What if we combined strengths based recruitment with the discipline of competency based recruitment?


As many people who read my intermittent blogs know, I am an advocate of strengths based everything – recruitment, coaching and feedback. However, recently I am becoming increasingly concerned about the beneficial claims made of strengths based recruitment combined with the criticisms largely directed at competency based recruitment.

Competencies were ground breaking, fair and beneficial for many

I have undertaken competency based selection for over 20 years and was taught and accredited by the master himself, David McClelland. Back in 1973, McClelland published a paper, “Testing for Competence Rather than Intelligence”, which launched the competency movement in psychology and later in business. In that paper he reported that traditional academic aptitude and knowledge content tests as well as school grades and credentials:

  • did not predict job performance or success in life
  • were often biased against minorities, women and persons from lower socioeconomic statusĀ  (Spencer & Spencer).

What came out of his research was a working definition of a competency :-

An underlying characteristic of an individual that is causally related to criterion referenced effective and/or superior performance in a job.

as well as a process for getting at these competencies, the behavioural event interview – the BEI (McClelland undertook alot of other ground breaking work in motives as well).

The behavioural event interview (BEI) is the bedrock of good interview practice today

Both this definition and the ensuing process have been critical to raising standards in interviewing and getting a better job person fit. As a result, HR are now required to establish criteria which delivers superior performance in a role (there are some organisations who don’t think about this which does raise the question about what performance development discussions for high performers comprise). In addition, interviewing managers are required to look for evidence rather than go with gut feel or the old school network. Before competency based interviewing, interviewers largely walked through CVs and candidates were not necessarily challenged to think about what they delivered for the business or what their contribution was.

Both strengths and competency based recruitment are about identifying what your outstanding performers do

If we take a definition of strengths based recruitment being about profiling your best people and then helping your organisation find more of them, this is largely what competency based recruitment is about. When working at the Hay Group we would ‘blind’ interview individuals who delivered outstanding and average performance and identify what the outstanding performers did differently, at a higher level to greater effect. We would then articulate these in a competency model with levels to determine how far along the performance curve the individual was. In today’s language, ‘underlying characteristics’ could well be strengths and perhaps they should be.

Competencies are linked to outputs and criteria defined by the organisation

But competencies add another dimension: they make recruiters think about hard deliverables superior performance delivers for the business and they get candidates to think about their contribution to the organisation. And that is no bad thing.

Where competency based recruitment has been let down is in the poorly trained practitioners who often take a mechanistic or tick box approach to interviewing. When BEIs are allowed to flow and develop at the hands of a skilled interviewer, candidates are well able to demonstrate energy towards certain areas, challenges and activities. When interviewing Board level FTSE100 candidates, we were easily able to identify those energised by leading others by the amount of evidence gathered from their examples as well as the mentions of individual names and the pride they took in that individual’s development. What individuals chose to talk about gave us a hint as to where their energies lay. And outstanding performers just produced much more evidence at a higher level along the performance curve.

Unfortunately today’s cash strapped organisations are often reluctant to pay for research to identify outstanding performance. Hence a reliance on off the shelf models also tends to give competency based recruitment a poor name.

Strengths add a personal and energising dimension

The benefit of strengths based assessment is that it highlights the need to ask the questions:

  • When were you at your best?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you apply your strengths to deliver in your role?


And the ‘deliver in your role’ is critical here, is it not?

Luckily, as trained practitioners in both competency and strengths based interviewing, we can offer the best of both worlds – combining the rigor of competency based analysis and assessment, with the feel good, energising and personalised insight strengths based recruitment enables.

Contact us to discuss how we combine the best of both worlds to deliver the best result for your recruitment challenges.