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Acing the Promotional Interview

Issue 4 and Volume 8.

Many career and even some volunteer fire service promotional processes involve an oral interview designed to assess a candidate’s ability to solve problems, communicate and provide salient details about themselves and their goals. Interviews aren’t failsafe and certainly don’t constitute the only way to assess an individual’s readiness for promotion, but they can be an effective tool in evaluating prospective company and chief officers.

The challenge: For many candidates, the oral interview is the place where promotions go to die. It does not have to be this way. There’s no substitute for preparation, and as absurd as it may sound, practice interviews can be incredibly valuable. Although it can be challenging to replicate the stress of “actually being in the room,” practice interviews are a useful tool to refining answers and getting over the jitters of sitting in front of a panel.

Tell Us about Yourself
One of the common requests during an interview process is “Tell us about yourself.” Effectively answering this request requires specific, extensive preparation. Talking extemporaneously about yourself may sound easy, but too often it becomes a chronological recitation of your life, starting at birth and ending sometime later—painfully, both for the candidate and for the interviewer.

Instead, consider organizing your answer into broad categories—education, relevant experience, accomplishments and recognitions/awards—the order of which can be changed depending on the position you are interviewing for. Start by creating a list, separate the list under the categories, and then write a narrative that tells your story. Learn the narrative and practice it until you are comfortably able to recount it in about 5 minutes.In the interview, when you are asked to talk about yourself, respond by indicating that you intend to cover four broad areas, and then follow the narrative. At the end, summarize the four broad areas that you have covered and why, most importantly, they uniquely qualify you for the position you are seeking. This last point cannot be overstated.

Making the Grade
Here are a few additional tips for improving your ability to be successful in a promotional interview:

Listen to the question. Often, interviewers will ask a multiple-part question specifically to evaluate a candidate’s listening skills. Example: A firefighter under your command is experiencing problems with alcohol. What are your responsibilities as an officer, to whom would you speak and what follow-up actions would you take?

Candidates will often hear the first part of a multiple-part question and immediately begin formulating an answer in their head, ignoring the remaining parts of the question. The candidate may deliver an outstanding answer to the first part of the question, but that represents only 33% of the answer. The result is a failing overall score.

One key to ensuring your success in answering multiple-part questions is to ask for the question to be repeated after you believe you have answered it. While the interviewer is repeating the question, you have the opportunity to mentally review whether your answer matches all aspects of the question. If it has, indicate that you’re ready for the next question. If not, thank the interviewer, and continue giving your answer, addressing those dimensions of the question not previously answered.

Engage your brain before you engage your mouth. Acknowledge the question and then take a moment to formulate a cohesive answer. If permitted, make a few notes of key words that will jog your memory while you’re answering the question. Too often, candidates will substitute quantity for quality—a potentially deadly mistake for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the interviewers are generally adept at seeing it and score accordingly. A few moments of silence does not result in losing points; over-talking an answer does.

Answer questions as if you are already in the position you’re seeking. One of the fundamental and pervasive thoughts in an interviewer’s mind is “Do I want this person working for me?” At the end of the day, interviewers are going to score candidates more successfully when they present themselves in a way that demonstrates a readiness to assume the responsibilities for the position being sought. It’s not presumptuous to respond to a question with “As a (insert rank here), I would …” Rather, it signals that you’re knowledgeable about the set of responsibilities that attends a specific rank.

Engage the interviewers. Make eye contact and look at all of the interviewers, regardless of who asked the question. This is essential because it signals confidence on your part and reflects your ability to function under stressful situations. There will be instances when interviewers will not look at you—they may be looking down while taking notes. Don’t be distracted by this. Similarly, don’t place too much emphasis on the body language of the interviewers. Effective interviewers are adept at not telegraphing their perceptions about your candidacy, even if they personally disagree with your opinion.

It’s on You
Interviews can be an effective tool for chief officers in selecting company officers. This is particularly true in the volunteer fire service, where competitive promotional processes are extremely rare. Forward-thinking volunteer chiefs should develop and implement a promotional process that demands more from their personnel. In doing so, they will not only develop their fire officers; they will imbue their personnel with life skills that have the potential to pay significant dividends.

Ultimately, the responsibility for doing well in an interview rests with the candidate. Be prepared.