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As a human resource professional who has worked with several UN agencies, I have had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of applicants for professional level posts within the UN system. When I reflect on what makes an applicant really excel at an interview what stands out for me are two things: the right combination of competencies and experience (the tangible demonstrable factors) and the interpersonal connections and chemistry between the interviews and the interviewees (the intangible and yet essential human element).
So how do you showcase your skills and competencies in a manner that is articulate, clear and easily understandable by an interview panel as well as make that special personal connection? Reflecting on some of the applicants who stood out to me over the years, either positively or negatively, I have compiled some tips for the interview process, which I call “Minding your P’s.”
Peruse the organization’s website: – Before the big day, take the time to understand the organization and its mission and goals. Read the website, know the key stakeholders and take time to understand a bit about the organization’s culture by reaching out to people you know who might be able to give you a sense of what it’s like to work there.
Make sure that you are able to articulate a personal vision that aligns with the organization’s raison d’etre. I have been struck by how so many people don’t take the time to do this or come up with a very superficial answer. Really reflect on what the mission means to you on a personal level, drawing on examples from your childhood, education, or experience that really brings the mission alive for you.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: A look at the job description will give you a very good sense of the types of questions you will be asked. There will always be a general “tell me about yourself and what you will bring to the job.” Often that is the first question asked and since first impressions are made within minutes (or even less) make sure that you have your opening statement down both cold and warm. Cold so that you can in a few (emphasis on the word few) pithy sentences showcase your value-add and your UNIQUE contributions, and warm so that you can begin to build rapport with the interview panel. Emphasize that you feel passionate about working for the organization and what you would hope to achieve if given the opportunity.
Likely there will be a combination of Competency Based and Situational Interview Questions and again it is quite easy to anticipate the types of questions you will be asked. If it is a competency-based question – also known as a behavioral question, jot down in advance the key competencies and have a few answers prepared in advance. The simple STAR acronym applies here: Situation – briefly explain the background and context of a situation. What happened? When? Where? ……Task – describe the problem. What needed to be done? Why? – Actions – What did you do? How? What skills or tools did you use? – Results – explain the results: savings, greater efficiency. Try to quantify.
Some crucial information to remember: – keep the description of the situation simple – don’t get lost in your own narrative – make sure that when describing tasks and actions you focus on what you specifically have done – and last and most important – what was the impact of your actions – simply put – because you (and not somebody else) undertook this project here is the unique contribution you made.
Again, the principles of cold and warm apply. Know your examples perfectly, but remember to also engage the panel members, so that you come across as informed, competent and engaging, a person that panel members would want to have on their team. And last, demonstrate the value-add that you bring to the organization – or to borrow a phrase from a former US President, John F. Kennedy - “Ask not what your country (or in our case organization) can do for you but what you can do for your country (organization)”.
There could also be the standard strengths and weaknesses question, so be prepared. Make sure that for your weaknesses you indicate what steps you are taking to overcome it. For example, you could say: sometimes in my quest to get things done I overlook some details and I am learning to take a step back and reflect before finalizing my product to make sure I covered all aspects.
Practice, Practice, Practice – enlist a friend or colleague whose judgement you trust and have him/her walk through a mock interview with you and then give you constructive feedback. Remember, perception is reality so you want to make sure that you come across in an interview as your best self.
Project Positivity and Potential: Positive energy is infectious – infuse your answers with positive examples, showing both your knowledge as well as your can-do attitude and your potential for growth. NEVER criticize former or current employers – it sends a bad signal that you in turn may criticize your potential employer. If you had to leave a difficult situation you can say something as simple as “it just wasn’t the right fit”. Showcase not only what you’ve done but also what you are capable of doing.
Pause, Breathe, Reflect, Listen: Just before entering the room, pause, take a few deep breaths and try to relax. Make sure you greet each person individually and make eye contract. Ever mindful of making the personal connection, show engagement – lean forward, address people by name, and maintain eye contact throughout. An absolute essential is to LISTEN carefully to the panel’s questions. If something is unclear it is fine to ask again or paraphrase to ensure you understand the question. Be very mindful not to interrupt a panel member – people tend to be rather sensitive to being interrupted and you don’t want to do anything to mar the panel’s impression of you.
Pose a great question: Often at the end of the interview you will be asked if you have any questions. Here is a great opportunity for you to shine. Make sure you have a question prepared in advance. Some examples could be along the lines of:
How does the position fit in with the rest of the department/organization?
What priorities would you like to see addressed first in this position?
Can you describe the organizational culture of the unit/office? Looking back at other people who had this position, what differentiated the good ones from the great ones? You can also use this as an opportunity to weave in your own skill in how you pose the question. And please, don’t ask any questions about salary, benefits, vacation time – these can all be done separately at the appropriate time.
Pat yourself on the back: The interview is over, you have presented your best self and now it’s time to send your SHORT thank you note highlighting in one sentence your qualifications, pointing out aspects of the interview that were insightful and reaffirming your enthusiasm and commitment. And remember, interviewing is a two-way street. You need to assess the organization, the manager, the position, and your own goals to ensure that this is the best fit for you. Good luck!