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Spotting Competencies in Harvard Graduates

Newsetter • volume 2 • number 2

John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, spent twenty years tracking the careers of 115 MBAs from the Harvard class of 1974. In his book, The New Rules: How to Succeed in Today's Post-Corporate World, he describes how these students survived the downsizing, restructuring, and globalization that characterized two of the most volatile decades in American business history.

Kotter found that the most successful graduates avoided large, bureaucratic organizations and established themselves in smaller, more entrepreneurial venues. They didn't forsake big business altogether, but found ways to work outside corporations as consultants or service-providers. Even more important than where they worked, however, was their competitive drive - their willingness to set increasingly high standards and to risk failure.

Kotter's well-documented study confirms that performance competencies such as competitiveness and the willingness to take risks are greater predictors of success than either education or experience. But is it really possible to spot these qualities in a job candidate? The answer depends on the astuteness of the interviewer.

For example, in a "behavioral event" interview candidates are asked to describe the most important situations they have experienced in a particular job. How a candidate responds to those situations may reveal certain competencies. However, today's well-coached candidates can often predict exactly what qualities the interviewer is looking for and can tell a story to match. In fact, for the savvy interviewee, an arsenal of stories may be as important as top references and an impressive suit.

On the other hand, no interviewer should assume that a competency doesn't exist simply because it fails to appear in one of a candidate's descriptions of a major behavioral event. A candidate may be highly competitive, for example, but simply chooses not to tell a story that reveals that trait.

In either case, the interviewer must be at least as shrewd as the candidate and prepared to use a variety of methods for identifying competencies. After all, it is unlikely that most interviewers will be confronted with someone like America's Cup captain, Dennis Conner, who has been described as so competitive, "he'll do anything to win."

In fact, there is absolutely nothing subtle about Conner's competitiveness. Tom Whidden, a long-time Conner crewmate, swears that during the New Zealand catamaran challenge, Conner bet Whidden a dollar that he [Conner] could get their boat back to the dock by a specified time. Whidden tells it this way: "Dennis was running out of time. If he had pulled up alongside the dock and thrown out a line, he would have lost by maybe six seconds. So what does he do? He ran the catamaran head on into the dock - wrecked the boat and the dock. I couldn't believe it."