You’re in the middle of an interview with your dream company and the hiring manager says, “Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership.” Brain meltdown.
Should you brag or stay humble? Should I stay or should I go? What if you don’t have any management experience? Cue sweaty panic mode as you scramble to make up the perfect answer that doesn’t sound like you totally invented it on the spot.
The leadership experience interview question can seem impossible to answer correctly, especially for entry-level job applicants, but there is a method to the madness. Read on to find out how to best explain your leadership experience during your next phone or in-person interview.
(And after rocking your meeting, impress the interviewer even further by sending a thank you note. Just follow these instructions to send one that leaves the right impression.)
First Things First: What Does “Leadership Experience” Even Mean?
A lot of people think that leadership experience means management experience. While the two do overlap at times, they’re not the same thing. Even entry-level applicants and employees who have never held management titles can still possess leadership experience in the form of:
- Spearheading a hobby club or volunteer association
- Managing a school project
- Taking initiative on a work project
- Acting as leader in the absence of a manager
- Heading an important meeting
Even if you don’t believe that your leadership skills are strong—according to Deloitte, only 24% of Millennials believe leadership to be their strongest skill by the time they graduate—there is at least one moment in your past where you’ve fulfilled a leadership role. Identify that instance and then read on to learn how to weave it into an interview-ready story.
3-Step Strategy: Explain Your Leadership Experience Like a Pro
Promoting yourself while not boasting or rambling on—the best responses walk a fine line. Create a concise, effective story by organizing your thoughts into 3 sections:
1. Challenge or opportunity
Set the scene. What gave you the opportunity to act as a leader? Maybe your manager asked for a volunteer to head an important team project or perhaps you stepped up when a coworker went on maternity leave. Explain the situation in a few sentences such as:
My event planning team was in charge of organizing a high-profile fundraising dinner with 250 guests. One week before the event, our team leader got very sick. As the team member with the most experience, I decided to take the reins in his stead.
2. Your actions
Time to shine! How did you save the day or rise to the challenge? There’s no need to be overdramatic but feel free to elaborate on your actions. For example:
Originally, we had planned to decorate the venue in 2 days but with one fewer team member, I knew it would take longer. I rearranged the schedule and broke our group into 2 teams so we could work in shifts for 3 days. While one team worked on-site, the other was back at the office ensuring that other details like catering were on track.
The piece de resistance: what did you accomplish as a leader? What did you learn? Whenever possible, include objective metrics such as dollars saved rather than purely anecdotal evidence (such as “my supervisor was impressed”). This could sound like:
With my new plan, we were able to finish decorating the venue 3 hours ahead of schedule. Most importantly, the event went off without a hitch, many guests complimented us on the quality of the dinner and entertainment, and the event raised €10,000 for a good cause.
You Don’t Mean to Brag But…
No one wants to sound like a braggart (although that is a pretty cool word), but interviewees often swing too far the other way and downplay their wins. Own up to your successes without embellishing the truth, and demonstrate that you have the leadership experience the hiring manager is looking for.
Bonus: If you follow the strategy above and receive a job offer, but would like to decline, use these 7 tips to turn down the offer without burning bridges.