How to Nail the “Task" using the STAR Method (Part 4 of 6)

How to Nail the “Task" using the STAR Method (Part 4 of 6)

April 10, 2022
Table of Contents

This blog post is part of a series about the STAR Interview Method. Check out all the posts below:

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What was your specific duty or goal during the specific event/situation? What was your responsibility? What was at stake?

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”-George Orwell

Zoom In   

In the STAR method, the situation and task can connect almost seamlessly. If we think about the situation as describing the problem you encountered, we can think about the task as the responsibility or duty that you have. Now that you’ve been put into a certain situation, what is the goal and what is your role in the situation?

Zoom in and define this in simple terms.

 Let’s say your department is going through a series of layoffs during your time as a manager in the company. The situation results in low morale and team spirit which leads to lowered productivity. This is the situation. Next, the task will be a definition of your responsibility you have in the situation. “As a manager, it was my responsibility to boost morale and get everyone through this tough time.” That’s it. The task can start with one or two simple sentences stating what you were doing at the time. 

 The task will be a statement of what you have to do, or what you’re supposed to, while the action or actions you define will be specific. “My task as manager is to remain positive and help boost morale, and my actions to get there were X Y and Z.”

 But that doesn’t mean your task will be general — you can still quantify it. For example:

 Situation:

Advertising revenue was falling, and our advertisers were not renewing contracts.

Task:

As an advertising account manager, my role was to increase advertising sales by 15% over the previous year. 

In this case, you have a specific number. In other cases where you don’t have a tangible number in the task you can make up for this in your description of the action and results. 

Zoom Out

The importance of the task may not be self-evident, so you don’t want to assume the interviewer implicitly understands how important this task was. You need to spell it out for them. What is the significance of completing this task? What is at stake if you do not complete the task?

Zoom out. Take a higher level perspective and explain the impact.

This doesn’t mean you have to over-emphasize or blow up the situation. The importance of the task, like anything, can be relative to the situation. For example, if you’re a UI designer and are deciding on which two shades of blue to use for a button on a web page, this in itself may seem trivial or unimportant. But the site gets 10 million views per month so if you choose the ‘less attractive’ blue this could result in a very, very significant amount of people not clicking it, and possibly millions in lost revenue.

Stating the importance in terms of a specific monetary amount or at least a tangible outcome drives the point home.

“If we get this wrong we could lose X amount of dollars. That’s what was at stake, and it was my responsibility to solve this.” 

Or in the case of the manager whose department is going through layoffs, it could be, 

“We just lost eight people in the department and people were overworked, morale was low. If we lose another person, then the situation could spiral out of control, it will lower productivity and it could cause others to start resigning. I had to boost morale and make sure this didn’t happen.”

The point is that we need to both zoom in and zoom out. You’re probably better at one of these than the other. Which one is it? Some people are process-driven and are great at remembering minute details. But often they fail to understand why they are doing something and don’t grasp the bigger picture. If they did, perhaps they might take a completely different trajectory or challenge the status quo. Other people are great at understanding why something is being done and can see the vision or higher purpose. But they also might fail to see the step-by-step process necessary to get there and thus miss important details or hold unreasonable expectations. Rarely do we find people that are extremely balanced in both. So we need to identify which side we lean towards, take the side we are weaker in and do our best to balance out.

Another way to look at “what’s at stake” is asking yourself “what’s the anticipated consequence?” What if you faced the problem and did nothing? What if you just ignored it, what would have happened? Here’s an example: 

Situation:

I worked directly with KM Ads - a data and brand strategy firm - to test the effectiveness of our current  TV ads. Our newest ad, Laughter - scored high in most of the 23 areas that were tested, but scored low in 2 - brand recognition and pacing. We had a time crunch and had to do it within 2 weeks; and couldn’t do another test. 

Task:

Following the results, I needed to determine how to update the ad so it could be at its most relevant and credible when it went live to consumers. 

Trimming the Hedges 

Just like in the Situation [LINK], there’s a fine line between where the details will become redundant. In the example above about figuring out how to update the ads, the interviewer might not need to know everything about what kind of ads you ran, how much you spent (indeed, this info might still be confidential from your previous employer), and everything about the personas of your target audience. They simply want to know what your role was at the time and what was at stake. If they feel the gravity of the situation and the importance of the tasks at hand, this is a good story.

Here’s another scenario. Imagine that your approach to boosting morale is first to schedule a meeting with the whole team. You gather them into a room and ask, “do you guys understand why these layoffs happened? What questions/concerns do you have?” If that is your approach as a manager in that particular situation, then you may very well need to mention it in your explanation of your action later on in your story.

There will be some details that are more relevant than others. Perhaps there were 3 or 4 actions you took in the above example that can all answer different questions. This is one reason that we want to jot down as many details as possible in our brain dump [LINK]. Often we’ve shown a lot of different qualities in one example. Your greatest achievement also includes times that you showed leadership, thought outside the box and hit a deadline.

Ambiguity 

Sometimes your task might not be straightforward. You might be thrown into a situation where you are not sure what you are supposed to do, and you’re not exactly sure where your responsibility is or how far it can reach, but you do something anyway and figure it out. Sometimes there’s no clear path and no clear data to work with. That’s ok. You can skip over the task and describe the process you took to come up with an action plan. We just have to frame it the right way.

Feelings and intuition often fall into this category. In reality, intuition isn’t magic. It’s built through years of experience. Often this is spoken about in parallel with the 10,000-hour rule, which states that to become an expert in something you need to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice in that area. 

If you’ve worked as a criminal investigator for 20 years, you have probably seen hundreds, maybe thousands of different crime scenes. You might have interrogated dozens of people and searched through thousands of files. When you find a “clue” sometimes you will just naturally follow it, not because of any hard evidence, but because you’ve been in the situation a million times before and you have a familiar sense. Can you objectively quantify this? Can you explain why you chose to do X and not Y in this situation? Maybe, maybe not.

But just saying “I had a feeling” or “based on years of experience” does not really make a good story, and it’s certainly not convincing to an interviewer. The results you had might certainly be a testament that yes, you can do the job, but results are not enough. People want to know that you can replicate these results, the key is showing them how.

Let’s say that you are a business development manager for a software company. You’re about to close a deal that will require your company to invest USD 5 million. You’re having dinner with the client, and you get a strange vibe or feeling from them, like they’re not telling you something. You brush it off but then it pops up in your head again after dinner. This is intangible, and you can’t explain it to anyone, and there isn’t a clear action to take. You think, Are they going to screw me on this deal? What am I missing here? You might start to doubt yourself and double check sales numbers or the contract or the terms of the deal. After going through every possibility, you’re unable to find any huge reason to worry.

Unable to shake the feeling, you postpone the deal for one week. 

Luckily you waited because within that week the client announced their dismal quarterly earnings and decided to pull back on investments for many of their key products. The deal that once seemed great for both sides was now much less favorable, especially considering the upfront costs you would have to pay that were now based on a pretty shaky foundation. You’re glad you waited, and you pull the plug on the deal. 

How do you explain this?

Sometimes you should act on your gut feelings, even if you can’t explain them. All good leaders and experts of their craft should be able to use the right tools and sound logic to make a decision. But they should also have good judgment, which comes from experience and gut feel… not a spreadsheet. So if you’re faced with a question that requires you to talk about making a judgment based on your intuition, or that you made with insufficient data, it’s a great opportunity to showcase yourself. The key is to go back in time and pull apart everything that could have played a contributing factor.

“I was confident about the details of the partnership, and triple checked everything myself, and with my team. But there will always be surprises that pop up, which are not possible to predict, so I decided to trust my gut that something was not right. 5m dollars was at stake here, and there was no harm in waiting an extra week, so we stalled the negotiation for several days. This proved to be the right decision because…”

A follow-up question from the interviewer might be, “What was it about the meeting that made you doubt them? Had they done something previously to justify this skepticism?” 

This is where you can chime in with extra details. Perhaps this was your first time working with this partner, so you were extra cautious about making this deal. Or perhaps it’s simply your nature to fact check and triple check everything, and you make this part of your approach with all partners. Maybe it was a comment that the client made that made you think twice, which could be attributed to your emotional intelligence. These are all details you could include in your initial description of the situation to make them more specific. 

Analysis

Often before you know the tasks at hand, you need to do some analysis. You discover something. Or something is told or explained to you which drives you to take action.

A problem can arise from your analysis of tasks. This is where situation and task blend together, but don’t get too bogged down with making a perfect structure. More importantly, we need to make sure to be clear about what the problem was, how we came to the realization, and provide context around that.

There are many ways the task can manifest. Here are a few examples:

#1 You’re in charge of social media marketing at an advertising agency. That’s the situation. Through your monthly reporting, you realize that Facebook engagement has decreased significantly. This is still part of the situation. Your job is to run social media and optimize campaigns, so you need to turn this negative number into a positive one. So, your job is to increase Facebook engagement. That’s your task. From there, we would move on to action.  

#2 Your boss will simply come and tell you. This is much more straightforward. “Hey, we have an issue with this client who has been complaining about your communication style as too casual. We need to discuss professionalism on the job.” The problem has been thrust upon you, and your task has been assigned to you — figure out how to be a more professional communicator. To do so, you need to self-analyze and reflect.

#3 In other cases, you are thrown into the situation and have a short timeline to understand what is going on and figure out the tasks and actions that need to be taken.

For example, if you are working in a retail clothing store and suddenly you have one person that calls in sick, and then a swarm of 200 customers show up on the busiest day of the season, you better think of something quick. But what is the task here? First, we’d have to start by really defining the problem. There were too many customers, and you were understaffed. What’s at stake? This would result in poor customer service and lower sales because people don’t want to stand in line and wait. Money and reputation are at stake. Your task is to figure out how to mitigate this, in whatever way you can. And then you have to spring into action. 

Let’s practice:

Tack on and define the task, tying it all in together.

  1. Using your situation from the last section {link}, describe what task you had to perform. Explain your task. Make sure to include your responsibility/duty, what was at stake, and take both a deep-dive and high-level view.
  2. Start writing down everything you can remember about the task in as much detail as possible. Use the google document that you made in Brain Dump {LINK} to fill out under task.
  3. Now come up with a 1-2 sentence description of your task. Get your task down to a few seconds. If it goes over 15-30, take out any unnecessary filler words and make it more concise.
  4. Practice it out loud with a friend or coach.

STAR EXAMPLE

Describe a time when you came up with a creative solution to a problem.  

Situation:

I was working as a marketing manager at Disney from 2012-2015. During this time Disney spent a lot of money on paid search and display - I was asked to work directly with the paid search team to manage Fall/Winter offers. 

Task:

My goal was to increase Year over Year performance metrics - click through rate, conversion rate, and most ideally, revenue 

Action: 

I realized that the keywords that our paid team were bidding on ultimately led to driving top of mind awareness while searching for family friendly vacations - it had generic items like Disney Vacation, Disney vacation offer.

Since this was a seasonal offer I felt like my paid search team was missing  travel-occasion based keywords. I had a couple of insights that this team might not have had such as the consumer target data that showed an uptick in interest for travel during fall break and winter and that - so to have our ads show up right when people were specifically searching for trips around this time would be really interesting to test.

We tested things like:

  • Fall break Disney
  • 4 day fall Disney offer 
  • Family holiday offer Disney 
  • I regularly met with the paid search team to get status updates on performance and co-create adjustments and I learned that the keywords performed really well in the first couple of weeks of running the ads 
Result:
  • The revenue from the paid search ads for the fall/winter offers were 150% higher than previous years - hundreds of thousands of dollars more 
  • This was also my first time really seeing how relevant content can drive performance in marketing

Part 5: How to Nail the "Action" using the STAR Method

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