I frequently get asked about competency based interviews.
What sort of questions will I get? How do I prepare for them? What’s the name and home address of the sadist who invented them?
Jokes aside, Competency Based Interviews (CBIs) can be a really useful way of assessing whether a candidate will thrive in any given position. And with a bit of preparation and practice, they needn’t be that painful.
After conducting thousands of CBI’s in my days as an in-house recruiter, I’ve seen candidates approach them in all sorts of ways – some more effective than others. I herewith present to you the recipe for blitzing your next CBI.
Firstly, what the hell is a Competency Based Interview?
Also known as Behavioural Based Interviews, CBI’s are designed to help the employer assess the level of competency the candidate has in certain areas that are needed to do the job. In the vast majority of cases these are non-technical (soft) skills.
Many larger companies use specialist providers to help them develop a list of the general competencies that all employees should have for the company to be successful. They’ll then drill this down to specific competencies for different role types. The interviewers will then prepare questions designed to investigate how strong the candidate is in each of these competencies.
How do I find out what competencies are required to do the role?
This generally isn’t that hard. In many cases (especially with bigger corporates), the competencies will be listed in the job description. They’re usually easy to spot and could be really generic (e.g. teamwork, flexibility), or a bit more specific (e.g. customer-focused, results-oriented).
You can usually take an educated guess as to what some of them might be. For example, if the role is management accountant or business partner, the focus will likely be more on communication and problem solving skills, whereas for a financial accountant role, the focus will probably be on time management and resilience under pressure.
Finally, if you’re working with a good agency recruiter, they’ll be able to give you detailed insight into exactly what competencies the company will be assessing.
How do I prepare?
Competency questions tend be asked from both a positive and a negative angle. For example, if the competency is ‘strong communication skills’, you might be asked:
- “Tell me about a time when you were successful in getting critical information from someone who was reluctant to give it”.
- “Tell me about a time when you were trying to communicate something to someone and they misunderstood you”.
To prepare, it’s helpful to come up with a list of real life examples where you had to use the competencies in question – some with success, and others where you perhaps initially failed, but learnt some great lessons. The more recent the examples, the better. Ideally they’ll be from a work situation, but if you’re more junior, you might have to draw on university or other life experience.
How exactly do I answer them?
It’s really important to use specific examples and talk about your impact in a situation - so use “I” more than “we”.
Structure your answer to make it as clear and easy to for the interviewer understand as possible. One way to do this is to use the STAR method.
Here’s how it works:
Say the competency is ‘determination’. A question designed to assess this might be “Tell me about a time when you went out of your way to achieve a challenging objective”. Break your answer down into these four components:
Situation – This is where you provide some brief context. For example, “At ABC company we had a tight end of month deadline due to overseas reporting requirements. When I joined we often missed this because…”
Task – Describe what you needed to do. “When I joined it was my responsibility to ensure our team hit this deadline every month”
Action – Tell the interviewer what you specifically did to achieve the task. “I created a plan outlining key actions and timelines, and engaged with all of the key people in the business to ensure they delivered the information to our team on time. I also spoke with HR to ensure my transactional accounting team were able to get some time off in lieu to allow them to work late on occasion”
Result –“We just missed the first deadline, but after that we hit the deadline every time. After a few months we also managed to complete the month end reporting without the team having to work late”
Prepare a few examples for each of the competencies, jot down some notes, and role play them with a friend. You can find many lists of example questions online that you can use to get some practice.
And remember; if you get stuck during the interview, you should feel free to ask the interviewer to repeat or clarify the question, or pause while you gather your thoughts. Good interviewers want you to be able to provide a useful example, so generally they’ll be happy to accommodate you.