Managers receive around 10 internal applicants for all open positions, in addition to all the external people vying for the job. To convince the hiring manager you’re right for the role and stand out from the crowd, you need to craft a strong personal story to tell during your interview.
Applying for a role within your own organization can be more intimidating than applying for the same position at another company. Your team already knows you, or at least they think they do.
When we interact with someone on a regular basis, we build up an impression of them in our minds. This is likely the case with you and your coworkers. They’ve seen you do one job. They have an idea of what you excel at, your weaknesses, and your quirks. Rewiring the image the hiring manager has of you — whatever it might be — will be difficult. Managers receive around 10 internal applicants for all open positions. Not to mention, there might be external candidates vying for the same role. Amid all this competition, you need to help the hiring manager see you in a new light: the best person for the job.
So, how do you do it?
Your mind might jump to the “typical” job advice, like articulating your skills, relevant experience, or ideas around how the company can grow. Although these tips might help you swim through a strong interview, they aren’t going to make you stand out in a sea of applicants, and they aren’t going to disrupt how the hiring manager currently sees you. You need to do something bolder. You need to tell the story of who you are — a story the hiring manager won’t forget.
Using Stories to Stand Out
There are many reasons why stories are an incredible mechanism for capturing and holding someone’s attention during a job interview. Stories have the powerful ability to transport audiences into a new world. Studies show that they’re more likely to stick in a person’s memory than facts.
When you share personal stories with people at work, you invite them to see your values, skill sets, and purpose through a more intimate lens. This can create a “collision” moment in the eyes of the hiring manager, as they see your heart and your ambition meet for the first time.
Your personal stories also impact how you see yourself. When you present them authentically, you shine a light on your vulnerabilities, extend grace to your faults, and step into a more confident version of yourself by recognizing and owning your truth. This confidence will radiate onto those who know you, but perhaps haven’t seen you in that way before.
For these reasons, anyone looking to secure a promotion or new role within their company can benefit from answering interview questions with personal stories that exemplify why they’re great for the job. Here are three tips to help showcase your true self and land that internal role:
1) Share where you came from before the hiring manager knew you.
When a hiring manager doesn’t think you’re the “right fit” for a role, it’s usually because they lack context around who you were before they came to know you. That’s why it’s important to work this in during the interview process. When you’re asked an introductory question about why you want the role, don’t just focus on what you do currently — talk about where you came from and what your life was like before entering the company.
For example, when I was promoted to hiring manager at my company — a workplace that values storytelling and aims to help writers unleash their stories — I made sure to share with the CEO who I was before they hired me: someone who had experienced a painful writing community, where ostracization, bullying, and subtle manipulation were part of the cohort experience. At the time, I was hungry for a safe place to flourish with other writers and artists. My previous experiences were a huge factor in my decision to join the organization.
That context illuminated why I was a good fit for the managerial role the CEO was looking to fill. Through my story, I showed how and why I valued the company’s mission: I wanted to help employ emerging artists and create a safe community in which they could thrive.
In sharing your own background story, make sure to explain why this new role matters to you. Ask yourself: How do my past experiences — in work and life — exemplify the values that this hiring manager might be looking for? Go from there.
Remember: Honesty and emotional resonance are essential to vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult experiences if they help clarify who you are and why you care about what you do. Having the courage to be vulnerable during an interview displays how you’ll model trust with others in the new position.
2) Be honest about the struggles you’ve faced in your current role.
During the interview, when a hiring manager asks you to talk about your strengths and weaknesses, lean into your road of trials: the challenges you’ve faced to get where you are today (including the mistakes and embarrassing moments along the way). To err is human. Sharing your obstacles and failures provides context for your growth and shows how you’ve evolved, grown stronger, or arrived at a more empowered place.
During my own internal interview, I explained that when I first began at the company, I experienced growing pains. I was working in areas of storytelling I had never worked in before — business storytelling, marketing, and technical writing. My background was in classical fiction and poetry, and the role was stretching me in new ways. At first, when I couldn’t deliver something good enough or fast enough, my work was brushed aside. I failed several times before I succeeded.
It was through practice and the support of my team that I began to grow. My peers highlighted the constraints we all face and helped me find pathways to be poetic and playful in genres I wasn’t used to. I learned the importance of creating a psychologically safe work environment. Ultimately, that’s what allowed me to take creative risks. I explained to the CEO that I was now more intentional about carving out the space to learn, fail, and try again. I explained that in this new role, that’s the kind of team I would want to nurture and cultivate.
By telling a story of your challenges and how you overcame them, the hiring manager will gain insight into how you’ve grown and how you will handle similar situations in the future as you gain more responsibility. This includes how you might enter difficult conversations, how you might take and implement feedback, and how you might lead others by example in the new job.
3) Show how you’ve been courageous at work.
When you think of courage, you might think of major heroic acts, like saving someone from a burning building or slaying an evil dragon. When it comes to the workplace, however, courage is simply doing things that scare you. It’s being brave enough to ask for help when you need additional support or apologize for a mistake. It’s remaining present, making quick decisions in high-stakes situations, and speaking up when a project falls out of alignment with the company’s values. Courage models how you’ll fight for the company in the future.
This attribute is deeply important when it comes to leadership and team performance. Studies have shown that companies that build courage and trust have happier, more productive employees, which is why it’s critical to showcase your acts of courage during the interview. Simply applying for a role internally shows that you’re brave enough to embrace change and reach for new opportunities.
When asked what sets you apart from other candidates, show off your courage and your heroic nature. Courage can be noticing what your team members need from you and stepping in to provide it. It can be staying silent and listening. It can be bringing something that has been gnawing at you to the surface. It can be any number of small gestures. The most important thing is telling a story that shows your manager who you are and who you’re becoming.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to tell my CEO about my previous writing community: how I felt ostracized, belittled, and ashamed that I didn’t belong, even though I was a writer and an artist just as much as my cohort. Bravery comes in all shapes and sizes. After sharing my story with the CEO, he looked at me and said, “This is exactly why you’re meant for this role.”
What I thought was a terrible reflection of my identity — a story that showed my rejection, my inability to “fit in,” my shame of seeming weak in a crowd — he saw as a superpower. In this new role, I would be able to be vulnerable and empathize with other people who were just as hungry to join a safe environment where art can thrive.
Remember that your stories are the gateway to possibility. If you never share who you are, what you’re capable of, and why you matter, you’ll always wonder: “What if?”
“What if I’m actually a skilled coach?”
“What if I’m actually a born leader?”
“What if I’m actually an all-star organizer?”
“What if, what if, what if…”
Don’t leave these questions unanswered. Take the risk, and use storytelling to illuminate your hero within.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.