Behavioural interviews are essential in the product manager hiring process, designed to explore a candidate's experience and behaviour in past situations as a predictor of future performance. They can be daunting, as they demand not only recollection of past events but also the ability to communicate them effectively. From my experience as a hiring manager, more than 60% of candidates do not do well during these interviews, often due to avoidable mistakes. Let's dissect these errors and provide a robust strategy for success.
Understanding common pitfalls:
These are the most common mistakes candidates make during behavioural interviews:
Get too technical:
While showing your expertise on the topic is essential, overloading your story with jargon will usually make the answer difficult to understand for the interviewer. Remember, the goal for the interviewer is to understand the journey, your approach, your decision-making process, and not so much the technical route you took during the process.
Don't share the "why":
The reasoning (aka the "why") behind the decisions you took is the most interesting aspect that the interviewer is looking for. Every time you share "what" you did, always share "why" you did that (or why you did not do other options)
Again, interviewers are less interested in the "what" you did vs the "why" you did. The "why" will signal how well or poorly you will be able to handle situations in the new role.
The "what" is usually context, product, and company-specific. The "why" is person-specific (in this case, the person is you), and that is what interviewers want to see -- how you approach specific problems.
Don't talk about the "how":
The steps you took to address a challenge are as critical as the outcome. It shows your approach to problem-solving and adaptability.
Many candidates are so focused on the output that they forget to talk about the "how" they did part. The "how" shows evidence that you have successfully tackled challenges in the past.
Don't talk about the impact:
It is essential to talk about the impact in all your answers. Referring to the impact shows that you are constantly measuring results, tracking progress, and finding ways to get better/
Do not focus on the right skill:
Every behavioural question tries to gauge your abilities concerning a specific skill (like conflict management, alignment, taking negative feedback, etc.) You must identify the skill they're testing, then focus your answer on that.
This can be challenging. Many questions are worded in a way that makes it difficult to understand the underlying skill, but with enough practice, you can accurately identify the skill.
Leave the interviewer guessing:
Answers to behavioural questions are generally lengthy, as they involve a detailed story. While you're narrating the story, there is a high chance that the interviewer cannot follow the story. And if that happens, they will zone out and grade your answer poorly.
It is essential to ensure they are following for them to get enough signals of your skillset.
Take too long to get to the meat:
Many candidates take too long to get to the meat or to the point where they actually answer the question.
Interviewers have certain thresholds on the time they like to spend on each question. And if you're not using that time well, you will lose out.
Don't share the right amount of details:
This might be the most common challenge that many PMs face -- sharing too much or too little detail.
It is essential to build a concise yet detailed story that delivers the right message instead of going around in circles.
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The Strategy for Success
Here's how to refine your stories to make a lasting impression.
Crafting a Skill-Story Matrix
A skill-story matrix is a visual tool that aligns your experiences with the skills they demonstrate. This method ensures that the stories you tell are relevant and targeted. It also helps identify areas where you may lack a compelling narrative, allowing you to prepare more thoroughly.
The simplest way to create this matrix:
- List all critical skills in the columns.
- List all the stories you have from your experience in rows.
- For the stories that focus on the specific skill set, mark the cell green.
This matrix helps you identify the relationship between stories and skills.
It also helps you identify gaps, i.e. the skills for which you do not have a relevant story to share.
Selecting the Best Stories
The "best" stories are the ones where you played a pivotal role. They show personal growth, depth and breadth of skills, the ability to overcome obstacles, and the desire to achieve impressive results.
Good stories are also grounded in real-world impact. So, pick the ones that had the highest impact on you, your product, or your company.
These stories resonate because they're relatable and reveal character and competence.
Writing in Detail
Developing a detailed version of your story serves multiple purposes. It helps you remember the nuances of your experience and prepares you for any deep-dive questions an interviewer might ask.
So, write your stories in as much detail as possible while preparing. Get others to read it and ask if the story has understanding gaps. If yes, fix them.
Structuring Stories for Maximum Impact
A well-structured and comprehensive story will have a clear beginning (impact), middle (context and actions), and end (learnings.) This structure will engage the interviewer and communicate your message effectively. This system isn't just a storytelling technique; it's a strategic framework ensuring you effectively share all critical elements of your narrative.
Concentrating on the "Whys" and "Hows"
Focusing on 'why' you made certain decisions and 'how' you implemented them can make the difference between a good and a great answer. It demonstrates critical thinking and gives insight into your problem-solving process, which is invaluable for interviewers assessing your potential fit for their team.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practicing by narrating your stories helps you refine them, making sure they're clear and concise. Recording yourself can be revealing, helping you notice filler words or complicated explanations.
Mock interviews can provide a fresh perspective, uncovering areas for improvement that you might have overlooked.
Behavioural interviews are less about "what" you did and more about "how" you think, solve problems, and learn from experiences. By understanding the common pitfalls and strategically preparing your stories to highlight the journey and its impact, you can demonstrate the qualities that make you an exceptional candidate. This level of thoughtful preparation can set you apart in a competitive job market.