Overview and generic examples of INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

What does competency-based interviewing mean?

Competence is the set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable, and improve the efficiency or performance of a job. Competency simply means the ability to perform a type of task.  Competency-based interviews are structured, with the interviewer working from a set of pre-determined questions.

They work on the basis that past performance is a reliable predictor of the future.

The interviewer would be expected to ask a number of questions intended to identify the extent to which a candidate has the specific experience and skills required to succeed in the role you’re hiring into.

Competency-based interview questions  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?

Core behavioural competencies include:

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.

The above competencies are somewhat vague and it’s likely you’ll not only want to identify a candidate’s generic capability in these areas but also specific ones determined by the requirements of the job and what is to be accomplished/achieved.

Likely to be industry, occupational, situational and challenge oriented ones.

NB if you’re already an experienced interviewer you may already subconsciously have adopted, and approach interviewing with competency-based interview questions to assess a candidate’s real ability.

The difference between leadership and management.

When hiring into senior roles, it’s important to understand the difference between Leadership and Management.

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 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 determine the best questions to ask.

Think about the business-critical goals for which you want someone to accomplish, 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 your business, its ambitions and objectives. Think about what areas you most want to drill into with a candidate to determine their experience, capability, past achievements and future potential.

Take a broad view of your 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 do you need someone to make happen?

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 need to determine a sensible number of questions to ask, and when to ask them.

You may wish to spread these out over first, second, third interview stages… and determine who is to ask them?

The questions need to be put to candidates, in the same way, each time, so that you can properly assess answers.

You need to be specific consider probing with the STAR formula:

  • SITUATION – for whom the candidate was working at the time (employer name), what his or her role was and when it happened.
  • TASK – to understand the challenge or nature of the project for which he or she was responsible and why it was important in the context of impact on the organization.
  • ACTION – to uncover how they approached the task and the actions they took. If their efforts were part of a team effort, focus most on what they did, and what they contributed.
  • RESULT – what were the outcomes? Understand the facts and figures things like performance stats, sales, cost savings, timelines…

Looking for potential and future performance

Just because someone performed well in the past doesn’t mean they’ll perform well in the future.

A popular and successful interview technique is to have candidates undertake a role-play, discuss a scenario or to give a presentation outlining how they would approach a challenge, task or their First 100 days or First 12 months. You’d do this when making specialist or senior hires.

Typically this would be done at a third or subsequent interview stage (sometimes second). You’d give the candidate an outline of what you expect, perhaps 2 to 5 paragraphs and a time slot to work within say 30 minutes.

The topic would ideally be related to what would make or break their success in the role.

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?