How to Pass a Manager Interview

Interviewing to hire managers is a strange and squishy process at best. The team trying to hire the manager has an idea of the types of responsibilities the role will have, and they know who the person hired will work with. But then they must talk to perfect strangers (candidates), and in under an hour each, decide whether that person will be able to fill the role for years—leading others and taking responsibility for a team—based only or mostly on what the candidate says.

The hiring manager usually starts with a resume, of course, but a manager candidate’s resume is sort of like a map without many details: you might be able to get a high-level sense of what to expect, but you have no idea what things are going to look and feel like until you encounter them. The best way to learn about how a person works in a role is, of course, to work with them in that role, or talk to someone credible who has worked with them. But, short of hiring each candidate and spending months with them, a hiring manager is in want of some way to understand relevant details about how a candidate works.

Tell a great story

Humans have evolved to learn and to extend trust by listening to stories, and trying to assess their credibility. If you are a manager candidate, then, one of the best tools that you have is the power of your stories. You will be asked pointed questions about your experience as a manager, and you don’t want to give quick, pithy answers. Instead, you want to understand what the interviewer is trying to learn about you, and then to tell them a relevant (and true) story about your experience that relates to the topic in question. Be concise, yes—and witty and self-deprecating if you can manage it—but most importantly you want to convey what it was like to be in the situation that you describe.

Your story should have a cast of characters, a plot that relates to the topic, and a story arc: setup, conflict and a resolution. You can direct a lot about how your story will be interpreted by the framing you give it, but a good goal is to create space for the interviewer(s) to imagine themselves as one of the characters in your story, so they can gain an empathic perspective and perform a more informed evaluation of the situation. Think of it like the world’s shortest novellas, comprised of your work life experiences.

Other aspects of good novel writing apply just as well, too: if your characters are too simple or too detailed, you will lose credibility or attention; if you cast yourself as the hero and fail to show any real human struggle, your listener is unlikely to form a positive opinion of either the hero or the author; and if the conflict you present is too easily solved, your listener is not going to be convinced that you are a good manager or a good author.

Teach something to be remembered as a teacher

To really shine and rise above nearly all other candidates, try to teach your interviewers one new thing through your stories. This will not be easy, as your interviewers are likely to be quite experienced in their roles, but if you can teach them something new about any subject near to their own work, they are much more likely to remember you as someone who can teach. And teachers are more trusted storytellers, which means the rest of your stories will gain more credibility.

What you can teach will certainly depend on your own experience and style, but some examples might be: a surprising or unconventional solution to a problem you faced, a new method or practice that you developed in your work, or an insight into a new mental model or perspective for thinking about a problem that the interviewer is also likely to have. If the interviewer starts thinking about how your lesson might apply to their own circumstances, you’re more than half way to becoming memorable and useful.

Like all good stories, yours will require practice and effort to develop and hone over time, but I promise that you will have much more interview success if you know that you should be telling stories all along, instead of giving clipped, unemotional, direct answers to questions asked during interviews. The good news is that you should know your subject better than anyone, which is a good start to telling a great story.

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