27 Core Competencies and How Hiring Managers Can Assess Them

What are core competencies?

Core competencies are the skills workers have for doing important tasks on the job. As a rule, nobody has all of the key core competencies that make great employees, but by looking for as many of these positive traits as possible, you can reliably find ideal candidates.


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Core competencies for all employees

Some core competencies are not specific to any particular job description but are generally good to find in any employee. Competencies with a general application are the kind of skills that help workers at every level of the company integrate into your corporate culture and advance the company’s goals with minimal oversight. While not every candidate brings all of these traits to the job, successful applicants generally show most of them during the interview process.


1. Collaborates effectively with others

Teamwork is at the heart of modern businesses. Virtually all of your company’s employees are expected to work in teams, and most employers group their workers together for administrative and management purposes. Applicants can display this core competency early on in the hiring process by the way they interact with other job candidates as well as how they interact with interviewers and employees they meet during preemployment tours.


2. Customer focus

Many frontline employees directly interact with the public, which effectively makes them company representatives. Maintaining a customer-centric outlook is important for all public-facing workers, from customer service reps to sales workers to tech support. You can spot a customer focus among applicants with directed questions during the interview or by asking scenario-based questions about how to handle hypothetical customer service issues.


3. Detail oriented and thorough

Employees at every level of your company should be able to manage the details of their work and complete their tasks thoroughly without too much oversight. Whether the job they do involves filling out forms, performing safety checks or coordinating teams to see projects through, almost all workers in a modern company must have an eye for details and the diligence to finish what they start. In many ways, the hiring process already selects for detail-oriented applicants who can complete complex tasks. Applications, resumes and multiple interview sessions tend to filter out workers who may not have the drive or the detail mindset to succeed at your company.


4. Motivation

Motivation is what gets people up in the morning, and it keeps workers focused through the inevitable rough patches. From entry-level employees to the most driven managers at the CEO level, sheer motivation can overcome a lot of shortcomings in other areas and drive a worker to learn, plan and push through to end goals. Much of the hiring process you use to sift through candidates is an exercise in motivation. Try to set prehire goals that test a candidate’s ability to self-start.


Team leader competencies

Team leaders provide hands-on support and oversight for frontline employees. Operating in the space between line workers and management, team development leaders facilitate communication between company levels and the transmission of directives from above. Ideally, team leaders bring core competencies to their work that help them foster team success.


5. Team-oriented outlook

Team leaders do most of their work with groups of subordinate and near-peer workers, usually frontline employees with less experience on the job. That makes teamwork a crucial core competency for leaders, who are often the ones most closely involved with assigning and organizing team efforts at management’s direction. When you’re hiring team development leaders, internally or externally, listen to the words they use to describe their work. Truly team-oriented people more often use “we” and “us” when describing past work accomplishments.


6. Empowering to work with

A good team leader spots workers’ greatest strengths and encourages them to develop to the benefit of the team. Team leaders who can get the shy team member to speak up or the worker with technical knowledge to share with the rest can often get the best results. Finding a team lead who empowers others is usually a matter of instinct and reputation. Ask yourself how this candidate makes you feel during an interview, and review the statements of others who’ve had a chance to work with them in the past to get a feel for how well the candidate draws out the best in others.


7. Motivated with minimal supervision

Team leads frequently play a minor supervisory role, especially for development and evaluation tasks. It is important for workers in this role to operate well outside of the direct supervision a frontline employee may need. Prospective team leaders can demonstrate an independent spirit through less formally structured hiring processes, such as group interviews and essay evaluations.


8. Development oriented

One of the key advantages of having team leads in the workplace is their role in development and training. As workers with some frontline experience themselves, most effective team leads are able to speak with knowledge about subordinate workers’ tasks and the specifics of the job. This naturally leads to positive suggestions for personal development among team members. When you’re looking for this core competency in a candidate, pay close attention to their reported work history. Look for narratives where the candidate tells of their own development or how they made effective use of fellow workers’ skills to succeed.


9. Analytical

Performance evaluations and progress reviews are typical tasks for many team leads. To do this well, a leader should have a naturally analytical mindset and be unbiased in their evaluation of facts. This competency can be seen in how well a candidate organizes an application or resume, how prepared they seem to be for interviews and how clearly they can describe past workplaces and accomplishments from an objective perspective.


10. Persuasive and willing to listen

Because so much of team leads’ work involves one-on-one and group interaction, the ability to listen and to be heard is arguably central to their duties. Persuasion is a skill set like any other, and the willingness to listen to team members’ feedback can be learned. Candidates who realize this often show it during the interview process, especially during unstructured back-and-forth interaction with interviewers.


11. Flexible and responsive to new demands

It often happens that team leads have to shift gears midstream. Either management has changed direction, or the realities of a project force new perspectives from below. Flexibility is a core competency that makes these rough ways smooth and keeps difficult transitional periods productive and short. You may consider testing candidates’ flexibility by unexpectedly altering a hiring process on short notice to see how well the applicants manage change on the fly.


12. Credibility

Frontline employees must trust their team leads, and supervisors have no choice but to trust their teams’ representatives. Team leaders must be credible and worthy of this trust in every interaction. Candidates for lead positions should ideally demonstrate the key components of wisdom, technical knowledge, integrity and goodwill toward fellow employees. These traits most commonly show themselves in unforced honesty about past work shortcomings, discussions of their personal lives with hiring managers and the comfort they show when admitting to past mistakes.


Supervisors/managers competencies

Supervisors and managerial employees set the tone for how a company operates and guide it in the day-to-day execution of upper management’s policies. Brainstorming practical solutions to the problems every company has to overcome, good managers should bring a host of skills to their work that stabilizes and energizes your company’s internal culture.


13. Able to focus on relevant goals

Supervisors’ work is substantially about giving direction to frontline employees and directing teams to succeed. The ability to spot relevant tasks and assign the right people to them is an important core competency for supervisors. Focus and a good sense of perspective come out during the hiring process in the way candidates organize their work histories and describe themselves during interviews.


14. Innovative and able to manage change well

Innovation drives business, and supervisors are at the front line of changes that affect the whole company. Competent supervisors can take direction from senior management and effectively transmit changes in objectives and workflow to teams. Good candidates for supervisory roles often show this competency by the way they handle surprise questions during interviews and in their ability to adjust to unexpected requirements of the hiring process.


15. Capable of taking responsibility and tactfully offering constructive criticism

Honest managers can evaluate their own shortcomings and resolve to correct them going forward. The ability to see their own role objectively requires a sense of personal responsibility and a willingness to hear criticism, as well as the ability to constructively criticize the performance of others. Many prospective supervisors demonstrate these traits through interview questions about how well they’ve overcome challenges or faced failures at previous jobs.


16. Effectively troubleshoot complex issues

The ability to rapidly diagnose a complex problem and start on the solution is one of the most important things a supervisor brings to the job. Testing during the hiring process can reveal a candidate’s knack for problem-solving, as can a panel interview where hypothetical work problems are presented for the candidate’s analysis.


17. Communicates well both orally and in writing

Management and supervisory employees do most of their work by talking to others, and so the ability to communicate effectively is crucial. From face-to-face interactions to officewide memos, good supervisors should be able to communicate clearly, respectfully and decisively with employees at all levels. This core competency comes out at almost every stage of the hiring process, from the initial application to the final interview. Watch for how a candidate speaks and writes for insight into how well they can coordinate others.


18. Strategic planning

Managers contribute to the business largely by planning ahead and devising strategies to succeed. Look for candidates who can assess all of the relevant facts about a situation, formulate a goal to work toward and efficiently break down complex processes into easily managed tasks.


19. Comfortable with conceptual thinking

Not everything a manager does is written down in black and white. The ability to think in complex and abstract terms, especially in an unstructured environment with many variables, is extremely helpful for management-level employees. By putting together a largely informal recruitment process for management workers, you can observe how well each candidate operates without direction. Formal education can also be a clue to candidates’ abstract thinking abilities as many college programs encourage conceptual thinking.


20. Can create results-oriented systems

Supervisors and managers are usually paid a salary, rather than an hourly wage. Because of this, their success is most often measured by the results they get, rather than by the hours they put in. Try to evaluate potential managers’ past work history for how well they have been able to create goals, recognize end results and work toward measurable accomplishments.


21. Forward thinking and capable of planning several steps ahead

Strategic planning goes well beyond the day’s tasks and into weekly, monthly, quarterly and longer time periods. Ask your management candidates about their personal career plans during the hiring process. Pay attention to the scale they describe, from the immediate task of getting hired to their long-term career objectives over many years.


22. Empathy for others doing different work

It is rare for managers and other senior employees to do the same kind of work as frontline and entry-level workers. Yet, they must ultimately manage teams and keep a productive workforce. To do this well, it is important to develop a keen sense of empathy for the work others are doing as well as how they might be feeling on a personal level. It might be worth testing this core competency during the interview process by asking a few personal questions or by encouraging a candidate to talk or write about the challenges people who are very different might have to deal with.


23. Decisive and confident

Managers and supervisors are fundamentally leaders, and effective leadership calls for confidence and clear direction. Even when situations may not be entirely clear, it is important for leadership workers to project calm, confident authority. Military experience often helps to cultivate this trait, though lifelong civilians can possess it too.


Core competencies of specialist workers

In addition to the core competencies needed to work at every level of a company, certain jobs call for special attributes. Whether your company is hiring talent for these positions or outsourcing to partner firms, some traits stand out for specific roles.


24. Technical expertise

Technical employees are those workers whose skill set is highly specialized and hard to replicate without formal training. IT staff are a good example of this kind of specialist, as are lawyers, accountants and other workers with unique job skills. Because of their role as specialist workers, it is supremely important for knowledge employees to possess technical expertise equal to the requirements of the position they’ve applied for. Consider bringing a current specialist in the relevant field on board for the interview and hiring process, then trust their opinion of the candidates’ relevant expertise in a challenging field.


25. Entrepreneurial spirit

At the very highest levels, CEOs, board members and other company officers should possess a spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship. Top-level leaders set the tone for an entire company, and they take responsibility for the ultimate results of their policies. Always seeking new opportunities and avenues for advancement are extremely helpful traits for business leaders. If you’re looking for these core competencies in a candidate, you’re most likely to find them in a history of starting and managing businesses, unique and adventurous hobbies and, sometimes, in written works that may have been published in trade journals and other academic settings.


26. Integrity and diligence

The most successful companies have management teams who are intimately familiar with the ethics of business and who strive to maintain the highest standards for how they conduct themselves. This is a broad topic that runs from personal decorum to regulatory compliance to an honest willingness to play by the rules with other companies. Diligence is a part of corporate integrity, as in the case of a CFO who’s asked to sign off on expense reports they haven’t personally vetted. In almost all cases, a history of integrity signals a candidate who can be trusted in the future, while past ethical lapses may be problematic in a person who should command the highest level of trust at your company.


27. Honorable mention: stress management

Everybody who works has to handle some degree of job stress, and the way your candidates manage that unfortunate reality determines how effective they can be. From frontline workers who feel frustration with customer interactions to team leads who struggle to help lagging team members develop, and from supervisors working without clear direction to senior managers facing down a serious financial audit, the ability to manage workplace stress might be one of the most common core competencies hiring managers need to look for.


Try asking candidates what they do in their free time and listen for references to support networks of family and friends. How an employee manages the everyday stress from work is one of the most helpful indicators of how well they can apply all of the other core competencies they bring to the job.

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