Interview questions and structured interviewing
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Interlocking Core Competency Interviews

Perry Alter

Any organization with core competencies should have core competency interviews to support them, so it can hire people strong in those competencies. This is one critical way of truly bringing those competencies to life around the organization.

Furthermore, these interviews should be customized for the different organizational levels, so you can measure whether people are acting on the competencies in a way that is optimum for their level. Asking managerial candidates about a time when they instilled a customer-focused culture in their departments is more valuable than asking them about when they individually demonstrated customer focus.

For example: Suppose “Teamwork” is one of your organization’s competencies, and is defined as: “Work with others to produce results greater than what people could have done individually.” This suggests the following interview question if you want to hire someone who is strong in that competency:

"Describe a time when you asked a coworker to join you on a project because his or her skills and yours complemented one another. What did you accomplish together, and how is this better than what you could have done individually?”

This is a great question for hiring workers with this kind of orientation. But should the same question be used with people whose primary contribution is in leading or managing? While it could apply to them, their value to the organization lies primarily in managing teamwork and capitalizing on it, more than in doing it.

For example, if we want the workers to work in teams to accomplish more than they could individually, than we might want the managers to coach others to build on, rather than resist, one another’s ideas. That in turn suggests this selection interview question for managers:

“Think of a time when your team was successful partially due to your coaching in building on, rather than resisting, one another’s ideas. Exactly how did you coach them, and what happened?”

Let’s take this up to the next level, beyond the team leaders. If we want the workers working together to create better results, and we want the team leaders and managers coaching them to make good use of one another’s strengths, what do we want the upper-level leaders doing? Perhaps creating a culture and systems that encourage and enable teamwork over competition. At that level, this question might be useful:

“Teamwork cannot thrive in an environment where systems discourage it. Tell me how you have gone about revising your internal structures and systems to ensure that they encouraged and enabled people to work together.”

Now a few points of explanation. First, the above questions all had a common format:

You identify what you want done for that competency and at that level.

Then, you create a behavior-based interview question by adding “Describe a time when ...” | in front of it.

Then, you edit it to make it more meaningful.

That way, you can create behavior-based interview questions about whatever you want done in your organization. Why is that logical? Because people who can give you good answers to those questions will probably demonstrate the core competency just the way you want them to at that level.

Second, we used the word level to reflect different logical groupings within an organization. That is the simplest way to introduce it, but we actually prefer a different approach in terms of making a difference in organizational effectiveness. We prefer “stages”, because they focus not on where you are, but on what you do. It is more robust than a level approach. Here is a breakdown our Four Stages view of contribution in an organization:

Stage I performers are new to an area or project and work under others’ guidance. They work hard, but they are still relatively dependent on others.

Stage II performers work independently. They know what they are doing. They interact regularly with others as needed and they accept supervision, but for the most part, they execute work.

Stage III performers provide value to the organization primarily through their influence on others. These are not only managers, but also role models and local idea leaders. They coach, advise, and role-model even if they don’t have position power.

Stage IV performers provide value through vision, and guide the performance of many others. They have great impact on the organization through providing either formal or informal direction to large numbers of others.

So let’s put it all together and look at another example. Let’s take the hypothetical core competency of Customer Focus. In the following table, we’ll use sensible examples of what we want people to do at each stage for that competency, but they are just examples. Organizations should define their own core competencies in the way that works best for them.

For the core competency of Customer Focus, you might want people in this stage to:

Therefore, your interviews could differentiate people who would do it well by asking this question:

I (Contributing under guidance)
Learn the value proposition that your services provide to customers.
Tell me about a time when you went out of your way to learn the value that your services provided to customers. How did you seek to learn this?

II (Contributing independently)
Deliver service in a way that shows great sensitivity to customers’ unique situations.
If you deliver service that accommodates customers’ unique needs, they are likely to be satisfied. Describe a time when you did this even though it was challenging.

III (Contributing through others)
Coach others to learn customers’ unique needs and adapt service to them as able.
Many people would rather provide generic service than customized service, because it is easier. Tell me how your coaching led someone to focus on meeting a customer’s unique needs.

III (Contributing through vision)
Design systems that primarily encourage and reward customer satisfaction, rather than cost-savings or other factors.
Walk me through how you ensured that your internal systems reinforced customer satisfaction as a way of life in your organization.

To summarize then, we hope we’ve made it clear that having selection interviews for competencies is very desirable, particularly if they are customized around the stages of contribution in which you want the competencies exercised.


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