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Answering Interview Question: Tell Me About a Time When You Were Successful (Plus Sample Answer!)

By Bob McIntosh

Answering Interview Question: Tell Me About a Time When You Succeeded (Plus Sample Answer!)"Tell us about a time when you were successful at work" is a behavioral-based question you might face in an interview.

This is a common question which can be challenging if you're not prepared for it.

Most people who I ask about their successes at work have difficulty coming up with one on the spot.

Some believe that we’ve been conditioned not to promote ourselves. We have been told talking about a success is bragging, and we should not brag.

Nothing can be further from the truth if we’re asked by an interested party -- interviewers in this case -- who are trying to determine our value.

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We should be able to talk not only about one time we’ve been successful at work. We should be able to recall many times we’ve been successful.

Although this is a challenging question to answer, keep these three thoughts in mind to help you answer this question:

  1. Interviewers want to see how you're going to respond to difficult questions.
  2. Understand why the interviewers are asking the question.
  3. Have your (short, nonfiction) story ready.

For details about how to successfully answer behavioral interview questions, read Smart Strategies to Answer to Behavioral Interview Questions.

How to Answer This Behavioral Question

A vague answer is not going to impress interviewers. In fact, it might eliminate you from consideration. Remember, how you have succeeded in the past is of great interest to interviewers, so interviewers want a specific answer.

The purpose of behavioral interview questions is for interviewers to understand how you have responded to certain situations in the past to gain insight into how you would act in similar situations in the new job.

Keep the following thoughts in mind:

  1. Show Enthusiasm  

When you describe this situation, be enthusiastic about your success, but stick to the facts.

Describe a specific time when you were presented with a challenge and overcame it. This scenario makes the best success stories.

There should be a time when you:

  • improved a process
  • increased revenue
  • saved time
  • reduced cost

Don’t embellish, and don't take credit for anyone else's work -- in fact, share credit with co-workers, management, or others, as appropriate.

  2. Understand Their Reason for the Question  

Interviewers are looking for high achievers who show motivation and don’t shy away from hurdles in their way. They want to hear about your actions which led to a positive result.

They also want to understand what you consider to be a "success" for you:

  • Making or participating in a big win for your employer (e.g. new product launch or landing a big contract).
  • Solving a problem for your employer (e.g., identifying a problem, analyzing the cause of a problem, and/or fixing a problem) .
  • Being promoted (e.g. new job at a higher level).
  • Being recognized (e.g. Employee of the Year award or featured in an article about experts in the NY Times).
  • Personal, unrecognized success (e.g. conquering Excel pivot tables)
  • Leading a team (e.g. an informal group at work or a formal project team).
  • Being part of a successful team (e.g. creating winning proposals or solving customer problems).
  • Beating a competitor -- an internal competitor (e.g. for a promotion or other "win") or an external competitor (e.g. making a sale or winning an industry-wide award)

They also want to know if you succeed by yourself or as part of a team, and how you succeed -- demonstrating your intelligence, your leadership skills, your diplomatic skills, or some other skills you have.

Tell them about a relevant accomplishment demonstrating the skills required for this job. You can gain an understanding of what’s relevant by carefully reading the job description to determine their most pressing need.

  3. Have Your Story Ready  

Be prepared to describe a true situation when you were successful at work. It’s best to write your example, as well as others, down in order to better tell it.

We learn best by first writing what we must say. It becomes ingrained in our mind.

  • Choose the right success for the job.

Have at least two examples ready for the interview, and choose examples that will demonstrate you will succeed at the job you are interviewing for.

Think of an example of leadership or management success for a manager job, an example of creativity or problem-solving success for an individual contributor job, an example of closing a big sale for a sales job, whatever is appropriate and relevant to the job.

  • Have at least two examples ready for the interview.

Keep the examples focused on your work successes. Typically, your personal successes won't be relevant unless they can illustrate that the career change you are attempting is something you have already done at least partially.

  • Protect your current/former employer's confidential information.

If you do share an employer's confidential information, you are demonstrating that either you don't understand confidential information or you don't respect the need to keep some information confidential. Neither will impress the interviewers, and may disqualify you as someone who cannot be trusted.

Particularly if you are interviewing with a competitor of your current (or a former) employer, don't share sensitive information with the interviewers. Occasionally, they may be interviewing you only to learn what they can about that competitor and aren't really interested in hiring you.

Sample Answer

What is very important in answering this question is to go into the interview with a specific Situation in mind. This is the beginning of your story. The remaining parts of your story are: your Task in the situation, the Actions you took to solve the situation, and the Result.

Let's look at a STAR story to answer: "Tell me about a time when you succeeded at work."

  The Situation:  

I was managing one of the largest ABC stores in New England. Although we were leading in revenue; we also had been experiencing a two percent loss due to theft.

  The Task:  

I was tasked with reducing theft to one percent.

  The Actions:  

My first action was to have my assistant manager do a full analysis of the items which were stolen most frequently. Not surprisingly, smaller items like pencils, staplers, and calculators were stolen off the shelves.

However, large amounts of other items of all types were being stolen by my own staff and not making it to the shelves. This was of most concern to me, as the majority of money lost was happening here.

For the theft committed by customers, I instructed my staff to smother the customer with kindness. In other words, attend to any customer who seemed to need help or who was lurking around.

For the theft from the dock, my assistant and I brought our un-loaders into my office one-by-one and asked each of them if they were skimming merchandise from the trucks. One out of five admitted to doing this, so I released him without pressing charges.

I instituted a policy that prevented any vehicles to park or drive to within 100 feet of the un-loading dock. I also had cameras installed facing the point of delivery. Previously there were no cameras.

  The Result:  

Both the external and internal theft was reduced significantly. The policies, extra personnel, and cameras I implemented were successful in reducing theft to .75% and have been doing the trick ever since.

  Bonus - The Learning:  

I learned that while most employees can be trusted, unfortunately a small few can't. I also learned that theft can be reduced at a minimum cost, e.g., I didn't have to install more expensive cameras to cover every square inch of the store. After all, the store wasn't a casino.

The Bottom Line

Expect behavioral questions to be asked by most interviewers. Have examples of how you have handled difficult situations, structured as STARs so you clearly present both the situation and the positive result.

More About Succeeding at Job Interviews


About the author...

Bob McIntosh, CPRW, is a career and LinkedIn trainer who leads more than 17 job search workshops at an urban career center. He also critiques LinkedIn profiles and conducts mock interviews. Bob has gained a reputation as a LinkedIn authority in the community. His greatest pleasure is helping people find rewarding careers in a competitive job market. Visit his blog at ThingsCareerRelated.com. Follow Bob on Twitter: @bob_mcintosh_1, and connect with him on LinkedIn.