Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Your Greatest Accomplishments
This is the latest in our continuing series on how to answer the most common behavioral interview questions.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
If your interviewer asks you this question, consider yourself lucky.It’s the perfect opportunity to talk about your most impressive experience. Unfortunately, most candidates waste this wonderful opportunity because they aren’t prepared and/or don’t feel comfortable “bragging.”
Most people don’t have a lot of practice talking about their accomplishments.
If you’re an introvert or a bit on the modest side, this can feel very challenging. You may even have been taught that it’s rude or obnoxious to brag about your achievements.
What might come across as obnoxious at a cocktail party, however, is perfectly acceptable and welcomed in a job interview.
If you can’t get comfortable talking about yourself and your accomplishments, you are not giving yourself the best shot at the opportunities that you deserve.
You can’t rely on the interviewer to read between the lines or notice how great you are from just your resume and a little chit chat.
On the other hand, you don’t want to come across as full of yourself, entitled, or rude.
You can easily avoid this by preparing in advance so that you’ll feel comfortable talking about yourself and your work in a positive, natural way that conveys confidence, but not cockiness.
How do you do this? I’m here to show you the approach that has worked for so many of my coaching clients and Big Interview subscribers.
First, a little trip into the mind of the interviewer to understand their perspective.
If an interviewer asks you about your greatest accomplishment(s), that means they really want to know what sets you apart from other qualified candidates, to get a better sense of what you’ve done and what you value.
In fact, every hiring manager wants this information even if they don’t know enough to ask you about your greatest accomplishment. Interviewing is not a lot of fun for them. They’re in the room because they want to find the best candidate. You can make it a lot easier for them by cutting to the chase and leading with your best material.
I’m a big believer in identifying your “greatest hits” and creating concise interview stories about each of them.
That way, you have great answers for this behavioral question and also develop a comfort level talking about your achievements in general (which will help you in so many other parts of the interview as well).
The Importance of Behavioral Interview Questions
“What is your greatest accomplishment?” is a behavioral interview question.
Some variations include: “What are you most proud of?”, “What were your biggest wins in your most recent role?,” “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty.”
Before we dive into how to answer this particular question, a quick refresher on the concept of behavioral interviews: Behavioral interview questions are the ones that ask you for specific examples of past work experiences. The ones that start with “Tell me about a time when you…”or “Give me an example of…”
The idea is to understand past job performance as a way to predict how a candidate would approach the job if hired.
Behavioral questions can be used to test a candidate in any number of competency areas (a few popular examples: teamwork, leadership, work ethic)
Job interviewing is an imperfect process. It’s impossible to truly know who’s the best candidate after just a couple of conversations. However, we (interviewers and candidates) do the best we can with the best process we have.
For interviewers, asking behavioral interview questions is the most reliable way to get a sense of who the candidate is and how they approach their work.
For candidates, strong answers to behavioral questions allow them to stand out from the pack and highlight their best qualities.
Your Greatest Accomplishments = Your Greatest Selling Points
With a question about greatest or proudest accomplishment(s), the interviewer is giving you the opportunity to choose a story you want to highlight in the interview. You’re not being limited to talking about teamwork or leadership or even necessarily a work accomplishment.
This puts some power in your hands to influence how the interviewer sees you, so you want to be prepared.
The example that you choose will say a lot about you. First, it will give clues about what you value most. Were you most proud of closing a huge deal or building a great team? This will help indicate if you’re a good fit for the job and the culture.
Your answer will also help them envision you at your best. This is why it’s important not to choose an underwhelming example and to prepare how you tell the story to make sure you emphasize your best thinking and contributions.
In coaching you on how to prepare to answer this particular behavioral question, I’m also going to give you my approach to coming up with a whole set of stories that you can adapt for different behavioral questions.
The Greatest Hits Approach
I almost always ask “What is your greatest accomplishment?” (or a variation) in my first practice interview with an interview coaching client. This helps me get an immediate sense of what they think is their BEST story.
It matters because story telling is such a powerful tool in any interview. I recommend that everyone should have a set of 3-5 great stories prepared (more if you know the interview will be heavily behavioral-based as in many organizations).
Surprisingly, many bright and accomplished candidates fail to spend enough time strategizing about which examples to highlight in their interviews and how.
This is usually for one or more of the following reasons:
1) They are good communicators so they think their stories will just flow naturally in conversation. The problem here is that an interview is not a typical conversation and going with the flow usually leads to weak examples (the one that comes to mind in the moment isn’t the best one, or they can’t remember all of the details, or they get caught up in a long-winded answer)
2) They don’t feel comfortable “bragging,” so they have good stories, but they don’t tell them in a memorable and compelling way (usually either too general or too long-winded).
3) They get overwhelmed trying to figure out what behavioral questions to prepare for, how much detail they should include, what makes a good story, etc.
I typically recommend that candidates start this process by identifying at least 3 of their “greatest hits” stories. Your “greatest hits” are your most impressive, interesting, and relevant accomplishments.
A good greatest hit story can be used in a variety of different ways and to answer different behavioral questions. For example, one story about a successful project could be used to demonstrate leadership, problem solving, or ability to deal with conflict.
Your GREATEST greatest hit story is the one that you want to use for a question about your proudest accomplishment. Choose the story that you think best represents why you would be a great fit for the position.
If you have a set of 3-5 greatest hits stories, you can adapt for different opportunities and lead with the one most relevant for each job description.
Keep in mind that I don’t advocate writing out a story and memorizing it word-for-word. As always, I recommend the STAR approach for outlining your story. The STAR framework will help you focus on the key details so you can tell a story that’s authentic, memorable, and concise.
The goal is to write out a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This lets you focus in on your key themes without being too scripted.
Example Behavioral Answer: “Tell me about one of your greatest accomplishments.”
Let’s take a look at an example that shows how the STAR format can be used to tell a story about a proudest accomplishment.
Start by providing a brief overview of the project and/or situation. Limit it to just enough background to provide context and help your interviewer understand the difficulty and importance.
Example Situation/Task Bullet
• My department is responsible for managing the training and orientation program that is required for all new hires.
• Unfortunately, a lot of the content was a bit dry when I started.
• It was necessary information for people to have and the training was required, but we had a real problem with people not completing the training — and the course evaluations were pretty negative.
Interview Coach Notes
This is a nice concise set-up describing the problem and the importance to the organization.
Once you’ve outlined the problem/situation/task, it’s time to walk through your key actions and the competencies you demonstrated.
Example Approach Bullets
• Well, I decided to make it my mission to make the program more engaging and valuable.
• I presented my idea to my managers and they gave me the go-ahead so I started by analyzing all of the evaluations over the last few years to understand what people found valuable and where we were losing them.
• As a result, I was able to restructure the agenda to make the whole program more engaging and interactive.
• We added exercises and switched the order around to avoid long stretches of dry topics.
• We also added a game aspect that really encouraged people to stay involved and complete the entire program.
Interview Coach Notes
In just a few bullet points, this candidate demonstrates a number of attractive competencies: initiative, presentation skills, analytical thinking, creativity.
Note also the use of both “I” and “we” – this candidate doesn’t shy away from taking credit for her individual contribution, but also makes it clear she worked well on a team.
Finally, it’s essential that a good STAR interview story always includes a happy ending. The last part of your answer should describe the positive outcome(s) of your approach. Concrete results are always especially impressive (increased sales by 32%, cut the budget in half), but anecdotal results can also be powerful
For example: My client was thrilled. My manager gave me a glowing performance review.
Example Results Bullets
• I’m very proud of the fact that the new and improved program is earning rave reviews — with 92% of participants rating it as “very valuable,” compared to just 24% who rated the previous version that way.”
• My manager was very pleased and promoted me to lead a high-profile training project in our London office.
Interview Coach Notes: Nice concrete details showing results focus and pride in a job well done. The manager endorsement and promotion make the accomplishment even more impressive.
More Tips for Answering Behavioral Questions About Accomplishments
1) Lead with Your Strongest Examples
Don’t be shy. Be proactive about making sure your best stories get told. You want to leave that interview feeling like you said everything you could to show you’re the best candidate.
2) Be Specific
Don’t fall back on a generic project overview. To be memorable, you need to provide enough detail to give a sense of who you are and how you approach your work. Don’t rush through and leave out the most interesting details.
Remember that good stories give you an opportunity to connect with your interviewer. Give them some details that they can relate to.
3) Be Concise
It is SO easy to ramble if you haven’t prepared your stories in advance. Outlining with STAR helps you identify the most important details so your story stays focused and interesting.
Don’t skip the practice. I know it’s tedious, but it WORKS. I have seen the magic firsthand with my coaching clients and users – especially when it comes to behavioral questions.