HEO competencies are very distinct. The Higher Executive Officer Role is a much sought after position. However, competition is also very high. At H-Training we have helped hundreds of candidates secure this position. We have also delivered leadership programmes for candidates across a broad swath of the civil service. As a result we are keenly aware of how the role functions, and the nuance across departments. If you are going for this role, this article will give you insight into how you can be successful. We work one-to-one with clients to support them too, by going more in-depth. It is difficult to cater to everyone in one post, but this should give you a good overview. The challenges we face in our world are being handled on the front lines of the public and civil service every day. It is our great passion to support good people secure these roles. The HEO will have a key role in supporting lasting change and innovation and we navigate our way to a brighter future, with a high performing public sector

What are Competencies

Competency-based interviews are the preferred interviewing technique in the Irish Civil and Public sectors. They were adopted in the mid to late nineties and have mutated and developed in a number of ways since then. Added to this, there has been a series of mutations in this process that has sort of blurred the lines in places. Competencies are the behaviours, skills and attitudes required to do a given job. This obviously varies greatly from role to role and department to department. However, the HEO Competencies sit neatly towards the top of operational management. We have focused on a knowledge-based approach to work until now. This has helped in many respects but also hindered. What competencies do is delve deeper into the who of a candidate. They can tell you much more about the person. This is opposed to pitting them against other candidates in an academic or experienced horse race. We can learn about your biographical accomplishments on your CV. There is no need to have an interview process for this approach. But competencies add much more colour to an interview boards assessment of a given candidate. This is the central point.

Standardisation and HEO Competencies

The main problem within the process is a lack of standardisation. H-Training has trained interview boards across board sections of the Public Sector and advised high profile organisations on their recruitment strategies. The problem we see is often one of training. Many of the people who sit on interview boards are often retired members of a particular section. They often receive a pack days before the process takes place and are tasked with grading a system they have little knowledge of. In the Public Appointments System (PAS), there has been great frustration on the part of many candidates. In trying to understand why they were unsuccessful, the feedback is limited (more on this later). We have seen application forms where the competency description contained two different fonts, as two competencies were basically cobbled together. Some of the more recent wording around application forms can also be very clunky. ‘Demonstrate your experience or knowledge of leadership’, is basically a theoretical question and has nothing to do with real-world examples. Demonstrating your knowledge of something is very different from demonstrating your ability. This is a key area where lots of candidates fall down. Instead, they provide information about how they lead people generally. Or they list out what courses they have completed. This does not demonstrate anything different from your CV. Competencies need to include specific examples!

The HEO Competencies

The HEO competencies can vary depending on the hiring department. For example, an HEO in the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency will have a different role from an HEO in the housing department of a local authority. But at this level, there is a blend of competency the organisations will require. They include but are not limited to the following:

  • Team Leadership
  • Judgement Analysis & Decision Making
  • Management & Delivery of Results
  • Interpersonal and Communication Skills
  • Drive & Commitment
  • Specialist Knowledge, Expertise and Self Development
  • Planning and managing resources
  • Resilience and change
  • Managing Conflict

What the Competencies tell Us

These competencies tell us a lot about what is required. For example, we know it is a leadership position, so you are likely to have direct reports or a team. Furthermore, you will be required to make decisions, which not everyone is comfortable with. There are a host of scenarios that Interpersonal and Communication Skills are required for. We could go out on a limb here and say that anywhere people are involved, things become more sticky. The key variable here is emotion. It is harder to act rationally when you or a colleague or service user are under pressure or aggrieved. We have had the privilege of working with many of Ireland’s unacknowledged heroes. This includes Tusla and the HSE with nurses to doctors and occupational therapists along with An Garda Síochana. Through this work, we see how these people deal with intense emotion on a daily basis. This often equips them with very high levels of emotional intelligence and the tools to manage difficult situations. But, it is notable how many of them are unaware of the value of their abilities. They don’t see them as actual skills, given that they do it every day. Highlighting these abilities in an interview is important. Many people regularly fail to do so. This is something that can help set you apart, which is your ultimate goal in getting hired.


There are appeals processes that in practice don’t often get utilised. Early in the competency-based process, there were some cases taken against interview decisions early. This resulted in costly payouts and didn’t reflect well on the organisations involved. As a result, there is now a general carefulness practiced across the interview process. Feedback on competencies is often very vague and general. The people who review it don’t want to upset applicants too much by offering them any real feedback. Instead, they leave comments like ‘could have given more in this example’ or ‘not at the required level’, which says little. These statements are the same across competencies with wildly different scores. The other unmentioned is that it doesn’t always help candidates who appeal a decision. A complaint slows down the hiring process and frustrates the team. It can also expose the hiring manager or interview panel, not to mention the successful candidate. It is not unlikely to suggest that the names of the complainant stay in people’s minds long-term.

Stand Out

Rather than becoming bogged down in some of the flaws within the system, we need to focus on what you can control. In an interview, you have the power to communicate a strong message. Being clear on what you can do best is important. This message is then filtered through your HEO Competencies. When we work with you, we will help extract the important information through interview coaching. This will ensure your application form is clean and to the point. From here we can help you tailor your message. What are the key soundbites? How can you communicate them with impact? What questions might you be asked? What is topical in the department at present? Going through this will enhance your position. There is lots of negative commentary about the Public Sector. In many ways, they can be seen as a whipping boy. We encounter dynamic people going for this role all the time. It is also very important to work and the range of stakeholders in the public sector is very complex. It can be very competitive if you are going against good people, so being prepared is essential.

Know the HEO Competencies Panel

Doing some research on the board can help. Some interview processes will share this information with you. It is not hard to find some information on who will interview you. This gives you an insight into their background. Perhaps a project that they worked on, similar to your experience. Knowing this is a helpful add on. You may also have to navigate an interview board member very much as opposed to something you have worked on. How will you prepare for this? Also, the boards’ experience can really inform you of their approach to the HEO competencies. In our recent work with firefighters, there was a psychologist on the board. As a result, the competency Managing Difficult and Stressful situations was really drilled down during the interview. Also a former Director of Services or Chief Executive may have worked on a large scale project that you were involved in upgrading years later. These are all valuable talking points that will ensure you stay in their mind. But there is a direct path to success using HEO Competencies. Book in now to find yours!

Get in touch or book in below to discuss the next steps in your career by availing of our professional Interview Coaching.

If you’re looking for interview coaching or even further career coaching, career guidance, emotional intelligence testing get in touch with Ciarán and the H-Training team today. If you’re located at the other side of the recruiting desk, H-Training also offers comprehensive interview panel training, corporate group interview training and effective sales training programs.

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