PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
There is often a lot of nervousness around interviews, and the worry is entirely justified. Sure, some people can do a bad application, simply because they don’t know what a government application requires, but once you learn that, you should be able to get screened in for anything that you have sufficient experience for which to apply. For the written exams, it doesn’t look a whole lot different from a school test, so people know how to study. In other words, you can control your performance in a fairly predictable fashion and with some practice, get a good or at least passing mark. But interviews are often viewed as a different beast.
Some people think it is because the interviewer is trying to “trick” them, but that’s rarely the case in a government interview. There are no “tricks or traps” at the sub-EX level, and while they are more difficult to prepare for, you CAN indeed improve your preparation so that your outcome is also improved. But nervousness, and the artificial nature of government interviews, often means you can be perfectly prepared and yet still bomb the interview. It happens.
In my view, most of that nervousness comes from worrying beforehand about what questions they’ll be asking and what they’ll be looking for…yet both are entirely knowable.
Five types of interviews
There are five types of government interviews, ranging from the casual up to the very formal.
- Informational Interview – where you are asking for a meeting with someone, and you have no idea if they have any jobs available;
- Casual Deployment Interview – often when people move around in government, they do so because they have heard that manager x or y is looking for someone, or that manager already knows you and has reached out directly, and so you’re having a casual conversation about what they do and what your interests are, just seeing if there is mutual interest;
- Formal Deployment Interview – this is where the manager has announced a position at level, and you have formally applied, often without knowing the manager or other staff in the area;
- Formal Competition Interview – this is the “full” interview that most people fear the most, and will be the main focus of this chapter; and,
- The Best Fit Interview – this is after you have made a “pool” and you are meeting with a hiring manager to talk a bit informally about the exact position and your interests (looking very much like a hybrid of the second and third ones above).
A. The Informational Interview
For those not recognizing the term, an informational interview is where you basically want to talk to someone about their area of work to find out what life is like working in that area, if there are jobs available, or what openings might be coming up, etc. So you have cold-called (or cold-emailed) them and asked if they would be free for a meeting for coffee. Or got a friend to introduce you and then you asked if they have time for a chat.
Now, let`s be frank. Most people asking for informational interviews are really saying, “Hey, wanna hire me?”. But they have learned, or been advised by people like me, that if you ask to meet with someone to talk about openings in their area, the person will usually decline to meet with you. They’re not being rude, they’re being practical. If they had an opening, they would advertise it, and you would have to apply through the main system; if they don’t, they can easily say “no, we don’t have anything available” and avoid wasting their time and yours.
By contrast, if you contact them and ask for a chance to meet with them to get some advice from them, the person might find it hard to say no. Partly because THAT response is kind of rude, partly because they remember when they were in the same boat and someone gave them info they didn’t already have or met with them to give them some insights, and partly because people like talking about themselves and you’ve already flattered them by suggesting they are worthy of meeting with to pick their giant, knowledgeable brains!
Plus, if you are in government, there is a component of your job that is supposed to be about building the public service so there’s almost a values-and-ethics component that encourages you as a manager to say yes to these types of requests. No, that doesn’t mean the Deputy Minister or CEO of a crown corporation will meet with anyone who asks, i.e. they’ll almost always delegate if you waste your time even asking, but managers and middle managers often (almost to the level of “usually”, but not quite) will say yes to a request for an info interview.
Remember though that you are asking for an info interview…so what are you going to get out of that? Information and advice.
To make sure you get the most out of the interview, you should do some basic research into what their organization does, and if you can, what their own group does. Do NOT go into the interview knowing nothing about them. You need to show you invested some time in preparing (not to impress them, just so you look professional). Some people think, “Oh, if I can ask 500 Qs about the area, I’ll show how interested I am” but what you’ll really show is how unfocused you are. Figure out what areas you want to ask about in advance, particularly in case the person throws the ball back to you and says, “So, what do you want to know about?”.
Depending on how advanced your career is at this point, you have two choices for an opening gambit:
- If you’re already in government and have been for a little while, you can start with a very short “pitch” about yourself to say, “Well, I’ve been in government for x years now, and mostly doing [x]. I really enjoy [aspect y], and I think I’ve developed some degree of skill at [aspect z]. But I’m thinking ahead to the types of areas I might want to work in some day, and your area seems like one where I might be able to build on those experiences and skills. So I was mostly hoping you could tell me about the type of work that the units in your area do, and if I’m on the right track with my background so far.”
I have to confess, I love this opening. Obviously, based on your research, you’re going to have chosen examples for [x], [y] and [z] that not only reflect your skills and experience but also link directly to their work. You did your research, you have some idea what they do and need, at least at a high-level, and you think you might be a fit. On top of it, you have said “SOME DAY” to take the pressure off that you’re looking for something NOW, which allows him or her to be more open if they wish. In addition, you have given them three openings [x, y, z] for them to talk about how they fit within their area. It gets them talking. Plus, you asked them to tell you if you’re on the right track.
- If you are new to government or outside government, you can start with a short pitch about yourself to say, “Well, I have a background in [x] and some work experience in [y]. I really enjoy [x2, y2] and they seemed like areas that I might be able to use in your area. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble breaking in, partly because I don’t know enough about the type of work that is done on a day to day basis, or where I could aim to start. So I was mostly hoping you could tell me about the type of work that the units in your area do, and if I’m on the right track with my background so far.”
This one is really challenging to nuance. Why? Because you’re being self-deprecating to get them to give you targeted info, but at the same time, you want to impress them enough that they think highly of you in the future. Most important, though, is that you are not saying “How can YOU help ME break in?”. You’re just asking for info and advice.
At this point, you have accomplished the trifecta for getting good info and advice from them — your personal profile + your skills/competencies/interests + their knowledge of their area.
Note that it’s good if you can make it a real conversation rather than an interrogation, and while you are often trying to fake your way into a job interview, you should try to keep your personal “pitch” about yourself relatively short. You’re there to listen, not talk about yourself or show off what YOU know about their job. If they want to know more about your experience, they’ll ask. One key take-away that you’re likely to get, if you focus correctly, is a better understanding of what other skills you might need to get into the industry. If the conversation stalls, you can even prompt to say, “What other skills, beyond the ones that I mentioned, do you think people entering your area should have?”
The other tip for the conversation is you want to be able to ask some intelligent questions…preferably one that shows some relatively straight-forward linkage. It’s good, for example, to ask how some of the research they might describe gets translated into recommendations — is it done by the same team, or is it handed off to someone else? Or if it was about Gs&Cs, does the same team do the review of proposals and the monitoring of projects (i.e. like CIDA) or is it separated (i.e. like most other departments who have separate delivery arms)? Do NOT try to come up with some brilliant question that you know nothing about just to use some big words…”So, I see you have a lot of technology supporting your delivery…how are you set up for block-chain conversion?” might be a great question in the right context, but just throwing it into your conversation willy-nilly will likely just make you look like an idiot. If in your research, you found out their program was recently in the news, and you both read and understood the articles, you can make a small leap to draw linkages to it, but I wouldn’t go much further.
So now you have covered “you”, “what the jobs require”, gaps you might need to fill, and ensuring it all ran like a normal conversation.
That only leaves one area remaining — asking advice on how to proceed. Now, obviously, if they just said “you need experiences [a,b,c]” you don’t want to say “So what should I do next?” as an open-ended question. But you can say, “So, I need to expand into experiences [a,b,c]. Are there areas where others on your team have gained those experiences where you think I could follow in their footsteps?”. It doesn’t have to be that precise, it depends on the conversation, but it should be somewhat pointed. You want specific advice, so you should try to be specific.
As a final tip, you also want to try to manage the duration of the meeting and respect their time. If they say they’ll give you 30 minutes, keep it to 30. You want to end smoothly, not like a timekeeper who blows the whistle and then rushes out the door, but do try to respect the duration and manage your time accordingly. You will also likely be able to tell if they’re feeling rushed to do something else or not. Take their cue. And I will readily confess that this is a “do as I say, not as I do” type tip. I regularly get involved in great conversations with future bosses, and what should have been 30 minutes is now an hour or more, just because we got into the issues. I like to think if they were hating the conversation they would shoo me out, and they didn’t. But they’ll also respect you more if you respect their time.
And when it’s over, if you want to follow-up, do so with gratitude, not a bunch of requests.
I know, I know, a lot of people told you to do the interviews to network, to build your contacts. And the secondary purposes of the interviews — gain exposure, build a contact network, or even leverage it towards a job — are all possible, but you need to manage your expectations. After all, you started the conversation by asking for information. Sometimes, that’s all it will turn out to be.
Yes, you made a contact. But not every person you meet will create a “lasting relationship” or a lasting network contact. Nor are they automatically your BFF, so don’t start spamming them. You’ll know (or should know) if the person is open to further contact or not, or if you felt a connection or not. Sometimes you’re going to meet with someone where there’s no connection, no chemistry, and it’s just not a good fit. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they’re not very friendly, maybe they’re just plain jerks. Or maybe they just don’t like you. It happens.
But you didn’t ask them on a date looking for lifelong romance, you asked them for information and advice. And, hopefully, if you manage it right, that’s what you got.