When faced with difficult problems, are you able to offer up solutions on your own, or do you wait for someone else to tell you what to do? The ability to solve problems is a hot commodity in today's job market. To say, “I'm a great problem solver” is one thing; to show that you can solve problems quickly is entirely different. Think about times when you have been under pressure to get something done and how you have worked to resolve problems.

Q: Describe a time when you've used a problem-solving process to obtain successful results.

YES: The hotel chain that I work for offers a free night's stay to any customer who has had an unpleasant experience there in the past. As customer service is a top priority of mine, I took it upon myself to follow up with some of the unsatisfied customers. Upon retrieving the names of all those customers who had complained about our hotels in the past few years, I noticed that several customers were arranging hotel stays around the country through abuse of this policy. I suggested that we set up a flagging program in our computer that would allow the clerk or person making reservations to recognize this customer as someone who had complained in the past.

Hotel employees were instructed to make mention of this customer's past experience. By stating something as simple as, “Mr. Smith, I know that you have had an unpleasant experience with our hotel in the past, and I am happy that you have decided to give us a second chance. If there is anything I can do to make your stay more accommodating, please don't hesitate to contact me.” For the customers who have had legitimate complaints in the past, this tactic allows us to be able to address their concerns more closely and make them aware that we are working to correct any problems they have found. Those customers who chose to abuse our satisfaction-guaranteed policy are warned that their name is on record as having complained in the past, making it less likely that they will do so again after this stay. Because of this new system, our satisfaction rate has improved tremendously, and fraudulent cases have decreased.

NO: The retail store I worked for was experiencing a surge in shoplifting incidents. While we were able to catch and prosecute many of the culprits, we were still not able to catch all of them. After looking over the profiles of most of the convicted shoplifters, I realized that—for the most part—these shoplifters were young girls aged seventeen and younger. In order to curb the number of thefts in our store, we put up a sign stating that all girls under the age of eighteen must be accompanied by an adult. Since that time, we have definitely seen a drop in the amount of lost inventory.

You are trying to establish yourself as a fair employee who uses logic to solve difficult problems. When choosing a situation to describe, make sure it defines a real problem and a good solution that has helped in solving this issue. Describe, step by step, how the process you came up with was able to lead to a successful conclusion. What measures or benchmarks did you use to control or manage the process? What were the results?

Q: How do you usually go about solving a problem?

YES: The first step I take is to figure out all the possible causes for the problem. I then think about the outcomes that could arise from my taking action; I consider the best- and worst-case scenarios as well as the other things that are likely to occur. I then try to relate this problem—and its possible causes—to a larger problem. When I have everything laid out in front of me, it is much easier to make a logical connection between cause and effect, and I can come up with a practical way of resolving the issue.

NO: When given a problem to solve, I try to speak with my boss or someone in a higher position to see what he would do about it. I figure this person is in an authoritative position for a reason, and I usually try his solution out to see how it works. If the plan backfires, I always have someone to go back to for support.

The key here is to show the interviewer your initiative and your ability to make logical decisions. Convince the interviewer that you are able to solve a problem successfully and that you already have a set plan for tackling such complex issues. What criteria do you base your decisions on? Do others seem to have faith in your problem-solving abilities? If you can, give specific examples of times when you were able to use these problem-solving abilities to arrive at a successful conclusion.

Q: How do you measure the success of your work?

YES: The best way I can measure my own success is through customer feedback. When my customers call me with a referral, I take that as an indication that I am doing a good job. Repeat business has always been more exciting to me than winning a new account. Knowing that my customers have come to rely on me and that they've told their acquaintances about my company and me is really the highest compliment.

NO: I look at the company profit. If the company has done well for the year, then I have done well for the year. If the company has not done well, then I have not done well.

One of the most important things to remember here is that the interviewer is interested in how you separate your own work from the work of the company. Regardless of whether or not the company is successful, how do you know whether you yourself were successful? What evidence do you look for to evaluate the success of your own work?

Essential

Career counselors often report that one of the most common problems job seekers run into is that they don't consider whether or not they're suited for a particular position or career. Remember that you're not just choosing a career—you're also making a choice about the life you want to lead.

Q: How practical or pragmatic are you?

YES: I've always considered myself a very practical person. I have no problem picking up on underlying problems, even when they're not too obvious—or when they're so obvious that people overlook them. I remember one time when an investment banker visited the real estate finance class that I was taking and asked what might cause the Tokyo investment community a problem in attracting local investment dollars. A number of finance MBAs in the class tried to think of some complicated set of reasons. I decided that it would have to do with getting out of a bad market quickly and that a nonliquid investment would create problems. I said investors would be unsettled if the primary investment is local real estate and inflation has caused the paper value to exaggerate the real street value. As it turned out, that was the answer he wanted.

NO: My ability to be pragmatic is definitely one of my weaknesses. However, my creativity more than makes up for my lack of pragmatism.

The interviewer is trying to figure out how well you solve problems. If possible, give the interviewer an example of a time when you used a practical approach to solve a problem. Be sure to highlight your common sense rather than your academic background in this answer. Assure the interviewer that although you have the education she is seeking, you also have the experience and practicality to look at a problem—and solve it—from a very simple angle.

Q: How do you balance your reliance on facts with your reliance on intuition?

YES: Though I believe that facts, obviously, are important, they often neglect point-in-time influences, especially as far as market research is concerned. I recall one instance when I was asked to look at pricing data that was collected just after a major presidential election. The timing of this survey caused me to doubt that consumers would really spend as much for a new car as the survey indicated they would. As a result, we ended up holding on to the last quarter's pricing structure. We sold more cars, even as interest rates climbed, while some of our competitors had expensive inventory carryover.

NO: I don't really see any comparison between these two things. Facts are facts, and you can't dispute them.

Though collecting and using fact-based data in any job is important, having a strong intuition about an industry or a subject is also important. The marketplace changes on a daily basis, and you need to be able to keep up with these changes and modify your way of doing business accordingly. If you can, tell the interviewer about a time when you were able to come up with a successful solution to a problem by using both facts and intuition. If you had answered this problem by relying strictly on the facts at hand, what could have happened? Demonstrate your ability to think outside of the box.

Essential

Being anxious is normal, but there are ways to lessen stress. Ask yourself: Am I qualified for this job? (If the answer is no, ask yourself why you applied.) Is there anything else in my life causing stress? (If so, try to eliminate it.) Finally, ask: What's the worst that can happen? (Your job interview will not result in anything worse than a simple rejection.)

Q: Tell me about a time when a problem that you failed to anticipate arose.

YES: My boss had asked me to spend a little time trying to find some inventive ways to cut costs in my department. I immediately got to work and found all sorts of ways to cut barely noticeable amounts of money in various areas that would result in an overall 10 percent decrease in costs. What I hadn't realized is that each of the department heads had already been asked to choose one area in which they would be willing to cut costs. The department heads responded that there was no area within their department that they were willing or able to cut any costs. Soon after I submitted my solution to my boss, I noticed the apathetic way in which each of the department heads dealt with me. I failed to realize that my solution had already been attempted and that there were a lot of negative feelings associated with my findings.

NO: I really can't recall a time. I am very good at foreseeing the possible outcomes of any situation—including the problems that are likely to arise.

Everyone has failed to anticipate a problem at some time, even the interviewer. The question is whether you're secure enough to 'fess up to it and see it as a learning experience. Discuss an incident in which you failed to see the warning signs that a problem was likely to occur. What did you learn from this experience? How has your judgment changed because of that incident?

Q: Have you ever resolved a long-standing problem?

YES: For as long as I could remember, the hotel that I worked for chose to batch our guests’ personal faxes to make the task easier on our administrative staff. Several guests complained about this, claiming that they needed these documents sent out immediately. I arranged a lease deal on an outgoing fax machine for our guests to use. This not only freed up time for our administrative staff but also allowed us to protect any incoming information until the appropriate guest could be located.

NO: Not that I can remember.

This question isn't asking whether you've ever been able to solve the problem of world hunger. Though it sounds a bit intimidating, it's asking about your ability to solve a long-standing problem, not necessarily a huge one! No matter how small the issue, talk about how you came up with a solution using your good judgment. The problem does not even need to be work related; it could be something you did in school or with a volunteer organization. Make sure that the problem you choose to talk about is one you solved successfully. What motivated you to tackle the problem to begin with? How did you overcome the obstacles? What were the results?

Alert

Make sure you can back up all the claims you made on your resume. If you can't, it's the surest way to lose a job offer.

Q: Describe a time you had to make an unpopular decision.

YES: Though we had always championed the idea of teamwork and community at my current job, there was an obvious line set between those who were in high-level positions and those who were not. One of the main issues that often arose was that high-level executives had assigned parking spots right near the front door, while others had to walk for five minutes or more to make it to the door. As many of these higher-level people didn't arrive at the office until later or were often called away on business, employees would complain about this obvious inequity. I thought that these employees had a legitimate complaint and that the idea of assigned parking spaces was inconsistent with our policy of an equal work force. Though the matter is forgotten now, I did not have many of the high-level employees on my side with this decision.

NO: We were working on a very tight deadline, and I told the entire staff that because we were so far behind, we would need to either work overtime a few nights that week or come into work for a few hours on Saturday. My team was not very excited about this prospect.

Being an effective leader requires, on some occasions, making unpopular decisions. The interviewer wants to know that on the occasions where you have had to make such decisions, they were in fact necessary. He also wants to be assured that these unpopular decisions don't occur that often or because of poor work habits. Talk about your willingness to make these decisions and accept the isolation that is likely to follow as a result. Discuss the way in which short-term sacrifices often result in the successful achievement of long-term goals. Be sure to give a specific example.

Q: Describe a time when a problem wasn't resolved to your satisfaction.

YES: During last year's holiday season, we weren't able to complete a customer's order in time. Our production capacity was not sufficient to deliver the entire order on time. As a result, the customer asked for a discount on her order. I was upset by the fact that we did not take initiative and offer the customer a discount at the same time we informed her that her order would not be ready. The sense of goodwill and genuine regret for not having the order ready would have been greater.

NO: I had been having a lot of trouble with a person in my department who thought it was okay to arrive at work more than twenty minutes late every day. When I spoke to him about this, he said it would not happen again. To this day, he has never made it to work on time.

This question focuses on the candidate's standards of quality. Do you let things slide by when there is an easier or better way to solve the problem, or do you work tirelessly to ensure a satisfactory ending? Describe a situation in which you foresaw long-term complications from a problem that was poorly handled. Did you initiate the resolution of this situation? If the solution still wasn't satisfactory, did you do anything else? If there was nothing else you could do, why not?

Q: Tell me about a time when there was no rule or precedent to help you attack a problem.

YES: I was the first employee in both a newly created position and a newly created department. In order to gain an understanding of what my ultimate goals were, I spent the first week speaking with employees to figure out the history that had led to the creation of this position in the first place. Once I better understood the need the company had, I was able to develop a method for setting priorities. I was also able to figure out the steps I would need to take to ensure that this new position and department were worthwhile creations.

NO: While my boss was on vacation for the week, a customer called with a question that I was disinclined to answer, even though I thought I could do so. Since there was no one else in the company who could answer the question with authority, I had to get in touch with my boss by calling and e-mailing him until he got the message and called me with the answer the customer was looking for.

The interviewer is trying to determine your confidence level as well as your willingness to accept new challenges. How resourceful are you when it comes to determining how to proceed with something in which there is no set precedent? How well do you operate without the assistance of a formal structure? Talk about a specific situation in which you needed to set priorities and develop a plan of attack for a particular question or problem. Describe your problem-solving process, especially the steps you took and measures you established in a particularly trying situation.

Q: Describe an opportunity in which you felt the risks far outweighed the rewards.

YES: We were given the opportunity to purchase manufacturing equipment at thirty cents on the dollar from a company that had recently dissolved. At the time, we anticipated an overhaul of our manufacturing facility five years down the road. I made the decision that it was too far into the future to spend money only to have idle capacity for a five-year period. If market conditions had shown more promise for new sales in the initial two-year period, I would have gone ahead with it.

NO: My staff had been complaining about the lack of computer power within our department. The computers that we had were old, and the software was outdated. When I approached my boss about purchasing new equipment, the amount of money she offered to help with the problem would have only been enough to purchase new equipment for one of our employees. A friend told me that he could get the exact same advanced equipment—for all of my employees—at the exact price my boss had offered. The catch? The equipment was stolen. While it was definitely something to consider, I decided that we would be better off buying legitimate equipment and improving one person's workstation at a time.

The interviewer wants to be assured that the candidate is able to take reasonable risks without being foolish. The best way to answer this question is to offer an example of a time when you were given a decision to make and were able to use good judgment in determining the risks versus the benefits. How was the outcome of your decision preferable to what might have happened? Were you aware of the possible risks? What was the thought process you used to decide against this?

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