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 outcome of the actions you took. What impact did this have? Speak in terms of tangible outcomes tied to numbers and people. What did you learn?
“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” -Albert Einstein
What was the impact?
You’ve done the hard work of digging through your career history and writing down the details of impactful stories in the STAR format. Now you have to drive the point home. Show the interviewer that you actually had an impact. It doesn’t have to be flashy, just concrete and specific.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to retreat into vague statements like “it was a success, and we achieved our goal.” Your workplace may not be explicitly sharing the data or metrics behind what you’re doing, so it can be tough to know exactly what impact you had.
As a software tester, how much time and money did that new process improvement you came up with really save? You may not have the answer off the top of your head, in which case you need to go back, talk to past colleagues, or at least get some rough estimates (or, find a different example where you can be more specific).
Let’s take an example of a couple of results and beef them up.
This specific advertisement ended up being a smart decision. According to our iSpot TV data, we did way better than the travel category average and something I’m quite proud of. I've worked on a handful of TV ads to date, and this is the highest performing one I’ve contributed to.
This specific advertisement ended up being a smart decision. According to our iSpot tv data, an average of 95% of the spot was played on the TV uninterrupted by channel changes or DVR skips during the first two weeks of our TV run. This is 40% better than the travel category average and something I’m quite proud of. I've worked on a handful of TV ads to date, and this is the highest performing one I’ve contributed to.
The first explanation isn’t terrible, but without knowing the numbers, it’s pretty vague and open to the interviewer’s interpretation of what “way better” could mean. The second version adds in a tangible number and how the ad outperformed the industry average. It’s much easier to get an understanding of the relative success of this campaign. When some of the numbers from your past work are confidential (budget etc.), you can still get away with giving away percentages and comparisons like the ones in this example.
As a software tester, I organized and taught monthly events on testing-driven software development. This resulted in a closer connection with the team and better testing practices. I’m glad I took the initiative to start the workshop!
As a software tester, I organized and taught monthly events on testing-driven software development. This resulted in a closer connection with the team and better testing practices, specifically a 12% reduction in priority 1 reported bugs! It was motivating to see the big impact it had on our product and I’m excited to continue workshops like this in the future.
The improved version of the result is pretty much the same, except for the added percentage details. When you can quantify it, directly or indirectly, it’s absolutely worth doing. Think about it from the interviewer’s perspective: When you show a tangible result, it means you understand the importance of your role and how it interconnects with others. Without knowing the specifics of your success, how do you know it was really successful? You don’t! In other words, you need to show the interviewer you’re not just shooting from the hip.
Impact is relative
When you acquire 10 large B2B customers last quarter in your software sales role, that could be huge in terms of both revenue and number of clients gained. But when you acquire 50,000 customers one month during your time as a marketing manager for Lego, that could be a terrible outcome if last month you gained 200,000 users.
Numbers are just numbers without context. Percentages can work, “we improved sales by 20%” but it’s still good to know how that compares to the past, or the norm. It’s important to explain the impact in relative terms to the situation.
Situation + Task: When I was a Girl Scout we were doing an annual fundraiser and our goal as a team was to sell at least 200 boxes of cookies. During the last weekend of the sale, we still hadn’t sold all of them, and had another 100 boxes to go. There was one problem, though. It was raining that entire weekend and my team and I couldn’t set up in our usual spot outdoors in front of Walmart. As the higher rank in the group, I had to think of a different place to set up.
Action: My scout group and I brainstormed all the indoor locations that we could set up in that would have heavy foot traffic. I started writing down a bunch of places. The store, church, DMV, movie theaters, retirement communities, the doctor, the library. We debated these options heavily.
Finally, we chose to set up at the movie theater because Spiderman had just come out and it would be a busy weekend, and it was raining so people like to go to the movies when it's raining.
Result: We sold all 200 boxes of cookies — it worked! This was almost twice as many as last year’s sale, and a new record. I suggested to the Girl Scout Troop leader that we should start selling cookies at the movies in future. I believe that a little bit of creativity, while a bit risky, went a long way to impact the direction of the girl scouts that year.
How to be commercial
The idea of being ‘commercial’ means that you understand how a business works. You understand how it makes money, what the levers of the business are, and can make good judgements based on that. It doesn’t matter what your profession is.
It’s understanding the why and the gears in the machine. You can go for months and years working at a company but not really understand how it operates. Where is the money coming from? What are the costs? How much is the business growing? What are the market trends?
These are questions you may not need to ask typically within your job. They may not seem to be directly relevant or important to your day to day operations. But in reality, having a commercial mind and being able to answer questions commercially will make you stand out.
Commercialism comes naturally to good sales people and product managers — they can smell the money, and are often natural problem solvers. They need to understand how something works. It doesn’t matter if you are one of 500 customer service reps at a call center. You understand the business inside-out and are trying to up-sell customers, even though that might not be part of your job description. For most people commercialism comes with practice. It will be facilitated by having worked with a strong manager/leader and taking a proactive approach to constantly improving yourself.
I want you to start thinking about impact as a more commercial word. It can manifest in many ways, including the following:
- A solid grasp of the end product your business is selling.
- Understanding how your company makes money and the costs associated with that.
- Knowing who your customers are.
- An interest in business and an understanding of the wider environment in which the business operates in.
- Knowing which category your business fits in, the overall market, and market trends.
Below are several commercial questions that you can ask yourself. Your answers to these can be added in as part of your result.
1/ How did your performance compare to the previous year's performance?
You can talk about achieving X and Y, but it’s hard for the interviewer to grasp what this means without understanding the previous years’ outcomes. If you achieved 120% above your target for the past 3 years and are talking about achieving 100% in your third year, then this is actually a decrease in your performance. What happened? Were the targets higher, were there other factors that influenced this? A savvy interviewer will likely dig deeper into your performance and ask, “Is that a good result? How does it compare?” (or it might come up in a reference check, which would be worse).
2/ How did your performance compare to your peers?
No need to brag here, but if you did 200% better than the rest of your peers and are an A player, then you should make that very clear. If you were in the top 10% of performers in your company, then you should make sure that’s known. If this number changed over time, then explain it. Showing a trajectory of positive growth and improvement can help. Even if you did not achieve your target or hit your goal, if you constantly improved every quarter for 2 years, then that means you are growing.
3/ How did your performance compare to the plan?
Every company has some sort of goal or plan they set forward. Whether it’s extremely specific, like 3-month targets to pass your probationary period on the job that are composed of a dozen different measurable actions, or a single, straightforward goal like “achieve X in sales” or “launch this product by X time” or “increase customer satisfaction by X percent.” What was your result compared to the plan that was set forward?
4/ How does it compare to the industry?
This might be more difficult for you to answer without the data, but it can be extremely valuable for the interviewer to know. It shows a strong sense of commercialism if you can compare yourself across industry standards. Also, it serves as a good benchmark to assess your own value. For example, if you’re the only person in the entire software industry to have struck a deal with X company, then that’s quite impressive. It’s much more impressive to say than saying “I closed a big deal.” You can do a bit of digging to find this information. So let’s say that you want to know the average sales cycle within your industry. There’s three ways to find out:
- Ask experts offline. You can contact people in your network or that have worked across your industry. Usually, if the information is not extremely sensitive, then they are likely to share. If the information is sensitive, then you can ask for ball park figures.
- Ask online. For example, you can post your question on Quora and there is usually someone with relevant expertise that is willing to provide some insight.
- Investigate online. You can research on Crunchbase.com for public information. Also, check quarterly earnings reports for potentially more detailed breakdowns.
The Million Dollar Question: how are you adding value?
Your job description probably does not say “deliver results and make that cash money baby!” but if we’re being honest, it very well could. The way companies know that you have added value (cliche speak for ‘how did you make that mula’) is either through making money or saving money. Or, you make some huge impact that can be tied to that money-making. Grand visions of saving the world and doing good aside, if you’re working for a for-profit company, this is what’s on their minds.
If you are a CFO, you could be sparing the company millions through your astute tax savings methods. If you’re a great salesperson, you could be generating millions in revenue and fueling the business’ development. Or as a great developer you come up with a new feature that has a huge impact on user growth. These successes, whether directly or indirectly, can make money the company can use to hire more people and build more stuff.
For example, John is doing data entry as an executive assistant for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He writes up reports, conducts online research, and books meetings for the CEO. In an interview with a potential employer, John gives his STAR story and describes how he created a more efficient schedule and task management system for the CEO. But he doesn’t stop there.
With the new task management and scheduling process I came up with for the CEO, I was able to save him a significant amount of time and added an extra 4 hours per week to his calendar. While this number may not seem large at first, this has freed up his time on Friday afternoons. He had more time to think, plan and noticeably became more involved in hands-on strategy across different departments. Within three months of introducing the new scheduling system, the CEO was able to focus his effort on a new product the team was developing. It ultimately launched ahead of schedule and became one of our top selling products for the year that brought in $10m in its first month. Obviously, I wasn’t the reason that he launched the new product, but I’d like to think that this process improvement freed up his time to come up with more creative ideas that led to a successful result.
John was able to free up time for the CEO, whose time is clearly valuable. But he doesn’t stop there. He explicitly understands that the company is selling stuff and making money. John’s hard work has helped the company make money by saving the CEO time.
Taking it One Step Further - Self Reflection
“I will not lose for even in defeat/There’s a valuable lesson learned so it evens it up for me”
—Jay Z, Blueprint
You’ve got a great story. But what did you learn from your experience? Would you do it again? How would you do it differently? Do you just take actions and then forget about them?
These questions are bound to come up. If you are simply telling a good story and merely describing the events, even if it's thorough and logical, it does not mean that you’ve learned anything.
The best answers, and stories teach us something. What did it teach you? What did you learn from the experience? Reflection is a sign of wisdom.
“Looking back at it, I could have done X and X differently. It taught me …”
Throughout the process of outlining and brain dumping you probably started to reflect already. You had to ask yourself the question, “why did I take this action?” or “why did I choose x and not z?” Those questions most probably led you to a certain realization about how you work and how others work.
The content reached over 3M potential users. We had even better reviews of the events from hotel staff and guests, and the halo effect of this aligning with our campaign message increased overall total brand awareness for the year.
Result (improved w/ self-reflection):
The content reached over 3M potential users, we had even better reviews of the events from hotel staff and guests, and the halo effect of this aligning with our campaign message increased overall total brand awareness for the year. Now that I’ve been through the challenging situation in 2017, moving forward, I always make sure that the main campaign goal is being solved through all initiatives. It’s about focusing on what will move the needle on the main marketing goal.
Adding a simple reflective statement about how you do things differently now is plenty of evidence to show the interviewer that you’ve processed / thought about this example at more than a surface level.
Hopefully you realized some of those things during the time they happened, but often it takes time to digest the experience and to truly learn from it. Go back and review your stories, and ask yourself, “what did I learn from this experience?” If you’re stuck, meditate on that for a bit, go for a walk, and come back to it.
How to choose the right examples
What is a “wrong” example? Maybe one that happened 10 years ago that is no longer relevant and focuses on a skill that you really no longer have. Talking about how you were involved in development of the precursor to the internet, ARPANET, may not be as relevant nowadays as it was, despite it being a fantastic achievement at the time.
Or perhaps your STAR story doesn’t really answer the question and completely misses the point. If you don’t fully understand what they are saying then you should clarify what they mean before diving into your story full throttle. “So you’re looking for an example where I did X?
No one expects you to be a mind reader here. Misunderstanding happens often not because you don’t get the question, but because the interviewer is looking for something in particular but has a poor way of phrasing the question. Remember, interviewers make mistakes. It’s your job to clarify and make sure there are no communication blunders.
How to Answer 100 Different Questions with only 5-10 Stories
Unless you have months to prepare and a photographic memory, it’s going to be difficult to write out the details of 50 different stories and expect to recall them during an interview. Fortunately, you don’t have to. You can use a handful of stories to answer a ton of questions.
For example, let’s say you’re a product manager and have a detailed, success-story in the STAR format about the most interesting product you developed. But it’s not just a one-layered story about success, is it? During that time, you did a lot of things. You had to lead a team, dive into the specifics of the data, convince senior-level stakeholders to go with your ideas, admit you were wrong about your previous assumptions, think about the longer term goal, keep in mind potentially negative downstream effects of your product, and do so on a shoestring budget and a tight deadline.
Well, guess what? In that story you probably have at least 6 key strengths to evidence. Like your negotiation skills, leadership capabilities, humility, ability to dive into data, teamwork, capacity to thrive in a fast paced environment under pressure. You get the picture. So, if an interviewer asked you “tell me about a time you showed leadership….” or “tell me about a time you had to push back to a senior member of the team,” you could use the same example, and frame it in a way to answer that specific question.
Of course, if you’re using the same one or two examples to answer all the questions, that ain’t gonna fly with most of the interviewers. There has to be some variety in your answers, so you need a few examples to choose from (but 100 is overkill).
Here’s a rule of thumb: For the first round of interviews, (with usually 1 or 2 people like the recruiter or hiring manager) around 5 stories is plenty. For the final rounds (meeting anywhere for 3-10 people back to back), you should have a solid 10 stories (or a few more) prepared that you can draw from.
Exercise: Pick 4 additional scenarios that showcase some of your strengths and can offer a lot of detail. You can then come up with another 20 competencies, lessons, and other stories that you can create from those examples. There’s your 100 stories!
Situation: I believe that feedback is one of the most powerful tools in development and I was unhappy with the culture of feedback in the company. It was infrequent, slow and unspecific. Further to this, in the 360 feedback only I owned the input I gave and put my initials next to it. Other people remained anonymous.
Task: I needed to understand why people did not provide better feedback and change the culture in the company.
Action: Firstly I needed information, I asked 15 people from across different levels what they found hard about feedback.
People said that:
- They didn’t feel that they had the language and confidence to do it effectively
- It took too long to remember what people had done and provide feedback
To combat the language challenge, I have run a knowledge share to give people a framework and language pool to use for feedback. I also made the importance of owning the feedback clear.
For confidence, where I was the line manager for someone overseen by a different project manager, I set up 1-1-1 feedback sessions. In these sessions I acted as a facilitator to help ensure feedback and next steps were clear. To counter the time and memory challenge, I got small notebooks that managers could easily carry around with them. I asked them to write down a quick observation when their managers had done something of note. This made providing the formal feedback much faster and less draining.
Result: In the latest 360 feedback over 90% of the feedback is owned by individuals.
The 1-1-1 feedback sessions are used by most line managers in the company and project managers that have always struggled now give excellent feedback. I frequently see managers with their little feedback notebook demonstrating that they find it useful. I’m proud of the change that I initiated in the company and am extremely pleased that the mid level staff have adopted it so enthusiastically.
Need help practicing your STAR Stories? Talk to an expert coach and get tailored feedback!