How to answer leadership questions (with no experience)

By Robert Half on 19 July 2022
Estimated Read Time: 4 minutes

If you are here, chances are you are a keen jobseeker applying for roles with leadership responsibilities, but you may not have any official experience leading a team as a part of your career so far.

You have also probably come across a lot of articles telling you how to answer popular job interview questions about leadership to prepare yourself.

However, these articles likely do not tell you how to answer these leadership questions when you have no leadership experience managing direct reports.

If you find this is your scenario ahead of an upcoming job interview, here is what you need to know about answering leadership questions in an interview setting, by leveraging your professional and personal life.

Related: How to answer these common job interview questions

No leadership experience? No problem.

Not having leadership experience on your résumé can feel like a setback, but it’s not — everyone starts somewhere, after all.

In fact, a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that most great leaders throughout history were people who were outsiders in their field and who didn’t have a lot of experience.

To start, ask yourself: in the absence of direct experience managing or leading staff, what skills can I leverage to point to my leadership abilities?

In other words, just because you do not have any formal leadership experience, it doesn’t mean that you have no leadership experience at all.

Outside of your professional path, have you played a leadership role with a sport team, or as part of an extra-curricular organisation?

Leadership is a transferable skill, so sift through your past work experience and think of moments where you took initiative and acted in manner that required you to take the lead.

Skills and attributes that fall under the “leadership” umbrella include:

  • Entrepreneurial efforts: The ability to take risks and make decisions is an intrinsic leadership trait.
  • Taking initiative and self-starting: Like entrepreneurial efforts, up-skilling, and taking initiative are essential leadership traits.
  • Actively participating in group settings and being a team player: Apart from these setting providing the opportunity to take on brief leadership positions, interpersonal skills are a pillar of quality leadership. After all, leadership is not a solo activity.
  • Problem solving: Identifying a problem or assessing an uncertainty, finding a solution, and bringing stakeholders together to execute a response.
  • Pursuing improvements: Identifying and implementing changes to lead to an optimisation of existing systems or processes for improved efficiencies or results.

So, how do you answer leadership questions with no experience?

1. Be honest about your experience; do not lie

First, please note that having no leadership experience does not mean you have to lie or stretch the truth.

At the end of the day, you will be hired for being yourself and whatever you bring to the table.

2. Bring stats to the interview

Second, bring as much quantifiable data to the table as possible, even if it is not professional leadership experience.

If you organised a charity event that hosted 100 people, where you liaised between 12 teams that raised a substantial amount of money or had an X% increase in attendance thanks to social media marketing strategies you implemented — you have demonstrated leadership experience!

Essentially, articulate to the interviewer or panel about what you did, how well you did it, and what you brought to the table.

3. Focus on the positives

Lastly, try your best to put a positive spin on your experiences. Never blame past team-working experiences for poor outcomes, for example.

Instead, talk about what you learnt from a less than ideal experience. Being a leader is about being able to deal with failure or overcoming unforeseen challenges.

Related: Examples of Team Leader interview questions

Common leadership questions and how to answer them when you have no experience

Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership skills

"While at my last job as a Help Desk Analyst, I noticed room for improvement in our existing service protocols. I approached my manager and asked her if she would be interested in leveraging my experience to streamline how IT issues are raised internally. After coordinating training across a 20-person department and implementing my idea, we increased productivity by 30% and output by 50% in nearly half the time."

Why this works: You identified a problem, showed initiative, took on and organised work across teams, and lead to a successful and quantifiable output.

What is your leadership style?

"Although I am a hands-on worker, in my last role, I found that being direct and leading by example were most in keeping with my character. As an accounts payable team, our main goal was to ensure all accounts and suppliers are paid on time — I found myself in an opportunity to divvy our tasks and set our collective deadlines, while also reporting on our output to the Financial Controller. I found my peers responded well to this, and we consistently made our deadlines."

Why this works: You have acknowledged being a team player, while also saying you can step into a leadership role effortlessly, with an ability to delegate and organise your time and others’ well.

Related: Examples of leadership and management interview questions

In summary

To conclude, when it comes to answering leadership questions in a job interview when you have no experience, comb through your work experience so far and expand on instances where you demonstrated leadership traits, no matter how brief.

Flesh out leadership skills you have engaged such as delegation, organisation, taking initiative, and seeing projects through, and you will soon find that you are no longer intimidated to be asked about your leadership experience in a job interview.

Are you looking for leadership jobs in Australia? Robert Half is a leading specialised recruitment company, ready to help you find the right career opportunity for you. Contact us today.

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