Good Answers/Bad Answers: Tell Interviewers About Obstacles You’ve Overcome

Many times when I’m coaching people, I ask them to think of a time when they had to overcome an obstacle and I get a blank stare. For some people this is a tough one. When we hear the words–overcoming obstacles–we think of learning to walk again after a terrible car accident, or climbing to the top of Mt. Everest–and then despair because we haven’t done any of those things.

The Overcoming Obstacle example in the can be something as simple as finding financing to buy your first home, or traveling during a series of flight delays. It’s something that shows your stamina, your willpower, your thought process when faced with a problem. Here’s an example.

Can you give me an example of a time when you felt overwhelmed? How did you handle it?

In my last job I made the switch out of not-for-profit, and into the corporate world. It was a completely different job. Basically the only skills I brought were an attention to detail, the fact that I knew how to buy advertising, and my customer service experience. The job was as an account manager responsible for knowing the advertising and key players in the financial services industry, and communicating that knowledge to clients. I knew nothing about the financial services industry at all. Plus, this was a newly created position that was going to be taking over the responsibilities from my boss who had been with the company since it started 15 years earlier. So the pressure was on to learn quickly and learn well.

Before I knew it I was faced with questions about Broker-targeted products, 403B’s, and Tombstone advertising and hearing about publications like

and

.

The days were so busy that the only time I could focus on learning was by coming in at 8:30 AM, and leaving at 6 PM. I used that extra time to tackle the projects that came up during the day that required more concentration to figure out what was going on. The job involved looking at spreadsheets and lists of categories and products of advertising, and learning if the correct product was being put into the correct category. I questioned everything until I understood it. I’m sure I drove my boss crazy, but at least she knew I was trying.

I knew that these hours weren’t forever, but if I stood a chance of learning anything I needed to invest the time. I remember checking a report, and sending my boss a list of questions about things that looked wrong to me. She would patiently email me back with each of the answers. In many cases, there wasn’t a problem, but it was only by my persistently asking the questions that I learned.

In about 6 to 9 months I felt like I was understanding what was going on around me. The time I invested at the beginning and the many questions provided a good foundation for the rest of my career at that company.

Let’s break down this sound bite.

it shows that when I am in an unfamiliar situation, that I’m willing to invest the time to figure it out.

it shows that I’m not afraid of sometimes looking like a fool by asking questions until I understood what was going on.

that just because something is new to me doesn’t mean that I won’t give it a shot. I’m determined to do whatever I need to in order to succeed.

Also notice that the interview question isn’t “Tell me about an obstacle that you overcame”, but something more subtle by asking me to discuss a time that I felt overwhelmed. If my Overcoming Obstacle example didn’t fit this question, maybe another one that I thought of for Teamwork or Achievements would do the trick. Keep in mind that the TODAY acronym is a guideline to help you think of examples to discuss in an interview–to avoid those “Shoot–I should have said THAT” moments when you leave.

© Red Inc. Melanie Szlucha. You can republish this information as long as the below paragraph is included exactly as it appears.