Who Wants to be a S.T.A.R.?

So, you know what I do when I’m not at work on the day job crunching numbers, in class learning MBA-ninjutsu, at home studying MBA-ninjutsu, or fulfilling my role as a husband, father, and provider?

I write stories!

But these days, it’s not the kind of stories you think, mostly.  Instead of winged mythical beasts, young heros answering the call to adventure, sage advisors, evil warlords, and fantastic magical journeys, the stories I’m working on are a little more mundane, a little more personal, and a little more pertinent to my immediate future.  I’m writing “S.T.A.R.” stories.

What’s a “STAR” story, you ask?  Why, I’m glad you asked, for it is the purpose of this blog post to answer that very question.

STAR, I learned, stands for “Situation, Task, Action, Resolution”.  It refers to the preferred format for answering certain kinds of “behavioral interview” questions.  That’s the kind of question you get in an interview that starts out like “Tell me about a time in your last job when you had to do X…”

Answering a question in STAR format means you summarize the experience in an easily digested nugget that gets to the heart of the capability you’re trying to demonstrate.  Need to prove you can handle difficult customer interactions?  There’s a STAR for that.  Need to demonstrate that you can meet the needs of high-powered corporate execs?  There’s a STAR for that. 

The way you do this is to start by giving a very short, 15-second run-down of the “situation” you faced.  This is the set-up of the story: the background details. You take the interviewer’s “Tell me about a time when X…” and you run with it.  “X happened when I faced Y situation.”  Then segue into “Task”: this is what you had to do in order to deal with X problem in Y situation.  This is just a quick primer, kind of like foreshadowing, to tell the interviewer where you’re going with this.  Then you get down to the meat of the story, your “Action”.  This is where you describe, in some detail, what you actually did to handle that situation.  In a 2-minutes-or-less interview response, this is where you’ll spend most of your time, 30-seconds to a minute, most likely. And it has be to specific to what you did, not what your team did or what your boss ordered you to do or anything like that.  Spin it personal (but keep it factual).  The action is your story’s climax.  Finally, you bring the story to it’s denouement, by revealing the “Result”: what happened as a result of your action.  Did what you do bring about a change?  Did it have a financial impact?  Did it impress your supervisors or peers?  Did it land you a promotion?  Quantifiable results are better.

These STAR stories are much harder to write in practice than they are to describe.  Frankly, most of us don’t keep detailed notes about what we did on the job, and when.  Some of us have just enough foresight to be regularly updating our resume with our current job duties.  But unless you’ve been trained to look for these sorts of story-worthy experiences ahead of time, you’re not keeping track of them.  And by the time you get around to remembering and writing these stories in preparation for interviews, it’s usually too late to dig up some quantifiable impact measures.

This is the place in which I find myself.  I’ll be expected to master the STAR format before impending Alumni Mock-Interviews (where we will practice our interviewing skills).  If I show poorly… well… that’s not good for me.  But I’m having a lot of trouble with these stories.  I realize that I need to write them ahead of time – partly because I’m a better writer than I am an off-the-cuff speaker, and partly because it’s been tough to come up with viable examples from my work and educational history that can work to answer some of these questions.  Preparing in advance is the only way this can work.

But, then I sit and I think and I ponder, and I just can’t figure out how to answer a question like “Tell me about a time when you failed.  How did you handle that?”  It’s a barbed question, and you know it’s barbed from the get-go.  The interviewer isn’t setting you up to look like an ass – they just want to know that you can learn from your mistakes and improve the next time.  But… sometimes our mistakes aren’t so easily distilled to a 60-second soundbite.  And what we learn from them can fill volumes.  And, more often than not, those mistakes are personal, and not professional in nature at all.  And most mistakes… well… you just can’t talk about them in polite company.

A lot of time is spent in MBA school learning a lot of the hard “quant” skills that MBAs are so famed for.  But the hard stuff isn’t really, well, the “hard” stuff.  The really difficult things that you learn are these supposed “soft” skills.  They’re so tough to master because there’s no formula for getting the right answer.  But really, there is a right answer.  And there’s a wrong answer.  Good luck finding your way there, because the only way to find it is to learn it by experience.

So… Alumni Mock Interviews are coming up soon – on July 31st.  I better get cracking!