Put Yourself In the Interviewer’s Shoes

One of the keys to nailing an interview is to have a good variety of stories prepared ahead of time.  And one thing we really love about our jobs is that we get to hear some truly amazing stories. But a story is only effective if the interviewer has a good appreciation for the significance of that story. Unfortunately, that is an area that many officers fail to appreciate when first learning to interview. The result is that their story ends up being less effective than it could be. As such, it is imperative to look at your stories from the interviewer’s standpoint so that the significance is not lost on them.

Doing so means more than just getting rid of all of the military jargon. Fundamentally, it’s a matter of putting yourself in the interviewer’s shoes by trying to forget everything you ever learned in the military. It’s only from this perspective that you can get the most out of your stories.

Here’s a quick example. Over the years we have had the pleasure of working with many incredibly talented Navy submarine officers. As a former infantry officer, the mission of our submarine forces opened a whole new world to me. For one, the rigorous training and testing they have to endure to qualify to earn their ‘dolphins’ is pretty amazing. And while I generally knew what submarines did (I did watch Hunt for Red October after all), I didn’t fully appreciate all of the intricacies and immense responsibilities that go along with working aboard a nuclear-powered vessel.

Early on in a practice interview, I recall a submariner telling me about how well his team performed on an ORSE (Operational Readiness Safeguards Examination). He was wise to use the full name and not the acronym but unfortunately, he also assumed that was enough. So of course he was taken aback during my critique when I told him that his story sounded pretty average. But anyone who has worked as an engineer on a sub or aircraft carrier understands how involved and important an ORSE is. But for me, I guess I latched on to the word “examination” and just assumed it was some sort of written knowledge test. Boy, was I wrong!

The reality is that the written exam is only one small portion of a very involved evaluation that occurs every 12-18 months. Not only do the crew members have to pass a written test, but there is also an oral component as well as a thorough review of maintenance records and a hands-on maintenance test. On top of all of that, the watch teams are put through rigorous ‘casualty’ drills where they simulate the exacting procedures the crews must follow when faced with a critical malfunction within the propulsion plant of the nuclear reactor. And by the way, this all occurs over a 3-day period where the crew gets little to no sleep.

And if they fail? The ship is taken out of commission while they go through an intense training period until they pass the ORSE. Plus, the ship’s captain and engineering department head are subject to getting fired (or at least earning a career-ending evaluation on their performance reports). So you could say, it’s a big deal!

Once you understand all of that ‘insider knowledge’ you get a much better sense of how significant an ORSE is to a crew and its leadership team (not to mention our national security). Once an interviewer learns that, he/she can get a sense of the individual’s ability to:

  • work under pressure
  • lead a team
  • display attention to detail
  • make decisions in stressful situations
  • solve problems
  • etc.

You might be thinking, ‘Yeah, well nuclear power is very specialized so I don’t have to worry.’ Not so fast, we’ve seen it in all branches. One of the more common cases is when an Army or Marine Corps officer describes a live-fire exercise or marksmanship training that they planned. But a civilian’s perspective could be ‘So what?  Isn’t that what you do all the time in the military — just go out and shoot your weapons?”  If only they knew!

Hopefully, these examples give you an understanding that sometimes you need to peel back the elements of a story so that the interviewer can get a true sense of its significance.  And by the way, this recommendation continues to apply once you leave the military and interview later in your career.  Whenever you are telling a story, you have to remember that the interviewer wasn’t there along side you.  You have to figure out a way to transplant the interviewer in space and time to appreciate the significance of your story.