Beyond Behavioral Interviewing: Focus on Achievements - Not Skills

Published: Nov 17, 2010

Focus on Achievements By Mel Kleiman

Stop for a moment and ask yourself which of your achievements at work or in your personal life make you feel most proud? Which ones stand out most in your mind? Which of your goals inspired such passion that you had no choice but to keep moving toward them, regardless of how long it took you to achieve them?

If your were asked about the achievements of which you feel most proud, your answers would give the interviewer one of the most important pieces of information he or she could have as your manager, where your passion lies – for where passion lies are a person's key motivators.

As you analyze the answers you hear to this question, you will also get a good idea of the person's work style and the obstacles they've overcome. The achievements we value reveal both our strongest character traits and our strongest desires. Identifying these speaks volumes about the kind of employee the applicant can become, which is why the second question in any interview should be, "Which achievements at work, in school, or in your personal life make you feel most proud?"

Ask This Question Because...

The answer gives you a frame of reference for the applicant's values and a way to measure his or her progress from the time of their first job.

Imagine a graph that shows achievements on the left side. Across the bottom is a timeline that begins with the applicant's first job. When you fill in an applicant's achievements, look for points of growth and expansion. Do achievements grow or increase in number as time moves forward?

Don't expect achievements to occur in a straight line. That's not how we humans learn. Psychologists tell us there are four stages to learning a skill: unconscious incompetence, in which we aren't aware of our poor performance; conscious incompetence, when we know how much we don't know; conscious competence, which requires a high level of constant attention; and unconscious competence, when we perform well without having to think much about it, if we have to think about it at all.

Everyone's achievement line will peak and drop several times. What's important is both the highs and lows keep moving higher as time goes by.

Focus on Achievements, Not Skills

What we normally get in behavioral interviewing is, "Tell me about a time you had to deal with an angry customer" or "Tell me about a time you were part of a team." Such questions tell applicants about our values instead of getting us information about theirs. Applicants who've read anything about behavioral interviewing can come up with the answers that make them look good.

You can find out about teamwork by asking what applicants have achieved in a group, but focus on achievements and things they feel proud about having accomplished, because that will give you a more accurate picture of the things they value. You can expand this question by asking what position the applicant played on the team, how duties were determined and disagreements were handled, etc.

What to Listen For...

Listen for enthusiasm, obstacles and perseverance. Most people show enthusiasm when they talk about their achievements. In fact, if you don't see enthusiasm during this conversation, this probably isn't an applicant you'd want to hire.

Ask what obstacles and challenges applicants had to overcome in order to achieve their goals and what they did to overcome them — bigger obstacles signal bigger achievements. The difference between successful and unsuccessful people is successful people do the things unsuccessful people don't. Successful people persevere; they reach their goals. You can expand this question in a number of ways. For example, "What had you achieved by the time you were 15 years old? What's your biggest achievement within the past five years? What's the greatest obstacle you had to overcome? Who helped you? How did you do it? What did you learn from it? What would you do differently looking back at it now?" Listen for achievements accomplished as an individual and those that required other people's help. If the proudest achievement is too far in the past to suit you, ask for more recent ones; if it's in the immediate past, ask about those that occurred earlier.

For example: One young man's proudest achievement was having made the world's highest score playing PacMan. You might think that didn't have a lot to do with work, but perhaps it took dedication and drive. It turned out, however, that one day the applicant just happened to run up a higher score than the highest one listed at that time in the Guinness Book of World Records. No skill, no practice, just luck.

On the other hand, consider a man who doesn't have a high school diploma, but became the most successful area supervisor in a company where everyone else who worked at his level had a college degree. This man realized that achieving the position he desired meant overcoming prejudice about his lack of educational credentials. He asked his boss to give him some direction in areas he felt he needed help and got coworkers to teach him as well. He's justifiably proud of what he's achieved.

Mel Kleiman CSP: Helping companies build a frontline that will help them build their bottomline. Visit and

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