No matter what kind of job you interview for, your potential employer will want to know whether you can come up with original ideas and take the initiative to put them into play. Leadership requires creativity, resourcefulness, and courage to take initiative. Offering ideas is a great way to show that you are an original thinker and have already taken initiative. These questions should also be answered with examples of your innovativeness in the past.

Q: What color is your brain?

YES: Though I would like to think there is a bit of every color in my brain, I tend to think it is mostly yellow. I have always been somewhat of a leader. I'm extremely detail oriented and committed to all that I do. I pride myself on thinking things through before acting, and I almost always make the right decision.

NO: Gray!

You should prepare yourself for zany inquiries like this one. The interviewer is not trying to stump you here. She is just trying to find out what makes you tick. Recruiters are well aware of the fact that people spend several hours preparing for interview questions that may be asked of them; they're trying to see what will happen when you have not prepared an answer. The key is to remain focused and confident in what you are saying. The last thing an interviewer wants to hear is, “I don't know; maybe it's pink—just because I like that color!” Try to remain calm under pressure and be creative. One key thing to remember: Be sure to explain why you answered the way you did.

Q: What's the most innovative project you've ever worked on?

YES: When I worked with JLM Company last summer, I noticed that when sales inquiries would come into the office, they would be distributed haphazardly among the marketing assistants. Realizing that there had to be a better, more efficient way of logging these inquiries, I took it upon myself to set up a system. I organized these inquiries according to region and distributed them to the marketing assistants based on their regions. This approach not only enabled our marketing team to come up with better and more creative solutions to our sales problems but also addressed the specific concerns of our pre-existing customers.

NO: When I was in the second grade, we were asked to come up with an idea for a science project. While most of the students brought in plants and leaves as their project, I created an ant farm. To this day, I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments.

Give examples of your initiative and willingness to contribute new ideas. Discuss how your leadership skills have helped you accomplish your goals. Give a specific example that shows a creative, new, or unusual approach you took to reaching your goals. Importantly, focus on recent, work-related examples, rather than memories from your distant past.

Q: Describe a time when you've been able to overcome an obstacle in a creative manner.

YES: For months, the publishing company I worked for had been trying to get an appointment with a particular Fortune 500 company to talk about a possible advertising campaign. After several sales representatives tried to no avail, I volunteered to take a crack at the task. Rather than contact the vice president of advertising himself, I decided to target his assistant. I was able to schedule an appointment with the assistant and give her my sales pitch instead. I must have made quite an impression, because the assistant immediately scheduled me for a meeting with the VP for that very day. Two weeks later, we got the order, and the deal was made.

NO: When I worked in the accounting department of a doctor's office, I was placed in charge of all the delinquent accounts. After various attempts to contact these patients and work out a payment schedule, I thought of a better way to do it. I created a false letterhead to make it seem like I was writing from a lawyer's office, and informed all the guilty parties that if they didn't pay within a month of receiving the letter, we would bring them to court. Within weeks, nearly all of the accounts were paid in full.

A smart way to answer this question is to focus on how you overcome problems with the help and support of your coworkers. Show that in addition to being a creatively independent thinker, you are concerned about the company and your team as a whole. Also, illustrate your strength as a leader. Think about how you have approached a problem differently from how others might approach it, and how you have achieved success in doing so. Emphasize your creative solution along with its positive results. Importantly, in all of your responses to interview questions, you want to convey your ability to behave in ethical and honest ways with all stakeholders.

Q: Consider the following scenario:

You are working late one evening and are the last person in the office. You answer an urgent telephone call to your supervisor from a sales representative who's in the middle of a meeting with a potential client. The sales rep needs an answer to one important question to close the sale. Tomorrow will be too late. You have the expertise to answer the question, but it's beyond your normal level of authority. How would you respond?

YES: First and foremost, I would be sure to document the situation so that I could inform my supervisor of everything that happened the next day. I would then answer the question, based on my own knowledge and the information provided. In addition to leaving my supervisor a detailed note about the occurrence, I would be sure to schedule a meeting with him the next day so that we could discuss the matter in further detail. In addition to explaining my decision and the answer I gave to the sales representative, I would ask my supervisor whether he thinks I made the right decision, and what he would prefer I do were the same situation to occur again.

NO: After calling my supervisor's home number and cell phone, I would tell the rep that I could not help her and that she would have to lose the sale.

Display confidence in your abilities and show that you can be counted on in emergencies. Keeping the supervisor in mind throughout the entire situation illustrates your respect and loyalty to your superiors. Your answer should indicate that you're not afraid to be the decision-maker in a tough situation, even if the situation's beyond your normal level of authority. Be sure to talk about your responsibility for making this decision, your competence in making all the information available to your supervisor, and your initiative in talking it out to make sure that the decision you made was the preferable one.

Essential

You can design a letterhead on your computer and save it in a file to use for your cover letters and other correspondence. Include your name, home address, telephone number, and e-mail address. If you want typefaces other than the default fonts on your computer, you can purchase and download them online. Avoid anything too flashy for business correspondence.

Q: What factors make companies with good products fail?

YES: There are several reasons for this to happen, especially with the advent of the Internet. Supply and demand has become an unpredictable equation. Doing business solely on the Internet can eliminate much of the traditional operating costs and offer customers products and services at the very lowest prices. In addition, regardless of the product you are looking for, it is likely that there are plenty of suppliers out there. Those companies that have the money and expertise have proven to be successful in the marketplace, while smaller or more inexperienced companies, though their product may be of a higher quality, have not. This could be said for any type of business, whether virtual or real. If you don't have the right people promoting and/or selling your products, and you are not targeting the right people, your product is going to suffer. Only by getting the employees involved with, and excited about, the product can success occur. A company is only as strong as its employees.

NO: I think it's all a matter of luck. It's a question of being in the right place at the right time. That is what makes some companies successful and others not so successful. Your company was very lucky in that respect.

This question specifically targets your vision as a leader as well as your business savvy. If asked this question, you'll do well to discuss a specific example of a product or idea that failed because of poor enthusiasm from employees or other consumers. Without being overly critical, you should discuss what you would have done differently. You do not have to target this company specifically in your example, and it's probably a good idea not to. Just make sure that when answering, you give an explanation that is articulate and informed, and illustrates your ability to see and improve the overall picture.

Q: How resourceful are you?

YES: I consider myself extremely resourceful. While product launches at my current company are generally the domain of our chief engineer, the CEO decided to let me conduct one, as I had shown much creativity in other projects. While the chief engineer usually would simply send out a press release describing the new product's virtues, I decided it was time for a change. I contacted three of our largest customers and asked them to try out the new product and let me know what they thought. With an overwhelmingly positive response to the new line, I then asked permission to videotape these real-life testimonials. The customers agreed, and rather than send out just a press release, we were able to create a podcast. The result was a far higher level of credibility for the company and product, and we exceeded our six-month sales quota. Personal endorsements have now become a cornerstone of all of our marketing campaigns.

NO: I would say that I am very resourceful, definitely.

This question specifically targets the candidate's level of creativity and initiative. Your best bet is to provide an example of how you've altered the traditional way of doing things at some point and attained the same—if not better—results. Focus on how you obtained crucial information or how you changed your personal style to get someone to cooperate. As always, make sure to sound confident without being cocky, and don't exaggerate the situation just to have a great answer to the question. Employers will find out if you are lying; if you are, you can rest assured you will not be hired.

Q: Give me proof of your persuasiveness.

YES: As a summer intern, I was asked to conduct a benchmarking study of all the communication expenditures for a major utility. My job consisted of speaking with various people from each department and getting the general consensus on the matter. This was a very large company full of employees who had been there for twenty years or more, and unfortunately everyone seemed very resentful of me. Finally, after a complete lack of cooperation from virtually everyone I talked to, I decided that the best way to approach the situation was to have individual meetings with each of the employees I wished to speak to. This more private setting not only allowed me the chance to explain to each of the employees the worth of the project but also allowed them to voice their thoughts more freely than they might have when surrounded by coworkers and department heads.

Each employee was given the chance to understand that what I was doing would ultimately be beneficial to his department as well as the company as a whole. Once the employees began to understand this, they became much more cooperative. Some even offered their assistance. After taking this step, the project went along flawlessly. In the end, I received a bonus for my efforts as well as a commendation from the CEO and many of the employees.

NO: I persuaded you to ask me in for this interview, didn't I? With very little experience in the field, I think that the fact that I'm sitting here is proof of my persuasiveness.

Though this question is meant to target your leadership skills, you should try to use an example in which you were not the designated leader. After all, if you're the actual leader of a group or project, it is the duty of these people to follow you—and it doesn't prove your persuasiveness. Talking about a time when people cooperated with you of their own volition is much more impressive. Talk about your desired goal, how you went about achieving it, and the overall outcome. Were you commended for your work? Why do you think people trusted and believed in you? How would you translate those characteristics into this position?

Essential

Adapt your answers to match the type of company you're interviewing for. If you're interested in a job at a large product-marketing company that emphasizes group decision-making and spends much of its energy on battles for market share with its competitors, you might want to talk about how much you enjoy sports—especially being part of a team and competing to win.

Q: What would your current supervisor say about your initiative?

YES: When I enter a new workplace, I find that I am full of ideas on how to make certain processes or tasks run more smoothly. When I first arrived at my current position, I figured out lots of new and innovative ways to cut down on the amount of data entry needed in my position, allowing for more time to be spent in other, more important areas. While I think that initially my current supervisor was put off a bit by my willingness and enthusiasm in contributing new ideas, she eventually began to anticipate these new ideas. In fact, she suggested that I begin writing up a monthly proposal of all my ideas so that we could begin discussing the issues on a more formal basis. After proposing my idea for a new inventory system, we were able to reduce the total value of the inventory we had to carry by 23 percent the first year alone. I think that my supervisor would use me as an example of someone who's constantly taking the initiative.

NO: As she has not given me much of a chance to show my initiative; I don't think there is much she would say.

Think of a time when you have volunteered to work on a project or to help solve an existing problem in an attempt to avoid unnecessary work. How efficient were your solutions, and how well were they received? How did you approach your supervisor with the idea, and what was his reaction? Focus on the creativity of the idea, the approach you took to making it happen, and the result you obtained.

Q: Describe an improvement you personally initiated.

YES: When I began work for my previous employer, one of my duties was to send out customer satisfaction surveys. This was done as a traditional paper process, which seemed cumbersome to me, especially since we had client e-mails in our database. I worked with one of the members of the tech team to create an online survey that was sent directly to the customer's e-mail within ten days of the transaction. This new system not only saved time, money, and print resources; it also increased overall customer survey response by 34 percent.

NO: Though I have not initiated any real changes on my own, I have supported the ideas of others—many of which I thought of beforehand.

Here's your chance to prove your dedication to your work and your ability to see the entire picture. Show that, given the chance, you can be instrumental in making significant changes to the company or to the way things are done. Highlight your effectiveness in making things happen; express your desire to do the same for this company. Sometimes this same question can be asked in a more specific way. For example, describe a time when you thought an existing process or manner of doing things could have been done better, and what you did about it.

Q: Describe a time when you had to alter your leadership style.

YES: In my current position, I am put in charge of approximately one new project per month. Each month, I am assigned a new group of employees— usually a group of new recruits—to help them learn how to see a project through to completion. My usual style is to look the project over beforehand, figure out the best solution, and begin delegating tasks. About a year ago, the assigned group began to question my initial plan to complete the project. They proposed some alternate ideas, and I was quite impressed by their suggestions. While it had always been my style to assume that my idea was the right way to approach a project, this team taught me differently. Since then, the first step I take when beginning any new project is to talk with the group and figure out a solution—together.

NO: When I first started my last position, I saw all sorts of things that could have been done differently. I started talking to other employees about initiating these changes. Though some were receptive to the ideas, they suggested I talk to our supervisor about them. When I told the supervisor my ideas, he said no to every one of them. While I tried to rally the group to support these changes, they sided with the supervisor. Rather than continuing to fight or to explain why my way was better, I just kept quiet for the rest of my employment.

Assure the employer of your willingness and ability to create strong working relationships by making different kinds of people comfortable with your authority. Your answer should indicate a time when you encountered a person or group that questioned your leadership style, and you should illustrate how you worked to change it. Be specific. What initiatives did you take to improve a less-than-ideal situation? What would the other people involved say about you now? Don't make yourself out to be a tyrant, but don't seem like a wimp, either. Indicate that the reasons for your change in style were a result of your keen ability to deal with people.

Q: Tell me about a situation in which you were able to persuade others to adopt your idea.

YES: When I began working for my current employer, I realized that the number of repeat customers we had was very low. Coming from a company that depended heavily upon repeat business from core customers to make up about 50 percent of its annual revenue, I knew that this was an area that needed improvement. I approached my boss about spending a little bit of time contacting previous customers and trying to obtain feedback about their experiences. Though she considered it a waste of time, she agreed to let me spend one week initiating the project. After hundreds of phone calls, letters, and e-mails, I realized that the customers were not coming back because they found our company to be inattentive and hard to reach. Many claimed that they called the customer service department several times a day and did not get an answer.

From that point on, I tried to pitch in whenever I could. If I heard the phone ringing, I would grab it immediately. Other supervisors began to see my dedication, and they, too, decided to help. Eventually, we were able to hire a full staff to support this department so that every one of our customers could be heard. Since that time, we have seen an increase in sales of approximately 40 percent, much of that being attributed to repeat customers.

NO: When I was hired on as the sales manager at my current company, the first thing I noticed was the lack of enthusiasm amongst the sales representatives I would be supervising. Though they came to work and did what was asked of them, they didn't seem to have any real enthusiasm for what they were doing. While I was in the office until 7 p.m. each night, they were leaving at 5 p.m. I decided to have a meeting with the department members to give them a chance to hear my philosophy on sales, which is this: If you are able to leave the office at the end of the day, you're not doing your job correctly. If you aren't doing your job correctly, you better start looking for a new company. From that point on, I don't recall anyone leaving at 5 p.m. I think that by explaining my position, I was able to persuade them all that my way of thinking was the right way of thinking.

This question is one commonly asked in interviews for sales positions. The employer is interested in whether or not you can rally support for your ideas and make people comfortable adopting them. It is also a test of your initiative. If you answer that you can't think of a time, you are describing yourself as a follower with no real ideas of your own. Make sure that it is your own gift of persuasion—and not some form of tyranny—that got your coworkers to adopt the idea.

Q: How do you think a past subordinate would describe your leadership style?

YES: I think that those who have worked under me have considered it a positive experience. I look at my role as a supervisor as the chance to have a say in something and contribute to the success of the company. I do not believe it is my place to have the final ruling. I am not one of those people who constantly reminds you that I'm in charge. Before making decisions, I consult with my team to see what kinds of ideas they can come up with. This kind of leadership has been key to success in the past, and it's the model I plan to use throughout my career. Colleagues and employees have both commented to me on the positive work atmosphere that I create; I take that as the highest compliment.

NO: Former and current subordinates alike probably think that I'm a bit difficult to work for, but I would hope that they can still learn something from my expertise. Though most of my colleagues take a more open approach to their departments, I think they would agree that my methods have been successful in reaching set goals.

By asking this question, the interviewer is trying to determine what your references would say about you. When describing yourself, be objective and realistic without embellishing or being overly modest. Describe candidly your leadership style; give specific examples that reflect your personal approach. Even if your style is to retain control, what are its positive aspects? Keep in mind that the employer may very likely call your colleagues to find out the truth from them. Rather than make excuses for your style, explain your leadership approach and why it works. If you can, give examples of how this style has succeeded.

Q: Do you believe that past job appraisals have adequately reflected your abilities as a leader?

YES: I think that the many goals I have surpassed and the various projects I have seen through to successful completion are proof of my strong leadership skills. I am sure that any job appraisal would mention how I look to my team for support, as well as how I take the time to clearly define our objectives to all those around me. By creating a certain amount of camaraderie, I have gained the confidence and respect of my coworkers, which, in my opinion, is the real key to success.

NO: As the first chance I had to really take on the role of leader ended rather disastrously, I would imagine my appraisal would be rather poor. Still, though the project failed, I feel that my performance was fine. I was given a very difficult team of subordinates, which was the real cause of my problems.

If you've ever had an experience where—under your supervision—a project failed, this is the time to explain that struggle. Even if a project failed, how did you work to affect this project in a positive manner? What were the steps that you took to ensure its success anyway? Just because a project did not turn out as well as you had hoped does not mean that your job appraisal should be negative. Avoid taking offense at this question or blaming someone else. Regardless of your team, you were the leader. Talk about how you would translate your past successes and failures to this job. What lessons have you learned? Which pitfalls do you know to avoid in the future?

Q: Describe the situations in which you feel most comfortable as a leader.

YES: I think that one of my talents is the ability to take complex issues and break them down. For this reason, I have always been very good at solving problems that involve facts and figures. As those who work around me are quite aware of this, they usually allow me to emerge as the leader in situations in which there is a complex problem; they look to me to find a solution and instruct them on how to proceed, and I am happy to do so. I am a highly effective leader in these situations. In situations in which there are political or emotional factors to consider, I usually prefer that someone else take the lead. In such situations, I simply resolve to be a good team player. In all other situations, I normally surface as a leader.

NO: The only time I feel comfortable leading is when I have the ultimate say in a matter.

Your answer to this question says an awful lot about you. Do you feel comfortable leading a situation only when it is specifically asked of you, or do you assert yourself in situations in which you think your expertise could help bring a project to a successful conclusion? Talk about the projects you have led and how other people have trusted you. Why do you think people are willing to follow you in situations such as these? The best way to answer this question is to discuss instances when you were recognized as the leader because of your expertise in something, not because you were appointed project leader. If you're asked to describe situations in which you are a better contributor than leader, you can define types of problems that you're less comfortable working on or situations in which you feel you're too opinionated or biased to lead without controlling the group unfairly. Then end by describing instances when you've played the leader well.

Q: Describe how comfortable you are working with people of higher rank versus working with employees of lower rank.

YES: I am on a friendly basis with just about everyone I come into contact with throughout the course of my work day. I recently learned that one of the receptionists and I work out at the same gym, so we carpool after work and are becoming friends because of that. On the other hand, the general manager and I also share several common interests. We have golfed together on a few occasions and have spent many a lunch discussing our various common interests. I pride myself on getting to know those around me personally while, at the same time, building strong working relationships.

NO: I don't really pay much attention to the assistants and other people of lower rank in my department. My boss, on the other hand, is someone I respect immensely. I am always offering to help him out, and I think that because I have spent so many weekends at work for him, he genuinely likes me.

Be very specific here in discussing your relationships. Talk about how you have been able to build strong relationships with all those around you. Don't talk as if those who work under you are below you socially, and don't seem too obsequious when talking about your boss. Though those of higher rank should always command respect, you shouldn't let them walk all over you. By discussing all they ways you help out your boss, you may be setting yourself up as the company's next doormat.

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