This blog post is part of a series about the STAR Interview Method. Check out all the posts below:
- Part 1: Use The STAR Interview Method to Nail Any Tech Interview
- Part 2: The STAR Interview Brain Dump
- Part 3: How to Nail the "Situation" using the STAR Method
- Part 4: How to Nail the "Task" using the STAR Method
- Part 5: How to Nail the "Action" using the STAR Method
- Part 6: How to Nail the "Result" using the STAR Method
Describe the actions you took to address the situation. It’s important to define how you were specifically involved. Why did you take those actions? What did you do and what did your team do?
“Action expresses priorities.” -Ghandi
Exploring your decision making process
We’ve covered the situation and task portion of storytelling using the STAR method. Now you need to move onto explaining what actions you took. Before you can take action though, there is something that happens in your mind that drives you to take a step forward. Sometimes that step is instinctual and stems from years of facing similar problems, but often you have to sit down and map things out.
Here’s how to tackle this next STAR step:
- Using your greatest achievement example you explored in the Brain Dump, describe the logical steps you followed to decide on what actions to take.
- Explain the reasons behind your decisions. Was this a short, mid-term or long-term solution? Was anyone else involved in the decision-making process?
Now that you’ve detailed your decision-making process, you can describe what actions you took based on those decisions.
The 4 elements of an impactful action point.
- How? How did you come up with the idea to take this specific action? Did you have to speak to any people? Did you have to analyze any data? Did you have any similar experiences in the past? There were certainly different actions you could have taken, so list out all of your options.
- Why? Why did you choose to take that specific action, out of all the other possibilities? What was at stake if you were wrong? What if you didn’t have all the information in point #1, do you think you would have chosen a different action?
- What? What did you do? How long did it take you? Were there any hiccups? Did you need permission? How did you feel?
- Who? Was anyone else involved in taking action, or was it only you? Make the distinction between “I” and “we.” People prefer to hear about what you did specifically.
Here’s an example:
Situation and task:
I was working as an advertising sales manager at TrezPress, an online business which publishes reviews of gadgets. At the start of Q2, my team, six people including myself, made no revenue for the first two months. Our target was 20k USD monthly. This really lowered team morale and caused a spiral of negativity. (Task) As a team manager, it was my goal to boost morale, motivate staff and get our sales figures back up.
Action (split up into 4 points):
- How? I first needed to assess why this was happening. This was my first job as a manager, and I hadn’t been in a similar situation before, so I asked our director for guidance. He suggested I get to the root of the problem.
- Why? Taking his advice, I spoke to my whole team about what they were feeling and what had been going on the past two months. The consensus was that morale had lowered because of two big deals that we lost at the start of the quarter. Everyone had a bad start.
- What? Realizing that we still had what it took, but simply had a bad start that demoralized everyone, I decided to try out various initiatives to give the team a boost. First, I created a mini team incentive trip if we hit our 2-week target. Second, I became more hands-on in the day-to-day sales activities, and attended five meetings each week, rotating with each team member. And lastly, I re-assessed our client portfolio to focus on the top 20% of clients that were generating 80% of the revenue.
- Who? I took the lead on all three action points and was the key driver for these initiatives. For the mini-team incentive, one of our more experienced team members contributed a lot at the desk while I was away. I was lucky to have such a positive teammate on board during tough times.
The team hit their target over two weeks, winning the incentive which was a quick boost to morale. This started an upward spiral. I helped close one deal during my tag-along meetings, and after the reassessment of the portfolio, the team was more focused. Within six weeks we had made up our losses and achieved 85% of our target for the quarter. While it was not 100%, we came from the bottom to the top in a relatively short amount of time, and it’s an achievement I’m proud of.
Using numbers (no, not math)
Jeff Bezos famously has a rule to speed up decision making. Knowing that we will never have 100% of the information we need to make a decision, once he has 70% of the information necessary, he will pull the trigger. (Or was it Elon? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure every tech CEO has this rule)
Not all decisions can be made with data, and not all jobs require you to think much about numbers. But having some data will better illustrate the scope of what you were doing. It paints a clearer picture. This means that you don’t have to convert everything into percentages — no need to bog yourself down. The most effective and often the most difficult point is…Simply having the numbers. That’s it.
No rocket science here and no need to pull out your TI-84 and start graphing. The purpose of including numbers is to give the listener context and an understanding of the extent of your achievements. This all helps the interviewers to assess the similarities and differences between your previous work and the job you’re interviewing for.
There are interview questions, of course, where you’ll need to do some number-crunching and estimation. But what I’m talking about here is preemptively including data in your examples and as part of your story-telling.
There’s no reason for us to keep numbers and percentages in our working memory when it has been weeks, months and years since we saw them. And nobody is expecting you to. Which is exactly why you need to go back, dig through papers, look at old emails and reports, ask colleagues and do whatever you need to do to find the numbers that’ll give depth to your story.
As a side note, you’ll want to have some of these figures already on your resume. And of course, you’ll be expected to talk about them.
If, for example, you’re describing how you administered a survey to your customers as part of a marketing campaign, it’s enough to say “we conducted a survey asking people if they would be interested in our new CRM product. We sent the survey to 200 people, and about 80 responded positively, 20 negatively.”
When you are digging through your experience to find details to flesh out your biggest accomplishment and other relevant topics, keep in mind these other numbers and figures you should be looking up:
- What was the size of your company in terms of revenue? Was it profitable?
- How many people did your company have? Your department? How many of them were local and how many were overseas? Were some of them contractors? Full time?
- How much market share did your company or product have? What percentage, roughly?
- How big was your marketing budget for X project?
- What was your sales or business development target?
- What costs and expenses did your business or position incur?
- If you were in a general management position, what was the profit and loss? How did this increase or decrease over time? What factors influenced this?
- If you are in marketing, how much of your work was online vs offline?
- What was the time frame it took you to achieve X action?
- How did you spend your time at your job? 20% of administrative work and 80% on sales? Where was the majority of your time going?
- How many customers did you have? Clients? Paying customers? Free customers? Subscribers?
- Tell me about an interesting technical problem you solved. Something you designed, a challenging problem you solved, or a difficult bug you tackled.
- How do you come up with estimates?
- What was the scale and impact of the most interesting project you worked on?
- How would you design an electronic voting system?
- Tell me about a feature you built in a new and interesting way.
These questions are starting points and finding them might take some time. Also, they should help stir your memory for any other critical pieces and additions to your overall STAR story.
The five whys
The action might be the most important part of your STAR story. It’s also likely to be the bulk of your answer and require the most detail.
If the reason behind your action is vague, it will detract massively from your ability to explain your point and influence the interviewer. You need to be crystal clear on this.
Big tech interviewers often follow the rule of the Five Whys, an iterative approach to understanding the root cause of a problem by asking the question WHY a bunch of times. It’s not uncommon to get a follow up question like, “why did you take that action?” and “how did you come to that conclusion?”
Here’s an example from the PlayBookUX blog:
Problem: Our invoice went out late so we didn’t receive payment, now we can’t pay our bills.
Question 1: Why was it late?
Answer 1: We forgot to send it out on the 1st.
Question 2: Why did you forget to send it out?
Answer 2: Because I was on vacation until Monday the 2nd.
Question 3: Why didn’t you send it on Monday the 2nd?
Answer 3: Because my boss couldn’t approve it.
Question 4: Why couldn’t he or she approve it?
Answer 4: Because he or she was traveling.
Question 5: Why wasn’t there communication about traveling and vacations?
Answer 5: We’ve never had a process for ensuring the invoice gets out when members of the team are traveling so we didn’t know what to do.
You see how this can continue for quite some time.
In fact, I’ve seen many examples where the interviewer will only ask you for one example in the entire interview (‘tell me about your most difficult customer…’ etc) and then spend the remaining hour just grilling you on that one example you shared. Sounds stressful? You’re darn right it is.
That’s why it’s better to have a handful of solid examples you’ve thoroughly prepared and are confident to explore deeply, instead of having lots of shallow examples. Depth over breadth.
Did you really do the thing you said you did?
One big mistake I see people make is mixing up their actions and the actions of others. The distinction might seem apparent, but the lines can often be blurry as you might have experienced the event in a team setting. People are juggling lots of things and it’s easy to forget what exactly you were doing vs. someone else, especially if it was six years ago in a company you’re no longer working at.
You might get an interviewer like Elon Musk, who’s well known for making a clear distinction between what you said you did and what you were actually personally responsible for. His technique is to ask very minute details about the problems you solved. His logic is that if you solved the problem, you’d be pretty familiar with all of the specifics.
If you had a team of 5 people and you decided to do X, then who took the actions? Did you, or your team or both? How were the actions split up and what role did you play? Were you playing the role of a delegator? Or were you on the front lines taking actions yourself? Again, there is no right or wrong answer, but you need to be ready to make this distinction.
The easiest way to do this is to use your pronouns properly. When you say “I did x” it should mean that you took that action by yourself. If other people were involved, then be specific.
“As a member of the event planning team, I was put in charge of finding sponsors for our yearly summer event. The first step was to survey managers in our company to ask if they had any suggested sponsors. I delegated this list-making task to our intern at the time. After she had made a list, I called all the potential sponsors and gave them the pitch for our event…”
Even if your interviewer isn’t as intense as Elon, as a general rule of thumb, interviewers want to know what you personally did. If you were only partially involved in a project, a good interviewer will be able to unearth that pretty quickly. In the above example, a follow-up question could be how many sponsors you called, what your pitch was, what pushback you received, how many sponsors you received, and so forth. Unless you were really involved in that pitch, you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle trying to uncover details that you don’t really have (in which case, you should be honest).
In sum: there are almost always other people involved in projects, so just be clear on your own role and actions and those of others.
Fudging the truth vs. selling yourself
Your STAR stories are real. They happened. Even if it was years ago, and the interviewer can’t verify all the details, they can still dig deep and ask follow up questions. So, anything you do to fudge the truth will probably come back to bite you. When you have lots of less-than-honest or over-embellished examples, you have to keep more in your head. And the more you have to keep in your head, the more nervous you get. Thus a great way to reduce your nerves in an interview is to be 100% honest.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying to impress an interviewer. When you have only managed two people in your career and are applying for a job where you need to manage six people, three of which are located overseas, there will be new challenges.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement — “Yes, I can definitely do it.” Most people say this without thinking about it or adding any explanation. But really, many of the times they can’t do it. So if you’re really up for it and are excited, then show that energy. Be honest about what you’ve done and why you think you’re up for that new challenge.
I find the best approach is to mix humility with enthusiasm, and then sprinkle in a bit of realism:
“It will probably take me a few months to get used to things. I need to brush up on using AngularJS since I’ve been building with React. I’m willing to put in some real hours in the first few weeks to get there. But once I get the hang of it, I’m really passionate about the product, and I think I’ll be able to excel in the role.”
What happens when you’re not totally honest? Let’s say that in your CV you wrote “proficient in Microsoft Excel” but in the interview failed to mention that you had another teammate who was constantly re-checking and fixing your work. If you were hired and then the job did require quite a bit of Excel, you’ll either have to learn it fast, or you’ll be in for a shock when you don’t have the same support system from your previous job.
Check out more examples of when you should and shouldn’t embellish here.
What are your principles?
Everyone has different principles in life and an important question is whether or not your actions are consistent with your principles. And whether or not you have made that clear in your story. If you haven’t, then your story won’t make sense. They will say, “Hmm but didn’t you just tell me that the customer is always right? Then why did you do the opposite of what the customer said…?” Busted.
Let’s say that it’s 1999 and you’re an executive working at Yahoo. You believe that you should never sacrifice long-term growth for short-term profits. You share an example where you closed a string of big partnership deals. You got a promotion, and the respect of your colleagues. But this was before the dot-com bubble exploded, and you knew that these companies were highly overvalued, being propped up by hopeful investors. The short-term revenue was great, but you were sure it was not sustainable and would eventually implode (which it did). You did the deals anyway.
This action was fundamentally contradictory to your core philosophy (thinking long, being honest with yourself), and by sharing this example, it’s important to see what happens next. Were you along for a short ride? Did you cash out and leave after the bubble exploded? Or did you end up staying at Yahoo, facing up to the plummet of share value after the bubble exploded with a commitment to creating a more transparent and long-term strategy for your business?
Your answer and how you responded to this situation will show the interviewer what actions you have taken, and they will take these actions to be representative of your core philosophy. If your core belief is different from what your actions represent, then you will need to explicitly reveal your core belief and philosophy and why you didn’t act in the manner of your beliefs. In the above example, maybe this was an instance where you failed to live up to your own ideals — an example of how you made a mistake (you’re human), and, hopefully, learned from it and didn’t make that same mistake again.
The first step is being crystal clear about your principles. Writing down principles is not something people do often, but it can be really helpful for life in general and to make decisions more consistently. And in particular, for an interview, it will be easier to describe your experiences in the lens of your beliefs about how the world works.
Employers want to know how you would act and how you would behave in certain situations. Part of this is knowing what your beliefs are. Do you think it’s ok to cut corners sometimes? Is it ok to make decisions without 100% of the data? Would you rather launch an ok product in time for the deadline, or miss the deadline and have the perfect product? How do you make these decisions, and what is driving those beliefs?
There is no right or wrong answer in absolute terms, but there might be a preferred answer depending on the company/culture. You need to be clear on your principles and also aware of the company’s values.
The easy way to test your philosophy against your actions is to ask yourself, “why did I take this action?” If the situation were slightly different, would you have taken a different action? Was there any inherent bias that you had? Did something someone did or say influence you? Did you get a spark of inspiration somewhere? Were you deterred by something you read, heard, saw or experienced?
When you can pinpoint why you took a certain action, you can then bring it back and ask what you would do in a similar situation.
You see a colleague acting condescending towards a new team member who recently joined. What will you do? Are you going to call him out on it in front of other people, and publicly address the issue to prove a point? Or are you going to pull him aside immediately and give him negative feedback privately? What would you do?
The interviewer asks you about your philosophy of giving negative feedback, and you answer that it should be given privately. He then asks for examples, but all you can think of are times when you have given it publicly. You see there; there’s obviously a disconnect between your actions and beliefs. That’s what I mean.
Now think back. Are there any times when your beliefs were inconsistent with your actions? Why was that? Be honest. Write them down. You might realize they are actually hidden weaknesses which you can improve on. You can talk about those, as long as you are self-reflective and can address them constructively with “I need to improve x and y.”
The good news is that if all your actions don’t match up with your beliefs, then congratulations, you are human. However, more often than not, you’ll find that you tend to do certain things a certain way. Nailing down concretely what your principles are is the key to presenting your ideas concisely and expressing yourself boldly.
Now let’s tack on the action.
- Using your situation and task from the last chapter, describe what action or actions you had to perform. What were your options?
- Why did you choose X action? Was there any analysis involved? Were any other people involved in the action-taking?
- Start writing down everything you can remember about the action in as much detail as possible. Use the Excel document you made to fill out under “action.”
- Be specific about what you did and what other people did. We want to make sure your actions stand out in this example. What you did and what you didn’t do.
- Now come up with a 5-6 sentence description of your action. Get your action down to a few seconds verbally. If it goes over 2-3 minutes, take out any unnecessary filler words and make it more concise.
- Practice it out loud.
This time last year, my team was informed by leadership that the owners of our destination hotel brand were not happy with marketing.
They wanted PR that would create awareness around their less popular shoulder season and I was tasked with creating a plan. Once I started I immediately asked to speak with these owners to get more information, but I received pushback and had to confirm their needs and develop a plan only by looking at past emails with my VP and various owners.
- I realized that while they said they wanted awareness on how great their hotels were during shoulder season, their ultimate goal was increasing occupancy during this time period, which meant to support them, my team should do lower funnel activity.
- I strategized to create a full funnel approach with our facebook account partner and IHG’s paid social team. I planned for us to use ads that drove awareness among travelers that showed signals on Facebook that they were considering traveling in the late summer/early fall months. Then those who engaged with the ads would be moved into a smaller group of targeted people who received specific destination imagery and messaging on unique hotel benefits. This was to drive them to consider us and lead them further down the path to purchase.
- Creating and running these Facebook ads cost about the same as an earned media initiative - a few hundred thousand dollars - but it gave me trackable, tangible results to show to hotel owners. It drove an average of a 13% increase in web traffic to the hotel sites and we were able to track a year over year uptick in revenue during this time period.
- The owners were quite happy, and I shared these learnings to create a similar campaign this year to highlight late spring.