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How to conduct a competency-based interview

All the preparation you need to complete and questions that need covering.
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These are starting to go out of fashion in favour of take-home tasks, as the latter checks someone’s past experience rather than their current skill-set in a real-life context. When this step is done well however, it can give you a wealth of information about someone’s true capability beyond the CV narrative they have delivered thus far.

People can really train for these interviews and that’s no bad thing – you want to hire conscientious people. But it is also important to make this step challenging, get people out of their pre-prepared comfort zone and the below will help you to do that.

Preparation

Ask yourself what the top five areas of experience and competency you are searching for with this position, and the more detail here the better as it will help you to frame the questions properly. For example, the job specification may say:

“Experience of developing financial models for B2B SaaS businesses.”

If you really think through what you need here, the answer is closer to:

“Experience of working with early stage Founders to create compelling, digestible models which are well thought out and researched in comparison to other similarly positioned companies.”

If you interview against the text lifted from the job specification, you’re just asking questions to check off that they have that experience. The latter you have a number of things to assess for:

  • Working style with Founders – ability to influence and collaborate
  • Ability to work with Founders without accounting qualifications
  • Intuitive understanding of making models simple – it’s a business tool
  • Solid understanding of different businesses and drive to research more when there are knowledge gaps

Another example might be where the job specification states “Experience of managing the relationship with third party Accountants”. Reframing this and adding more detail into what’s actually needed could be:

“Experience of improving the quality of work delivered from a third party Accountant resulting in very little management overhead eventually. Alternatively, a track record of quickly assessing a relationship with a third party Accountant, terminating it gracefully but clearly due to poor performance, and successfully selecting a new provider”.

Here you have a number of competencies to test:

  • Listening skills under pressure
  • Lack of obvious political agendas – a focus on outcomes
  • Decisiveness
  • Relationship management / influencing skills
  • Tight, core management with clear instructions and implications

You don’t need to ask every single question but going through this preparation will help you to really interrogate what’s needed and consequently ask tougher, more specific questions.

Example Questions

Continuing from the Head of Finance example:

Talk us through a time when you built a model from scratch.

The candidate may have follow up questions here. Which type of environment are you looking to get information about, what sort of information are you looking for? You can provide more information – perhaps you’re looking for examples closest to your own business, but

Intuitively the top candidates will know to select an example which aligns best to the job they are interviewing for. You are looking for a careful thought process covering business analysis skills, research skills, drawing on their former experience, some iteration and interaction with the business, speed is also important.

What are the three most important factors you have needed to take into account when building a model which will be used by a non finance savvy (Accountant level) business leader?

Because this is a relatively business focused role, you are looking for someone who grasps that their work needs to be easily digestible, easy to modify and doesn’t require their input all the time. The best people will create work that is accessible and not opaque.

Can you share an example where you have influenced a stakeholder and it has resulted in a better business outcome?

This is a very used question but it does get to the heart of the issue. This person needs to work with a number of stakeholders and if they are too in the weeds, and do not understand how to communicate in a way that brings people on the journey, they won’t successfully operate at this level in your company.

Tell us about your least successful relationships with either third party Accountants or contractors?

The very best people take accountability for their actions and they learn from their mistakes. If a relationship broke down, it did so because the more senior in the relationship did not act with decisiveness and end it before toxicity crept in, or they did not have the skills at that point to turn it around. You are looking for someone who understands this and details the lack of success, taking ownership for the reasons why.

Toby Douglas-Bate

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