When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s common to be asked about your leadership skills and experience. Of course, if you’re applying for a management position or a job with a management component, questions like “What’s a time you exercised leadership?” or “Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership skills” are to be expected. But that’s not the only time you might be asked these questions.
“There is a misconception that if you’re not a manager, you’re not a leader,” says career coach Emily Moyer. But everyone in a company—even individual contributors and consultants—is a leader in some area, making leadership skills and qualities important to have no matter what your title.
For example, even if no one reports to you, you might be asked to take the lead running a project or planning a company event, or you may be responsible for training coworkers to use a technology or methodology you’re familiar with.
And traditional leadership attributes like responsibility, confidence, strong communication skills, and relationship building come up no matter what your job is.
Another possibility? Even if a job isn’t a managerial role, “companies might be looking for someone with leadership skills because they want a person who can grow in a position and within the company,” says Muse career coach Steven Davis, owner of Renaissance Solutions Inc. So it’s a good idea to have your future employer think of you as a leader or potential leader from the start.
Keep reading for three steps to acing questions about a time you demonstrated leadership skills—with sample answers included!
1. Define What Leadership Means to You
Built into questions about demonstrating leadership is a hidden subquestion: What does leadership mean to you? So you’ll want to make sure you start your answer by making your definition clear.
There’s no one way to be a leader, so as long as you’ve taken some time to think about what leadership means to you personally, you’re not going to give a “wrong” answer. Your interviewer doesn’t want you to guess what they think a leader is. Instead, it’s more important to show that you’re self-aware, that you’ve reflected on what leadership looks like, and that you know it’s a journey. “I would want to hear something that is authentic and intentional,” Moyer says.
Before your interview, take some time to think about what you think makes a strong leader and what sort of leader you are and want to be, whether or not anyone would be formally reporting to you in this role. Start by thinking about your past experiences both as a leader and an employee and what worked and didn’t work for you. For example, maybe you’ve thrived in work environments with regular, clear communication between teammates and team leaders at each step of a project. Make a list of the qualities, skills, and actions you value in a leader and use this to define what leadership means to you.
If you’re interviewing for a job where you’ll be managing people, this definition is especially important. A theory of leadership will help you stand out in the crowd, Moyer says. It shows you understand the power you have over people’s jobs in a management role. As the saying goes, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers,” so it’s in every company’s best interest to make sure their new hires won’t send employees out the door.
One way to prove you won’t drive direct reports to quit is to have a thoughtful, concrete plan for how you’ll oversee people’s jobs and elevate your team.