The interview has started and, after a few warm up questions about your CV, you are now into the serious meat of the dialogue where the interviewer is trying to lift the lid on your critical competencies. The job you have applied for is a heavyweight leadership role, with accountability directly and indirectly for a large number of people who are about to embark upon a significant period of organisational change.
Here comes the question “so tell me Tim, how would you describe your leadership style?”. You know (because you have done your interview preparation) that behind this general opener there will be more probing questions. “Give me an example of when you ....”, “How did you deal with any resistance to change?”, “How did you manage to keep the motivation of your people high when times were tough?“, “What specific approaches do you use to get the best out of your people?”
So of course you need to come to the interview having systematically thought through the powerful examples you will use to illustrate in a specific, focused and relevant way that you lead people. And of course you need to link and match your examples to the specific leadership challenges of the advertised job.
But if you really want to stand out around your leadership capabilities and potential, then you will probably need to do one other really important thing in preparation.
Stand out candidates in interviews for leadership roles are not only able to provide impactful leadership examples and stories from their recent experiences, but they are also able to articulate a compelling philosophy and approach that describes the principles and values they deploy in any given leadership situation and which stands them apart from others.
In my early career with a leading oil company, I was fortunate enough to work in close proximity to a really outstanding leader. Not only did he talk a lot about the principles and values of effective leadership but he put them all into regular practice; he was highly liked, highly respected and (really important) highly effective at getting results through people.
It was easy to learn from him because, not only were there many observable examples of his leadership style and approach, he also used to regularly turn up at management meetings and staff events and talk about leadership and in particular leading people. It was simple for him to put it across, wherever he went to talk about leadership and his leadership style he carried with him one simple prop - an old fashioned Jack in the Box.
Using the Jack in the Box prop he would tell his audience that as a leader of people you have two simple choices. You can either be a button pusher or a lid pusher. You can either choose to encourage, liberate and empower the talents and motivations of your people or you can press down on them, with demands, controls and rules that limit or suppress them.
At a young professional age this was a powerful and very memorable message. One that with all the vagaries and challenges of organisational life I have always tried to abide by and adapt for my own use and in my own terms. And this has really worked for me as it has given me a strong anchor and set of values on how to lead others either in a formal role or in demanding situations that require inclusive and empowering leadership irrespective of position or hierarchy.
The point of this illustration however, going back to the questioning about leadership in an interview, is to ask yourself what is your unique distinctive leadership style; what is both the philosophy and practice of the way you “do” leadership and can you articulate this in a powerful simple way with lots of examples to back it up? If you can then you will stand out as a leadership candidate.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the massively complex, fast moving and inter-dependant business world of today, serious organisations recruiting for critical leadership roles are definitely looking for highly competent “button pushers” and definitely not more narrowly focused “lid pushers”. So ask yourself some searching questions on your outlook on leadership and set yourself the challenge of learning increasingly how to become a better button pusher than a lid pusher.