PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
Once you are in government, people often move simply through deployment. Deployments are lateral moves exactly at level i.e. no promotion involved, and because of that, it is a lot less complex and formal than some of the other types of moves. You are already “appointed” at level, i.e. someone already ran a competition and appointed you at that level so the “proof” of you meriting that level has already been done…the only paperwork to do in a deployment is for the manager to say how you meet the criteria.
Of course, just to confuse things, you can find out about deployments either through a very formal process (such as it being advertised) or just generally through the grapevine. For example, you hear that a manager is looking for someone at your level. Or perhaps a former boss told you there was someone looking. Either way, you want the job.
Reaching out to them is a lot like the cold-call process, although you might use a bit of a hook if a friend or colleague or former boss is referring you to them. You’ll provide a copy of your resume, express your interest in the position or at least in having a conversation with them if they’re interested, and you’ll give them a short email to grab their interest. Preferably something like “I have 3 years working in a similar job and I’m looking for a change”, and then a few lines explaining the type of work you are doing that is similar to their opening.
Chances are that they are going to be interviewing several people, and I hesitate to even call them candidates because it is all informal. No rating guide prepared, no formal job description, no formal questions. Really, they’re just meeting people to see if there is a match of interest. If there is, they’ll check some references, maybe ask for a writing sample, etc., narrow it down a bit more. But they are only going to do that if there was a match, or to use the official parlance, a “right fit” between you and their opening.
The interview is going to be very informal, and will run one of two ways:
a. They’ll start by telling you what the job is, and then you’ll describe how some of your experience relates to it; or,
b. They’ll let you tell them something about yourself, and then they’ll tell you about the job.
I know, I know. You’re thinking the second option would be stupid. Except you are reaching out to them. They think you already know about the job, or you wouldn’t be interested. Ninety percent of the time, you’re going to start by asking them to tell you a bit about the job, and then you’ll be back in option (a). Which sounds normal, safe, logical. You may not want that option though, and I’ll explain later why.
First, let’s assume they describe the job. It’s going to look a lot like they’re writing Statement of Merit Criteria for a formal posting. They’re going to mention, for example, that you’ll have to do a lot of writing of different documents, maybe some briefings, lots of working as part of a team, etc. Which if they were writing a SOMC would be the essential experience requirement. But instead of writing a cover letter, you’re now going to tell them orally how you have experience that meets those requirements.
The position requires a lot of writing of different documents? You’ll outline the different types of writing that you have done and for whom. The position requires teamwork? Well, you’ll tell them about your experiences working as part of a team.
Seems straightforward, and on the surface it is. They ask you basic questions about your experience, and you answer them. No difficult questions or scenarios, it is all about your past experience. With a very open-ended question like, “Tell us about your experiences.” It will likely be that informal.
Under the surface, it is a bit more complicated. While you are talking, they are asking themselves three questions…first, of course they are seeing if you have the experiences they require. Second, they are asking themselves if you’re someone they want to work with in the future. Simple personality aspects. And third, are you a good fit for the team and the work?
Let me give you an example. I’ve been working in planning for awhile now, as well as lots of work in horizontal policy coordination. Lots of people with evaluation or research backgrounds often gravitate towards the area when they are looking for a change. Except the work environment is quite different. While an evaluator or a researcher might work on files with similar content, they often have one or two large projects and a six-month window (or longer) to deliver. The corporate policy and planning world is more dynamic. It has work schedules and file priorities changing rapidly and often. Which, to be honest, a lot of evaluators and researchers not only do not enjoy, but they also are often ill-suited to the work pace. It’s not their strength, experience or training. Some of them can do it, some of them can even do it well, but many are not happy doing it. Because it isn’t just a matter of “coping” with the high degree of uncertainty and change, as if it happens a couple of times a year, it is potentially several times a week.
So, when I am hiring, I often tell people that about the work we do. And see how they react. If they are stressed by the description, they will not be a good fit. If they tell me they can “cope” with it, I probe harder. I need to see some examples of where they have done it before and thus not only know what it’s like, but are still seeking to do it again.
For me, that’s a key “fit” variable. I need to know too that they will fit into the team, flexible, willing to share files, willing to cover for people if priorities shift. For my type of work, ownership of a file is frequently an illusion. For someone who likes having a project all to themselves, my team isn’t the right fit for them, and they are not the right fit for my team.
That isn’t cut and dried by any imagination of course. It’s more a feeling of whether they fit. Combined with the way they interact on an interpersonal level. How they describe their former jobs. What animates them in their descriptions, what they shy away from in other descriptions.
I absolutely need to know they can handle the job, sure, but I also need to know if I want them in the team at all. I’ll be even a bit more blunt. There are people who would be aces for the work content, but are absolute jerks to work with on a day-to-day basis. They’re borderline toxic. Why would I risk putting one of them on my team? It’s a lateral unadvertised deployment. We’re just having a conversation. I won’t pursue it, because I will see who else is out there.
Equally though, if you prefer solo projects and your potential future boss tells you the jobs is highly variable for work loads and file priorities are constantly changing, then that team is probably not right for you either. You’re also evaluating them…would I like the work? Would I like to work with this boss? Would I like to work with this team?
Now, as I said, the questions are almost going to be entirely about your past experiences. Which is a giant danger, because it can be rather dry and formal if you let it. You want this to be as close to a conversation as it can be. You want some back and forth. You want it to stay informal, because that’s how they’re going to see if you would work as part of the team.
Which brings me back to the reverse situation where they ask you to tell them about yourself before they tell you about the job. I mentioned you can invert that, put them back in the lead, and that works if you are risk-adverse.
Why might you leave it inverted? Because it is a highly-effective sales strategy to tell them about yourself and your interests before they tell you about the job. I call it the “reverse sell”, and I found it by accident.
About ten years ago, I was looking around for a change. I wasn’t a planner by trade, but I had done it in previous jobs, and I heard about a manager with an opening in another branch. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. I sent him an email, said I heard he was looking for a manager on the corporate side, and gave him a brief hook or two of things I had done, plus my resume. He suggested we meet, and it was right away. I agreed to meet, but I was taking a huge tactical risk — I knew very little about their exact work, or even their branch. I had some idea, but normally I would have done more research before going in to see him. With little time, I went in cold.
And he started with an inverted opening for me to tell him about myself. So I did. I talked about some of my previous experiences, and anticipating some of the type of work the jobs in his area would do, I mentioned things that I had enjoyed in previous jobs that were similar, without pointing it out. For example, I noted that I really liked the link between policy and programs. I had been doing high-end policy work for awhile and was looking for a change, something with more ties to programs, but I wasn’t looking to move into the “weeds” of running programs. All of this was true, I wasn’t lying, but I was selecting it because I knew that corporate planning often intersects with both policy and programs. And so I said I was looking for that and enjoyed it.
As he responded, he said that he too liked that aspect, and it was exactly what his division dealt with every day. He went on to explain the work they did, and how it related to what I said, and part of me was thinking, “Well, duh. That’s why I said it.” It was almost like I was applying to work at a carnival selling peanuts and I had said I liked selling things, particularly food, and the boss was explaining to me how that would be a good fit for me. Of course it would be, that’s why I said it.
Except a funny thing seemed to happen. While he was “selling me” on the job and how it fit my needs/desires, he was also selling himself on me. By inverting the order so I went first, the “selling” job was all his by going second and making the linkages for what the job was that he had to fill. He sold me, and he sold himself on how I would fit. It was the easiest interview I have ever had. I barely had to tailor any of my experiences to the job, other than presenting it well up front.
I have used the same technique in other situations, and it actually has some validation by classic “sales” techniques that are taught in business schools. But I just found it by accident, I wasn’t trying to game the interview. It just worked out really well.
So that’s it. You find out about a job opening at level, you see if they’ll meet with you, and you tell them about your experiences in as conversational a tone as possible. Maybe there’s a good fit, maybe there’s not. Or maybe someone else is a better fit.
If the fit happens, they can deploy you relatively quickly. Far faster than formal processes, which is why the option is so popular.