Graduate recruiters, such as Aviva, Standard Chartered, Ernst & Young, Barclays, Nestlé, Royal Mail, BAE Systems and Unilever all now use “strengths-based interviews” in their graduate recruitment process. Strengths interests have a simple aim: to find out your interests.
Competencies are behaviours that an organisation needs. Competency-based interviews have been the most common type of graduate recruitment interview for a long time. Competencies can be defined as “what you CAN do”, while strengths are “what you really ENJOY doing”.
Professor Alex Linley of Capp defines a strength as: “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user and enables optimal functioning, development and performance”.When a candidate is using their strengths they demonstrate "flow":
- a real sense of energy and engagement;
- often lose a sense of time because of being so engrossed in a task;
- rapidly learn new information and approaches;
- demonstrate high levels of performance;
- are irrevocably drawn to do things that play to their strengths – even when tired, stressed or disengaged.
This focuses on making sure you do more of what you are good at rather than what you are capable of doing.
The theory behind strengths interviewing is based on positive psychology: everyone has strengths they are born with but few people know what these are. By identifying your strengths and matching yourself to the role, you will enjoy it more and perform better that those who have to try hard to fill the role.
How to prepare for a strengths interview
One of the beauties of strengths based interviews is that you can't do so much preparation and are less likely to come up with the hackneyed answers candidates think interviewers want. Think about what you love doing both inside and outside work and be prepared to be open: don't try to be something you're not. Be honest about what tasks you don't enjoy doing and think about how your preferences might fit with the organisation's culture and the job requirements
Questions you might be asked at strengths interviewsYou can also identify your strengths by asking yourself these questions.
- What are you good at?
- What comes easily to you?
- What do you learn quickly?
- What did you find easiest to learn at school or university?
- What subjects do you most enjoy studying?
- What things give you energy?
- Describe a successful day you have had.
- When did you achieve something you were really proud of?
- Do you prefer to start tasks or to finish them?
- Do you find you have enough hours in the day to complete all the things you want to do?
- What things are always left on your to-do list and not finished? These are probably weaknesses: things you dislike doing!
- What do you enjoy doing the least? These are likely to be areas where you lack natural aptitude or skills.
See our page on What makes us happy at work? especially the part about flow activities for more explanation on this.
And try our Strengths Test
Benefits to organisations
- They are especially useful for recruiting staff who don't have much experience such as graduates where you are looking for potential and passion for the job.
- Strength spotting is easier at application and first interviews so need less assessment days.
- Cost and time saving as job offers made earlier
- You get fewer plastic pre-prepared answers from candidates
- You get a genuine insight into candidates
- Increases engagement and interest from interviewers
- Candidates enjoy the interview more, so are attracted to the organisation.
- Rejected candidates understand why and may realise they wouldn't be happy in the role and so don't feel they've failed.
- Identifies successful candidates who have better performance as they are built for the role rather than adapting to fit the role.
- Those employed are more likely to stay in the job and will perform at their best and learn new information faster.
“The feedback from applicants who have had a strengths-based interview has been great – they feel they have been better able to demonstrate who they are as a person not just trot out the same answers to the competency based questions which says little about them & does not engage them in the process as everyone else does the same thing!”
Simon Reichwald (Graduate Success and Bright Futures)
- More time is initially needed to identify the strengths via focus groups and to train managers
Ernst & Young
E&Y receives around 16,000 applications annually for its graduate training programmes, which result in about 600 appointments. The firm is now moving away from traditional competency based recruitment, as many applicants understood the formula too well: many answers and relevant experiences were well rehearsed.
Competency interviews are based round the assumption that past behaviour will predict future performance. Competency interviews are known to be reliable, objective and consistent but techniques to answer questions well can be learnt. You cannot prepare for a strengths based assessment other than by your own reflection.
Strengths are argued to lead to higher performance than competencies and are easier to spot. Strengths are innate: talking about strengths gives candidates energy and real authenticity,
E&Y is now moving to a strengths-based system, looking at people's more innate strengths: natural aptitudes that people have for a role. They think this system will lead to better recruitment decisions.
“We are particularly keen to find out about you as a person, your strengths and attributes, as well as what you’re interested in. We recommend you think about your hobbies and extra-curricular activities, as well as any work or other experience you’ve had that you think may be relevant to Ernst & Young”.
Ernst & Young identified 16 strengths via focus groups of their high performers that relate to the work that E&Y does. These include credibility, personal responsibility, analyst, organiser.
"Some of the strengths that we identify are people's ability, or that people have a sense of pride in what they do. People's analytical ability is also a strength. Working with others is a strength. So we'll ask questions around these areas and ask for examples, but in a slightly different way than before."
Rather than asking applicants a standard set of competency based questions, a broader range of questions are now asked at a higher pace. Firms are seeing more authentic candidates as they are less prepared than they would be for a competency-based assessment.
Spotting strengths comes from seeing the energy and enthusiasm of a candidate. It is a better experience for the candidate: they learn from the sessions and can identify whether they are suited for the role themselves. It's also a more positive experience as they gain energy from the experience.
Interviewers also look at body language and other signals like tone of voice, to identify whether someone has pride in what they have been doing or has a specific interest in a subject.
A key driver for Ernst & Young was to be different from the other big 3 accountants by differentiating themselves via the selection process.
An article from the Financial Times by Stephen Isherwood, E&Y manager of graduate recruitment, on the strengths-based approach is at www.ft.com/cms/s/0/00579e56-98be-11dd-ace3-000077b07658.html
Further resources on strengths-based interviewing:
Life After Competencies: a presentation given by Emma Judge of Ernst & Young and Martin Galpin, Director at Work Positive www.agr.org.uk/Content/Life-After-Competencies-Using-Strengths-Based-Recruitment-To-Discover-The-Realcandidate
Playing to your Strengths? a summary of the background to Ernst & Young’s introduction of SBI by Emma Judge and Martin Galpin www.work-positive.com/resources/downloads/GraduateRecruiter_Playingtoyourstrengths_full.pdf
Strengths Finder 2.0 – book to help you assess your own strengths, available from the Careers and Employability Service www.strengthsfinder.com
From What is Wrong to What is Strong: psychological background to the VIA Survey www.positivepsychology.org.uk/pp-theory/strengths/112-from-what-is-wrong-to-what-is-strong.html
Excel at Graduate Interviews
Also see What are your strengths?