What Employers Are Really Looking for and How to Prove That You Have It

June 27, 2011 

Hint: It’s All In Your Story…

When it comes to new grads and college students, employers look for attributes first and technical skills second. As a new grad or student, employers don’t expect you to have a great deal of experience in the career you have chosen.

They know that you are entering your first job after college. So if they have invited you in for an interview after they have seen your resume, you have pretty much passed the technical skills and education part of the job requirements. You will, no doubt, field some questions about your work experience and education, but what the employer really wants to know is …

Do you have what it takes to be successful in the job and in the company?

The “what it takes” are attributes. Attributes are personality traits or characteristics. Often, they are listed in the job description. Some companies even put a separate “attributes” or “abilities” category in the job description.

Some examples of attributes are: the ability to think critically, a sense of urgency, emotional intelligence, problem-solving ability, the ability to relate to others, flexibility, resourcefulness, tenacity, the ability to see the whole picture, a curious mind, a strong work ethic, the ability to work well individually and collaboratively in teams, and the ability to write persuasively.

If these attributes are not in the job description, then read the company website thoroughly. If they are not spelled out, read other job descriptions in the careers section of the website and ask yourself: “What characteristics would I need to be successful at this company?”

So let’s say the attributes/characteristics have been spelled out in the job description or website. How do you prove to the employer that you have what they are asking for? The first step is to remember that there is a purpose behind every interview question. The interviewer will prepare interview questions that will help him or her determine if you have the attributes they are looking for. These questions will usually come in the form of:

  • “Tell me about a time when …”
  • “Describe a situation where …”
  • “What are your strengths?…”

And more!

These are called, “behavioral interview questions,” and they are the most common type of questions. These questions are used because statistics show that how you have behaved in the past will most likely be the way you will behave in the future. So the interviewer will describe a situation and ask how you would handle it, or they will ask you to tell them about a time when you encountered a particular situation and how you handled it.

These questions are designed to elicit stories from you, and as you tell your story, the interviewer will be looking for those attributes and checking them off as she/he listens.

The second step is to prove to yourself that you have these attributes. You do this by reviewing your internships, work experience, life experiences, project work, etc. and identifying examples of when you have shown those attributes. Those examples become your stories. That’s right, the key to proving to the employer that you are a great fit for the job is in your stories.

When you answer questions using examples/stories, who you are becomes very apparent to the interviewer, along with your attributes/characteristics. Your stories must be specific and you must be able to explain them. The best tool for doing this is the STAR method:

Situation description - Describe the situation.

Task/responsibilities - Explain what needed to be done to get the job done.

Action/response - Describe the actions you took and how you solved the problem.

Result - What happened as a result of your approach.

Here’s an example: “Tell me about a time when you had to confront a team member who was not doing their job.”

Situation – I was one of four partners in an on-campus business that we all started. One of the partners was not showing up for meetings and had called each of us several times to take his shift. This was putting a lot of stress on us, and our ability to get our schoolwork done.

Task – The other three partners and I were very frustrated and angry with him, but they were not willing to discuss it with him. I knew we had to speak with him, so I volunteered to do it.

Action – I called him and arranged to meet with him. I told him that the other partners and I were concerned about whether he was OK. He said that he was having difficulty keeping up with his schoolwork and his grades had been falling. He said that he was embarrassed to tell us, as he had never had this problem before. I asked if he would be willing to sell his share back to us and he was. I thought it was a great idea and made sense, but now I had to convince my partners.

Result: I put my facts and figures together and pitched the idea to my partners, and we bought his share. We are all still great friends, and although we ended up working more hours, nobody was resentful.

In this example, the candidate paints a vivid picture of his skills. He discussed the situation with his partner, uncovered the problem that was causing the conflict, came up with solution, sold the idea to his partners, and found a way to resolve the problem that maintained friendships. He navigated through this problem by creating a win-win solution.

Can you pick out the attributes that this candidate proves he has? Hint: The attributes are in the action.

As a recruiter and hiring manager for over 25 years, here are the attributes I identify in his answer. He is empathetic, knows how to negotiate, can think critically, and sees the big picture, which problem solving always requires.

In addition, he does not shy away from conflict, but takes initiative and seeks to resolve it, analyzes a situation even though there are emotions and friendships involved, and understands how a business runs. Through the use of story, he has proven his attributes and told me so much about himself.

How Many Stories Should You Have?

If you have an arsenal of around seven stories, you will always have enough to draw on for any interview. Outline them, write them out, practice them, and your confidence will improve because you have will have proven to yourself that you have the needed attributes. Remember, the interviewer, doesn’t know you, and has a short time to determine if you are fit for the position. If you go to the interview prepared with your stories, you will help him or her get to know you and help hire you!

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