It’s the kind of question you cannot prepare for. That may be why many of the hiring managers we work with find situational questions so informative. If you are assessing talent and not asking these questions, you may want to consider introducing some into your interview line-up. Asking a candidate to respond to a hypothetical business scenario can reveal how well he/she listens, thinks strategically and reacts to new situations. Mike Volpe, CMO of HubSpot, can attest. “Case-style questions give the candidate an opportunity to show how they think about and work on problems, rather than just telling me the same prepared stories about the bullet points on their resume.” So, when an interview begins with “What would you do if…”, how do you respond?
It seems so simple but in an interview context, listening well can be hard to do. There are distractions and can be a tendency to try to reason out what the interviewer might want to hear even as the question is still being asked. The best thing you can do is not to get ahead of the information as it’s being given to you. Listen for details that will help you enter into the hypothetical situation. Repeating those details back as you gave your response will demonstrate your ability to listen closely.
Think out loud.
There is no need to rush your response, but as you think through the steps you might take it doesn’t hurt to clue the room into your thought process. What are the given circumstances? What did you think might work but why do you realize it won’t? What first step would help you to gather more information? This is where hiring managers should pay close attention, and not tune out until the candidate gets to the “answer.” An articulated thought process can reveal a person’s problem-solving style, and allow a hiring manager to consider how much it resembles or differs from the rest of the team’s.
Ground the hypothetical situation by offering concrete examples of how you handled similar issues in the past. Haven’t faced anything quite like this? Zoom out. Maybe you haven’t had to refocus communications efforts across three departments in a renewable energy company before. But surely you’ve had to build consensus or propose a new way of doing things or make complex information accessible. Don’t get so caught up in the specifics of the situation at hand that you can’t draw parallels to your own experience.
Offer a plan.
Be sure you finish with a concise plan for how you would handle the situation described. Focus on what you believe to be the most important issues and explain your reasoning. Remember there is no right answer, but you want to leave the impression that you would be able to manage the hypothetical situation with strategic thinking, poise and respect for the other people involved.
Chaloner, founded in 1979 as Chaloner Associates, is a national executive search firm that focuses on recruiting mid- to senior-level communications, public relations, marketing and investor relations professionals.