How to answer an interview question

I followed a very interesting discussion on LinkedIn the other day, revolving around the interview question. What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far? Lou Adler started the discussion with “imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I dug deeper. How would you respond?”

I have just left my current post, and I am actively looking for a new challenge. I will undoubtedly have to go through an interview process, and I therefore reflected on how I would address this question if Lou was leading the interview. Although I agree that it is very powerful, I have three real problems in answering the question.

My first problem is that very little of what I have achieved in my career was a solo-effort. For the past 24 years, I have worked for a large, international organisation, and the way to get things done is to work as a team, and use the strengths of your colleagues in reaching you goal. While I may have been an important cog in the machinery, and maybe the key link in the process, it is not easy to claim that the success was all my personal achievement.

The other complication is that in a 30 year career there are many successes, and it is difficult to select the one that stands out. I have worked in different geographical contexts, in different political systems, and had varying levels of responsibility. It is therefore not easy to select that one overwhelming success story in my career that describes what I am good at.

Finally, I remember my most recent jobs with much more clarity than the positions I held more than 20 years ago. One does forget, and I may have lost some of the detail of my work in the eighties.

So, let me assume I am in an interview, and Lou asks me the question. I would give three fairly recent examples of challenges that I tackled with the help of my staff and colleagues, and that were a success. It may seem like I am blowing my own trumpet, but it helps to write these things down.

I spent five very active years in Vietnam in the mid-nineties, culminating in the position of Country Representative of my organisation. My instructions were clear: “Find a Vietnamese expert that can take over from you and groom him or her into the post.”  I worked closely with our elected Councillor from Vietnam, a former Minister, and he helped to identify a suitable, interested Government officer. After lots of negotiation, we managed to facilitate a release from Government duty, without him being stripped of important credentials, and he joined my organisation. I guess the best measure of success is that when I handed of the management of the office to my Vietnamese successor, and left Hanoi, I was awarded the Vietnamese medal for Science and Technology.

Van Mieu doors

After the devastating tsunami in Asia in December 2004, my organisation developed a long-term programme for recovery of the coast line in the affected countries. The technical details were put together by my colleagues in Asia. Through contacts in the USA, we managed to get the attention of the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, President Bill Clinton, and he agreed to host a donor conference to secure the finance for the initiative. During the following year, I spent a considerable amount of my time to talk to government representatives, embassies in New York, UN staff and coastal experts. The conclusion was a meeting in New York, chaired by President Clinton, where we secured some 13 million US Dollars to kick-off the programme.

boat and net tangled on shrubs-MFF presentation

More recently, I was instrumental in the development of an agreement with the European aggregates industry and our Brussels Office to work together on ecosystem management and restoration. The organisation has been involved with the mining, quarrying and cement industry at the global level, but through Headquarters it is virtually impossible to deal with Small and Medium Enterprises. Yet, the privately owned small sand and gravel companies and quarries throughout Europe have a significant impact on the landscape, but also provide real opportunities to develop new nature areas. After many months of negotiation, we now have a Memorandum of Understanding in place, which forms the basis for actual work on the ground in several countries.

 

I can give more examples, but three is already more than what was asked for. Fortunately, in a second part of the discussion on LinkedIn, Lou admits that asking the one question is not enough to give you the answers regarding the suitability of a candidate. I hope my three answers would have gone some way to satisfy his curiosity as leader of the interview panel.

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