How to ace your competency-based interviews

Mar 24, 2022

8 mins

How to ace your competency-based interviews
Natalia Barszcz

Freelance journalist and writer

Have you been invited to a competency-based interview but you’re not sure how to prepare for it? Look no further – you are about to read a comprehensive guide to such interviews. Together with Alysha M Campbell, the chief executive and founder of Culture Shift HR, we cover everything from what to expect from these interviews, to how to prepare for them and what to say on the day. Prepare to dazzle.

What is a competency-based interview?

In a competency-based interview, the candidate is expected to explain how they would demonstrate certain behaviors or skills in the workplace. They are expected to give specific examples of situations or tasks and how they handled those.

This interview model matches the skills needed for the job with the experience of the applicant. Having a competency means having sufficient knowledge of a skill and the ability to apply it during your working day. “The competency-based model focuses on understanding the strengths and experience of the candidate and the skills they can bring to the job. The recruiter can then compare them to the expected outcomes of the role and the deliverables this person would have to meet should they get the position,” Campbell explains.

This can also be called a behavioral or situational interview. “That is because the biggest difference between more traditional types of interviews and the competency-based model is that the latter aims to discover the individual as a whole. The focus here is not only on the competencies themselves but also on the practical experience of a candidate,” says Campbell. When a candidate describes a situation and explains how they dealt with it, the recruiter gets a clearer view of them as an individual. “That way, a competency-based model can highlight their behavior in a workplace, attitudes towards their work, and professional values,” she says.

What is the recruiter looking for?

The competencies recruiters look for vary by industry and role. Behavioral interviews are common for roles that are technical such those in specific IT software, methodologies, or research frameworks. “Recruiters aim to find out whether the candidate fully understands the competencies needed for this role and how their experience matches them. How do they apply different frameworks, in what contexts, for what audiences, with what research principles?” Campbell explains.

Some common key competencies recruiters look for include:

From the recruiters’ perspective, a competency-based interview takes the guesswork out of the process,” says Campbell. The focus is on relevant skills for the role. So assessing the individual becomes more linear and focused.

Situational interviews can work to the candidate’s advantage. “They really focus on how the candidate’s skill set aligns with the competencies required for the role, and how their personal experience is going to allow them to be successful in the position, should they be hired,” Campbell says. This can allow you to highlight any hard skills you have built up throughout your career, as well as the value they brought to your work.

How to prepare for the interview

Preparation is key. This will help you to be more confident and aware of your abilities and will relieve some of the stress you experience the closer you get to the big day. “You want to understand what competencies the employers will most likely be focusing on. But not only that – you also want to understand the outcome of the competencies mentioned in the job description and the work that will be expected of you,” Campbell says.

She recommends dedicating your time to breaking down your set of competencies and your journey to obtaining them. “Create a spreadsheet that outlines each competency and ask yourself: How do you use it? What is the impact you can make with it? This way, you will be able to explain yourself clearly.

How have you used this competency? What are your strengths within this competency? How can you problem-solve and expand your skills? These are the most crucial things you need to demonstrate to the interviewer. “Really take advantage of the time before the interview. Such preparation will also give a little bit of an insight into the way you think and process information, and that you are, or can become, an expert in that area,” says Campbell.

How have you used this competency? What are your strengths within this competency? How can you problem-solve and expand your skills? These are the most crucial things you need to demonstrate to the interviewer.

What questions to expect

Making your interview performance smooth and professional, while trying to add a personal touch and show your character can be difficult. After all, you don’t want to sound like you’re just reciting the job description. Although competencies vary across industries and roles, these are three types of questions you can expect:

How and where did you learn this competency?

A simple question that can tell a lot about you and your dedication to expanding your skill set. Did you learn this specific competency at school? As part of your university major? Through an independent course, a workshop? “You really want to give them an understanding of how you acquired this skill and describe some of the experiences that led to your expertise within the competency,” says Campbell.

How do you remain up to date with this competency? How can you improve your current skill set?

The interviewer wants to understand your attitude towards professional development. “Do you take classes? Do you do workshops or seminars? How do you keep up to date with this competency so that you have that skill set? Take time to think about these questions before you enter the interview room,” Campbell says. Show you’ve got the motivation to expand your knowledge and seek personal growth. Be aware that 40% of recruiters are willing to reject a candidate if they seem to lack self-confidence.

When has this competency led you to make mistakes? What challenges have you had to overcome?

The interviewer wants to understand how you use your competencies to work around issues and get the results you want. Things don’t always work out or go the way you envision. Show how you approach difficult situations, how you remain professional and focused on turning the situation around. “Talk about your problem-solving skills grounded in that competency. Really focus on how that competency has also been a tool to help you get to the other side of different projects,” Campbell explains. Make your answer as personal as possible to let the interviewer get to know your character as well as your expertise.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, says Campbell. “As important as answering the interviewers’ questions strategically is, you should also ask questions yourself,” says Campbell. Showing them you are curious about the role and the company, that you want to understand it as well as possible, will serve the interviewer as a crucial indicator of your dedication and enthusiasm. Express your personal thoughts and inquiries about the position. Campbell recommends asking questions such as:

  • How will this competency be used in the role?
  • Are there individuals with this competency who are already working for the company?
  • How will I be expected to evolve within this competency in the future?

What approaches to adopt

Behavioral interviews allow recruiters to get a practical insight into your skills and competencies through real-life examples. So when asked a competency-based question, be ready to give genuine examples of when you used the relevant competency and what you achieved through it.

The key to nailing this type of interview is to use the STAR method, according to Campbell. “This ensures you will provide full and robust information to the person interviewing you so that they have a good picture of your experience and your competencies,” says Campbell.

STAR stands for:

  • Situation – What happened?
  • Task – What did you have to do?
  • Action – How did you do it?
  • Results – What was the outcome?

To help you to prepare, we asked Campbell to provide us with a few examples of the type of questions you can expect to hear during such interviews and examples of what a good answer looks like.

When you’re asked about problem-solving

Tell me about the time you led a project and a problem came up that was going to delay its completion.

“As a team leader, I had to choose to put only one of my key team members on a high-priority project that allowed them direct communication and interaction with the CEO. I decided to do a SWOT analysis on each of the two people I was considering to help me identify who would have the right experience and skills for the work. Once I had done that, I chose the one who would bring the most benefit to the project. The SWOT analysis helped me understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, as well as what opportunities and potential issues could arise due to their experience and the needs of the project.”

When you’re asked about teamwork

Can you tell me about a time you worked successfully in a team environment?

“I used to work at a health technology start-up agency. Start-ups have very fast-paced environments and working as a team is key to ensuring nothing falls through the cracks. A last-minute request came in through our technical team that was going to impact the new upgrade we were launching for the app. I had to work with our sales team, technology team, CRM (Customer relationship management) team, and communications team to ensure that all the pieces came together and that there was no room for failure. I delegated the tasks, created a follow-up sequence, and laid out everyone’s responsibilities to ensure we were all on the same page. The approach worked and we got the fix done within the time for the launch of the new app.”

When you’re asked about decision-making

Tell me about a time you had to make a difficult choice. How did you go about assessing the situation and arriving at your decision?

“I was the leader of a project for the company’s new sales system. For this project, we were a team of four that had to do everything within two months but with a low budget. At first, we didn’t realize the budget would impact our ability to book priority training on the system, which would have put the rollout of our project two weeks behind. After thoroughly assessing the situation with my team, we were able to find availability with another training that allowed us to stay on track.”

After the interview

Don’t think the end of your interview means you can forget about it and move on. Thank them for their time and let them know how interested you are in the role. Circle back to your competencies. “Remember to reinforce why you are the right fit for this position, reiterating one or two key points of your competency and how it corresponds to the job description,” Campbell says. “You want to let them know why this role will be key for your career growth – maybe this is the next level up for you, maybe this gives you an option to get to know a new industry or a new brand.”

Use the time after the interview to show your interest and motivation to fill in this role. It’s worth it as 27% of employers indicate that a post-interview follow-up from a candidate has a positive impact on their application.

Now you’re ready!

Situational interviews might seem complicated and nerve-racking, but the goal is simply to discover your personal experience with your professional set of competencies – and how it aligns with the requirements of the role. Campbell says, “Competency-based interviews can seem overwhelming but what you need to remember is to be yourself. It’s one thing to have a skill set but it’s another thing to be the right fit for the role. Don’t be afraid to show your personality and be authentic.” With careful preparation and a positive mindset, you will be equipped to give a top-notch performance. So go for it!

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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