Welcome to today's episode, in which I talk about how to answer the common interview question, "Tell me about your background." When asking this question, interviewers are usually not interested in going through your resume in detail unless they explicitly ask for that. Instead, they want to hear a short summary and the relevant highlights of your background. And for you, this question is an excellent opportunity to tell a story that leads to you being the natural choice for the new job.
The best way to build that story depends on your experience and the type of career move you plan to make. That's why I will briefly talk about the three most common scenarios before showing you a simple, four-step approach to formulating your answer.
Scenario 1: If you apply for your first job, your focus should be on the skills you have acquired through education, internships and other projects. For example, I know a graduate who applied for a management trainee role in the logistics department. She had a degree in Supply Chain Management, done two internships and written her thesis on Supply Chain Cost Management. The path she took from studying at university to gaining practical experience during her internships and bringing theory and practice together in her thesis made it sound natural for her to apply for the trainee role.
Scenario 2: If the role you applied for is similar to the one you have today, the focus should be on how you became an expert in your field. For example, you may have worked as an account manager for many years. You started selling parts of the assortment to small customers, then worked with medium-sized companies, and now you are selling the whole range of products to large enterprises. In this case, your ability to sell different products to different customers builds your path. It makes it feel natural that you will easily familiarize yourself with the new company's customers and products as well and quickly deliver results.
Scenario 3: If you already have professional experience and have applied for a position you haven't previously held, your story should focus on how you have developed in different roles. For example, you might have started your career as a shop assistant, been promoted to department manager and now are applying for a job as a store manager. In this case, the various positions you have had describe your path.
Now that you are aware of the different strategies to build your story, let's go through four simple steps that might help you formulate an answer to the question, "Tell me about your background."
- Step 1: Prepare one or two sentences that briefly summarize your background. Include how many years of relevant professional experience you have and for which other companies you have worked. If you have had many different employers, choose the most recent and relevant ones. And if this is your first job, summarize your education on a high level.
- Step 2: Identify 3-5 steps that naturally lead to you applying for this job. These are the pillars of your story. As mentioned before, they might focus on how you developed skills, how you successfully transitioned among different roles or how you became an expert in your field.
- Step 3: Answer the following questions for each of the pillars: "What was your key responsibility, and what was your key achievement?" Focus on your accomplishments and use "I accomplished this and that" instead of "we accomplished this and that." Also, make sure you can quantify your achievements so that they become measurable.
- Step 4: Formulate your answer by putting together all the pieces. Start with the summary from step 1 and add each of the pillars from step 3. It shouldn't be much longer than one minute, so prioritize those aspects that are most relevant for the new job.
For example, let's say you applied as an HR manager at a smaller company offering customer support services. In that case, a good answer could be, "I have eight years of HR experience from companies such as X and Y. As an HR assistant, I facilitated various HR processes. For example, I improved the onboarding process, which resulted in a 30% increase in the new hire satisfaction score. After my promotion to HR specialist, I focused on employee development. One of my main responsibilities was setting up an entirely new leadership program for senior managers, which 95% of the 75 participants rated as highly valuable. Currently, I am an HR business partner for the customer service unit at company X. I have been responsible for a re-organization and for establishing new HR processes. The unit's Employee Net Promoter Score is the highest in the entire company now. And as a result of the new performance management system I introduced, customer satisfaction has improved by 25%. Given my solid HR experience and proven track record, especially in customer service organizations, I feel ready to take on the HR manager role at your company."
These were the four steps for answering the question, "Tell me about your background." Thank you for listening and I hope this was helpful to you.