Have you ever completed an obstacle course… On your own?

Picture this, you have just scraped your knees crawling through a tunnel, mud all over you and heavy with water. Your feet are blistered, sweat is stinging your eyes. You hear your heartbeat in your ears and the sharp panting of breath. You are fatigued and in survival mode. You look up to see the dreaded wall. It is ten feet high.

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Too high to jump up, no ropes and it is stopping you from reaching your goal. If only you had a team… Even one other person and you could complete the course.

In crisis, much like obstacle courses there are those who choose to go it alone and self-protect, preferring to minimise personal risk at the expense of the team. They are 50/50 on success and failure. Then there are those that double down on teams and increase their odds of succeeding by sharing a common vision and providing different perspectives to problem solving and communicating effectively.

Share the load

In an average or sub performing team, people are happy to watch other people do the lion’s share of the work, the late hours and own all the pressure and responsibility. They would rather see themselves succeed and the team fail so that they appear strong. In a High Performing Team (HPT), people focus on the overall success and reputation of the team. They put team success before self and proactively search for work. They understand that sharing the fatigue and the burn so that everyone can perform means that nobody gets left behind. While they share the work and their fatigue so that the team achieves more, they all actively seek to be involved in planning at all levels.

Shared planning and supportive decision making

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There is a place for planning in isolation and it usually means there are substantial time pressures or trust issues within the team. A leader who doesn’t trust the team will not value their input into decisions. If they have been burned before, they will want to remove that possibility. In a HPT, everyone’s opinion is valued. It is understood that a wide range of perspectives on an issue may yield a better solution. The team also knows that when a decision is made, the time for shared planning is over and its implementation time!! 

They align and get it done. They support the decision because they understand the importance of achieving the goal and they were involved in the planning. They leverage and reinforce their relationships and maintain open, supportive communication.

Build relationships and a team language

Ever wondered how HPTs can work with minimal communication, or when they do you can’t really understand them. It is like watching a group of soldiers use hand signals and you are standing there, having no idea. They have refined the way they speak to include their history, shared experiences, values and connection to remove superfluous chat. They still have fun and they still care for each other. However, when work needs to get done, they can streamline their language. They know they work from a position of care and support. The HPT will work to strengthen relationships and networks in the good times so that they can lean on each other in crisis. They are calm and deliberate in their actions and communication because they understand that the team’s reputation is more important than their own. These relationships and shared language help understand and communicate the context while implementing the vision.

Clear context and vision

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A team that works to understand and communicate the context in which they operate will be able to make decisions in the absence of leadership, direction and under extreme pressure. They share a common vision for success and work within the boundaries of the defined context. Pushing authorities and decision making as far down as you can, will allow a team to create momentum and take advantage of opportunities. This also mitigates risks associated with slow decision making. The key part of owning the context and implementing the vision is a shared trust in every member of the team.

Trust

HPTs trust each other to a point where they receive feedback without feeling hurt. They understand that the feedback is coming from a place of love and respect to build the overall team and is not a personal attack. They trust that when someone says they will do something, they do it. The behaviour and trust are forged through shared experience and values. They also understand that they will be represented well even when they aren’t in the room.

The steps

The theory of teams is built on a model originally published by Dr Bruce Tuckman. It encapsulates Forming, Storming. Norming. Performing. Adjourning. These steps are normal, linear (step through to build a team) and cyclical in nature (it can relapse back steps at any time) and cannot be skipped. Friction in the storming phase is normal, temporary and MUST happen. A HPT will minimise their time in both storming and norming to accelerate reaching performing. They will also have limited relapses to storming by:

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1. Sharing the workload

2. Conducting shared planning and supportive decision making

3. Building relationships and a team language

4. Having a clear context and shared vision

5. Building trust

6. Acknowledging the steps.

The point 

By understanding what a successful team looks like, how it operates and some of their characteristics, we can work to constantly improve our own teams. There is no secret that, teams are always evolving and constantly changing. Understanding the context allows you to have clarity and accommodate for the disruptions. The steps above are not exhaustive and based on my experiences and opinions. I will say this though, once you have been part of a HPT, you will understand the addictive nature of it. You want it back all the time and will fight to have it again. 

So, if I return to the scenario above. Imagine you are back in that obstacle course and you are looking up at the wall. You are fatigued, tired, wet and sore. Suddenly someone says, “you got this!” A hand reaches down from the top to grab yours and at the same time you are lifted to grasp it. Doesn’t it make a difference?

We hear a lot of positive stories, and the ‘how to’ of successful leadership scenarios. This is not one of those. Let me tell you about the time when I got it completely wrong.

I thought as a junior officer I knew the intricacies of leadership and command. I didn’t know at the time how much I had left to learn, and still do to this day. Specific to this incident, was my lack of E.Q. understanding of stressor impacts, and conflict resolution skills.

Do not mistake my lack of experience for a lack of willingness to do good. I cared about my team, their families, their prospects and life goals but, the in-depth knowledge of how they all interconnected to either support or undermine the team was limited. Retrospectively, I believe that in this instance, I subscribed too heavily towards a ‘mission’ first mentality, at the expense of the team.

The Scenario.

For the purposes of this article let’s call the other person Bill.

On return from an Army exercise, a piece of very important equipment couldn’t be located. It was Bill’s responsibility. He was in a position of leadership at the time, and not being able to find it meant that my team was still working, when the rest of the unit had been home for hours. A terrible outcome for the soldiers and their families desperately craving to be reunited.

In this instance, I was unaware of the life stressors occurring in Bill’s life. Bill was always so cool, calm and collected at every turn that, it never occurred to me that his life was literally burning down around him. I had known Bill prior to us working together and he had a reputation for being a strong, fit, competent and professional man. However, I was focused on preparing the team for operations, fixing the overt issues and working on ensuring the team was at a ‘high performance’ level. I was thinking about the group as a whole and did not make the crucial connection of the group being made up of individuals.

Once the item was found, in his kit, I was livid. I counselled the person in a fashion completely contrary to my character. There are no excuses. Stress from a pending deployment, embarrassment from the counselling I received from my commander or even the disappointment that my team had missed out on even more time with their families, were no reasons for my behaviour. 

My counselling of Bill was aggressively vocal. It was completely uncharacteristic of me and shameful. An interaction that wasn’t lost on my team. Bill also did not take it very well and it had a lasting impact on him. It took time to gain the trust of my team back.

Lesson 1 – Provide clear vision and intent, the mission will happen.

If I had looked after Bill, provided a clear vision and intent, I would have enabled him to a way to tell me what was going on outside of work. Then, I could have worked with him to fix it and ultimately, set the conditions for him to succeed. Instead, I undermined his faith in me as a leader.

Lesson 2 – Stick to your values.

My response at the time did not align with my values (accountability and service). Where was my service to this man and how was I being accountable to him? It was my job to protect him and ensure that his faith in me as a leader was paramount.

Lesson 3 – Find space between the stimulus and the reaction. (Bram Connelly in his Warrior U podcast, Episode 01: KC Finnegan – USSF Major, he explains this well.

When the incident occurred, I should have taken the time to analyse and decipher the variables and considerations. The equipment had been found, that was a positive. While the team was the only one left, they were together and all unified in their search. This was uncharacteristic of him, what is wrong? If I had taken the time to absorb all the variables, I may have found out something that could have prevented a greater impact on Bill later.

Lesson 4 – Make the best decision you can with the information you have.

At the time, with the information I had, this was not the best decision I could make. I knew this man extremely well and I knew it was out of character. Instead of confirming information, I sought to transfer anxiety from my Commander to him.

Lesson 5 – Know your people, they are not their behaviours.

I didn’t find out until later that the interaction had a long term and devastating impact on him. It impacted his Afghan deployment and contributed to some long-term issues. To his credit, he reached out. He explained how the incident had impacted him and it was something that he had never really let go. I had no idea that the interaction had hurt him. It hadn’t registered to me as something that would have. 

Lesson 6 – If you are wrong in your approach, own it, TRY TO MAKE IT RIGHT!!

After he told me the impact the event had on him, I was gutted. So, I did the only thing I could and owned my mistake. There was an explanation of my thought process at the time and how with the benefit of hindsight and experience, I would have done things differently. Now, I am doing what I can to make it right. I keep in contact with him regularly and it is a constant reminder to stick to my values.

Dave and I have unpacked this a hundred times so that we can learn from it and never make these mistakes again. So, feel free to take a free one from my error. We use our experiences and lessons like these at The Eighth Mile Consulting because it keeps us accountable to ourselves and the good people we work with.

Dont be a jerk and never underestimate the impact your actions have on other people.

As leaders and managers, it is our responsibility to find credible information which assists practical and informed decision-making. Unfortunately, decisions often have to be made without all the necessary information available. A decision maker in these circumstances will often leverage from their previous experience, the business risks associated with the decision, and levels of authority bestowed upon them, to name a few.

From my own experiences I have often seen many people very uncomfortable making decisions without ‘all’ the information. This often takes the form of indecision, where business or situational opportunities are missed – often being capitalised on by a competitor or more flexible/adaptable team.

In the military the term ’fog of war’, originally coined by Carl von Clausewitz (military strategist) is often utilised to explain uncertainty during war, and addresses the complexities with gathering accurate and timely information. The metaphor is often used to explain to commanders the importance of making decisions with what little information one has; a very important feature of war, particularly in the pursuit of maintaining momentum towards a goal or end-state.

So why are some people so uncomfortable with making decisions in the absence of ‘all’ the information? The answer it seems is simple; people do not want to make the wrong decision – this is understandable without additional context. They also presume that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect decision’. What if I told you there is no such thing as a ‘perfect decision’, and that the need to maintain momentum should be, in most cases, a stronger driving force. This is not to be confused with making rash or ill-considered decisions, as this can be equally damaging and frustrating to co-workers.

I would argue that that the purveyors of the 80% in time, as compared to the 100% too late rule are often those that excel in competitive markets, and generally maintain momentum towards project success.

Sir Richard Branson once said,

“There’s no such thing as perfect decision making – only hindsight can determine whether you made the ‘right call.’”

Branson placed greater emphasis on gathering accurate information in order to answer specific questions of fact, which would later either confirm or deny a decision to move forward. Too often people appear to be gathering information without a good understanding as to what decision it will influence. In these instances, people are most certainly busy, but unfortunately they are often collecting the wrong information. Quantity in this context does not ensure quality.

So what can leader and managers do to ensure they are assisting their teams with collecting the right information?

  1. Categorise your questions of fact – Determine what one must know/must have vs what is nice to know/nice to have. In some cases a metric or means of measuring the data will assist in knowing when it has been successfully gathered upon. Greater emphasis should be placed on answering the questions which will determine go/no go criteria for the project.
  2. Ask the right questions to the right stakeholders – Too often we are not engaging with the right people, nor asking the correct questions. When engaging with SMEs ensure that your question: is used to drive a specific decision on your end, and is asked in the correct language or vernacular (note: words have different meanings to different organisations). Don’t assume everyone speaks the same technical language -Engineers vs Project Managers is a recurring theme in many industries.
  3. Streamline data collection towards specific questions, which will confirm or deny a specific decision to be made – Effective Project Managers are those that can adequately define the Project Scope and ensure the project remains orientated towards a measurable end-state. If people are collecting information that does not target a specific decision, stop collecting it.  
  4. Sequence your data collection to align towards project milestones – Note: you often do not need all the information at that point in time. Some information will only become relevant later. If you wait for all the information you can miss critical opportunities as the project evolves.

In summary, if you have enough information to make a reasonably informed decision – make it! Nirvana is never reached in the pursuit for the perfect decision.

 We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

“I always likened the STAR method to that of a quick SMEAC. It was much easier as the interviewer when the interviewee presented their thoughts in a logical manner, not only because I had to write them down but also it’s easier to digest.

Rob, Recruiter, ex-military

“Hard to break the barrier sometimes not through lack of experience or relevance, but simple/subtle differences in lexicon.

Dave, transitioning from Military 

I [Tim Cook] wanted to carry on from a theme that fell out of my last post. I am not a proponent of the STAR (situation, task, action, result) interview technique. Most would be familiar with it, as it appears to be the dominant technique for organisations seeking to recruit new talent. I have had difficulty using it as the interviewee, and I’ve had feedback from other job seekers, as well as selection board members, that it doesn’t work for them either.

My position no doubt comes from a personal bias. I have always left an interview that used the technique feeling like I had not done well, and true to form I’ve not progressed through those recruiting rounds. I believe it is also an ex-military bias as we suffer from using a different business lexicon in our daily affairs. Many of us struggle to translate this lexicon when presenting for industry roles when we transition out of uniform. This makes answering questions about our capabilities and past experience difficult at the best of times. Having to do so using an answer format of situationtask, action and response, becomes that much harder.

Having said this I’ve also had others (again from all sides of the equation) tell me they are big fans. Many see it as the only viable method to test and compare job candidates’ suitability, and argue convincingly that if better methods existed they would be dominant. This has led to me to explain my position here. I’m a STAR challenger. I’m also a realist, and a job seeker. Whether I like it or not, it is the dominant interview technique, particularly for the kind of roles I seek out (professional services or middle to senior management positions). Whilst maintaining my position as a STAR challenger I need to become a STAR performer, or else I risk remaining a job seeker indefinitely.

Because I have heard such polarising positions on this matter I have reached out to my network to get their thoughts on it and include their opinions in a way that tells both sides. I’ve always found every opinion has merit if you seek to challenge the status quo.

I’ve also recruited in some help from an old colleague to co-author. We hope that in reading our thoughts below you begin to challenge whether the STAR technique is the best way to conduct interviews when recruiting for roles. And for those job seekers out there, we hope to provide some useful tips on how to become a STAR performer, regardless of whether you are also a STAR challenger.

What is the STAR interview method? When can it work?

The STAR technique is a widely utilised tool for a reason. It provides structure and design in a recruiting environment which is often saturated with applicants and information. 

“The recruiter doesn’t know anything about you. The STAR technique lets them test how appropriate your experience is for the role without giving away too much so they can make a judgement about your ability to do the job.” Becky, Recruiter. 

This being said, the STAR technique is best utilised when recruiting for technical and trade specific positions as it provides a logical and structured way to draw out specifics around a technical skill or past experience. In this way it is best used in multi-stage recruitment processes, such as where a second interview with a candidate focuses solely on technical capability. It is less suited as an initial interview technique or to roles that require a more generic or holistic approach to problem solving such as managerial, or leadership positions. The reasons for this will be discussed in greater detail below.

Why I’m a STAR challenger

So in the right circumstances, the STAR technique has merit and deserves it’s place as a tool for recruiters and interviewers to shortlist candidates and select the best for the role. It’s a tried and true method, and one that is comfortable for many; however, others have been expressing dissatisfaction with the technique for some time

“It is cumbersome and restrictive.” 

Deb, Group Facilitator

It has flaws, and there are equally many circumstances when other techniques are more appropriate. So let’s look at the flaws:

It tests the wrong things. In general the process tests against skills or competencies rather than cultural fit for the recruiting organisation. Fit and the potential to find a sense of purpose in the organisation or career path is much more important than perfect skills match. We never stop learning and can learn new skills when provided an environment that allows you to do so. When recruiters emphasise perfect skills fit I’m left wondering whether the organisation is willing to invest in their people at all.

Also many interviewers will try to use the STAR method to test cultural fit, attitude and values. This results in questions being very vague or broad, demanding “a particular time in space” response due to the format of the answer. Integrity, ambition, resourcefulness etc are demonstrated over time, not because a person did the right thing once and can provide a great STAR response. Also the demand for metrics in answering questions around culture, attitudes and values is nonsensical. What metric can you place against integrity?

It’s too specific and hence removes context. The STAR technique leads the candidate to “Tell me about ONE time you did this?” That they’ve done it once doesn’t indicate experience or competence. Anyone can cite a few experiences that meet a question. Sometimes they got lucky and were in the right place and time to have an amazing tale. But if they didn’t learn as much from it or weren’t as involved in the solution as the represent, then are they the best candidate just because they had the most impressive story? To come to grasps with a person’s potential is more difficult than asking for a few snapshots in time.

Another significant concern is that the technique does not allow the individual to adequately define or explain the broader context of a situation due to the need for brevity. This has significance when certain high-performing individuals have completed a task under the broader context of larger organisational changes or evolutions. For example, a candidate may explain how they were able to develop efficiencies within one aspect of their previous job role, however this will have been completed alongside numerous competing, and potentially more relevant events such as personnel shortfalls, budget cuts, stakeholder complexities and inhibiting risk management restrictions. This cannot be communicated easily when describing one challenge. Identifying an individual that can complete one task does not mean that they can adequately complete two or more. The STAR technique can channel organisations into missing out on individuals who can adequately prioritise work, operate under increased stress, and demonstrate adaptability. 

Too often it’s about the past rather than a conversation about the future. The entire premise revolves around what you’ve already done, rather than your potential to do something in the future, and isn’t the latter what recruiting is really about? 

Yes it is important to know whether the person has the qualifications (whether formal or informal) to do the job. This is answered in the candidates CV. It is also important that candidates demonstrate competence in those qualifications through their experience. This is also answered in the CV, and reinforced by referees. The real question is which candidate could do the job best. This is about the future, not the past.

It’s done badly. Often I’ve been asked questions that I couldn’t fathom had anything to do with the job for which I was applying. The questions danced around a theme and seemed to be hiding the purpose of why it was asked or sometimes the theme just seemed irrelevant. The STAR technique inhibits the applicant’s ability to provide a meaningful or creative answer or to explore why the question was asked, and therefore often competes against the recruiter’s priorities which may be to identify creativity, and influential leadership potential.

Too expand further, a well designed question should be open ended to allow the applicant to explain in great enough detail, and should not be presumptive, nor leading its delivery. For example, “tell me about a time you failed at something, and how you turned it around into a win,” will undoubtedly channel the applicant into a certain method of answering the question, covering the same reoccurrence of industry buzz words. Ultimately it results in duplicity and poor differentiation between candidates. The question is generic, demonstrates poor imagination, and it is questionable whether it was asked for the purposes of determining an organisational shortfall or gap in the first place.

Lastly the method is old and tedious. Recruitment as a discipline in HR has not undergone any real innovation in a few decades. Linkedin and mass recruitment sites are excellent and useful, but haven’t transformed the industry. We still look for jobs (on whatever medium they’re advertised including referrals), apply for one by sending in a CV & covering letter, and finally go to an interview most often expecting the STAR technique. We’ve been doing that for years.

How can recruitment be done better without using the STAR technique?

Do the preparation and ask relevant questions. If an organisation wants to hire adaptive, creative, and forward thinking managers and leaders, then it needs to provide the same level of commitment and investment into finding the right people. If this requires more time to conduct recruitment, then plan for it appropriately. Questions should target key attributes or skills required to rectify identified shortfalls within the organisation. For instance, if the individual is likely to move into the position and experience a high proportion of pre-existing personnel welfare, and human resourcing cases in their team, then a weight of effort should be applied in order to test how the person will react with the potential problem. This can be tested through the use of behavioral hypothetical questioning, with fake characters, locations and events.

If an organisation wanted to identify a potential leader, then the questioning would likely require an individual to demonstrate their creativity, and ability to communicate in different ways. In this instance, providing a question that requires multiple levels of analysis, a breakdown of competing priorities, and appropriate distribution of tasks within a defined timeline would be appropriate. Then have the individual present their approach to the problem in a medium of their choosing.

Role playing. Having an applicant face to face with another individual is a proven method of determining desirable behaviors. This coupled with relevant questioning modeled on likely issues to be seen in the workplace will improve the chances of identifying individuals who demonstrate similarly aligned cultural values, the ability to engage with stakeholders, and most importantly the ability to communicate. Role playing and rehearsal makes up a significant proportion of the training conducted within the military, as it tests an individuals tact, tone and ability to adapt to changing situations.

How do I become a STAR performer?

As an ex-military job seeker facing the STAR technique can be a daunting prospect. The reasons for this are many and varied, but centre on translating relevant experiences into language the interviewer understands and values and then making them fit the technique. Having to do so already sets you behind other candidates. The other is that our proudest or best examples may not be relevant to civilian jobs.

If we accept that in some cases STAR is here to stay, here are some tips to help you become a STAR performer.

Prepare. Like a stage performer, a political orator or a soldier, preparation is key. As much as possible try to think about the job you are going for, and what is important about the role from the perspective of the interviewer. Then match your experience and skills to that and prepare some outline responses. In doing the preparation try to use terms that are used in the new industry to break down the language barrier. If you don’t know the terms then do the research.

Rehearse. Once you’ve prepared some responses test them by rehearsing. Work with someone you trust; friends, family or your professional network and role-play. It may feel silly, but rehearsals are important. We practice processes, drills, orders or speeches. A job interview is no less important. Don’t leave yourself in a position where you are “winging it”. If the examples you use go over the head of the average person, then go back a step and try again. It will be tedious at first, but will get quicker and easier the more you try. 

Leave pride at the door. Professionals (and all servicemen and women are professionals) are proud people, and deservedly so given the hard work they demonstrate. But pride is also a sin. If you are crossing industries or transitioning from the military your best examples to questions may not be relevant to the recruiting organisation. For instance a soldier’s honest response to questions about hardship, challenge or working with difficult people are going to be very specific to the military environment. Conversely, this doesn’t mean all your experience is irrelevant.

If you are asked a question by a recruiter that leaves you thinking about an extreme and specific military situation then you may need to leave that behind. Instead in your own mind extend that question to end with “…. in a way that is relevant to me, this job or this industry”. Find a response from your history that is closely aligned to what you can expect in future roles and use those, even if they aren’t your proudest or most impressive achievement. When describing them avoid jargon. Instead use the language you rehearsed so you can be confident you will be understood.

Be confident the skills you have are valuable. Having worked in both the military and industry we can say that the training you receive in uniform is professional, world class and transferrable. Don’t be put off that it was “military training” or focused heavily on combat skills. Whilst learning about how to act in combat you learned other things like planning, leadership and administration. Those skills and who you became as a person is valuable and transferrable to industry. If you do the previous steps you will have numerous examples in language the interviewer can understand. This will give you confidence, and that confidence will shine through to the interviewer. If you really can’t see how your skills were transferrable, find a role model and turn them into a mentor so they can assist you. 

We hope you found this post interesting, informative and helpful. Please comment and share if you feel it would be helpful to others. We are very interested to hear and share thoughts on the STAR technique, and especially different ways of preparing for interviews as a job seeker. We plan on continuing this thread by drawing out common military skills and behaviours and mapping them across to industry language to assist with translating that lexicon. 

Tim Cook is a management consultant and professional with vast supply chain and operations management experience who served in the ADF for 14 years. David Neal is a current serving ADF member with 11 years of experience, with additional experience in operations management, leadership and human resourcing.

Tim Cook on LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/tim-cook-3398b369

David Neal on LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/david-neal-a57025a2