How To Answer “Tell Me About A Time You Demonstrated Leadership” Interview Question

Staff, Rocket Interview

One of the 5 themes in behavioral interviews is “Leadership”.  Often interviewers have many viable candidates for a job and a core differentiator in figuring out which candidate to select is understanding your leadership capabilities.

Candidates often misinterpret this question to be about directly managing a team, but it does not have to be.  Often, interviewers are looking to understand your propensity and ability to take ownership, even when not in a formal position of authority.  They are also looking to understand how you influence and inspire others. [Pro-Tip:  They are also using this as an opportunity to understand how you resolve conflict]

So how might this question be asked?  There are a few variants:

  • Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership
  • Tell me about a time you led a team
  • Tell me about a time that a team to a successful outcome.
  • Tell me about your leadership style
  • Tell me about how your team might describe your leadership style

No matter how it is asked, here is how You Ace This Question, especially in the later, more competitive interview rounds.

Applying the STAR Framework (Situation-Task-Actions-Results)

The Actions

Before we dive deeper into the actions it is helpful to consider a framework that is used to define human performance — the skill -will matrix.   We will examine both the impact you have on others’ will (e.g., their motivation) and their skills (e.g., their capabilities).

Will:  

  • Does your leadership story show that you understand what motivates your team?
  • And if you do, can you then map that to the needs of the company and harness that to achieve the company’s objectives?
  • Additionally, do you build followership so that the team is proactively coming to you on a regular basis?

Skill:

  • How do you make sure that others are continuing to grow their capabilities?
  • And, how do you train them and invest in their learning?

The skills of today are going to be irrelevant in terms of the skills that are needed to be successful tomorrow. And so can you express how you upscale your team not just today but also for the future.

When you highlight your leadership actions you should ensure there is clarity in the role you played in being a leader and how that role impacted others.

The Results

When highlighting results, often candidates narrowly focus on a team achieving a business objective, but it is also important to describe the personal impact to the team, their morale, and their level of enthusiasm.  Your story will be compelling when you balance both the impact on the business and the impact on others.

When you frame up the results make sure you are giving the interviewer a clear “before and after” picture — and how your leadership transformed the team and the business while achieving a distinctive outcome.

Additionally, it is very compelling to show results that scale beyond just the individual project you were working on. Ideally, the impact persists and resonates beyond just this direct story.  Imagine if after you have led the team to a successful outcome other teams have adopted what your team has done. That is an example of having your impact scale.

 

An Example

Situation and Task

  • “I am going to tell you about a time I was managing a team of four inventory analysts for Best Buy. We were four months out from Christmas, and the season happens to be 30 percent of our annual revenue.”
  • “So it was a very critical point in time and we were running behind on a new system upgrade that was going to allow us to fulfill all of our online orders.”

Actions

  • “First and foremost I sat down with the team individually sitting down with each person and talking through what success would look like, not just for the team, but for each person on the team.”
  • “I spent time understanding what were their motivations behind seeing this success. For some people it was getting a promotion. For others it was being part of something bigger than themselves and they got a really good sense of what was going to excite them throughout the next four months as we got ready for the Christmas season.”
  • “The other thing I did was I spent every Thursday sitting down with each team member and asking them whether they felt like they were progressing towards the goal they articulated to me some time back”
  • “I also wanted to make sure the team was building their skills and that they didn’t come out of this 4-month sprint just feeling like they have executed on something but they have not grown.”
  • “So I built out a skill-matrix and went through it week by week with the team and asked them whether they felt like they were progressing and they contributed to the skill matrix and they gave me a sense on what other aspects of the project they wanted to get involved in.  And I sought to get them involved in those projects.”
  • “And finally, I wanted to make sure this was a fun-filled atmosphere. So every Thursday I had the team come into the office with a superhero costume. I wanted them to know that they were the heroes of this story. And I also wanted them to know that we did not have to take ourselves that seriously” [Infusing this type of anecdote brings out your authenticity and makes them understand what is unique about your  leadership style.]

Results

Ultimately the results that came out of this were a few:

  • “First and foremost we hit our mark for the Christmas season.  We drove the revenue we needed to drive.”
  • “But more importantly what is really exciting about this is that the team morale was even higher going into the next fiscal year”
  • “And the war room that we set up to work on this was an idea and strategy that was adopted by many other teams when they were facing a critical challenge.  So this scaled beyond just this one time”

In the results, the pieces of the story come together as you show how you enable their skill and motivated their will. You are showing how it scales beyond just one project. And they are also getting a sense of your authentic leadership voice. 

Guiding Principles

  • Humanize your leadership by giving the interviewer a sense of your authentic personality and leadership style
  • Show the interviewer how you motivate others, how you inspire others, and how others feel when when they are being led by you
  • Infuse humor in the story if that is natural to you.
  • Avoid being prescriptive about leading others. This is not about holding a clipboard and telling people exactly what to do, step-by-step.  Instead, this is about inspiring others, motivating them, and influencing them to accomplish something together that cannot be achieved as an individual.
  • Finally, be very respectful of everyone in the story. A common mistake candidates make is framing themselves in a leadership or superior capacity while framing others in a subservient capacity. And it is very important that each player in the story is on the same level, meaning what differentiates you from others is simply experience.