How To Prepare For A Competency-Based Interview In The Building Services Sector

For some people facing an interview in the building or energy sector, the very words ‘competency-based interview’ makes them go hot under the collar.

When it really shouldn’t.

In fact, we argue that competency-based interviews are the most predictable interviews you’ll ever face! After all, it’s dead-easy to guess which competencies they’re going to be testing for (more about that later), which means that you have plenty of time to prepare your answers thoroughly beforehand.

Unlike your more unstructured, conversational interviews where you have no idea what the hiring manager might ask, performing well at a competency-based interview is more about following a formula. In many ways it’s like it to being given a quick look at a test before you have to sit it.

The What, Why, and How of Competency-Based Interviews

So, what is a competency-based interview?

A competency-based interview is a technique whereby the questions ask you to provide real-life examples of when you’ve displayed a particular skill or competency, either in your work experience or personal life. As an example, a question might be something like: ‘Run us through a time when you ran a team to a budget with positive results’.

A good answer would be heavy on results and detail, for example:

I ran a residential construction project for 18 months with a team of 12 permanents plus contractors. I kept to a budget for 16 of those months, with a final overrun of only 3% due to unavoidable factors like rising material and labour costs.

Ways I kept to deadline and budget included cutting down on multi-tasking on site, utilising my supplier network, and incentivising the team goals.

My staff turnover was extremely low, and I retained my core team members throughout the project and utilised high-quality contractors who I have strong relationships with from past projects.

The project was completed on time and to client expectations, and the executives were extremely happy with my performance and consequently asked me to lead another larger project.

Why do they run these styles of interviews?

The competency based interview is based on research that shows ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’. As such, the interviewer is looking for concrete examples of when you’ve shown a skill they’re looking for, such as teamwork, leadership, budgeting, or decision-making. In conversational interviews, it’s easy for people to say they’re a great team player, but in a competency-based interview they’re looking for specific examples.

How will you know what questions they’ll ask?

This is the great thing about competency based interviews: the competencies they’re looking for will be in the job description and your specialist building services recruiter will know the organisation in question and therefore will be able to guide you.  Often they’ll be listed under ‘Essential Skills’, otherwise,  scan job spec for words like ‘communication’ or ‘problem-solving’. The competencies they mention in the first section of the job spec will always be of the highest priority, but you should prepare an answer for all the skills mentioned.

How do you prepare your answers?

First, get out your CV and brainstorm. Look at the list of competencies in the job ad, and then take the time to consider concrete examples of when you’ve displayed those characteristics and skills.

Once you’ve finished with your CV, consider examples in your personal life too. Think hard about relevant skills that can be used to your advantage. For example, if you go sailing you’re used to conducting risk assessments and using strategy, or if you’ve collected money door-to-door you’ve demonstrated sales and negotiating skills.

What if you failed at the competency they’re looking for?

It’s ok to mention a time when you haven’t succeeded as long as you show that you learnt something important from experience.

For example, if you’re asked to demonstrate your competency with budgeting, you might answer:

I had extensive experience running a budget for a project, but had not factored in rising material and labour costs and unfortunately ran over. I learnt a lot from experience, including why I should have been more conservative in my budget estimation and the importance of extensive quoting and negotiating fixed-rate contracts. Since then I’ve done an enormous amount of research and training into project budgets and look forward to applying this knowledge.

Sometimes our best lessons are our mistakes, and employers will appreciate someone who has already had their baptism of fire and is unlikely to make the same mistake again. However, we caution you against mentioning more than one such ‘failure’- no matter what you learnt from it.

How should you answer a question in a competency based interview?

You’re in luck! Just like the questions tend to be formulaic in competency-based interviews, so too do the answers. The hiring manager is looking for an answer where you explain the task at hand and then discuss the results. The following STAR formula is the best way to break down your answer, with an emphasis on the actions and results. Be concise with your answers, and don’t get bogged down in detail.

Situation: Think of a situation where you applied the competency in question.

Tasks: Explain what the tasks were.

Actions: Describe the actions you took to fulfil those tasks.

Results: Highlight the results that were achieved.

Following these steps should ensure that you ace your competency based interview. If you’re unsure what the competencies are that you should be preparing for, have a chat with your recruiter.

At AandD, we have an entire free report available to help you prepare for your competency-based interview in the renewable energy and building services industries. Download it here.