing department at your previous employer, which historically struggled to hit its quarterly goals. If you have completed a rigorous leadership training—such as the Public Leadership Credential from the Harvard Kennedy School—explain how you've applied that training in real-world circumstances.
If they ask you to identify your biggest strengths, maybe you’ll describe your ability to inspire teammates—and describe the time you helped a less-than-enthusiastic coworker find motivation by complimenting their work, asking them their opinion, and making them feel like a valued part of the team.
When brainstorming stories to share, remember to keep them brief by choosing experiences that demonstrate your point as clearly and effectively as possible. And remember, you can have leadership skills without having experience managing a department or team. Think about all of the leadership roles that you’ve held, whether professionally or as a student or volunteer.
You should also give thought to which leadership skills are likely to be relevant to the job you’re interviewing for to pick the most relevant story. For instance, does the job description mention serving as a cross-functional liaison? You might call attention to a time in which you were responsible for managing a project across different teams.
As the person with firsthand experience of a project’s or position’s success, it can be easy to think of your past accomplishments as clearly contributing to a former employer’s mission, vision, and goals. But instead of simply stating that you were a great mentor model or helped created a profitable sales strategy for the upcoming year, consider emphasizing your accomplishments by using hard numbers and timelines.
For example, if a network security system upgrade resulted in $150,000 saved in potential data loss for a former employer, be sure to communicate that. Superlatives like “first," “last," “fewest," and “most" can apply too, whether you were the first woman to ascend a law firm’s partnership ranks or ensured the fewest work injuries in a supply chain solutions company’s history while employed as its warehouse supervisor.
Aside from shining the spotlight on money and time, you can also describe results in terms of productivity, output, and even accolades. No matter which you use, quantifying your accomplishments is a great way to help prospective employers understand the impact you made within the context of your career—and impress them while you’re at it.
Many of the questions asked during interviews are behavioral interview questions like, “How do you handle challenges?" to “What do you do if you disagree with a co-worker?" Generally, these questions are more open-ended and usually ask you to share stories from your previous jobs in a way that reveals your skills, abilities, and personality.
Of the many competencies that inform behavioral interview questions, leadership ability is one of the most common, along with teamwork, collaboration, and emotional intelligence. But remember, the interviewer isn’t necessarily asking “yes or no" questions, and so it may help to review how to answer them without forgetting to include the who, what, where, when and how.
Enter the STAR technique, an interview response method that’s especially useful for responding to interview questions that require an anecdote, including all the right details, and creating a deliberate storyline that any interviewer can easily follow.
Here’s how it works:
Talking about why your leadership skills make you the best fit to advance a potential employer’s goals is a great way to stand out from your competition. To do so, it’s key to be well-versed in the position’s expected functions and duties as well as the employer’s culture, mission, and values.
This not only means committing the job description to memory but researching current employees, and potentially even reaching out to some to get their perspective on what their employer values in the workplace.
As you research an employer, pay attention to how their website frames their values and mission—and how company review sites do too. You can also learn more about its culture by keeping tabs on the organization’s social media presence.
By researching the company and its employees, you’ll get a solid grasp of the projects you’ll be working on and the people you’ll be working with. It’s a way to make the interviewer’s questions work for you by serving as an opportunity to share why your leadership skills will mesh well with the company’s needs and goals.
For example, let’s say you’re interviewing for an engineering role within a company known for using eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes. You might be more passionate about the company’s mission than others due to your volunteer work campaigning for <a href="https://resources.noodle.com/articles/the-best-degrees-for-careers-in-climate-change-and-sustainability" target="_blank">climate change awareness.
And since an effective leader instills an action-oriented mindset into everything they do, from here, you might provide specific recommendations for how the company can better its sustainability standards, whether through a specific project, policy, or program.
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