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How to Lead Learning from Experience Interviews

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi

This article was based on episode 43 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.

People are the essence of every team. When the right people come together, they are able to accomplish great things. But how do we get the right people on our team?

Usually managers inherit at team at first, but at some point, whether through growth or attrition, a spot will open and you’ll have the arduous task of hiring a new colleague. The hiring process itself is full of time consuming and challenging tasks, interviewing being at the top of many people’s lists.

Interviewing, like running meetings, seems to be an activity that managers are simply expected to be good at. For a task so critical to success of the team, it’s surprising how little training and support organizations provide. Even organizations that have standard hiring processes don’t typically include training for how to interview.

I remember early on in my career, I relied heavily on my gut as to whether a candidate was a good fit for the role. Unfortunately, a gut check isn’t the optimal approach to hiring yet for most of us, it’s the default approach.

When I learned about competency-based learning from experience interviewing, I discovered a whole new way to understand both a role and the person who might take it on. But it wasn’t until I understood how to assess a person’s responses to my questions that I felt confident as an interviewer.


A hiring process is more than just interviews. Throughout the process I try to understand a person’s potential fit within three areas:

  • Capability: Does the person have the skills and expertise to do the job?

  • Competency: Does the person have the soft skills required for the role?

  • Culture: Will the person thrive in our team or organizational context?

The primary focus of the interview is to determine if the person has the competencies to do well in the role. I use other methods, including a simulation, to assess capability and culture.


Competencies are like soft skills, for example curiosity, compassion, or perseverance. Developing competencies is a much longer, more difficult process than gaining hard skills, so it’s critical that the person have the competencies required to succeed in the role.

Competencies are neither good or bad on their own. They are highly dependent on the role and organizational context. Some jobs may require significant patience whereas others may require an action orientation. Some may require attention to detail while another requires conceptual thinking.

When you’re planning the job description, in addition to the knowledge and skills required, think about what competencies are needed. Lominger and Leadership Competencies Library both provide competency lists and accompanying tools. A specific list is helpful but not required. Reflect on what soft skills will make someone successful with the goal of identifying no more than 10.


The basic premise is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Of course people learn and grow, but even those learnings must be acted upon and displayed through behavior. Many of us are constantly gathering knowledge and are able to articulate ideal behaviors and why they’re important. Yet when it comes to how we actually behave, we fall short of the ideal. Knowing and doing are not the same thing.

For each competency I explore with a candidate, I use questions that touch on 3 dimensions:

  • Experience: Has this person demonstrated this competency before?

  • Conceptual: Does this person theoretically understand this competency?

  • Learning: Has this person learned, usually from a prior experience with this competency, and subsequently applied that learning?

Let's walk through an example using the competency of curiosity.

Part One: Experience.

Experience-based questions are designed to elicit whether a person has demonstrated this competency in the past. Usually these questions start with, “Tell me about a time when…” For this first round of questions, I try not to be obvious about what I’m looking for. In this case, the question should be about a scenario in which curiosity would be a helpful competency, but not the only competency at play.

Some example questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you got an assignment you didn’t fully understand.

  • Tell me about a time when you uncovered some important insight that had a critical impact on the project.

With open-ended questions like these, it’s hard for the candidate to know exactly what you’re looking for. Therefore they’re inclined to be honest.

Along with the lead question, I use sub questions to help uncover various aspects. These questions are:

  • Give me a sense of the situation or context.

  • What did you do and why?

  • What other approaches did you consider taking if any? Why did you chose the one you did?

  • What was the result or impact of your actions?

  • What did you learn from that experience?

I’ll also ask additional questions during the conversation to help me better understand their thinking and behavior.

In addition to the questions, it’s helpful to have a list of “look fors” prepared for each competency. This allows you to get past great (or poor) storytelling or interesting experiences and assess the competency.

For curiosity, “look fors” might include:

  • Did they recognize a need for more information?

  • Did they ask questions, do research or otherwise attempt to gain more information?

  • Did they question assumptions?

  • Did they seek to understand the why in addition to the what and how?

Part Two: Conceptual.

Conceptual questions are designed to assess whether the person has an intellectual understanding of the competency which might guide their behavior.

Some example questions:

  • What does curiosity mean to you?

  • What are signs or behaviors of someone who is curios?

  • Is curiosity always good?

  • Under what conditions is curiosity helpful or hurtful?

“Look fors” might include:

  • Do they have an accurate or robust understanding of curiosity?

  • Do they know what behaviors a curious person takes: asking questions, doing research, learning from others, continuing to learn?

  • Can they articulate when curiosity is overused: when it leads to wasted time or effort, when it slows things down?

Part Three: Learning.

Learning from past experiences is essential to success in almost any role. These questions are designed to ask about a time when the person didn’t exhibit the competency. In addition to understanding why the person acted in that way, it also helps you assess whether the person will admit to making mistakes, are self reflective, and have a desire to improve.

Some example questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you should have asked more questions.

  • Tell me about a time when your curiosity led you down the wrong path.

It helps to use the same structured approach as part one, experience-based questions with the addition of one more, “Tell me about a situation in which you applied those learnings?” Again, the hope is to see how the candidate integrated the learnings and actualized them.


Learning from experience interviewing is both an art and a science. No interviewing process is foolproof. The goal is not to become an interview master, but rather to have confidence in your ability to identify the right person for your team.

To set yourself up for success as the interviewer, focus on 3-5 competencies per interview, spending 15-20 minutes per competency. To cover all 10, hold multiple interview rounds or involve multiple interviewers.

Prepare your questions and “look fors” in advance. Companies that adopt a competency approach to hiring will often have a “competency bank” that includes a list of competencies and corresponding questions to ask. You can purchase tools to support competency-based learning from experience interviews from companies like Korn Ferry. Or, you can build your own bank of competencies and questions that you can reuse.

To help you become a better interviewer, check out the free miniguide for todays episode. It contains a template for competency interviewing that outlines the structure mentioned above. The full guide for this episode, available to members of the Modern Manager community on Patreon contains questions I use when interviewing for various competencies.

This article was based on episode 43 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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