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Product Manager's Playbook For Behavioral Interview Success

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

From SAR Basics To Advanced Storytelling Techniques


In this article, we share practical tips to answer behavioral questions in Product Management interviews. You will learn a 7-step guide to prepare for behavioral questions, and:


  • Structure: Diamond (SAR) and directed diamond structures

  • Ideal answer length

  • Presentation of slides or diagrams

  • Emotions to enhance your stories

  • Making interview conversational


If you have any questions or need more tips on acing your next big interview, feel free to reach out to us at PM Job Hunt Coaching.



Thinking and answering in behavioral interviews.
Thinking and answering in behavioral interviews.

Thanks to Prince Jain, Software Engineer at Google, for sharing his feedback on this guide. His ideas helped make this easier to read.


Here are articles to improve your interviewing skills:


Good Answers To Behavioral Questions

What makes for a good answer to a behavioral question in an interview? Does narrating a historically accurate account of your experience count as a good behavioral answer? Do you need to learn storytelling from Disney?


Through our extensive experience coaching clients, we've found that a good behavioral answer isn't just about accuracy. It's about structure and relevance. Avoid long narratives. Instead, use the SAR format – focusing on the Situation, Action, and Result. This method avoids unnecessary details and keeps your answers concise and impactful.


Effective Behavioral Answer Structures: SAR, T-SAR, And R-SAR

Problem: 


You can answer questions in a few common ways:


  1. Chronological story, where you start with “once upon a time” and end when the interviewer stops you, a.k.a. “rambling on”.

  2. Minto pyramid, where you summarize the accomplishment then give all the background information required.

  3. STAR format, where you walk through the situation, task, action, then result.

  4. SAR format, where you skip over the task you were told to do. Carlos, CEO of Product School, shares SAR vs STAR here.


Solution:


Use SAR format, not STAR. When candidates use STAR, their emphasis on ‘Task’ (what they were expected to do) makes their answer long and adds repetition with ‘Action’ (what they did).


Use the SAR (Situation, Action, Result) or R-SAR format. SAR is a “diamond” structure, where you spend a small fraction of the time on situation (S) and result (R), and the bulk of your time on the action (A). In R-SAR or T-SAR, you start with a teaser about the result (R) or your operating thesis (T).

SAR, T-SAR, and R-SAR diamond structures.
SAR, T-SAR, and R-SAR diamond structures.

Here is an example of converting SAR to R-SAR or T-SAR.

SAR:


S: When I was a PM at Twilio, I noticed we received many customer support requests on problem X.


A: I did A, B, and C to identify the problems. I ideated with the backend engineering, frontend, and UI design teams to prototype and test ideas. We decided to add self-service functionality. We launched the product, announced it to customers, and made it easy for customer support to redirect customers to the self-service functionality.


R: This helped reduce the number of tickets by 10%. It gave us momentum to reduce support tickets per customer to improve customer experience. Our initiative was used as a template for other teams within the company.


T-SAR and R-SAR will have the same S, A, and R parts, but an added thesis or result at top. You will tailor your thesis and results statements to the question.


Interview Question:


Q: Describe an accomplishment you are proud of. What was its impact on your team or company?


When you use the thesis approach, your overarching statement helps anchor the interviewer to your strengths and skills. Then, even if your answer falls short, they remember your thesis as your strength. Thesis approach:


T: I’ve realized I’m most proud of accomplishments where I could scale up my work to impact multiple teams across my company.


S, A, and R remain the same.


Or, you summarize your result at the start of your answer. This is the R-SAR approach. When you start with a result, it draws the reader in because they understand the impact you’ve created and are interested in hearing “how”.


R: Let me share the time I led an initiative to reduce customer support tickets by 10% and built a playbook for other teams to follow to improve customer experience.


S, A, and R remain the same.


Remember to alternate your formats. Do not use any one of these 3 formats for all your answers.


7 Step Guide to Prepare For Behavioral Interviews

We guide our clients through a 7-step preparation process for Product Manager behavioral interviews. This includes:


  1. Start with your resume

  2. Map answers to questions

  3. Answer known unknowns

  4. Align with PM skills

  5. Pick your top 3 stories

  6. Write on flashcards, and,

  7. Test your recollection.


Step 1 - Use Your Resume For Behavioral Interview Preparation

Write down answers for your Behavioral questions. Use a spreadsheet. Turn each bullet point on your resume into a row in the spreadsheet. Use these columns:


  • Company/Community: e.g. Twilio, Qualcomm, UCLA.

  • Story Summary: e.g. “new design approach 10% savings” or “mentored 10”.

  • Story: Keywords to remind you of the story. In SAR format.

  • Skills Checkboxes: Columns with checkboxes for each skill you want to show.

Sample spreadsheet for behavioral interviews by converting resume bullets into stories.
Sample spreadsheet for behavioral interviews by converting resume bullets into stories.

Step 2 - Review Common Behavioral Questions

Look up common behavioral questions for Product Managers. We have pasted a few from Rice Business school in the next section. Match your resume experiences with each question. You'll often need stories about:


  • Leadership experience

  • Cross-functional collaboration

  • Persuasion

  • Technical or business roadblocks

  • Disagreement with someone

  • Accomplishment

  • Failure

  • Example of your strength


Note that this is not an exhaustive list.


Common Behavioral Questions For Product Managers

There are hundreds of web pages on this topic. Here is one useful list from Rice Business Career Development office.


Leadership behavioral interview questions:

  • Describe a decision you made that wasn’t popular. How did you handle implementing it?

  • Describe a time when you had to motivate employees or coworkers.

  • Tell me about a time when you showed initiative.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to give a presentation to people who disagreed with you.

  • Tell me about a time when you built a team.

  • What would your co-workers say about you?


Problem solving behavioral interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge and overcame it.

  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to reach a deadline.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with conflicting priorities. How did you handle it?

  • Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision quickly or with insufficient data.

  • Tell me about a time when you handled a risky situation.


Successes and failures behavioral interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you failed.

  • Tell me about a time when you improperly analyzed a situation.

  • Tell me about something you’re proud of accomplishing.


Step 3 - Fix Uncovered Areas In Your Resume Stories

In step 2, you matched your resume answers to the questions. Sometimes, your resume may not have any answer to a question. When this happens, pause and reflect on your experiences. Remember a relevant event. Add a new row in your spreadsheet for this story.


Step 4 - Align Your Behavioral Stories With PM Skills

Each of your experiences should demonstrate one or more of the 9 hard-skills of a Product Manager. Map those  skills in your spreadsheet. You can also use the Product Manager resume checker tool for this purpose. Create a checkbox or yes/no column for each skill. Check the resume parser's output as a guide for your spreadsheet structure.

Screenshot of resume parser output.
Screenshot of resume parser output.

Step 5 - Select Your Top 3 Stories

After you're done with the spreadsheet, select your 3 best stories. These should be high-impact and high-effort.

  • Story 1

  • Story 2

  • Story 3


Use these two criteria to select your stories:

  1. Select stories you can describe for up to 20 minutes if probed with follow-up questions.

  2. Select versatile stories that can answer questions from multiple categories mentioned above.


You still need to summarize your stories in 2 minutes. See the section below, ‘Ideal Length Of Your Behavioral Interview Answers’.


Ideal Length Of Your Behavioral Interview Answers

Gauge showing 2 minutes in green, the sweet spot length for your answer.
Gauge showing 2 minutes in green, the sweet spot length for your answer.

Aim for 2-minute answers. Use a stopwatch to practice. See how you can cut down your answers to 2 minutes. If your answer is above 2-3 minutes, you are sharing a lot of situational context about the industry, company, and team. These are not relevant to your skills or accomplishments.


For example, we worked with a PM coaching client aiming for a Principal Product Manager role. We helped him shorten their answers. We listened, timed, and suggested cuts. Most of the cuts contained industry and domain knowledge, so removing them from the interview story made his story focus on PM skills.


Step 6 - Use Flashcards For Story Rehearsal

flashcards.
flashcards.

Use flashcards to write down your stories. Write your top 3 stories but also your other stories.

Here's why flashcards are better than notebooks, laptops, phones, or relying on memory:


  • Flashcards are portable. Easy to carry.

  • They help you focus. You can use flashcards without the distraction of the Internet or media.

  • Each flashcard has limited space, so it forces you to be concise and clear.


Step 7 - Practice Your Stories Using Flashcards

4 steps to practice your stories using flashcards.
4 steps to practice your stories using flashcards.

Shuffle your flash cards. Here’s how to practice with your flashcards:

  1. Look at the question on the first card. Do not read the answer yet.

  2. Say your answer out loud, without looking at the flashcard.

  3. Check the written answer on the flashcard to see if you were right.

  4. Go to the next flashcard and repeat these steps.


Not Forgetting The Question and Staying On Topic

We face interesting situations in our coaching sessions. A coaching client started answering the right question. But, after 3 sentences, she went into a rabbit hole. She went into unnecessary depth and shared irrelevant stories. This happened for every question that day. On further discussion, we realized she forgot the original question while answering it.


Do you forget the question while sharing your story? This is natural because as we go deep into our story, we forget everything else around us. To avoid this, write down the question. This helps you stay focused. You can even confirm the question with the interviewer, saying, 


“I'll write down the question so that I can structure my answer better.”


Use Aids To Showcase Your Work

A coaching client had written articles on Medium about his work. He was wondering how to leverage them for interviews. Here are the tips we shared with him.

Artifacts you can use in interviews to show your work:

  • Blogs – Your personal blog or a company product launch blog.

  • Presentations – Like a pitch deck or a quarterly review.

  • Documents – Such as a Product Requirement Document (PRD).

  • Visuals – For example, architecture diagrams, customer journey maps, or funnels.


Do not share confidential information. Instead, create a sanitized version with no confidential details on your personal laptop. Highlight your skills and problem-solving approach.


When bringing up these aids in an interview, introduce them smoothly. For instance:


Q: “Tell me about a time you overcame bottlenecks to launch a product.”


A: “I’ll share a time I helped close sales deals worth $1M by overcoming bottlenecks to launch product features.


In fact, I wrote a blog with visuals about this. Is it okay if I share my screen and visually walk you through it?”


Show Emotions To Enhance Your Interview Stories

You are narrating a story when you share your experience in an interview. A good story in your interview should include:


  • High stakes – Use the R-SAR structure to show impact.

  • Emotional highs and lows – Use speech modulation and hand movements to demonstrate these.

  • A journey for the audience – Take your audience (the interviewer) along with you on the journey.  Share your expectations versus the actual outcomes, to modulate between high points and low points in your emotions. For example, your expectations from a launch (high) and the initial results (low).


For more storytelling frameworks, read Matthew Dicks' book “Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling”.


Turning Your Interview Into A Conversation

An interview was traditionally a series of questions asked by the interviewer and the candidate answering them one by one. But, if you are following this, here’s why you are missing out:


  • Employers now look for candidates who are good to work with, not just those who answer correctly.

  • People appreciate being heard. Engaging your interviewer makes them feel heard and positive about you. Feeling heard makes them happier, which makes them look at you in a positive light. The more your interviewer talks, the more they’ll like the time spent with you. 

  • You need to show your interest in the company and interviewer by asking questions and understanding their culture or experiences.

  • The less you talk, the less likely you are to say something incorrect.


Interviews have evolved. They're not just about answering questions; they're about engaging in a conversation. Find ways to mold your interview into a discussion. Make it a conversation instead of an interrogation.


To make it conversational, engage your interviewer. If they give a verbal or non-verbal cue during your story, pause and ask their opinion. You can also bring up their reaction at the end of your answer and ask them about their experience doing something similar.


If you have any questions or need more tips on acing your next big interview, feel free to reach out to us at PM Job Hunt Coaching.


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