Tell us about a time when you had to work independently

The question is about responsibility, working without supervision, and what you can do for yourself.

It's actually a potentially very good question for showing off your skills, if you handle it properly.

It can, however, also become a disjointed mess, with lousy continuity and no real obvious relationship to the job, if you don't keep it organized.

The most important point about this question is creating an answer with a lot of good content which addresses the essentials of the position.

To do that, as usual with interview questions, you need a good structure:

  • Why were you working independently?
  • What was the job?
  • Why was it important?
  • What did you do?
  • What were the problems?
  • How did you solve the problems?
  • What was the result?
  • What sort of feedback did you get?

As you can see, these are the things you need to put your answer together logically, and clearly.

There's also the relevance to the job. Check out the essentials of your job application.

See what you have as an answer which can also emphasize those essentials.

The points above include:

  • Problem solving (Very much in demand skill in nearly all jobs)
  • The basic work itself (Shows competencies)
  • Communications (Inevitable in any job)
  • Organizational skills (Efficiency)
  • Motivation (Self starter)
  • Levels of experience (Degrees of difficulty)
  • Prioritization (How you arrange your priorities, common issue)

So if you have an answer in a job interview where all those skills are job essentials, your answer will be looking pretty good.

These are somewhat generalized examples, but you can translate them into your own needs.

The answer, step by step, has to be in a logical sequence.

This is telling a story, and people can get quite lost if they get hit with bits and pieces all over the place.

So we'll tell a story in sequence.

The job in this example is in the hardware industry, someone is telling a story of working independently in a big retail/wholesale franchise hardware store.

Job essentials include

Problem solving
Self starter
Good communication skills
Prior experience in retail hardware
Organizational skills
Customer service
Preparing internal reports
Stock control

The job is a supervisory job in the same franchise, so there's a higher level of skills required to be proved. The various points have to be in an order where the story sticks together properly.

The beginning of the answer sets the scene. This must be clear, so the interviewers know the situation from the ground up.

Why were you working independently? The applicant has told the interviewers previously he wasn't the boss in his previous job. So he has to explain why he was working on his own, but in this case it's a bit more complex.

The manager was out for a series of workshops for the week, and left me in charge of the staff, three shop assistants.

Now we come to the work itself, explaining what had to be done, under what circumstance, and any difficulties involved.

We had to do a stock take, and we were absolutely flat out. We had a lot of customers, the other staff were all junior, and the stock take had to be finished because of the accounts reporting deadlines. That meant I had to deal with customers and do the stock take myself. There was nobody else available.

Clear, so far, and also establishes the importance of the work.

The mention of the accounts reporting deadlines is also important, to show familiarity with the requirements of the job.

Now, the applicant defines the problem a little more:

So I had to organize myself to make sure the inventory was done on time, correctly, and properly formatted. I also had to help the other guys with their work, when they didn't know what to do.

I had to watch my time management, to make sure I could do the inventory to a schedule, doing a section at a time, and checking up on the store.

This is explaining how the job was organized, carried out correctly, including time management, a method of doing the inventory, and keeping the rest of the work under control.

The hardware store is a big place. There's a lot of work involved in a stock take, and a week isn't really a long time when you're very busy.

I figured out a system where I could stay close and available to the staff, do the inventory, and get the data entry covered, myself.

I did an hour's inventory, which allowed me to do all the work in a section, and do the data entry on the store computer, so I was available to the staff if required. That was an average of a quarter hour per section of the inventory.

This is the practical version, explaining how the organization was carried out in practice. The applicant has mentioned he was doing both jobs while doing the inventory, so there are no gaps, no work left undone.

Customer service was the big issue, during store hours. I told the staff to bring any queries to me, and I'd go and deal with them myself, if required.

That worked out well. I only actually had to talk to three customers directly that week, so I was pretty much able to work undisturbed, just as well, because I was worried about them taking on too much, but they did very well, particularly for such a busy time.

The applicant's doing a bit of quality control here. This is to emphasize the extent of skills: whatever happens in the store, it's all his problem, and he's made sure he can deal with it. This is obviously a very experienced person. He's also very much on top of any possible problems before they happen.

It worked out very well. The schedule I worked out got us through all our inventory in four days. The boss managed to get in on the Friday, and I told him how I did the job. He put it up to management as an in house training initiative for supervisors.

This feedback is important. The job was done, the inventory completed inside schedule, and the boss was very pleased, as he should be.

The applicant came up with a very good, workable, solution to what could have been a real disaster.

The inventory and account reporting deadlines are extremely important in business. Any business is under a lot of statutory requirements for reports, and retail and wholesale accounts don't work at all if you can't get the figures for stock.

Also extremely important are customer issues. Hardware includes a lot of big trade customers, and when busy, it almost invariably means tradesmen, who are the major cashflow source in the industry.

The interviewers, who work for the same company, need to know that the applicant for a supervisor's job knows the job inside out. The applicant has more than demonstrated all the essentials, in a practical form, in the answer.

Every job ad spells out in detail what's required, in both the essential and desirable requirements.

Always use those criteria in your answers.

Stay organized, and you've got the job.