Summary: This article explains the importance of finding the right type of leader for the right kind of team or problem. In doing so it makes an analogical link between athlete suitability for certain sports, and leader suitability for certain teams and situations.

When I was younger, I used to be heavily involved in a number of sports, one of which was Karate. During this time, I found myself in the Australian team for Shotokan Karate and would later represent my country in the World Championships. Years would pass and I would find myself in the Australian Army serving in the Infantry (foot soldiers). This too would prove to be a very physically challenging profession. After having a discussion with my father, the topic of what it meant to be ‘fit’ was raised. My father, who has always been involved in competitive sport and leadership, very aptly pointed out that the term ‘fit’ was a relative term and is entirely specific on the task to be completed. This contradicted my limited definition of the term ‘fit’ which I held at the time.

It took me many years to fully conceptualise the full utility of what my father had taught me. Furthermore, the concept of being ‘fit for purpose’ has now extended its efficacy into many other areas in my life including:

  • Leadership
  • Understanding of Intelligence
  • Management
  • Processes
  • People
  • Strategy
  • Projects

What Does It Mean To Be Fit?

If I were to ask someone what it means to be ‘fit’ they will immediately conjure up an image of what it means to them. The only assurance we have is that the more people you ask, the more definitions of what fitness means will be provided. For example:

What does it mean to be 'fit for leadership'?

Some people might interpret fitness as being lean, thin and muscular. But what if I challenged that paradigm with an example of a Sumo wrestler, who aims to be as heavy as humanly possible in order to resist their opponent forcing them from the ring? Please note, in Japan Sumo wrestlers are idolised as sporting gods.

Flexibility vs. Muscle Mass

Some people might consider flexibility a key facet of being fit and will go on to envisage pilates & yoga instructors, and gymnasts. But what if we challenged this by using the example of body builders who aim to grow as much lean muscle and mass as possible at the expense of much of their flexibility. Are they not fit for their purpose?

Endurance vs. Sprinting

Some people might consider endurance to be a key characteristic of fitness, but then we could go on to use examples of powerlifters or 100m sprinters in order to challenge that theory.

The term fitness is only relative to the task and scenario at hand and is completely different in each circumstance. The same can be said for other topics like leadership and intelligence.

The term ‘fit’ or ‘fitness’ in this context translates to suitability, utility and functionality.

Being Fit For Purpose – Leadership & Intelligence

My team at The Eighth Mile Consulting often work with organisations in developing their leadership and project capabilities. In doing so, one thing has become reinforced time again. Different tasks, environments and strategies require different styles of leadership. Now some of you are probably reading this and thinking ‘no duh’ but I would challenge you to think back through your professional career and remember how many times you have seen it go wrong. It might have manifested with:

  • The wrong type of personality being forcibly placed within a team resulting in poor morale, miscommunication and high staff turnover.
  • The decision to have a generalist leader in a role that would have been better supported by a specialist of some type. Or vice versa.
  • A risk averse or ‘move away’ styled leader being placed in a position requiring large-scale change management and strategy realignment.
  • The list goes on…

Suitability is a crucial point that is often overlooked. Too often we are building teams and focusing almost exclusively on people’s past experience or their tertiary qualifications, when history has proven that some of the most influential leaders of our time would never have received a look in had they been forced to go through the same process. Furthermore, many organisations are hiring leaders without having a good understanding of what it is they want them to achieve. This is often because time has not yet been invested into developing a longer-term strategy that will assist in the delivery of subordinating projects or expectations. Even the best leaders will struggle to get wins without a unified strategy or overarching direction. It is a battle that is arguably lost before it has even started.

It is quite often that we hear someone has been placed in a position because they are ‘really smart’ or ‘intelligent’. This topic opens up an equally complicated can of worms in so far that there are many different types of intelligence (IQ, EQ, Social intelligence, etc), further exacerbated by the next questions, ‘what do you need achieved by the position’, and ‘how do you measure it?’ Most people would agree that people who are intelligent in one area are often lacking in other areas. Many studies have been conducted in order to determine the exact correlation between IQ and EQ with varying conclusions. What we can say confidently in the interim is that most people’s strengths often lie towards a bias of one over another.

What particular skill are you great at?

The point is that people are often very effective when placed in the right type of role, and terribly ineffective if placed in the wrong one. The effects when we get it wrong are teams that are disjointed, confused, unfocused, and ultimately ineffective.

The implications are disastrous when we have:

  • A poor understanding of the organisational problem we are aiming to fix
  • No communicated expectations for an incoming leader or important position
  • No overarching strategy or direction for them to align to
  • A willingness to hire a like-for-like replacement of the previous leader, without considering if it is an opportunity to test a new leadership style or approach

Unfortunately, this investment in determining what we want them to do, and how we want them to do it, is often an afterthought. It is like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. One could reasonably argue that the time and resources could be better invested by finding multiple round pegs (candidates) and comparing which one is best for our round hole (our problem/need). But it all rests on an assumption that we have invested the time to determine it is a round hole in the first place.

I would argue that it is morally difficult to get angry at a leader who has been placed in a position, but then be hamstrung by a lack of direction, expectations, and resources. This is not fair or reasonable on the leader, or their teams.

The Way Forward

Understand the problem and the need

  • What is it you are trying to solve? Why?
  • Is this a people, processes, product or profile problem? Or a mixture of all of these issues?
  • What are the expectations of the leader in terms of the organisation’s time, cost and quality outputs?

Understand the leadership effect you are after

What type of leader are you after? And, why?

  • Someone who jumps in the trenches and can get stuck in the detail?
  • Someone who can re-link back with strategy?
  • Someone who has a high level of technical, governance and risk experience?
  • Someone who will gel with other members of the team and focus on raising morale?
  • What is the priority personality trait we are seeking?
  • Do we want someone who is not afraid to challenge the way we have always done things? Or maybe not…

Professionally develop your staff

No one is perfect. Even the best leaders have gaps in their knowledge or approaches. It is the responsibility of an organisation to work with their leaders in order to professionally develop and mitigate against known and agreed upon deficiencies. This can look like:

  • Additional education
  • Time designated for professional development or informal education
  • Allocation of a mentor or coach
  • A budget allocation designated for education gaps.

Note, that professional development should not always be geared towards what an individual wants to do, but towards what the team needs. I remember having completed many courses and qualifications that I would rather have not done because the team needed me to do so in order to cover an organisational capability gap.

Be careful to not recreate the same conditions and expect a different result

Albert Einstein - "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If the reason you are hiring a leader is because the last one was unsuccessful in achieving the desired results, be careful before:

  • Hiring someone with the same characteristics, traits or style.
  • Hiring someone because they remind you of yourself.
  • Hiring someone and then providing them with the same limited resources and investment you provided the last leader.
  • Hiring someone because they are less likely to push back against the hierarchy. Sometimes you might need this in order to fix the root cause of the original issue, which might in fact be the senior leadership of the organisation.

Do not confuse technical problems with people problems

Many organisations make the mistake of confusing system or technical problems with people problems. What looks like a technological issue may in fact be a communication issue between sub-organisations or individuals. This in turn, has implications on the way we hire in response to the business need, resulting in the wrong type of leader being inducted into the wrong team and situation. Companies can spend millions of dollars trying to implement software solutions whilst avoiding the actual people-based problem.

If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to read an article I wrote previously titled ‘It’s All About The Humans: Effecting Change Management’.

Conclusion

In closing I would like to reference a term we regularly used in the military which I believe rings true to this topic, ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. Meaning the time spent understanding what the problem is and what/who we need to address the issue is time well invested. Do not underestimate the significance of conducting timely and accurate analysis, and then translating it into a viable and deliverable plan for execution.

If you enjoyed this article, I would encourage you to see some of our other professional development articles on The Eighth Mile Consulting blog.

“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