Competency based interviewing Management

Competency based interviewing (Management)

Personality type, two people


Background and example questions for people interviewing for management roles.

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 management and leadership.
  • Examples of specific questions, appertaining to people interviewing for jobs in Governance, Risk & Compliance.


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.


Selecting your next leader

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 determining 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 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 behaviourally 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 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 does your experience and achievements relate?

You should reflect on what insight you have into the opportunity from any job spec, 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 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 competence-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 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 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.

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 todays’ climate, you’ve got to do both. 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.

Management – example questions.

In an interview situation, certain questions may be more generic than focused on your particular business skills or technical discipline.

They are intended to provide insight into your natural pattern of behaviour around one or more specific behavioural attributes.

It may be that the recruiting organization is looking for those certain attributes as a strong requirement because of something that is happening in the business generally or the area that you will be working.

If you will be affected by changes that are planned in the area where you will start to work for the business, they may want to test your natural resilience.

If you will be given a team to manage that has a reputation for generating difficulties, they may not want to state as such in an interview but they will want to be convinced of your skills to manage the sort of situations they have experienced.

Some examples of the more generic questions are below.



Tell me about a time when where you had to act to resolve an issue a conflict

between your department and another area of the business.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the nature of the issue?
  • Why was it a matter of conflict between your department and another area?
  • How did you become involved?
  • What actions did you take?
  • What was the outcome?



Describe a situation when you realised that your recommendations would have negative consequences for others and how you rationalised your decisions.

Sub Questions:

  • What had you been tasked with doing?
  • What were your conclusions and recommendations? What consequences did these have for others?
  • How did you communicate these issues and to who?
  • How did you rationalise these issues?
  • How did you feel personally about those who were impacted?


Tell me about a time when your personal network enabled you to better support the business or address a problem.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the issue or opportunity?
  • What made you look to your network?
  • How did you make the contact?
  • How did your network help you?
  • Why did you trust your network capability?



Tell me about how you dealt with a difficult colleague in a particular situation.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the basis of your relationship with your colleague?
  • What caused the difficulty with the colleague?
  • How did the difficulty manifest itself?
  • How did you assess the situation?
  • How did you approach your colleague?
  • What was his/her reaction?
  • How did you reach resolution or overcome the issue?


Tell me about an occasion when you had to give difficult feedback to a member of your team.

Sub Questions:

  • How did the problem arise?
  • What was relationship like with your subordinate generally?
  • How did you prepare?
  • How did you set the scene for the meeting?
  • How did you handle the conversation?
  • What was the response from your subordinate?



Tell me about a time when you have successfully coached someone to deal with a difficult situation.

Sub Questions:

  • Why did you become the coach and to whom?
  • What difficulty did they face?
  • What approach did you take as their coach?
  • How did the situation work out?



Tell me about a time when you made a wrong decision and had to be open about it to involve others.

Sub Questions:

  • What was your initial decision?
  • Why did it turn out to be a wrong decision and how did you recognise it?
  • What was the impact of having to make a change?
  • How did you communicate the position?
  • How did others respond and how did you deal with their response?



Describe an occasion when you received feedback that was difficult to accept but you saw its merit.

Sub Questions:

  • What had happened?
  • What feedback were you given?
  • How did you receive the feedback?
  • What was your immediate reaction?
  • What were your thoughts following time for reflection?



Can you describe an important situation or event that you found very unfamiliar and how you coped with it and adapted to it?

Sub Questions:

  • What was it that made the situation or event important to warrant your involvement?
  • What made the situation unfamiliar?
  • How did you assess the situation?
  • How did you react?
  • What did you decide to do?
  • How did it work out?



Tell me about an occasion when you resisted change and why.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Why did you look to disagree?
  • How did you make your case?
  • What was the response to your stance?
  • How did you gather information and apply judgement?
  • What did you finally decide?



Tell me about a significant business change that caused your personal difficulty, and how you adapted.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the business change?
  • How did it impact you?
  • How did you reconcile the change with your own situation?
  • What major personal changes did you make and why?
  • How did things end?



Tell me about a time when you recognised the knowledge or skills of a subordinate in a situation such that you delegated the leadership of the team to them.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Why did you delegate the job to a subordinate?
  • How did you assign the job to them and agree the way forward?
  • How did you maintain the necessary overview?
  • What worked and what didn’t?



Describe an occasion when you had to deal with the failure of a team member to deal effectively with a situation involving another department that was widely observed.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation and what had gone wrong?
  • What had been the external reaction?
  • How did you deal with the team member?
  • What position did you take for the external audience?
  • What communications were necessary?
  • What was the outcome?



Describe a time when you had to differentiate your audience with different communications.

Sub Questions:

  • What had to be communicated?
  • How did you decide that the audience needed to be split?
  • What differentiated the segments of your audience?
  • How did you construct your communications to suit?



Tell me about a time when you recognised that you were communicating bad news for your audience.

Sub Questions:

  • Who were your audience?
  • What had to be communicated?
  • How did you establish your communications plan?
  • How did you cater for your audience reaction?



Can you describe an occasion when you were unable to communicate the full picture?

Sub Questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Why were you constrained?
  • How did you feel about the situation?
  • How did you handle the communications?
  • How did you explain the constraints?



Tell us about when you have carried out a Project Investment Appraisal and the financial modelling you undertook.

Describe how the appraisal impacted on the approval process for the project and the conditions that were applied to it.

Sub Questions:

  • What was the project and what financial measures where used to assess it?
  • What were the financial ‘hurdles’ that had to be cleared for the project to go ahead?
  • How did you set about your modelling and appraisal?
  • What were you most significant conclusions and how had you drawn those conclusions?
  • What sensitivity analysis did you include?
  • How did you present your findings and what recommendations did you make?
  • How did the project develop from there?



Describe an occasion when your input to the management of a challenging financial situation was essential in effecting an improvement in business performance.

Sub Questions:

  • What was situation?
  • What was your evaluation and major concerns, and why?
  • What did you do?
  • Who did you need to influence and why?
  • What was the impact of your work on the business performance going forward?



Tell me about a time when your ownership/improvement of the organizations budget management processes enabled a significant improvement in the financial performance of the business.

Sub Questions:

  • How had you developed/improved the budget management process?
  • What was the financial performance of the business like prior to the changes?
  • What was it that you had done that had a positive impact on business performance and why?
  • What was the extent of the improvement?