Behavioral Interviews: Hire for the Competencies Needed

starts from the belief
that past performance
is the best predictor of
future performance.

Debra LakeDebra Lake

Whether you are the hiring interviewer or job applicant, you are looking for the best possible fit. But free-form interviews just tell who we click with, which is not the same thing.

“If you don’t have a process, your chance of hiring the right person is 50/50. It’s the same as flipping a coin,” Debra Lake said at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership annual conference in October 2012. She is a founder and senior fellow of the Carroll University Center for Leadership Excellence in Waukesha WI.

Hiring a new person is a million-dollar decision, the biggest one an administrator makes. After investing time and money in a series of interviews, you invest more in training the new staffer. When it doesn’t work out, the decision costs a lot in aggravation or worse. “If you hire the wrong person, especially in a university setting, it can take a long time to get rid of them,” she told WIHE.

From the applicant’s side, a vague, general interview may lead to a job with unwelcome expectations. Or you may not get the job that would have been a great fit for you, because you didn’t manage to put that fit across in the interview.

Interviewer and candidate are checking out each other in a two-sided process. The process she described for a successful interview applies equally to both parties. Developed as a technique for interviewers, it can also help applicants to turn an interview to their advantage.

Focus on competencies

Behavioral interviewing has been around for 25 years but few of her students seem to know about it. It starts from the belief that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. “The key is knowing what needs to be done in the job. Otherwise we just hire those that we click with,” Lake said.

Behavioral interviews aim to determine whether the candidate

(1) has the technical skills to do the job,

(2) will stretch and grow on the job and

(3) will strengthen the team.

Technical skills are most important at or near the entry level. Moving up the ladder, skills such as problem solving and team-building become more important. “What sets the bar to make them very successful on their job are these competencies,” she said.

Library staff members shown a list of 67 competencies were asked to pick the ten most relevant for their job. Managers chose operational skills; top administrators chose strategic ones. Among the competencies selected most often: courage, energy and drive, organizational politics and personal/interpersonal qualities such as ethics, patience and the ability to motivate others.

Competencies are skills that are observable, measurable and important for successful job performance. Workers who lack the essential competencies will fail in their job.

Defining the essential competencies takes care. Outstanding physicians don’t just have good grades and test scores. They also show empathy and respect for their patients, understand that they are treating a person and not a case, work constructively on medical teams, listen well and can think outside the box to diagnose unusual symptoms. Doctors run into more work trouble (and lawsuits) because of interpersonal than technical issues.

Lake has taught behavioral interviewing to nursing supervisors to help them hire nurses. She has also used it to support hiring bar staff and CEOs. “The process is pretty universal,” she said. In hiring faculty, have you thought through what they really need to succeed in your department? It is easy to check up on their PhD, but it takes more than a doctorate to create a successful professor.

If you are preparing to interview candidates for a position, identify the three to five most important competencies for the job, for now and in the years ahead. Pose questions to generate specific instances. For example:

Competency: Prioritize competing demands.

  • Traditional interview question: Tell me about the jobs that you have had.
  • Behavioral interview question: Tell me about a time you were very busy. How did you do it? If the applicant says she worked her way down a to-do list, setting priorities may not be her strength.

Competency: Manage a team.

  • Traditional interview question: Do you have any experience leading a team?
  • Behavioral interview question: Tell me about a time you led a team. What was the team charged with doing? Did you make budget? Did you finish the project on time? How did you lead the members of your team to make it happen?

If you are the applicant, thinking in behavioral terms will help you regardless of the interviewer’s technique. If she poses a traditional question, responding with a behavioral example will help you to stand out from the crowd. Your stories are what people remember about you.

STAR process

“Often women feel uncomfortable taking credit for what they have done,” Lake told WIHE. Detailing your achievements is not bragging. It reflects thinking through what you have done and the evidence that supports it. “If women take the time to go through it, they can shine,” she said.

Women often couch their accomplishments in terms such as “we” or “the committee.” While we often work in teams, her process makes us think through our own personal role in the process. This runs counter to our socialization, but it tells what the interviewer needs to know. In most situations they are considering hiring you, not your whole team.

Behavioral interviewers request an example for every generalization. The STAR process targets specific skills for the job in question. Skilled interviewers tune out sweeping comments like “I was great” and listen for evidence.

As the candidate, you should respond by describing past situations that illustrate how you used those skills. Think it through in advance. Each answer should be in the past tense and preferably in the first person singular.

S = specific situation.

Select one situation or project that illustrates your application of a particular skill. Describe the background and the issues involved.

T = task or tasks.

Describe what was to be done. Were you supposed to rebuild a troubled program? Raise a set dollar amount for a capital campaign? Create a new course or curriculum? Change the culture of athletics recruitment? Specify your objectives, using metrics where possible.

A = action.

What specific action did you take or avoid? Clarify your role on the team and what you did as an individual, distinct from the team as a whole.

R = results.

What was the outcome? Be objective; use as many metrics as possible. If you consider the outcome a success, what defines it as such? You may also include what you learned from the project or task.

Interview myths

Effective interviewers define the competencies needed for the job and ask applicants for stories that illustrate them. Effective applicants prepare for this and take the interview in hand as necessary to make sure these stories get told.

Set aside these five myths before you go into an interview:

Myth: All interviewers are skilled. Many are administrators with lots of other abilities but not skilled in interviewing. “Your job is to help those who aren’t,” Lake said.

Myth: All interviewers know what they are looking for. An administrator may specify an MBA and 10 years of experience. That doesn’t tell whether one has the specific skills the job will require. Fundraising? Budgeting? It’s all about the competencies.

Myth: The interviewer has control. “No, you’re in control,” Lake told job applicants. “You have questions. Use them.”

Myth: First impressions don’t matter. Many people make up their mind in the first minute. Go into your interview with confidence and look people in the eye.

Myth: Preparation doesn’t matter. Do your homework. What do you know about the company? What do you want to know?

How to prepare

Job applicants don’t know whether the interviewer will use the behavioral approach, but the same preparation helps either way. If the interviewer doesn’t ask for specific past personal experiences showing the skills needed in the job, you’ll take the initiative to weave these into the conversation. “It takes some reflection on the best work you have done,” Lake said.

To prepare for the interview:

1. Review the job description. If you are not already working in the organization or unit, learn all you can about it and how the particular job fits in.

2. Identify key skills. Based on the position description and anything else you know about it, select three to five specific competencies that will be important for doing the job.

3. Develop STARS. Go through the process described above to identify a past situation to showcase each skill in the listed job criteria and describe your task, action and results. The best examples are based on the recent past, carried out at a level near that of the job you are applying for.

4. Study the STARS. Practice telling your stories enough that you will be able to weave them into the interview, whether the interviewer uses this format or not.

5. Review your resumé. If the interviewer asks detailed questions based on your c.v., be prepared to answer using the STAR format. Better yet, use the STAR process to write your resumé. A typical resumé tells what you did, but the reader wants to know, “How good was it and how do we know?” Provide metrics and evidence where possible. That is what gets you the interview in the first place.

6. Prepare introductory remarks. Tell why you want the job and why you are uniquely qualified.

7. Plan questions about the college or the job. While they are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them. What do you need to know to decide whether you would succeed in this role? You might ask about the campus culture, strategic vision or leadership style.

Interview challenges

Whether you are interviewing or being interviewed, be aware of potential challenges.

Time pressure. Typically you have just 45 minutes or an hour, so both sides need to make their questions short. A valuable skill is the ability to respectfully and diplomatically silence a rambler.

Nervousness. “A college campus has lots of quirks. I need to calm them down,” Lake said. As interviewer, she may laugh and joke to put the candidate at ease. The job applicant needs a prepared shtick to open and close the interview.

Holes in resume. Fifteen years ago employers wouldn’t touch a candidate with resume gaps. Now they are more normal; women have kids, men get laid off. Plan how you’ll answer questions about a job hiatus by saying what you learned from it.

Wrong image. Candidates should dress for the job they want, in light of the university culture. If it just isn’t you, maybe that isn’t the right job for you.

Lack of chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no chemistry between interviewer and candidate. If you are the interviewer, don’t let your bias take over; the fact that someone looks like your ne’er-do-well niece doesn’t mean she’ll behave that way. If you’re the candidate, you may need to do something to spice it up.

Stumbling over questions. Be concise and calculated. If a question is confusing, ask, “Is this what you wanted to know?” If you hit a wall, stop and regroup.

To those who wonder how to conduct better interviews, Lake said to be very purposeful about what you’re looking for and how to go about looking for it. To those who anticipate being interviewed for a job or promotion, she said to reflect on your past achievements by using the STAR process.

“Even if it’s not a formal interview, you can use that process to explain your background,” Lake said. If you are a woman torn between social norms of humility and tooting your own horn, reviewing what you have done in terms of actions and outcomes provides an objective way to assess your strengths and find your growing edges.

Contact her at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, March). Behavioral Interviews: Hire for the Competencies Needed. Women in Higher Education, 22(3), 19-20.

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