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Your Finest Hour

August 22, 2012
by Tim Tolan
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Tips for framing a story about the most important decision you made in your career—and putting the hiring manager in your shoes

During an interview it’s fairly common to discuss your career successes, and where you have made a meaningful difference along the way.  What’s amazing is that so many candidates are too humble to talk about why they just might be one of the top CIOs in the country. I’m not pontificating that anyone should boldly walk into an interview spouting off their greatness and providing dozens of career accomplishments from recent decades. I am, however, suggesting that you really think about how you would answer a question about a time or situation where your leadership—one single key decision you made—had a considerable impact on your organization.

I always like candidates to tell me a story that illustrates how one specific performance helps define them so I can better relay that to clients. I sometimes like to ask about their finest hour—and I like to hear the story in some level of detail to thoroughly understand their impact. It’s actually fairly easy to frame in a conversation. I suggest you set the stage for your story so the audience can fully grasp why this particular example was your finest hour.

Be sure to use talking points that have a white-paper-type outline. Try this:

Where/When: This one is fairly easy since it’s just supplying the city or location you were in and the month/year it took place. The where/when of a situation can give the listener some context to the story.  

Role: What was your title or scope of responsibility at that time? This helps outline your scope of responsibility and where you were in your career to the listener. If it took place early on it can demonstrate that you have learned and gained much more experience since then.

Who: Whom did you report to at that time? If you elect to drop the name in your discussion, make sure you give your former boss a heads up that someone may be calling for a reference and briefly outline the content of the discussion and the outcome of your story.  

Situation: This is where you frame the challenge or problem you faced at that time. Make sure you explain the impact the problem had on the organization and all of the people involved. Bring it to life!

Action: What were the choices in front of you, and what action did you take? Make sure you talk specifically about what you did and why. If it was a team effort, recognize the team too. This gives the listener a chance to understand the way you think about problem solving and how you make fact-based decisions.

Outcome: What happened? What was the outcome and impact? How did your decision make a difference for the organization or situation? This is what underscores the story.

Essentially, what we did by following each step was create an outline/white paper for your story. You should always know which single career activity was your finest hour. Each of us has a story to tell, and you should never be so humble that you don’t tell yours. By setting the stage with the where-when-how and results of the situation, you allow the listener to imagine what it must have been like to be in your shoes on that day.
The next time you are asked about the single most important or impactful decision you’ve made in your career, I hope you will be ready to share your finest hour and tell your story!