Biographical Interviewing

Biographical interviewing whereby you interview a candidate on the timeline of the CV. “What were they doing and when?” essentially. From our own standpoint, this can be a good way to fact check in a CV and challenge where it’s obviously out of alignment. Candidates often make mistakes in their CV when they make changes to it and sometimes that means you find out more than the candidate intended.

When interviewing a candidate, we find it very useful to understand the context in which they performed their role. So understanding the company / division / team in terms of its purpose, its size (people numbers / revenues / projects etc) customers, and structure and physical bases. Leadership team make up and organogram. This will provide a useful backdrop on which to position a candidate in terms of the skills they’ve used and developed. It’s also worth understanding the culture of business as described by the candidate. If it sounds like yours and the candidate doesn’t like it you’ll hire a misfit.

So, the biographical interview has its place. It is best used in conjunction with a very well defined set of competency and behavioural questions.

Creating a high impact CV

Before we start, it’s worth noting what a CV is supposed to do, so that when you create one it does what it’s supposed to.

Let’s start with what it doesn’t do:

  • It doesn’t get you a job
  • It doesn’t conduct the interview for you
  • It won’t answer every question
  • It doesn’t indicate your cultural fit

So, what should it do?

  • It should create interest
  • It should be relevant and unambiguous
  • It should secure an interview
  • It should form the basis for a high quality meeting

In terms of what we believe is important, we concentrate on content so here’s our simple approach with reasons as to why we know this works:

Start with the basics:

  • Name
  • Address (or town if you’re worried about identity theft)
  • Contact numbers
  • Email address, skype address, LinkedIn profile etc.

Personal Statement (not necessarily required):

A short paragraph on you, who and what you are and what you’ve achieved and can bring to a business. (Make this specific to the company you apply to if at all possible)


Short and to the point if you’re not in Academia and if it generally shows your level of qualification and the subject then that’s usually fine. Every school subject passed or failed isn’t required.


Any relevant training and development that you’ve had that is applicable to the role you’re going for will be helpful.

Career to date

Start date – Present (or finishing date) – Company Name – Job Title

Now this is an important part. Describe here the company and or the division you are working for in terms of the purpose of the business (what does it do?), what markets does it serve both geographic and customer. Where is it (and or you) based? How many employees does it have? What is the company’s turnover and ownership structure (all this information is in the public domain usually so don’t worry about confidentiality unless you know that you have to i.e. certain Govt. departments or military etc.)

This is to give context to what you do. People might not know your company and often won’t take the time to look it up.

Then describe here what you do in the organisation. This should be a short paragraph on what you’re there to do and be clear, concise and easily understood by someone not in your industry or company. Avoid industry or company specific terms and acronyms unless they are either obvious, explained or completely unavoidable. Who do you report to and who reports to you. What team are you on (i.e. Leadership / Product Development / Business Development / Quality)


  • Bullet points of what you are responsible for
  • People
  • Budgets
  • Deliverables


  • Measured achievements detailed in bullet points
  • Preferably easily substantiated successes
  • Checkable, reliable outcomes of your inputs

Repeat the process for the last three roles shortening each one by a factor of 50% each time. If the most relevant role to your application is two jobs back then construct it the other way round i.e. First job 25% Second job 50%, Relevant role 100% then reduce again after that.

Preparing for interview

So, you’ve got the interview you wanted, what now?

It’s easy to do a minimum amount of preparing for an interview that you might imagine will cover the basis of your forthcoming meeting. You might just get away with it too, but you’ll be letting yourself down on two fronts – let me explain:

  1. Knowing a company and indeed a department within a company in depth is impressive to an interviewer and the deeper you’ve gone the more impressive it is. If you can start telling the interviewer things that they don’t know then you’ve probably done a great job. Doing a great deal of research IS worth it and will pay dividends in terms of how you come across. It shows real, not passing interest. It shows care and attention and it shows that you’re intelligent and here’s why:
  2. If you know a company inside out, you’ll know if this is a business you want to commit to: Is the balance sheet strong enough? Are the products or services well received? Do they have a stable work force? Are they rated highly on social platforms or search sites? Is the leadership team vibrant and active? Where does the business sit in the development cycle? Ultimately, you’re finding out if this is a company you want to work for BEFORE you go for interview and then you can find out if the people you’d be working with are of the quality you’re after. To sum it up, you’re research is for you and when you display that in the interview, the people on the other side of the table will know you’re there for the right reasons.

Ok, so we know about the company, products, services, people and culture perhaps – how else do we prepare? Well here’s a simple process: Write down the questions you would ask a candidate that you were interviewing for the job you’re going for. You know what to expect, they’ll look like this:

  • “Why do you want to work here?”
  • “What made you apply for the role or come to this interview?”
  • “What achievements have you had in your current role that are relevant here? Why are they relevant?”
  • “What do you do in your current role? (What is your purpose?)”
  • “Why did you leave your last company?”
  • “Why do you want to leave your current company?”
  • “What commitments (restrictions) do you need to work around to do this job?”

And that’s just for starters

The interviewer can then drill down with more direct questions that might ultimately require a “yes” or “no” response such as “Did you have managerial responsibility for staff that included hiring, discipline, appraisals, salary setting and daily objective setting?” or “Was the output of the department solely your responsibility?”

These could then be used in referencing you so honesty is absolutely required at all times.

Then there are all of the behavioural questions that may well form part of the interview:

  • “Give me an example of when a project you worked on failed?”
  • “Why did it fail?”
  • “How did you react to that failure?”
  • “What did you do to retrieve the situation?”
  • “Where there any positive outcomes for you and what where they?”

Then there’s:

  • “What’s your salary and what are your salary expectations?”
  • “Can you give me the names of 3 references that you have worked with in the past 5 years?”
  • “Can you provide evidence of your eligibility to work in this country?”
  • “What is your notice period?”

And then there’s the wild and wacky stuff that may or may not arise such as:

  • “How would you build a bridge using only balloons?” or
  • “How would you weigh a blue whale?”

These are thrown in to evaluate how you think on the spot and your answer will come best if you’re relaxed. This brings us to the main point of this, namely: Review all the questions you think you might be asked and what your answers will be BEFORE you go for interview. You won’t get them all but you WILL get a lot of them. The more you “um” and “eh” about key aspects of you and your career the less you’ll feel comfortable in the meeting. You’ll end up giving unconsidered answers and cursing yourself afterwards.

Behavioural Interviews

A behavioural interview sets out to examine your past performance in the hope that it will indicate your future performance.

The interviewer(s) will ask you questions about situations similar to those you might find yourself in within the role you are interviewing for and drill down on those examples to uncover how you performed.

For example, if you are interviewing for a sales role the question might be: “Can you describe a time when you won a major new customer for your business?” Then “How did the process start?” “Who was involved internally in this process?” “How long did it take?” “Why was the customer attractive to your business?” “What was the process by which you won them?” “What was the material outcome of winning this business?”, “What happened after you won them?” “What did you do to retain the customer for the long term?”

The interviewer will be looking for signs that the key effort in this example was yours and that you can point to that success as a prime example of your skills.

Competency Based Interviews

Here the interviewer is looking at your skills and although they may be looking at your previous experiences to provide example, essentially the aim is to demonstrate the skills you have are the skills (or competencies) needed to do the job. So, for example, if the role is a leadership role then the question might be “Can you provide an example of when you used your leadership skills to effect a positive outcome?” or “Are you able to recall a time when your leadership skills were put under serious stress?”


Profiling is common these days and essentially helps an interviewer understand your personality type and in turn how that might fit in a specific role and team or both. The trick here is to answer them as you, not as you think they might want to see you. It’s not impossible to falsify the results but very often the test itself will throw up anomalies that would suggest you haven’t been consistent in your answers.

The results will probably be shared with you and this should prove a positive experience. You’ll recognise yourself if you’ve been honest and consistent in your answers. There is no right or wrong profile but there is an awful lot of good that can be done with the results. Making sure people are working in the right roles doing the type of work they are bested suited to raises productivity enormously and makes for a happier team.

Presentations at interviews

Any presentation you do will be nerve wracking so the old trick is practice, practice, practice. The content of the presentation may be dictated or may be open but in the main, a company is looking for a well thought through and considered presentation.

For example, when the question is “What would your plan be for the first 90 days in post?” Don’t guess what the company might want you to do. Tell them what you would do, given what you know. That means of course that you do a lot of research up front but also that you share any assumptions that you have had to make before you make the point.

Knowing your slides and your notes is a crucial aspect but don’t be afraid to be controversial in your opinions if you have a view to put across. You can couch some of that in humour too, that’ll help smooth the process, but well thought through and defendable ideas will really make people sit up and take notice.

Panel Interviews

Panel interviews are interesting in that they can be very one dimensional affairs with little opportunity to ask detailed questions that might help you build a picture of the organisation. My advice would be to ensure you have an opportunity to ask detailed questions in another meeting if necessary. Panels by their nature will be sensitive to each other and may not be quite as revealing as the individuals on it might otherwise be in more intimate interview settings.

You might find the experience intimidating, so again preparation can only help. Try and ensure that you make an effort to connect with each panel member in turn and don’t forget to look across the faces of each to ensure understanding.

Salary Negotiations

“What do I do when asked about my salary expectations?”

As with all things, honesty is the best policy. Explain what your salary expectations are and explain why. Yes the company might pay more if you are brave and “go for it” but they also might rule you out as too expensive when they could have met your more realistic expectations. If, then you are too expensive for them then so be it. There’s always a possibility that you’ll move the company’s expectations forward in what they’ll have to pay to land a candidate of your calibre.

Again though, it’s about being prepared. Thinking through what your needs are and making sure you know where your entry and exit points are. Also, make sure you know what your broader benefits package is and what it’s worth because if you don’t tell them, they can’t value it.

Finally, don’t take a job just because the salary and benefits are fantastic. If the job is working for the devil himself, crushing rocks in a furnace for 14 hours a day, your top salary and benefits will be of little comfort.

Resignation procedure

Gulp! This isn’t a fun part. Or is it? When you resign you may be put under quite a bit of pressure to remain and often you’ll be resigning to someone you have a strong bond with. It’s important for you to be able to succinctly explain why you are leaving and what it is that you are achieving by this. This meeting is all about you after all. Stay true to your reasons for moving on and you won’t go far wrong and be careful about the flattery of being bought back, it’s just too easy to get sucked back in and for another year to pass before the penny drops that little or nothing has changed.

If you’re desperate to get out then the advice above might not resonate but it’s worth being prepared. If only to ensure that you get the message across in clear terms and that the break is clean and doesn’t disintegrate into a negative discussion. No one will win from that. Say you are leaving and why and then discuss the terms of your departure. Save the drama for another day.


References are important and they demonstrate three things:

  1. You are who you say you are.
  2. You’ve done what you’ve said you’ve done.
  3. You can do what you’ve said you can do.

Any referee who can’t help in those three questions isn’t a referee. So a referee needs to:

  1. Be able to vouch for you in terms of who you are
  2. Have direct knowledge and experience of your work
  3. Have had responsibility for you and your work performance

Everyone else can hold opinions but most companies would like to know that the referee you have provided is a trusted, verifiable source who has had a close managerial working relationship with you. If your referees look like your friends they won’t be taken seriously so don’t present them as such.


Psychometric testing is aimed at understanding an individual’s personality type and to be effective, you really need to understand both yours and others in the business. They are very good in helping understand how to motivate and influence and if everyone knows everyone else’s profile, it will help build a common language that makes communication and management much simpler.

As far as assessing a candidates suitability for a role, psychometric tests should be used in conjunction with the other assessment tools, hopefully as confirmation that what you’ve seen in interview is what you’ll be getting in behaviours and values. If the two are massively out of alignment then perhaps a candidate is acting a part. If that’s the case then it’s an awkward one but we’d caution against hiring. It’s fine to be your best but it’s not fine to be someone else, the truth will out and it won’t do anyone any favours.

Common profiling tools are available from DISC, Myers Briggs, Thomas International, Saville and Holdsworth, Insights amongst others. You’ll find many other tools have been developed by these companies to help identify specific personality types for roles where that’s important. There are also team and management related tools available. Our advice would be: Use one company in everything and the common language build up will be much faster.