"If You're Not The Lead Dog,
The View Never Changes"
Over the years, I have had numerous candidates ask me a question that places way too much stress on them prior to their promotional interview: "What happens if I don't know the answer?"
Tell the truth! The raters do not expect you to have an answer for every question; they are attempting to determine your breadth of knowledge. If you try to fake the answer, the raters will know and will mark you down accordingly on your final score.
One time when I was taking an oral board exam, the rating panel asked me for the definition of "MBO." I gave them a blank stare and, in my mind, I immediately thought that I had "blown" this competition because I had no idea what those initials meant. I looked at each rater and told them, "Gentlemen, I don't have a clue what MBO stands for; but I can assure you that when I leave this room today, I will look it up for my own edification." What I eventually found out was that MBO stands for "Management by Objectives," which was a new buzzword used by Tom Peters in his Search for Excellence book. Thankfully, I was chosen for the position, and when I spoke with the raters after the process was completed to determine how I could improve myself for the next promotional opportunity, they basically told me certain areas of my presentation that could be tweaked--but what really hit home was their assessment of my MBO answer. Each rater told me they were impressed with my honesty in explaining my lack of knowledge in this area. They mentioned that many of the candidates tried to "bluff" their way around the answer, which really hurt them in the final ratings. So, basically what I'm saying is that if you don't know the answer to the question, tell the raters the truth and explain that you will find the answer as soon as the process is over. Hopefully, there will only be one question where you will have to explain yourself in this manner; but whatever happens, do not let this incident throw you off-balance. Maintain your focus on the next question that the panel will be asking. Remember, you can't un-ring a bell--what happened has happened, so let it go and move on to the next question. It's not the end of the world, and you still have time to impress the raters with your other answers. Remain positive--look what happened to me!
How Do I Answer the Questions?
The best way you know how. Give the answer you believe is correct. If the answer needs an explanation, give it but keep it concise; remember, you are on a time schedule, and the raters may cut you off. So, don't ramble! Practice being concise; give a lot of information in a short period of time. This way you won't become flustered during your presentation. Remember to talk to the raters in your own style; don't sound like you're writing a police report. Police reports are very matter-of-fact, and they only report the facts relating to the incident. If you are given a hypothetical situation, think about your answer and tell the raters exactly what you would do to successfully handle the incident or whatever it may be. The raters may try to push you on your answer to see if you really believe in what you're answering. If you feel confident that you are correct, don't be swayed to change your opinion. When you answer these questions, put some feeling in your answers: show the board that you are emotional, have genuine feelings, and have a passion for this position.
When you answer questions, don't use words with which you are not familiar. Many candidates I've interviewed seemed to get their words from the Readers' Digest "Word Power" column and didn't have a clue how to use them properly or know what they even meant. They were trying to impress the panel of raters but in the long run, they really hurt their chances of scoring well. You don't have to be an English major, but on the other hand, you don't want to sound like a dolt, either (just thought I would throw that in to see if you were paying attention).
The key when answering a question is to find a common ground. You don't want your answer to be too long because you will start to ramble (remember the time limit!). If you use too much time answering one question, your interview may be cut short and you will not have enough time to answer all of the other questions. On the other hand, you don't want your answer to be so short that you don't get your point across.
There are no ground rules for answering questions. You have to say what feels natural to you. However, there is one area that created several problems for me when I was a rater. (And remember this is only my opinion; I don't really know how other raters feel about these types of answers).
Oftentimes a panel of raters will ask a question similar to this: "If we don't choose you for this position, which candidate should we choose?"
Think about what you would say in a situation like this. How would you answer the panel? If you put down your competitors, you'll sound conceited. How are you going to feel about yourself when you tell the board that your friends competing against you are not as good as you? Or, on the other hand, maybe they are as good as you and to be a good friend you should tell the board how really great your friend is and they should get the position if you were not chosen. This is an interesting quandary.
There was once a lieutenant, along with other members of the same department, testing for a chief's position. Naturally, this was an open test and officers from other agencies were also testing. Now this lieutenant wanted the new chief to come from within his department, so when he was asked the question, "If we don't choose you for the position, which candidate should we choose?" he immediately stated something to the effect of "Gentlemen, if you don't select me for this position, then the only person to hold the chief of police position for this department is Captain so & so!" Now, he did not stop there; he continued to extol this person's virtues and how it would be a great mistake for the board to go outside the department and not pick this captain. He was quite pleased with himself when he left the room and even boasted to other officers how he told the board whom to choose. To answer your obvious question, neither he nor the other individual was selected. Rather, the board chose a captain from an outside agency.
If you were to give an answer similar to the above, that you feel someone else is really qualified for this position, it would appear to me that you have very little confidence in yourself or your abilities. It also demonstrates that you feel the other candidates are better than you and they should get the position, which often occurs.