While I was working at Amazon, I wrote an article about Amazon's leadership principles. Tens of thousands of people read that article annually. Over the years, I had many Amazonians tell me that they were able to join Amazon in part due to that article. My newsletter has grown in popularity over the years on a variety of topics, but many readers still visit to learn more about interviewing at Amazon. I decided to circle back and fill in a gap in my articles.
When you're being interviewed, the questions are generally a mix of functional and behavioral questions. This article will cover how to pass the behavioral interview questions, which are centered at Amazon around the Amazon Leadership Principles. I've written a number of articles about interviewing at Amazon, if you would like to read more.
How to prepare
Take the list of leadership principles. For every leadership principle, you will want to think of two or three stories from your work experience which could answer questions related to that leadership principle.
If you're at the beginning of your career, everyone will understand if you need to reuse a story or two, or if you only have a single example available.
You want to have multiple stories per leadership principle for three basic reasons. First, you might use one of your stories for a different question. Second, it's possible two different interviewers will ask questions regarding that single leadership principle. Third, depending on how a question is asked, one story or another may be more appropriate.
You absolutely don't need to hide the fact that you've prepared for the interview. It only shows that you are taking the interview seriously if you have a list of stories in front of you, ready and waiting for questions.
You will be using the STAR format to answer the questions.
Situation — “I was the head of Marketing at Yellow Banana Corporation.”
Task — “I had to figure out how to sell Green Bananas.”
Action — “I created a new campaign emphasizing the fiber content of green bananas.”
Result — “We increased sales of green bananas by 27% that year.”
In the interview, you'll need to go into more depth, but that's the basic framework.
When preparing, don't write down your exact answers. If you look at basic instructions for making a presentation, the first thing people will say is to never read from your slides. This is like a presentation. You should have brief notes, which you will use to guide yourself to the right answers. Your notes ensure you don't get completely lost or miss a key detail, but you will give a natural answer.
Once the question has been asked
Start with rephrasing the question. It's always useful to state what the interviewer is looking for, even if it feels obvious to you. If nothing else, it shows that you're listening. In some cases, it could save you from a painful misinterpretation.
Consider writing down the key elements of the question. It's amazing how many people don't answer the full question. Particularly when it is a multiple part question.
"How did you recognize the problem, solve it, and measure if it worked?"
Ensure you're answering all the parts of the question. What often happens is that someone listens to the question, picks the story they decide will suit the question well, but then get carried away telling their story. They end up never answering the specific question asked. Don't just tell a story, answer the question.
Don't jump into answering quickly. Ask for a few moments to choose the best story, and plan how you're going to answer the question.
"Ok, you want to know about a time I had to move quickly without much planning. Let me see which example might suit your question the best."
You can absolutely spend 30 seconds to ensure you spend the next 5-15 minutes wisely.
As I mentioned before, you should do your best to tell new stories in every interview, as every interviewer reads the notes from your other interviews. If you do need to re-use a story for some reason, discuss that first with your interviewer. Particularly if it's a complex long-term project, you may wish to re-use different scenarios from the same project.
Begin with a summary
When you are telling a dramatic story, you want to surprise the audience with the ending. “…the door opened with a creaking noise. Someone lit a match. The room was empty. It turns out there was no dragon!”
The interview is not dramatic story telling time. You want your story to be clear from the beginning to the end.
I always suggest starting an interview answer with a one or two sentence summary of what you're going to be explaining.
"Tell me about a time you disagreed with a co-worker about something important."
"I'll tell you about when I was running marketing at Acme Shipping, when I recommended a major change, and my manager initially disagreed. We ended up following my recommendations. I'll explain what happened."
There are two reasons to do this.