The definitive guide to interviewing

Tom Hughes 14.05.2019

Plenty has been written on interview preparation. Interview styles change and advice can be conflicting so here's an interview guide on current, relevant advice to help at interview and secure your next role.

Although this is based on financial services contract change jobs, the core elements are transferable to nearly all sectors and roles.

Long gone are the days of heavy panel interviews and trick questions. Hiring managers, especially in the contract change space, are interested in seeing you because they have a problem to solve and they are looking for a solution. The fact you are in front of them means you have already beaten a number of other candidates because your CV demonstrates the skills to fix their problem. Remember that as you walk in the door and have faith in your abilities and sell the solution.

Most interviews will generally follow a standard format

  • Introduction: < 5 mins

  • Overview of the role and requirement (with a problem to be solved): 5 mins

  • Discussion on CV: 10-15 mins

  • Competency-based questions (evidence you have solved similar problems before): 20-25 mins

  • Close: questions and general conversation (soft skills and engagement assessment)


Every element above has its place and are of equal importance. Often people focus on the competency section and fail on the softer skills – remember your interview begins from the moment you arrive until you walk out of the door - in a tough market it is often down to tiny factors that make the difference between securing the role and not.


You will no doubt have a few minutes to wait in reception to contend with, if it’s your first interview in many years or your first ever interview the nerves will likely kick in.

Keep distracted, most organisations will have some literature in reception, this could give you a valuable insight into the firm – but most importantly will stop you overthinking the interview to come. First impressions count hugely – some research suggests 7 seconds is all you have - so when you meet the interviewer confidence and positivity are key. Roll out your best small talk and get the interview off to a good start.


Once you’re both settled into the interview room and have finished discussing the weather, the interview will move on to the more serious issues at hand. The best thing you can do right now is listen with both ears. You will be told the reason for the hire and the remit. This should be your opportunity to start aligning your experience and start picking the best examples from your past work to demonstrate your fit to the role.

CV discussion

This won’t always be used but most managers will want to hear about your experience before the more structured competency-based questions. Be sensible about how you run through your CV, you want to give people a flavour of how your career has progressed but 10 minutes on your six months working at the local supermarket as a teenager isn’t needed!

Run through your career chronologically, from past to present, adding more detail as you get closer to your present role. If you listened well during the overview you can throw in any relevant details in each role to start demonstrating how you can relieve the pressure and solve their problems. Spend the most time discussing either your most recent/relevant role and start mentally ticking off their wish list.

Competency-based questions

The word competency alone is enough to strike fear into the most hardened contractors, but when you are prepared and understand the technique of answering, competency-based questions are a great platform for you to demonstrate your suitability. It’s all about structure and positioning, let’s tackle structure first.  

The most recognised format for answers is known as STAR - I’ll run through that and add an extra element to take you to the next level, we can call it STAR+.  If you’ve never heard of this, chances are you’re already doing 90% of the below well, but those extra few percent will make a great improvement.

S – Situation

I find this is the section people are least successful in. Situation isn’t the best word really, think of this as your opportunity to set context. I often hear feedback from interviews where the manager liked the candidate but didn’t feel that they could handle the scale/scope of the role – this is your chance to remove that uncertainty from their mind.

Before diving head first into all the hard work you did and are most probably quite proud of, give them some CONTEXT – how big was the task at hand, where did you fit in, did you have a budget/staff if so how big/many. For example, if you project managed a desk move, was it three desks from one side of the office to the other or 30,000 desks in 10 locations and six countries? 

The task, action and result will be the same for both but context is key - I've said context a lot but it really is that important!

T – Task

What was your remit? Hopefully the example you have chosen will reflect a similar problem to be solved as the hiring manager has.

A – Action

The steps you took to get a successful outcome.

R – Result

Presumably you’ve chosen an example where you can demonstrate a positive outcome. Remember to link this back to business value – how has this helped move the organisation forward?

+ - Aftermath

Aftermath is all about lessons learnt, rarely do assignments/projects run perfectly smoothly from start to finish and companies want to hire people who are adaptable and open to change. Demonstrating that you are constantly looking for lessons to learn and folding that into future assignments could make you stand out from the crowd.

Now you have a structure behind the answers you need to think about positioning, some small tweaks can make a huge difference. I always recommend the two Ss: – Specific and Selfish:

Specific – before diving into an answer make sure you have a specific example in mind, don’t use hypothetical situations or language that suggests that’s the case i.e. “I would...”

Selfish – again, this is an area people often fall down on, common feedback received is “I didn’t understand what they did.” You might have thought it was covered, but after years of being trained to be part of a team and/or being overly British and coy about your own talents, your choice of language can easily let you down. You are there to discuss YOUR capabilities, not the team you worked in so avoid using “we” and use “I” instead. This is a small change but mentally probably the hardest for people to get used to – just be selfish for an hour and sing your talents from the rooftop.


Well done, you’ve made it through the competency based questions but now is not the time to relax, you haven’t secured the job yet. Chances are you will be asked if you have any questions. I’m sure you will, whether it's clarification on remit, team, company goals etc., make sure you ask whatever you need to in order to decide if it’s the role for you or not. I would also advise on asking 2 questions:

Were there any competencies you were looking for I haven’t been able to demonstrate?

Useful for 2 things, the conversation may have gone off script and the interviewer failed to ask one of their questions or you may have misunderstood one of the questions and answered differently to what they were expecting. Think of this as your safety net and last chance to cover their requirements.

What are the steps / when are you looking to make a decision?

These questions are great for helping set expectations and understanding what will happen next.

Finally you will have a few minutes of general chat on the way out. If there are a lot of closely matched candidates, this could be final deciding factor. Does the hiring manager feel that there is potential for a good working relationship? Essentially do they trust you? Continuing to build rapport until you leave can give them the reassurance that any task entrusted to you will be completed successfully.

Tom Hughes's picture
Senior Consultant


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