In this day and age, we all might as well be from Missouri, the "Show-Me State." We constantly have to prove ourselves to others. We have to provide believable evidence of our capabilities. A laundry list of responsibilities ("responsible for 2,000 people and a budget of $100 million") hardly says anything about how you really performed on the job. Simply documenting activities ("managed supplier relations" or "participated in reengineering efforts") doesn't say much about your contributions or the outcomes you helped achieve. Impressing people with scope, size, or history ("over 800 offices globally" or "150 years of history") doesn't exactly tell listeners what you can do for them.
Your level in your organization matters very little. In fact, the higher you are trying to go, the more you have to prove yourself. Whether you are an executive thinking about that next big promotion, an employee writing a performance self-appraisal, a stay-at-home mom reentering the workforce, a consultant trying to sell to a potential client, or an organization trying to establish credibility through marketing, you have to face the music and answer the inevitable question: "What have you done for me lately?"
As Aldous Huxley said, "Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you." So focus on what you did and how — with what happened to you.
Fit and Proper
There are two things the person on the other side of the table is trying to find out:
- Does this person's motivational and behavioral profile fit with the culture?
- Does this person possess the competencies and specific skills required?
A traditional way of assessing competency was based on theoretical questions. The trouble with theoretical questions is that they elicit theoretical answers. Besides, they are not verifiable. Smart interviewers are increasingly looking to assess competencies by asking behavioral or competency-based questions. These questions may begin, "Give me a specific example of a time when you..."
The basic premise behind these questions is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. Many skills and competencies are transferable as long as the situation is somewhat similar. That is why when the president of the United States appoints cabinet members they have rarely performed the specific jobs they are given but have supposedly demonstrated the competencies necessary to succeed in them. Politics aside, confirmation hearings in the Senate are designed to verify the president's assertions about each nominee.
SOAR with Your Strengths
It doesn't necessarily happen on national TV, but we are asked to demonstrate competency in many forms, including performance appraisals, resumes (or C.V.s), behavioral interviews, and marketing collateral.
The first step is to make a list of all the recent accomplishments you are proud of and then follow the SOAR model described below for each accomplishment.
"S" or the Situation: The situation (briefly) provides the context for the specific accomplishment you want to talk about. This allows the other party to find out the basic facts about the situation you dealt with and establish an overall context for what you are talking about. The mistake people often make is forgetting that they only need to set the scene; they don't need to tell their whole life story!
Situation Example: "We were dealing with a situation where voluntary attrition rates among employees were running as high as 50%. As a result, morale was low, customer service was poor, and the hidden costs were sky high. We estimated that the total cost to the business was more than $3 million annually. This was clearly not sustainable."
"O" or the Obstacle: The obstacle describes why the situation was particularly problematic or thorny. It describes why your accomplishment deserves even greater kudos. Depending on the situation but particularly in a forward-looking scenario, you can also use "O" for "opportunity" instead of "obstacle."
Obstacle Example: "What made this situation even more difficult was that we were dealing with several call centers across the country with different job markets and leadership styles. To make things worse, the unemployment rate was at a historic low. In essence, we were dealing with an employee's market."
"A" or the Actions: The actions are specific actions you took to remedy the situation or capitalize on the opportunity. The actions are only important to the extent they will showcase the competencies in question. Make sure that you describe the actions with powerful verbs rather than worn-out, boring expressions. (Hint: Highlight each word in question in Microsoft Word and press Shift-F7 for fresher synonyms.)
Actions Example: "I scrutinized the attrition data using a sophisticated statistical technique. Based on that, I generated profiles of employees who were leaving the company at a much faster rate than the average. I brainstormed the root causes with the larger team. We crafted specific action plans in three key areas: selection, engagement, and leadership effectiveness. We rolled out these insights in the form of an employee retention workshop with the help of the leadership team on the ground."
"R" or the Results: Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of your accomplishment is in the results. This is where the value of your solution is demonstrated. Also make the results powerful using action verbs. The results need to be believable, justifiable, and sustainable.
Results Example: "The result was a dramatic 40% improvement in employee retention in less than six months. There was an equally dramatic upsurge in customer satisfaction and in quality scores of 10 percentage points. Most importantly, the enhanced retention was responsible for slashing more than $1.5 million in recruitment, training, quality, and productivity costs."
Mix and Match
The second step is to carefully study the job, project, or assignment you are bidding for. Put yourself in the decision-maker's shoes. What are the job accountabilities, and what competencies do you think will be required to achieve them? Many times the job description specifies what the necessary competencies are. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to figure out the skills necessary to be successful. Some examples of different competencies include:
- thinking strategically
- demonstrating adaptability
- planning and organizing
- driving results
- communicating effectively
- orchestrating change
- fostering teamwork
- solving problems
- resolving conflicts
It is equally important to use this technique in a forward-looking manner. When you are presented with a new opportunity, visualize ahead of time a SOAR story you will be able to write when you have completed it successfully. This will help you to be selective when it comes to identifying the right opportunity and approaching it with a clear-cut plan in mind.
The fact that it looks simple doesn't mean that it's easy! As with anything else, practice will make perfect. Using this general framework, however, you can customize your accomplishments to the given situation.
For a resume you will need to condense each individual accomplishment to no more than two or three lines of summary. For a behavioral interview, you will need to identify the competencies and prepare and rehearse the relevant facet of a SOAR story for each. For marketing collateral, you can prepare a one-page glossy that describes your accomplishment. If you can top it off with a strong client testimonial, that is icing on the cake.
Regardless of the situation, proper preparation will almost always prevent poor performance and help you market yourself effectively. The choice is yours. You can soar with your strengths or fall flat and be sore!
About the Author
A management consultant, author, and speaker, Abhay Padgaonkar is the founder and president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, LLC, which advises major clients such as American Express on formulating strategies and translating them into meaningful actions and measurable results.