Due to the high pace of change in today’s work environments, being a fast learner and being able to quickly familiarize yourself with new tasks is essential for all kinds of jobs. In this episode, I share a simple, five-step approach to help you impress your interviewer.
Welcome to today’s episode, which is about answering the interview question, “Tell me about a time you had to complete a task you had never done before.” With this question, the interviewer wants to assess whether or not you are a fast learner and can quickly familiarize yourself with new tasks. Due to the high pace of change in today’s work environments, the ability to do so is essential for all kinds of roles. And if you apply for a job in a new field, it is even more crucial to have a convincing answer to this question. So, here comes a simple, five-step approach to help you impress your interviewer.
Step 1: Identify your example.
Try to remember a situation where you successfully completed a task that you had never done before. If possible, pick one where you volunteered to take on a complex assignment requiring learning something entirely new. If you have several examples, choose one with quantifiable business results.
Step 2: Describe the situation and your task.
Summarize when and where the situation occurred and your task. Also, cover why it was important and how it ended up on your plate. For example, you may have worked as an individual contributor at a fast-growing consulting company and never had a project manager role. But when the opportunity appeared, you volunteered to lead an internal project to improve the firm’s staffing processes, which were inefficient and error-prone.
Step 3: Describe your actions.
In a couple of sentences, summarize what you did to ensure you understood the desired outcome, how you learned the skills needed to be successful and, finally, the steps you took to complete the task. For instance, in our previous example, you may have first talked to the main stakeholders to understand the project’s scope. Then, you may have done some research and reached out to a seasoned project manager to identify how you could quickly learn the needed project management basics. And as a result, you may have read a book on the Prince 2 methodology. During the course of the project, you followed the best practices you learned, re-used the internal templates you found on the intranet and asked your team for constant feedback. You also consulted one of your experienced project manager colleagues for coaching to ensure you were on the right track.
Step 4: Describe the results.
Cover whether or not you successfully completed the task and, if possible, quantify the business impact. Also, describe how you could apply your newly gathered skills in other situations, what you learned from this experience and how it will help you take on new tasks quickly, even in the future.
For instance, in our previous example, you may have closed the project on time and within budget. And as a result, the staffing process lead time decreased by 35% while the quality increased. Thanks to the great job you did, you were promoted and became a full-time project manager. And what you learned from this experience may have been that taking on a new task not only requires self-studies to close any potential knowledge gaps, but also reaching out to seasoned colleagues to get tips and recommendations based on their practical experience.
Step 5: Formulate your answer.
Combine the results of the previous steps into a compelling answer. For instance, a good one based on our example could be, “I had been working as an individual contributor at company x for two years when, last year, I volunteered to lead an internal project to improve our staffing processes. The company had been growing rapidly, and the manual way to staff customer projects was inefficient and error-prone. I had never been a project manager but saw this as an excellent opportunity to develop in that role. When my manager agreed to me leading the internal project, I focused on three things: to make sure I really understood the expected outcome, to learn the skills needed to be successful in my new role and then, of course, to lead the project from start to finish. First, I talked to the project’s main stakeholders and ensured we had a clear and agreed objective. I then gathered and studied all internal project management resources that I could find on the intranet and read a book that explained the Prince 2 project management methodology. I also talked to one of my colleagues, a seasoned project manager. She gave me great advice and agreed to coach me throughout the project. This was really helpful, since it provided a practical perspective that complemented the theoretical knowledge I had gathered through my studies. To ensure I was on the right track during the project, I followed the best practices I had learned, re-used the internal templates I found on the intranet and gathered constant feedback from the project team and my new coach. The project turned out to be a real success. We cut the lead times for external project staffing by 35% and increased the quality of the skills matching. I delivered the project on time and within budget, received a lot of positive feedback and got the opportunity to become a full-time project manager. I learned from this experience that taking on a new task often requires dedication to understanding the theory and best practices and active listening skills to learn from more experienced colleagues.”
These were the five steps to answering the interview question, “Tell me about a time you had to complete a task you had never done before.” Thank you for listening, and I hope this was helpful to you.