How To Practice Your Steps For Interview Mastery

Many job candidates become frustrated by the pressures and disappointments of the interview process. But did you know that employers find the interview process to be a risky business and frustrating as well?

Shira Harrington, an executive search recruiter in the Washington DC metro area who trains both hiring managers and job candidates, characterized the interviewing challenges that both parties face as a “dance.”

“Both sides are supposed to know the steps” she said to a weekly Career forum of motivated job candidates in Tysons, Virginia. Like the scene in the movie “Dirty Dancing,” the partners understand there is a space that is required between them and that they need to know their own steps and “read” each other’s rhythm.

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Frustrated Dance Partners

Harrington pulled back the curtain and shared her insights on the challenges that employers encounter when trying to find an employee with the skills and personality who will fit into their workplace culture.

“Hiring managers are looking for the goldilocks candidate and job seekers are looking for the goldilocks job. It has to be the right role, the right location, right culture, right work life balance and right boss.”

Employers today are extraordinarily risk averse, she said. Because they deal with compliance and legal issues, and have been charged with fiduciary responsibilities, they feel they cannot afford to take a risk.

Since most hiring managers don’t know how to mitigate that risk and haven’t developed a refined interview process, they often end up winging the interview.

Fundamentally, employers want to know that you can do the work. But they are frequently guessing when they develop a cobbled-together job announcement, and clueless about what they really need.

Layered on top of these issues are the risky variables of personality, compensation, commute, and the manager’s ability to judge whether the candidate can get along with the team and adapt to the culture.

At the same time, job seekers dealing with this type of unstructured interaction become frustrated because they interpret the interview experience as a sign of disorganization in the company.

Hiring Managers’ Tactics

To bolster this guessing game approach, hiring managers often use behavioral and situational interview questions during an interview to better understand if a candidate has the skills and competencies required for the job.

They assume if they know how you performed in the past, it will predict how you might perform in the future, Harrington explained.

Behavioral questions go something like this: “Tell me a time when you used your conflict resolution skills to resolve a problem in a team.”

Employers are looking for two types of skills – behavioral and functional, also known as soft and hard skills. Among the soft skills are persuasion, collaboration, problem solving, cultural sensitivity, negotiation, time management, and strong listening skills

Given these demands, the only course of action for the job seeker is to prepare. But how?

What’s the Job Candidate to Do?

One of the most critical things you can do when preparing for your interviews is to develop a set of STAR stories, Harrington said. The acronym stands for:

S– Situation: the circumstances that led you to use your super hero qualities 
T – Task: the context or backdrop of the story
A – Action: where and how you used your behavioral skills and superpowers
R – Result: the outcome and how you saved the day

She described these stories to be like a prism of light that reflects different colors.  No matter what question is asked, when you respond you are able to extract various behavioral skills from that one story.

Harrington unpacked several key components of the STAR story:

• Provide context to the interviewer but just enough to set the stage.
• Put emotion into the story.
• Add drama.
• Demonstrate you solved the problem and saved the day.
• Provide resolution: we increased member satisfaction/we decreased attrition.
• Use metrics to describe your results when you can.
• Practice. Practice. Practice.

She also advised that job candidates consider context when they set the stage for the story by thinking about their “tribe” and “lane.”

Your tribe is your industry mission, or the sector you serve, it’s who you serve, while your lane is your profession or how you serve.

When interviewing with someone in your tribe there may be certain assumptions you can make about their understanding of your job history. Depending on the interviewer’s background, you may want to ask if you need to explain further.

Using herself as an example she said, “My tribe is membership organizations so when I interview people in that tribe I understand the tribal lingo; however, a technology candidate would have to provide more context with their backstory.”

Stories Define You

Stories define your work. The time you spend in gathering and practicing your STAR stories is worth its weight in gold, Harrington underscored. Here are 5 tips on how to identify them:

1) Recall every job you’ve had and ask yourself how you made a difference.
2) Think about the most dramatic moments in your career.
3) Review past performance reviews.
4) Go through thank you notes, and accolades people sent you.
5) Find a friend who will pull these super hero stories out of you.

She reminded the job candidates that their resume and STAR stories work in parallel. Your resume should be chock full of accomplishments – not a list of job duties – that you put forward at your interview.

Situational Questions

Preparing for situational questions may be a little harder. An employer presents the job seeker with a hypothetical situation such as “What would you do if,” and asks how they would handle it.

Harrington’s  advice: “When you have a situational question, breathe, reflect for a moment, and ask a qualifying question if necessary.” Asking for an extra data point also buys you time to understand the circumstances and what the interviewer is looking for in the response.


No matter what is asked during an interview you must know your stories well.

Do your homework and understand the disruptions that may be occurring in the industry you’ve targeted. Reading press releases, articles on the organization’s website, and scouring LinkedIn is considered basic research.

Harrington finished her remarks with one important request. “If you take nothing else away from today’s conversation it’s this: “Prepare, Prepare, and Over Prepare.”

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