Competency based interviewing Executive Leadership


Background and question examples for Leadership appointments.

This white paper is designed to help knowledge workers, professionals & semi-professionals, managers and senior execs CXO level prepare better for interview – this particular article is written to help the candidate approach their interview better informed and more prepared.

Where appropriate, in each occupational discipline, we have included questions for both individual contributors and management questions for individual disciplines.

This white paper specifically addresses the issues of how to best approach handling competency-based interviews.

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • What does competency-based interviewing mean?
  • How to second guess what questions may arise and how to answer them?
  • Question bank – Examples of generic competency-based interview questions which you may expect.
  • The difference between Leadership and Management.
  • Examples of specific questions, which you may expect if you’re applying for a Leadership appointment.


What does competency-based interviewing mean?

Competency-based interviews are structured, with the interviewer working from a set of pre-determined questions.

They work on the basis that your past performance is a reliable predictor of the future, so you can expect to be asked a number of questions that will require you to draw on specific aspects of your past performance.

Competency-based interview questions will typically begin:

  • Tell me about a time when?
  • Tell us what approach you took?
  • Describe an occasion when?
  • How did you go about?
  • Give me an example when?

These are often based around core behavioural competencies such as:

Initiative and innovation. Developing others. Delivering results.
Team leading. Interpersonal skills. Learning & self-development.
Communication Planning and organising. Analytical thinking.
Strategic thinking. Building relationships. Teamwork and collaboration.


However, competency-based interview questions are more likely to be put to you in a specific context, determined by the requirements of the job and what is to be accomplished / achieved.


Why is it so important that you understand competency-based interviewing?

Two reasons;

Firstly, HR is increasingly becoming recognised for its contribution to the business – once a discipline which many people saw as taking a back-seat, HR as a function is becoming increasingly valued.

  • Importantly HR professionals becoming increasingly business savvy, better focused on business outcomes and more influential in driving up organizational capability through more robust recruitment and selection tactics and techniques for internal and external resourcing.
  • Best practice in HR means leveraging a competency-based interview approach; taking a more scientific approach to determine a candidate’s ability to perform in the job and this means looking for previous experience of success (competency).
  • You can expect HR executive to be interested to identify experience which is directly relevant to the specific demands of the job, the goals to be achieved and the situation in which it is to be done (business drivers, market conditions/dynamics….).

Second reason; most experienced senior managers or business leaders are either aware of the merits and rationale of competency-based interviewing or are subconsciously aware of it, and therefore will often use competency-based interview questions to assess a candidate’s real ability.

In relation to their questions, the interviewer(s) will analyse your answer around ‘what you did’, in terms of your experience, knowledge and skills applied to the situation that is in question. The question is most likely to be framed in terms of direct relevance to the organization and the job being recruited for, and you should look to answer it in the same terms.

You will demonstrate the extent of your affinity to the organization’s activities. The interviewer, and certainly if they are part of HR, will want to know ‘how you did what you did’. This relates to the behavioural competencies that are relative to the values of the organization. Are you a fit with the desired culture of the organization?


For more senior roles, and particularly jobs that involve people management, apart from the technical skills and general behavioural aspects, management of people is key. However, it is increasingly common for the term leadership to be used, therefore it may help to provide some delineation between the two terms.

Management is seen as the transactional processes by which an organization is steered, and its activities are planned, directed and executed procedurally.

Leadership is considered to be a more transformational activity in which influence is created and used to bring about people performance. So, we can see fundamental differences in approach – authoritarian v. charismatic, short-term objectives v. strategic vision, doing things right v. doing the right things.

Leadership is seen as much more behaviorally driven, an innate characteristic of nature rather than learned, hence it may drive competence interview questioning that has a greater focus on emotional intelligence.


Competence questions have their foundation in the premise that how a person behaves in a given situation is characteristic, rather than what they say they would theoretically do in a given situation, which may or may not be the case in the event. At the most senior levels of an organization, the criticality of leadership will feature strongly in the manner of the competence interview questions that you will be asked, as much as your focus on past business performance.

How to second guess what questions may arise.

The keys to unlocking what competency-based interview questions you may face, lie in the following clues and combinations…

Expect questions to be focused on very predictable business-critical goals for which you will be expected to be responsible, and against which your performance will most likely be measured, and by which success or failure will be determined. These are most likely to be industry-sector and job-specific. Consider what matters most in the position into which the employer is hiring – the key challenges of the role, the key issues facing the business, its ambitions and objectives. Anticipate what areas you think they are most likely to probe you about. Where do your experience and achievements relate?

You should reflect on what insight you have into the opportunity from any job spec, a briefing from a head-hunter, internal recruiter, job advert, inside line from someone in your network, news items or other media items including their website, then try to second guess what questions they are most likely to put to you. Consider sitting in the interviewers’ shoes and think about what questions you might ask if you were on their side of the table.

Factors most likely to influence the shape of the competency-based interview question /s!

Take a broad view of the organization itself – its size and spread geographically, its range of products and services, its operational activities, its recent market performance, emerging issues; something of a SWOT analysis.

What will be the impacts required of the role-holder – critical short-term deliverables, long term ambitions, key areas of influence, in the context of the organization.

Now, look to define the role in terms of the important attributes (experience, knowledge, skills) that will underpin the delivery of job performance. You have got to the interview stage so what is it on your CV that will likely have interested them in you.

Okay, now try to prepare and plan for the interview itself. Think about the concepts raised in the above visual and consequently which competency-based questions are they most likely to put to you.

How to answer competency-based interview questions?

Answer competency-based interview questions using the STAR formula!

  • SITUATION – say where you were (employer name), what your role was and when it happened.
  • TASK – outline the challenge or nature of the project for which you were responsible and why it was important in the context of impact on the organization.
  • ACTION – explain how you approached the task and the actions you took. If your efforts were part of a team effort, focus most on what you did, and what you contributed. Avoid saying what you thought you might do – you need to focus on what you have achieved and how you achieved it.
  • RESULT – what were the outcomes? These should be substantiated with facts and figures and should show you in a positive light.

What if you can’t think of a good or recent example?


In this case, you may wish to tell the interviewer that you cannot think of a directly comparable situation, but you can think of something similar, and then elaborate on how you might have approached this task if faced with it. The interviewer will normally accept this approach. The length of your answer. Expect sub-questions.


Your response to any competency-based question needs to be focused but in dealing with all four points of the STAR technique in sufficient detail, it is not untypical for a response to take around five minutes to explain. If you have not covered aspects that the interviewer is looking for you to cover, they may interject or at the end of your answer give you one or more ‘prompt’ questions but it is also common for an interviewer to give you a series of sub-questions having asked the main question, to give you a steer as to what they are looking for you to cover in your response. In answering competency-based interview questions, the process you apply is important to make sure that you give the best answers you can.


Having been asked the question, give yourself some thinking time so that you identify a particularly relevant scenario for your response and to prepare and frame your response so that it is comprehensive yet focused.

  • The interviewer will expect you to take the time to prepare your answer.
  • Feel free to ask for the question to be repeated – you need to be certain that you understand the question.
  • Have a pen and paper to note the salient points of the question as a reminder of what needs to be addressed if you personally feel comfortable and confident in this approach.
  • If you think you may be going off track with your answer, ask for the question to be repeated – better safe than sorry.
  • Expect the interviewer to be writing notes as you talk.


Examples of generic competency-based interview questions

Communication and presentation skills

  • Think of a time when you tried to persuade someone else to adopt your point of view. What was the situation? How did you present your views/arguments? What was the result?
  • Tell us about a major change you have experienced in your work environment.
  • Tell us about a time when you failed. Why did you fail? What did you learn from the situation?


Delivering results/results orientation

  • Tell us about a project where you have persisted in spite of obstacles.
  • Tell us about a major achievement and how you went about it.
  • Describe a time when you experienced setbacks in your work.


Interpersonal skills

  • Tell me about a time when you needed to persuade others to commit to a course of action.
  • Describe a situation where you got people to work together.
  • Can you tell me the last time you upset someone? What happened?


Use of initiative

  • Tell me about a time when you undertook a project in an area in which you had little or no experience.
  • Tell me about a time when you initiated a change on your own. How did you present this to your boss?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you wanted to initiate a project on your own? How did you go about it?


Planning and organising

  • Tell me about a complex project you’ve been responsible for that required significant planning.
  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t meet an objective/deadline.
  • Give me an example of a time when you have had to change your plans.


Analytical thinking

Tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem.

Describe a time when your analytical skills were put to the test.

Tell me about the most complex or difficult information you have had to analyse.


Strategic thinking

  • Tell me of a time when you have influenced strategy.
  • Can you tell me about a time when you implemented a plan that had long-range implications?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you developed a mission statement?


Building relationships

  • Tell me about a time when you quickly developed a relationship with a new colleague or client.
  • Give me an example of a time when you went about building good working relationships within a team.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to develop and maintain a working relationship with someone with whom you didn’t like
  • to work. How did you do that?



  • Describe a time when you have had to change a process or methodology. How did you go about it?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to influence business decisions in a business unit not directly accountable to you?
  • Describe your recent experience of partnering with senior managers to influence commercial outcomes.


Commercial and business awareness

  • Describe a situation where you championed strategic thinking corporately.
  • Describe financial/commercial decisions that you have made/advised on.
  • Tell us about an occasion when you borrowed ideas from other industries.


Decision making – problem solving and analysis

  • Tell us about a particularly difficult decision you have had to make.
  • Describe a complex problem that you have had to deal with. What approach did you take?
  • Tell us about some of the analytical methods you have used in the past, e.g. cost/benefit analysis. How have these helped you add value?



  • Can you tell me about a time when you have had to resolve a conflict between individuals?
  • Describe a time where you have had to use different approaches to deal with different personalities.
  • Can you describe a time when you worked in a team drawn from other departments/areas of your business?
  • Who is the most difficult person you have ever had to manage?


Team leading

  • Describe your approach to leadership style in your last position / s.
  • What is the best team you’ve led and why?
  • Tell me about a time when you led a dysfunctional team.
  • What techniques have you used to encourage others to contribute to the team?

The difference between management and leadership

There have been huge debates about the distinction between a leader and a manager, and whether one is inherently better in some way, or represents a ‘magic bullet’ guaranteeing success.

No doubt such debates will rage on for many years to come, but for now, it seems fair to draw a distinction as follows:

  • Leadership is about determining direction or vision and strategy for a group, which the group will subsequently follow, i.e. a leader will outline a vision and determine goals and objectives. The successful CEO surrounds himself or herself with great people who don’t need to be micro-managed. And he or she will execute plans through multiple business units and teams, and keep the company headed in the right direction. The role is transformational.
  • Management is about putting into effect the people/team and resources to deliver those goals which have already been established. Management is about getting things done. This includes setting operational direction and organising resources to maximise performance, drive optimisation and efficiency. The role is transactional.
  • Appreciate, that lines of distinction between expectations of managers and leaders are sometimes blurred because of different company cultures, varying degrees of responsibility and autonomy.
  • The ever-increasingly competitive /fast-changing business landscape often translates into transformation being on the agenda both at management and leadership level.


Also, it was once said by Warren Bennis that leadership was ‘doing the right things’ and management was ‘doing things right’.

As Tom Peters pointed out, in today’s’ climate, you’ve got to do both. A strategy needs execution, just as for execution to be effective, it must follow a strategy.

So, the expectation of even middle managers is that the best can do both the transactional and the transformational.

That is why Managing Change is more than a specialist role, it is a normal part of today’s business. Those that can do both well, can also find a path to the highest leadership levels of an organization.

At leadership levels, competency-based interview questions are likely to be heavily influenced by whatever agenda the organisation is pursuing: grow, buy or sell (grow = organic growth, buy = growth by acquisition, sell = objectives to sell the company).

Bear in mind that the overall agenda might either have more than one possible intended outcomes running in tandem and/or be subject to change.

The bottom line is that the leadership team, should be viewed as responsible for the shareholders / owner’s investment.

And how that investment reaps the maximum benefit in their eyes. Any organisation has a set of resources (employees, IP, products/ propositions, cash, capabilities, customers, capital ability to borrow). The job of the CEO is really to determine how these resources can be used to return maximum benefits to the shareholders/business owners – often determined by increased stock price, company value, sales, profit, market share.

In addition to bottom-line business outcomes, when making leadership hires, the hiring team will be looking for people who can determine, shape and implement a successful strategy.

The hiring team will be looking for leadership qualities. Therefore, you may expect questions to be asked that relate to key leadership aims.

Such as developing a mission statement, sense of value that is all-encompassing and has meaning throughout the organization.

How you would go about creating a culture of success, in which there exists a sense of purpose, belief and confidence.

Leadership – example competency-based interview questions.

The biggest and hardest decisions, the most impact, the strongest visible presence, the greatest accountability, the final call – all sit with the executive leadership of an organization.

The focus of stakeholders – Government, Regulators, the Press, Shareholders, Employees, key clients and suppliers; what you do and how you do it determine how you are viewed.

Your track record is your reputation and it is constantly on the line; hard-won and easily lost.

The interviewer needs to know what makes you tick because getting the right or wrong person has such critical consequences.

Expect to be challenged.

Because of your level of personal visibility within the business community and the role you seek, you will have been well-researched.

Expect your past to be questioned closely. If you want that role, you must put in a great personal performance.



Tell me about a time when you took a business through a period of accelerated growth?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Where did the biggest challenge lie?
  • What was your strategy?
  • How did you go about it?
  • What obstacles and challenges did you encounter?
  • What aspects would you do differently next time?



Tell me about how you turned Company XYZ around.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the position when you took over?
  • What was your strategy?
  • What were the difficult decisions and why?
  • Who were the key stakeholders and what were your messages to them?
  • What was your picture of success?
  • How did you perform and what made the difference?



Tell me about the business decision that gave you the most emotional difficulty.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Where did the biggest challenge lie?
  • Why was it emotionally difficult for you?
  • How did you rationalise it?
  • What did you do?
  • How did you feel afterwards?



Tell us about the closure of the ABC business unit within DEFG and your management of that exercise.

Sub Questions:

  • What was your evaluation of the business performance and why?
  • What was your decision and why?
  • What were the main factors that shaped your planning>?
  • How did you manage the exercise?
  • How did you evaluate that business activity?
  • What were the key lessons that you took and where have they been applied elsewhere successfully?



How do you account for the flat-lining of your share-price despite your last set of results?

Sub Questions:

  • How do you view your financial results?
  • Why has the market responded less than positively in your view?
  • What influence did it have on your decision to close your operations in Wales?
  • How has this situation impacted your strategy for the next 3 years?


What single achievement has given you the most satisfaction?

Sub Questions:

  • What was that achievement?
  • What did you derive from it?
  • How did you view it at the time?
  • Why has it been so important?
  • What impact has it had on you since that time?



Tell me about your decision to leave ABC Corp and why you made that move?

Sub Questions:

  • What prompted you to consider moving on?
  • What were your options?
  • How did you evaluate the situation?
  • Who did you discuss the situation with and what was their view?
  • How did you arrive at your final decision?
  • What influenced your management of the communications?




Tell me why you believe that ABC Corp needed to renegotiate its contract with DEF Corp and how you managed around the risk that you would not be able to reach a further agreement?

Sub Questions:

  • Why did you need to renegotiate the contract?
  • How did you view your performance under the contract?
  • What was your assessment of DEF Corp’s response?
  • What were the risks for ABC Corp and what mitigation measures had you enacted?
  • How did you handle the formal and informal discussions?
  • Where did the final deal sit against your plans and expectations?



Describe an occasion when your decision or take on an issue surprised a lot of your colleagues

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation or issue?
  • What was the general view?
  • How did you see things, and why?
  • Where was it critical to winning support and why?
  • How did you bring others on-board with your thinking?
  • What was the outcome?
  • Did that decision have any negative impacts and how did you handle those?



Tell me about the strongest challenge you received in respect of a decision made by you and how you dealt with it?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Where had been your decision and how had that been communicated?
  • Where did the challenge come from and in what context?
  • How did you take it?
  • What was your response?
  • How did you manage the issue?
  • What wider implications were there?




What has been your darkest moment in business and why?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Why did it have such an impact upon you?
  • What options did you consider?
  • What did you do and why?
  • What did you learn from the event?



Tell us about the acquisition of DEF Corp and why it was of strategic importance to your business.

Sub Questions:

  • What was your thinking?
  • What options did you see and how did you evaluate and rate them?
  • What strategy did you adopt?
  • How has that acquisition worked for ABC Corp?



From the time of your appointment as CEO of ABC Corp, who has proved to be your most successful appointment and why?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the gap in the organization as you saw it?
  • Who did you appoint and why?
  • What is it that they have contributed to the business and what has been key to their success?
  • What has been the impact of your relationship on them?



Tell me about a risky opportunity that your Board didn’t take and why?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the opportunity and how was the risk evaluated?
  • What was the potential upside?
  • What was the general view?
  • Where did you stand on this and why?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently, and should the business have responded differently?
  • What was learnt within the business from this episode?



Give me your views on how the Government reacted to your last price rise and tell me how you managed in the space between Regulators and customer?

Sub Questions:

  • What had been your planning prior to the price rise?
  • What communications had you made off-line around the impending news?
  • How had the feedback shaped your plans?
  • How do you think you handled the media?
  • What was the bottom-line impact on your business and how have you addressed this?



Tell us about your decision to close the packaging plant on Teesside and concentrate operations in Dundee?

Sub Questions:

What factors were fundamental in your review?

  • How did you see the market changing?
  • What was the business case?
  • What were your expectations of the reaction from the local press and their past issues seemingly with you personally?
  • How did you prepare for that situation?
  • How well do you think you managed the closure?
  • How did you prepare the Dundee operation for the changes that were necessary?
  • What has been the performance of the new operating unit?



Tell me about a decision that you made that you later wish you had reversed.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the decision and what had been the basis for your judgement?
  • What could you have done but didn’t and why not?
  • Why do you now wish you had acted differently?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done?



Describe an occasion when you were too slow to react to an emerging situation.

Sub Questions:

  • What was happening?
  • How was information being fed to you?
  • What was your view and what did you do?
  • Where was the shortfall?
  • What were the impact on the business and you personally?