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Competency Based Interviews: Your Toolkit for Success

Competency-based interviews can be uncomfortable experiences for many candidates. Questions which begin ‘Tell me about a time when…’ can instil fear in the most experienced and self-assured of applicants.

These types of questions are pretty common these days, particularly within the financial sector. But a little preparation and practice can go a long way. So to help you, we’ve pulled together a competency-based interview toolkit. It may even turn an area of weakness for you into a real strength.

What is a competency-based interview?

A competency-based interview is a structured interview designed around the key competencies of the role you are being interviewed for. It is designed to explore your career history in details, rather than the more general questions of a traditional interview.

All candidates being interviewed for the role are likely to be asked the same questions. The interviewer will be looking for you to provide actual examples of times where you have undertaken or demonstrated the key skills of competencies the role requires.

Most of the questions will be structured using the following format:

  • Can you tell me about a time when...
  • Describe an occasion when you have…
  • When has it been important in your role to…
  • Can you give me an example of a time when...

Practice makes perfect 

To help your preparation, we’ve pulled together common competency themes and included example questions which are often used in an interview. Crucially, we’ve included some advice on how to answer each question successfully.

As a general rule of thumb when answering, use the STAR method – Situation, Task, Action & Result – to construct your answer. Around 30% should be focused on Situation & Task, 70% on Action & Result.


Teamwork competency questions

Q. Can you give me an example of a time when you worked well as part of a team? 

HOW TO ANSWER - Be specific and provide details regarding the size of the team and what you do that is so important to the team. It could be your experience with particular processes, systems or clients but remember that they are interviewing you not the team. Remember to use ‘I’, not ‘we’, when answering.

Q. Can you think of a time when you have had to face difficulties within the team? 

HOW TO ANSWER – Remember that the interviewer is only concerned you handled things well. You need to ensure that if you have been involved in a dispute with a team member, you handled things appropriately and you kept any issues outside of work.  

Make it clear that it did not affect the daily running of the team or any lines of communication. If you had an issue, you tackled it by initially approaching the individual and trying to resolve any problems, rather than immediately highlighting it to management.

Q. What types of people do you not work well with? 

HOW TO ANSWER – Do not cite a huge list when highlighting a particular type. Make it clear that it is not that you don’t work well with them, just that you find it more difficult.  

For example, unproductive workers are quite frustrating as you tend to take pride in your work and find it disheartening when others don’t show the same level of dedication.


Accuracy competency questions

Q. Describe an occasion when you’ve had to work with a high attention to detail. 

HOW TO ANSWER – Be specific and try to avoid saying something along the lines of ‘I do this every day’, as they need to hear what you do and, if possible, that you understand why things have to be accurate.  

Q. Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. 

HOW TO ANSWER - Again, don’t think that if you admit to making a mistake that they will automatically discredit your application. They want to know that you took accountability for your mistake and ensured that the things were rectified. Everyone is human and mistakes happen.

Good interview technique would suggest you also say what you learned from this rather than just moving on.


Time management competency questions

Q. Describe an occasion when you have to deal with conflicting priorities. 

HOW TO ANSWER – ideally, you need to provide an example of a time when you have had to deal with perhaps three or four different tasks.

It may appear obvious, but you need to be able to demonstrate that you can prioritise well, look at the deadlines of each task, the importance, and whether this is something relating to clients or for internal use.

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Q. Tell me about a time when you successfully met a deadline.

HOW TO ANSWER – This is a fairly straightforward question, but be specific and demonstrate you understand the need to plan your day and allow time to meet particular deadlines.

Q. Can you give me an example of when you missed an important deadline?

HOW TO ANSWER – Demonstrate that you had anticipated the deadline in plenty of time, advised all affected parties and, if possible, asked for help from other people within your team or worked over lunch or after work to meet the deadline.

Again, if you can show that you learned something from this, it will help.

Q. What is more important to you: meeting a deadline or accuracy? 

HOW TO ANSWER - In an ideal world, both are as important as each other; however, you need to be able to choose between them.

Generally, accuracy is the most important especially with financial services companies’ regulatory requirements and their emphasis on professionalism. Besides, there is no point in producing work if it is full of mistakes, as you will need to do it again.


Client services competency questions

Q. Describe a time when you have provided outstanding client service? 

HOW TO ANSWER - Think of situations where you have completed tasks or taken responsibility for dealing with clients’ issues through good practice and diligence rather than because it was part of your role.

Q. Give me an example of when you had to deal with a client complaint. 

HOW TO ANSWER – The interviewer wants to check that you handled things correctly and that you took responsibility for the issues, gave realistic timescales and provided the client with a successful resolution to the problem.

Q. How do you gain the respect of managers/clients? 

HOW TO ANSWER – Highlight that you always ensure queries are dealt with in a professional and knowledgeable manner, work is produced to a high standard and expectations are met and often exceed.

This could be through meeting deadlines earlier or providing additional information that will aid the client or manager.


Communicating & influencing competency questions

Q. Are you persuasive? Give me an example of a time when you have had to persuade other people to your way of thinking. 

HOW TO ANSWER - Provide a specific example of a time when someone initially opposed your idea or opinion, but you managed to convince them of its benefit or logic.

Q. Can you build rapport easily? Tell me about a time when you have built rapport with a client or colleague? 

HOW TO ANSWER - The interviewer will be looking you to demonstrate that you know the important aspects to focus on when dealing with clients.

To successfully build rapport, it is important to be professional, mirror the client or your colleague’s manner and approach, as well as establishing some common interest.


Problem solving competency questions

Q. Can you think laterally? How do you cope with solving problems? Are you flexible enough to cope with change and challenges? 

HOW TO ANSWER - Outline the situation and the problem, the various approaches you might have taken and the one that you adopted. Why did you choose to tackle the problem this way and what was the result?


Challenging situations competency questions

Q. Do you panic when under pressure? Can you respond to challenges and set yourself goals in a difficult environment? 

HOW TO ANSWER - Briefly outline the task and the difficulties, show the steps that you took to cope with the situation. If other people were involved, be specific about what your particular role was. State the result. Don’t worry if the outcome was not 100% successful but show what you learned from the experience.


Organising skills competency questions

Q. How do you go about organising activities? Are you good at planning ahead and predicting possible problems? Can you lead others and delegate tasks when appropriate?

HOW TO ANSWER - Outline the situation, especially your role, describe any problems which arose and how you tackled them, say what the result was and what you learned from it. 


Enjoy the challenge

By now, you should have a solid bank of responses on which to draw during a competency-based interview. This will give you confidence and ensure you have strong answers which highlight your skills, experience and personal attributes. 

As well as being more successful, you may even enjoy your next competency-based interview.


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Titta Hukkanen
Senior Consultant – Financial & Professional Services
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