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Can you tell me of a time when you successfully managed upwards? What is your best experience of herding cats?

Today’s blog is all about competency-based questions and how to answer them.  A lot of interviewers are using them now.  If you’re not sure what they are, don’t panic, I’m going to talk you through it. 

Interviewing is one of those things that seems to bring out the nerves in the majority of people, even if you’re not normally a nervous person. The key to interviews is preparation. Preparation and understanding the types of questions you might be answered are both equally important. 

This is why I run mock interviews with people time and time again.  I help cover things that might be asked and how to answer.

What is a competency-based question?

It’s not a word that we come across very often is it competency? It’s a bit of an odd one. Essentially these questions are around probing your past, something that has really happened to you that relates to the skills advertised within the job advert that you are applying to. 

They have a square shaped hole they need to fill (the job) and that job needs teamwork, leadership and communication skills. To find out if a candidate is competent in these areas or skills, they’ll ask a question that looks at how you’ve dealt with these areas in the past. 

Now, a long time ago, people used to say, in interviews “how would you approach this situation?” and we can approach that situation in an almost perfect way in the future. We can say all the things that we expect that employee wants to hear and we can almost be that perfect little team member for that person. However, that is not very helpful for either of us as a potential employee, or a recruiter.  After all who wants a perfect person?  Nobody is right?

Typical competency-based questions

Some typical questions might be: 

Describe a situation in which you’ve led a team. 

The competency, the skill that they’re looking for here is team leadership. 

Describe a situation, think of an example of a time you handled conflict in the workplace. 

The skill here would be team roles, communication and dealing with difficult people. 

Anything that starts with describe a situation or give me an example of a time allows you to think of your story, your backstory and pull out any examples from that. 

Some other examples might be – tell me about a time when your communication skills have improved a situation.  This question looks at communication skills as well as how you acted positively within a situation.  

All these questions that we choose to answer will need to have a positive response so do ensure that as its key.  To do this we need to have good case studies, but thankfully, there are some ways of structuring those very easily.

The STAR Framework

There are two different ways of framing your responses. The first one is the STAR framework. You have experiences in your past, hopefully some that ended positively and this framework will help you to think about how you can structure that into an answer.  You don’t want to ramble on but you also don’t want to just give a short answer either.  You want to give an answer that’s around 2 to 3 minutes long.  

STAR stands for situation, task, actions and results.  You can see there that this is very much a story framework.  You set the scene (the situation) make sure you are as detailed as you need to be here.  Next, it’s the task, what you had to do in that situation.  For example, if you’re being asked about difficult people and a member of your team is feeling isolated and this may overlap with action.  You need to explain what you wanted to achieve (have them feel less isolated) and the action you took to get there.  It’s important to make sure you focus on your role in the situation and not the actions/feelings of others too much as you are the one being interviewed.  Think about the things you did to improve the situation.

The CAR Framework

The second way is the CAR framework.  This stands for context, actions and result. Which is very similar to STAR but it literally takes that situation and task and wraps it into one. It doesn’t matter which you use, so long as you step interviewers through them. Make sure you pick a positive situation that you improved by your actions.  You’d be surprised at the number of people who forget the positive, that’s really what a prospective employer wants to hear. Competency based questions are about problem solving. The other thing I would really emphasise is to make sure that it sounds as natural as possible, which comes from practice.  Practice, practice but also thinking, you don’t want to sound like you are reeling off bullet points.

How do you start answering these questions?

There are competency-based questions all over the internet and you will have had plenty of things that have happened in your life so far that you can use for this.  Don’t forget that you can always use stories from outside work if they’re relevant. If you’ve led a sports team or been chair of an external organisation that would work as well. 

Make sure that you’ve collected the stories.  Start recording them.  Either write them down or pop them into a spreadsheet or record them as notes.  Whatever works for you.

How do we prepare?

The first place to look for clues to questions you might be asked is within the job description.  These will be the skills and experiences that they are looking for. Go through it and highlight all the relevant skills or experience that they talk about in the job description and advert. 

There are lots of lists of competency questions out there. jobs.ac.uk, which in the UK is the academic job site and it has a fantastic career advice section that contains an interview tool, just search on competency-based questions.  Same with Google, just type it in and see what comes out. 

I hope this advice has helped but if you’re still stuck why not book a mock interview with me.  Just pop me a message below.

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