• Estimated read time: 10 mins
  • Date posted:11/02/2019
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Also known as structured interviews, competency-based interviews are the go-to formal interview technique used in the life sciences to access senior management and executive candidates. They consist of a series of structured questions designed to test your knowledge, skills and attitude, with each question designed to test one or more specific skills. The answer you give are then compared to predetermined criteria and graded accordingly.

The core competencies addressed in these questions include:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Initiative and innovation
  • Learning and development
  • Mentoring others
  • Planning and organising
  • Performance against goals
  • Strategic thinking
  • Teamwork and collaboration

For example, a hiring manager may test your ability to think on your feet by enquiring how you have handled unexpected events in the past. They will then request you give them an example of a situation where you had to make a spur-of-the-moment business-critical decision.

The hiring manager will be looking for examples of how you excelled in similar situations in the past, so prepare answers for each of the goals outlined on the job spec. For more interview preparation tips, read our insight: How To Prepare For A Senior-Level Job Interview In The Life Sciences.

With competency-based interviews, the premise is that past performance is a reliable indicator of future ability, so the questions address specific aspects of past performance. Competency-based interview questions typically begin with:

  • “Tell me about a time when….”
  • “Give me an example of….”
  • “Tell me what approach you took to….”

Competency-based interviews differ from unstructured interviews in that they are systematic, with predefined criteria used to access each answer. In comparison, normal interviews tend to be more general in nature, with questions loosely aligned to the job specification and the competencies of the role. The questions aren’t designed to unearth specific skills or competence, rather give a general impression of the candidates’ fit for the role. Due to the business-critical nature of senior management or executive hires, unstructured interviews are rarely used in their assessment.

Why competency-based interviews are so important

Competency-based interview questions are being recognised as valuable ways of assessing a candidate’s real ability. They address three important parameters:

  • Knowledge – The theoretical understanding of the subject matters and facts, information, and skills acquired through experience.
  • Skills – The ability to repeatedly and efficiently carry out tasks with determined results, usually within a given amount of time.
  • Attitude –  One’s point-of-view and approach to a subject which can influence how they go about delivering a particular task.

For example, a candidate may have excellent impersonal skills but will not be competent to join a life sciences company as a manager or executive if they lack the right experience, education or attitude. Questions and answers in competency-based interviews are more developed and insightful than those limited to the technical competencies that define workplace skills.

These interviews also reflect the changing nature of Human Resources (HR) in the corporate world. HR is an increasingly valued function, with HR professionals becoming more business-oriented and focused on supporting the organisation through more effective recruitment and selection tactics. They leverage competency-based interviews to look for past evidence of success related to:

  • The specific job requirements
  • The goals involved with the position
  • The environment, which includes market dynamics and business drivers

Competency-based interviews help hiring managers and HR to access a candidates’ suitability for the role and fit with the organisational culture. This helps ensure the best candidate is appointed for the role and helps mitigate against a bad hire; a hammer blow to the staff budget, morale and productivity, typically costing a life science organisation several times the individuals’ salary.

What influences competency-based interviews?

There is a number of factors that influence competency-based interviews. You can expect the questions to focus on business-related goals that will define the success or failure of your performance. These goals will also likely reflect the life science industry sector the organisation operates in, the function the role is posted in, and the goals, objectives and deliverables of the role.

Examples of how a role might contribute to the success of the organisation include:

  • Increasing profit
  • Increasing sales
  • Reducing cost

When preparing for the interview, think about what is most critical for the position and decide how your experience and achievement relate to these questions:

  • What are the main challenges of the role?
  • What are the key issues facing the organisation?
  • What are the organisations’ mission and objectives?

It can also be helpful to place yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes and think about what questions you might ask if you were in their position. 

What they’re looking for

Senior management and executive positions are intended for leaders. They emphasise soft skills such as adaptability, compliance, and communication in addition to expertise in their field.

Although the terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between them when it comes to executive roles:

  • Management consists of the transactions that steer an organisation and plan, direct, and execute its activities. Emphasis is on an authoritarian approach and doing things ‘right’ to accomplish short-term objectives. As such, management-level roles frequently attract questions designed to tease out ones ability to manage projects, assign tasks and deliver results. 
  • Leadership is more transformative in scope. Unlike managers, leaders are perceived as charismatic, possessed of strategic vision, and focused on ‘doing the right things’ as opposed to ‘doing things right.’ Leadership is often regarded as an innate characteristic, so it inspires competence interview questions aimed at measuring emotional intelligence.

When you are interviewing for a senior-level position in a life sciences organisation, competency interview questions will focus on your leadership skills as much as past business performance, if not more. The hiring manager is looking for someone who can determine, put together, and implement a successful corporate strategy, so you can expect questions that relate to this goal, such as:

  • Developing a mission statement
  • Delivering a sense of value that is both all-encompassing and carries meaning throughout the company
  • How you would create a culture of success that fosters a sense of purpose, confidence, and belief

How competency-based interview questions answers are assessed

Like a candidate prepares diligently ahead of interview, a hiring manager and HR will prepare competency-based interview questions in advance too. The hiring team decide which types of answers are deemed positive and which are negative. Marks are then awarded depending on the extent to which the candidate’s answer matches those negative and positive indicators.

For example, if you are asked to describe a time when you had to work under pressure, positive indicators might be:

  • Takes a positive approach toward problem-solving
  • Uses effective coping strategies when under pressure
  • Is willing and able to compromise
  • Is willing to seek assistance if necessary

Examples of negative indicators might be:

  • Sees challenges as problems
  • Always tries to deal with the situation alone
  • Did not use appropriate strategies to cope with stress

Your answers are then marked depending on the extent to which they match these negative and positive indicators. In some situations, the hiring team might divide negative indicators into two further groups: minor and decisive negative factors. Like minors in a driving test, minor negative factors won’t derail your chance of success at interview in isolation. However, if you incur too many minors, they could influence the interview outcome. In contrast, negative factors are red flags to a hiring manager and could derail your interview performance. 

Using the above examples, you might be scored 4/4 if your answers show a strong display of positive indicators and 0/4 for no evidence of positive indicators.

Preparing for the interview

The first step in preparing for a competency-based interview is to understand what competencies and skills are likely to be tested so that the examples you provide hit the right cord.

For example, the job description may state that you need to be able to communicate well with key stakeholders and third parties across the organisation. If someone works in customer service, this typically means an empathetic and understanding approach as well as the ability to assert yourself in a respectful manner when necessary. However, for a senior management or executive-level position, you will need to be able to explain complex subjects in a simple manner, compose yourself under pressure and have an approach that inspires confidence and loyalty among your peers.

To anticipate what questions the hiring manager is likely to ask you, you’ll have to do some research. This includes:

  • Reading the job specification to pick out the key skills and competencies
  • Considering the challenges of the function within which the role sits
  • Taking into account the challenges facing the life science industry
  • Asking the hiring manager, HR staff member or executive search consultant about any job requirements that may not have been explicitly stated in the advert

Once you have a good idea of what to expect, identify examples from your career that demonstrate the competencies and skills that the organisation is looking for. Use the STAR technique – Situation, Task, Approach, Results –  to articulate your responses. To give an effective response, all four elements of your answer need to build off each other:

1. Situation
Set the scene by providing the Hiring Manager with some background information which will help put the other elements of your answer into context. For example, if the interviewer asks you about your last position, you could say, “I developed and lead the regulatory program for [Organisation], an industry leading biologics organisation based in California”.

2. Task
Build on your background by outlining what you had to do to complete all deliverables. Building on the Regulatory Affairs example outlined earlier; you could say “I assured the compliance of all marketing initiatives by having final sign-off on all marketing collateral and campaigns developed in-house and by external agencies”. Don’t go into too much detail unless prompted.

3. Action
How did you resolve the situation? Your interviewer will know that challenges are common, so don’t be afraid to be honest. Tell them what hurdles you had to overcome to accomplish your goals. Be sure to align your response with the skills, experience and qualities outlined in the job description wherever possible.

4. Results
Describe the outcome. Did you achieve target? If you failed, explain what you learnt from the experience and what you would do differently if you were to approach the task again.

The STAR approach helps demonstrates to the hiring manager and HR that you have a variety of skills, tools and experience at your dispersal from which to inform your decisions and help mitigate risk. For more hints and tips on how to prepare for a leadership-level interview, check out: How To Prepare For A Senior-Level Job Interview In The Life Sciences.

Executing the interview

When answering competency-based interview questions, how you articulate your responses can be the difference between success and failure. 

Take time to think the question through thoroughly before answering. It won’t make you appear indecisive: the hiring manager expects you to take a moment to consider the question and prepare a concise answer.  Use the STAR technique described earlier to shape your answer, remember to cover off the situation, task, action and result when disclosing fine detail (preferably in that order).

If you feel comfortable, take notes, listing all salient points you wish your answer to convey. If necessary, ask for clarification to ensure that you understand the question and aren’t going off-topic.

When you give your answer, be prepared for related questions from the hiring manager.  These questions provide valuable insight into the type of answer the hiring manager was seeking when they posed their initial question and gives you the opportunity to either further reinforce your original answer or add relevant information you might have missed first time around. 

What if you can’t think of a good example?

If you can’t think of a good example, be honest. Tell the hiring manager that while you can’t think of a comparable situation, you can talk about a similar event, and then explain how you might go about approaching the task. In most situations, the hiring manager will accept this response, though expect related questions to further drill down on how you would execute the task.

Dealing with negative questions

You may have to answer questions that require you to provide what appears to be a negative answer. The key is to stay calm and collected. Hiring managers often expose senior-level candidates to these types of questions to see how they respond under pressure. When you answer in a calm manner and show both confidence and conviction, you will stand out.

Examples of such questions might be:

  • What is your main weakness?
  • Why haven’t you gone further in your career?
  • How do you handle criticism?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What is the worst mistake you have made at work?

Competency-based question examples

To round off this article, here are some examples of competency-based questions and sub-questions.

1) What is your greatest single achievement?

  • Why has it been so important?
  • What impact has it had on you since?

2) How do you ensure compliance with industry regulations in your area of responsibility?

  • How did you arrive at your course of action?
  • What actions did you take?

3) Tell me about a time when you had to convince the board that a change was necessary?

  • How did you persuade the board that your solution was the right course of action?
  • How did you follow up?

4) Tell me about the strongest decision you made which was challenged by others and how you handled it.

  • How did you respond to the challenge? 
  • What further review did you make?

5) Tell me about a decision that you wish you could reverse?

  • What could you have done but didn’t and why not?
  • Why do you now wish you had acted differently?

6) Describe an occasion where you were too slow to react?

  • How was information being provided to you?
  • What was your view and what did you do?

7) Tell me about a time when you had to act to resolve a conflict between your department/function?

  • What actions did you take?
  • What was the outcome?

8) Describe a situation where your recommendations would have negative consequences for others and how you rationalised your decisions.

  • What had you been tasked with doing?
  • How did you feel personally about those who were impacted?

9) Tell me about your decision to leave [XYZ] and why?

  • What prompted you to consider moving on?
  • How did you arrive at your final decision?


Competency-based interviews represent an excellent opportunity to showcase to a hiring manager that you possess the skillset, experience, and attitude necessary to succeed in the role and further his/her life science organisation. They reflect your true abilities more effectively than technical-based questions will and make it easier to find the job that’s the right fit for you.

For more job search advice tailored to senior managers and executives…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.