Leadership Interview: 7 Ways to Talk About Leadership Experience When You Don’t Have Any

“In any leadership interview, they are going to ask about your experience.  What if you don’t have any?”

Everyone has to start somewhere.  Moving up in the organizational hierarchy often involves taking on a formal leadership role.  But if you haven’t had one before, how do you respond when they ask you about your leadership experience?

The truth is, you may have been a leader all along.  Here’s why, and seven ways to respond when that question pops up.

Leadership Interview: 7 Ways to Talk About Leadership Experience When You Don't Have AnyLeadership is Influence

Your interviewers are probably asking about your leadership experience with the idea of a formal leadership role in mind.  Something with a title, name tag, special shirt, or specific spot on the organizational line and block diagram.

You haven’t had one yet?  That’s OK.  Be honest, and say so up front.  But don’t let your response end there.

Instead, think of leadership as the ability to influence others to do something.

Leadership is influence. – John C. Maxwell Click To Tweet

And if you take that perspective, you probably have had plenty of opportunities to influence those around you.

Here are seven ways you can answer that question by talking about how you have been positively influencing other people all along.

7 Ways to Answer the Leadership Interview Question

“I always lead by personal example.”  Begin with the idea that before you can effectively lead others, you have to be able to lead yourself.  So talk about how you are always prepared for your work.  How you arrive on time (meaning early!), how you complete your assigned tasks on or ahead of schedule.

Mention how you seek to improve yourself off the clock, whether through books you read, courses you have taken, or experience you are gaining that helps you become better at what you do.

In doing these things, not only are you getting the job done, but you are providing a positive example of how you would expect others to perform if you were their leader.

Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others, as what he does from day to day to lead himself. – Thomas J. Watson. Click To Tweet

“I already lead my teammates.”  Maybe you aren’t the official team leader, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been positively influencing the actions of the team.  The purpose of any team is to get something done, so comment on how you have helped to make that happen.

Talk about how you made sure to complete your portion of assignments on time and to standard.  Then talk about how you went above and beyond to help other members on the team. Talk about how well you collaborate, share, and contribute to accomplishing your team’s goal.

Teammates lead by helping others and following well. Click To Tweet

“I seek responsibility.”  Leaders don’t wait to be told what to do, they are constantly looking around to see what needs to be done.  Talk about times when you saw a problem and jumped in to fix it, even before you were asked.

Mention that time you volunteered to take on an additional responsibility to help the team succeed.  Even something relatively minor like reserving a conference room or setting up a coffee fund can be a sign of leadership.  Employers are generally looking for someone with initiative; this is your chance to show that you have it.

Show you can be trusted with little things, and they will begin to trust you with bigger things. Click To Tweet

“I take responsibility.”  With leadership comes accountability.  Leaders own their actions and decisions for better or worse – that’s one of the ways they build trust with the people in their influence.

Talk about a time when you made a mistake, but took responsibility instead of attempting to shift blame.

The leader takes responsibility for everything that happens, or fails to happen, on his watch. Click To Tweet

 “I take care of my team.”  Leaders take care of their teammates.  It could be something as simple as covering someone’s shift at the last minute when a co-worker had an unavoidable emergency.  Perhaps you acted as spokesperson for your teammates to bring an issue to the boss, or helped a struggling teammate learn a new skill or complete an assignment.

Talking about instances where you were watching out for your co-workers is a good way to demonstrate your readiness to be a leader.

We rise by lifting others. - Robert Ingersol Click To Tweet

“I am very organized.”  Bringing order out of chaos is a critical leader skill, so talk about ways that you organize yourself and help organize the team to be it’s most effective.

Maybe it’s that spreadsheet you built to coordinate project actions, or how you codified a simple procedure so that everyone would be on the same sheet of music.

Leaders bring order out of chaos. Click To Tweet

“I’m a good communicator.”  To lead effectively, you have to have strong communication skills.  Talk first about how you listen in order to understand the message, whether it’s the boss asking you for something, or a co-worker struggling to be understood.

Mention how you strive to be accurate and concise in your speech and in your writing, how you act quickly to clear-up misperceptions.  Talk about how you keep your boss informed.  And be sure to mention how you always follow-up, whether it’s with co-workers, customers, or clients.

Clear, concise communication is the language of leadership. Click To Tweet

Leadership Interview – The Takeaway

You can be a leader without holding a formal “leadership position.”

If you can talk about how you have influenced people to get things done, you have been leading.

So when the question comes up in your leadership interview, don’t shy away from it.  Jump on it as an opportunity to demonstrate that you have the qualities it takes to lead formally, since you’ve been doing it informally all along.

And if you want to be a leader, but haven’t been doing these sorts of things?

Then today would be a good day to get started.

What else can you do to prepare to lead?  Check out the Essential Leadership Skills for the New Manager course to add more critical leadership skills to your tool kit.  The first several videos are free.

Good luck in the interview.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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