"What is a strengths-based interview? I'm chasing a paid internship with a large employer in the energy industry and an online posting suggests that's what I'll be facing. I was expecting a competency-based interview."
Full marks to Jacinta for researching the interview process online prior to the day. Facing an unfamiliar interview process can be stressful and limit your chances of selection if you end up trying to wing it.
Larger employers are using strengths-based interviews as they are harder to prepare for than ‘standard’ or competency-based questions and can be used to gain a deeper insight into the real character of an candidate.
The root problem for interviewers is: how do they tell the difference between a (highly valuable) mentally flexible, creative and truly confident individual and a candidate equipped with positively bovine thinking processes but who just happens to have guessed correctly, rehearsed well and scrubbed up nicely on the day?
This happens because answers to standard questions (e.g. Tell me about yourself) can be predicted, pre-prepared and thoroughly rehearsed beforehand, helping you to deliver confidently on the day.
Likewise, questions which look at your competence (e.g. Tell me about a time when you had to handle a difficult team member) can be partially predicted from the core competencies typically required for an advertised role. They can be handled well on-the-fly by using the STAR technique, especially after lots of practice.
Enter the strengths-based interview …
Competency questions look at what you can do and how well you did it last time. The theory is that if you’ve done something in the past, you’re probably able to do something similar in the future. The trouble is, if you’re merely competent, you may be just a journeyman, incapable of inspired work and the type of performance level really needed if things get tough.
Strengths-based questions focus more on what you enjoy doing. If you’re working in the area of your strengths, you’ll be happier and more committed, you’ll perform at a higher level and you’ll achieve more for the organisation. Overall, work will be more enjoyable for you, your enthusiasm will be greater and you’ll have way more energy.
Everyone has some innate strengths and when they use them they perform at their best. They rapidly learn new information and subsequently perform more confidently and competently. When people enjoy an activity they’re more focussed, they work longer and they typically deliver to a higher level.
So, how might such an interview run?
Interviewers will have a range of strengths they’re looking to appoint against. For example, the ability to work with others. Their questions will be designed to help them understand the extent to which you possess those strengths.
- Some questions will be more personal.
- Many questions will be shorter, sharper and tightly focussed.
- Interviewers may periodically use rapid-fire questions to stop you relaxing into pre-prepared answers.
- Lines of questioning may be non-linear, forcing your thinking to jump around.
What is the interviewer looking for?
They want to recruit someone built for the role who can click fully into place, rather than employ someone who may have to significantly adapt in order to do it. They’ll be trying to match the real strengths of candidates to the strengths judged to be needed, either for the role, or for the longer term.
Consequently, they’ll be looking for:
- prompt responses which are clearly natural;
- behaviours which point to what you enjoy doing;
- topics about which you are obviously enthusiastic;
- how your body language changes from question to question;
- a confident tone of voice and good pace of answer delivery.
You will probably have to draw on experience from all aspects of your life and background, not just any directly related previous work. Although that will make it much harder to guess questions and pre-prepare some answers in advance, it’s not impossible.
Use the ‘Match and Patch Process’ to prepare
The advert is unlikely to list the strengths the organisation is seeking to recruit against so you’ll need to try and distil a prioritised list for yourself. Use the advert, any brief provided and your own background research to find clues.
The Match ‘and Patch Process’ is a simple but thorough 5 step process to follow -
1) Develop a sound understanding of the role, in context.
- Understand the responsibilities of the role in question.
- Determine the likely objectives for the role-holder.
- Think about what tasks will be consequently involved.
- Establish how the role relates to other people and departments.
- Be aware of the culture of relevant parts of the organisation.
Only then develop a prioritised list (numbered from 1 to 10, or more) of the probable strengths required to do the job successfully.
2) Completely separately, by considering your whole history, produce a list of your own strengths, in a ranking order from 1 down to 10, or more. Against each, briefly list one or more examples from your past that supports your claim to that strength.
3) Now, against your list of strengths, give yourself a score for enjoyment. Find the strength you most enjoy working with and score it with a 1. Find the strength you least enjoy working with and score it with a 10. At the end, re-order your own list, according to the combined score. You should end up with things that you’re strong at and enjoy doing toward the top of your list and things that you’re not so good at or dislike doing toward the bottom.
4) Next, match your list of strengths against the list of those required for the role. Do the orders roughly match? Identify any significant mismatches and any important gaps where you don’t seem to cover a strength.
5) Now begin to ‘patch’ your own list of strengths. Highlight your obvious weaknesses, relative to the role. Revisit your history to find support for those weaknesses or gaps. Dig deep and really work at it. There’s always something you haven’t previously thought about – find it.
Stay honest with yourself throughout and, at the end of this process, you should have a very realistic view of your chances of success at interview for this role.
Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse …
Assuming that you’re going to continue with your application, you can now start the hard work of trying to predict questions, prepare some answers and rehearse their delivery. Please get in touch if you need help with that.