Unless you haven't ventured out in the job market for a while, you've probably encountered behavioural interviews in some shape or form. And if you're like most of our students, you probably noticed that behavioural interview questions do not follow the traditional format. Such structure makes behavioural interviews challenging to most candidates, especially those who decide to "wing it" without adequate preparation. Therefore, in this guide, I will offer my biggest tips for bossing your next behavioural interview.
Before I get into the weeds, here are a few bullet points about me. I spent 15+ years in various Sales, Marketing, Innovation and eCommerce roles in Fortune 500 organisations. My tenure includes 4+ years at Amazon and Apple, where I lead Marketing and Category teams and regional eCommerce business development. I interviewed all kinds of candidates (from Ivy League MBAs to recent grads) and got exposed to multiple interview frameworks (including behavioural interviewing at P&G, Amazon and Apple). In 2020, I started Day One Careers - an education and mentorship network aimed at helping individuals in high-octane careers excel in their tough gigs.
Suppose you're serious about preparing for your next behavioural interview. In that case, you should explore STAR Method Bootcamp - one of our best-selling courses whose main objective is to help you become a pro at answering behavioural interview questions.
What are behavioural interviews?
Behavioural interviews are a relatively novel way of interviewing candidates in recruitment scenarios. They developed in the 1980s and started proliferating within big corporations in the 1990s. Behavioural interviews are different from traditional interviews in that they avoid asking candidates hypothetical or resume-related questions. Instead, they seek to unearth evidence that the candidate has previously demonstrated certain behaviours (those critical to the employer).
Why are top employers using behavioural interviews?
Everyone in the corporate world knows that the secret to building a high-performance organisation is 99% down to hiring and 1% down to on-the-job development. So the million-dollar question is: "How does one get hiring right?".
At some point in the 1990s, business academia and the world's biggest corporates found an answer to this question. The secret to hiring the right people is to screen for nothing but critical competencies for job success. Obviously, this assumes that companies know what competencies are crucial and which ones are "nice-to-have", but it's a whole different story. In reality, all major employers of the world figured what their core competencies are - sometimes, via introspection; sometimes - with the help of outside consultants like Korn Ferry. A good example of core competencies is P&G's Success Drivers and Amazon's Leadership Principles - both sets are in the public domain.
Once a company knows what competencies count for employee success, it needs to screen candidates for these competencies. This is where behavioural interviews come in. This interview format has proven itself incredibly successful at focusing hiring efforts and practices on just the core competencies and nothing else. This is precisely why the behavioural interview format has spread across all top employers of the world.
How do behavioural interviews help employers screen for crucial competencies?
Assuming that a candidate passed the resume screening and landed an interview (get your resume reviewed by an Amazon recruiter here), behavioural interviews are highly effective at screening candidates for core competencies because they assume that the past is the best predictor of a candidate's behaviour in the future. So, for instance, if a company's core competency is "Aligns for progress", and if interviewing can establish that the candidate has consistently demonstrated this behaviour in the past, they are likely to continue doing so in the future. At least, this is what the business academia believes.
The mechanism that allows behavioural interviews to dig up this evidence from the candidate's past is the format of the interview question. For example, you would have noticed that all behavioural interview questions ask candidates to "Tell me about a time when you...", and so it goes. So if we need to probe for "Aligns for progress" competency, we might ask a candidate something like this: "Tell me about a time when your project came to a stand-still because some of your colleagues disagreed about the course or direction".
What you will never find in behavioural interviews are hypothetical questions. Using the same example of "Aligns for progress" competency, you'd never probe for it with a question like "What would you do if your project came to a half because some of our colleagues disagreed about the course of action?".
Why do candidates find behavioural interviews challenging?
The first reason behavioural interview questions throw most candidates off track (often to the point of missing out on job offers) is that they are still unusual to come by. While all top employers seem to have adopted this format globally, small and medium-sized businesses have not.
The second reason is that framing a solid response to a behavioural interview question requires candidates to have a skill not usually needed in traditional interviews. That skill is story-telling.
Let's use the same example of "Aligns for progress" competency. If an interviewer asks, "Tell me about a time when a project halted because some of your colleagues disagreed about the course of action", a candidate needs to produce a story in response. This story needs to compress a real-life situation from the candidate's past and compress it into a 5-to-8-minute narrative. The story needs to be crisp, linear and well-structured. In most cases, the story would have to be a lot simpler than the actual events that inspire it. To top it all off, the story has to align to the competency being tested and ensure that it demonstrates how the candidate embodied it in the past.
Furthermore, most recruitment scenarios involve multiple interview rounds, often back-to-back. Hence, the burden on the candidate is to be at their best story-telling capacity during 5-6 hours of continuous interviewing.
Top tips to boss your next behavioural interview
First, find out what competencies your potential future employer will probe you for during the interview. Most top employers have made their core competencies public. If that is the case for your target company, their website is probably your best bet. However, if their competencies are behind closed doors, you may need to consider alternative sources. Glassdoor will give you some insight into what questions your prospective employer typically asks during interviews. From these self-reported interview questions, you will be able to reverse-engineer their core competencies. In addition, LinkedIn is an excellent source of networking connections that could uncover the veil over hidden competencies. Don't be afraid to approach current employees at a company where you'd like to work one day and ask them about the core competencies. You'd be surprised how many will try to help an aspiring and motivated candidate. Next, Vault is a reliable information resource about top Consulting, Accounting, Investment Banking and Law firms. Finally, Blind is the best source of inside information about Big Technology businesses, including Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Second, find example questions for each core competency of your prospective employer. This is where it gets a little more tricky. Most companies that practice behavioural interviewing have standardised question banks. However, these question banks are usually confidential. Hence, Glassdoor is your best bet to find self-reported interview questions.
Third, go down memory lane and identify two situations from your experience that map to each core competency of your prospective employer. Then, use interview questions that you managed to find to give you an idea of the key themes behind every competency. This will help you ensure that the prepared interview responses have slightly different takes on the competency that's being tested. Headline each situation with a "Friends"-style title - e.g. "The one where I identified a significant quality issue in our flagship product".
Fourth, become an absolute pro at compressing these real-life situations into 5-to-8-minute narratives. These stories have to be simple to understand, crisp and flow well. They have to do an excellent job at establishing the context of the situation, the problem you were trying to solve, the actions you took and the results you accomplished (the so-called STAR Interview Method). In addition, you need to focus your story-telling only on those facts that help you satisfy the interviewer that you have demonstrated the right competencies and are senior enough for the role level. I cover these advanced-level topics in my STAR Method Bootcamp course, which helps you become an absolute Black Belt at answering behavioural interview questions. The course has been tuned for Amazon (one of the hardest companies in the world to get into) but will work for any business that uses behavioural interviews.
Finally, seek out candidates who are also interviewing for the same company and schedule mock interview practice. From my experience running an interview preparation community (feel free to join!), 15 practice mocks are usually enough to get you into the interviewing mode.
Behavioural interviews are not going away any time soon. If anything, they are becoming more and more popular - especially as the Diversity and Inclusion agendas are becoming more assertive. Therefore, behavioural interview skills will no longer be an option reserved for the candidates of the fanciest employers. If you have any questions, feel free to join the Day One Careers community and ask around. Good luck with your interviews!