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.
B. Casual deployment
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.
C. Formal deployment
The formal deployment interview is where the manager has advertised a position at level, and you have formally applied, often without knowing the manager or other staff in the area. The easiest example of this is where a manager at another department, say Environment Canada, has announced an AS-04 position as a deployment and it is open to those at level who work across the National Capital Region, and you work at perhaps Foreign Affairs and want to apply.
Maybe you have always wanted to work at Environment Canada; maybe you live on the Quebec side and would rather not commute across the river any more; maybe the AS-04 has some supervisory functions that you want to add to your resume. For whatever reason, you have applied because you are already an AS-04 and would like the job.
You will do the full cover letter approach described earlier — you will explain how you have the experience they are looking for, you meet the eligibility criteria, you have the education required, etc. But this is where it gets weird for the manager.
It isn’t a competition — you are already at level, so there is no “proof” required to show you merit the level, that’s already done. And, to be honest, it would put the government potentially in a weird position to have people go through a reassessment of their abilities again anyway … what would happen if you fail? Does that mean the competition was flawed, or that you really aren’t at level, or was it just you having an off-day? None of those are good outcomes. So you are already at the same level, full stop. The manager moves to the “best fit” criteria, right?
Which would mean they would call you in, ask you some informal questions (like the previous post), decide if you’re the right fit or not, and select someone. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Which is also why deployments are popular with managers. They’re supposed to be easy.
Except I just ran an EC-06 full deployment process. I was fortunate enough that there were only a handful of viable candidates, and I interviewed all of them. No “screening” process — if they were initially eligible, as they were, I gave them a shot at the interview. Think of it as a very low bar on the experience criteria. I did have a fairly straightforward set of questions, three of them, and I asked each of them the same ones. Not formally written-out like a full rating guide, but they all got the same three questions. While all of the candidates were possible, i.e. they could all have done the job, one of the candidates was by far the most qualified for what I was looking for in this specific instance. I still had all three give me writing samples and names of references. I reviewed the writing samples, and the “strong” candidate was still in the lead, so I moved on to reference checks — which I only did for him. Because it is not a competition, I didn’t need to fully assess all the candidates.
In fact, I technically wasn’t assessing them at all. Not their knowledge, abilities, or personal suitability. They are already at level. So as a manager, I’m not supposed to “re-evaluate” them and asign scores.
Yet when I was done everything, and went to select the strong candidate, HR started asking me for copies of my rating guide, my score results, all the things I would do if it was a competition, but it wasn’t. I pushed back, and they said, “Oh right, you don’t need that, but it’s a good idea anyway, so give it to us anyway.”
And that is the weird part for the manager. I am legally barred by regulation and tribunal decisions from re-evaluating candidates, yet I also am supposed to provide some sort of formal “non-evaluation evaluation process” to select the candidates. Most HR people have no idea what that actually means so they default to asking for all the things in a competition. Equally, many managers get their advice from those same HR people and end up doing what they’re supposed to avoid — formally evaluating the candidates.
A friend of mine just went for what I thought was a competition, and I was advising her on all the steps (see next section) for a formal competition. Then, she said it was deployment at level. So I told her the steps from the previous section (informal). She did a hybrid of both, and it was a good thing because one of the first things they asked her was a very formal knowledge question. Something they are NOT supposed to do. If it even hints at a process that is re-evaluating candidates at level, it’s grounds to have the whole process tossed.
Yet many managers do it anyway.
Here’s what you SHOULD prepare for if it is a formal deployment interview:
- Review the knowledge elements and do some basic prep (sort of a lite version of the next section);
- Review the abilities and personal suitability elements, and have an example to use in conversation if they ask you about your past experiences (again, sort of a lite version of the next section); and,
- Prepare a couple of speech modules of your background — perhaps a 5 minute version and a 2 minute version of your “elevator pitch”.
Will that cover all scenarios? Not completely. If it is a job that you REALLY REALLY REALLY want, do the full prep of the next section, just in case. But most often, this should cover you in case the managers don’t know what they’re doing and “test” you on elements anyway.
D. Formal competition
When I started this chapter, I said there were five types of interviews. While that is true, it is also true that each of the five are variations on a theme — or, alternatively, across a spectrum. The formal competition interview is at the most extreme end of the spectrum, and requires the most preparation.
Normally, a “full” interview is when you are doing a full competition to get a job at a level higher than you currently are now or perhaps at the beginning of your career in order to get into the public service. Since you are not at level, the competition has to test you on all the elements in the poster to show you that you are capable of meeting each of the criteria.
As outlined previously, most of the “experience” and “eligibility” elements were tested during the upfront application process. Some of the knowledge was likely tested through a written exam, and some of the personal suitability elements will be tested through reference checks. This means that the interview is primarily about testing your abilities, as well as some personal suitability factors and potentially some knowledge.
But before you prepare for the content, you need to think about what you are about to do. They are going to ask you questions and then you’re going to answer, that’s obvious. And they’ll mark your answer, which is also obvious.
While the goal is always to make the interview seem like a comfortable conversation, remember that you are being marked for what you say. It is very formal. You can’t assume someone already knows something — if you don’t cover it, they don’t hear it to mark it. Take for example a situation where you have been giving briefings for some time. And you know that one of the most important things in briefings is to tailor your presentation to the audience. So you’re fully prepared to highlight that in your interview.
Then you get in there and realize one of the interviewers is an old boss from another division. One that trained you on how to do presentations, including to always tailor presentations. So you relax. They know you. They know your history. And so, if you are like most people having a conversation with someone you know, you may tend not to stay the obvious things that you both know to be true. You may even feel a little silly to say to an old boss, “Well, I believe the most important thing is to tailor a presentation to your audience.” Because he or she already knows that you know it. Which means, like many candidates in interviews with people they know, you may forget to mention something obvious. But if you don’t say it during the interview, you don’t get any marks for it. You are marked ONLY for what you say during that time.
And most important of all? It’s going to seem like a monologue. They ask you a question, and when you start talking, they shut up. They take notes on everything you say until you tell them (or it’s clear) that you’re done answering the question. It will NOT seem like a conversation, and the people doing the interview may not even make eye contact because they’ll be busy taking notes. It is very unnerving for some people. You need to know they aren’t being rude, they’re just taking notes. And they are NOT allowed to prompt you very much. If you miss a small element, they might prompt you to elaborate on something. But here’s the thing…if they prompt YOU, they have to ensure they prompt everyone. Or the process won’t be fair. So, rather than risk unfairness, they will NOT prompt you if you miss something, even if it’s obvious.
However, they do sometimes ask you if you have anything to add. That is NOT a prompt for you to actually keep talking or that you must have missed something..it’s more often than not just them making sure you are done with that answer and they can move to the next question.
So think about that…formal questions, formal answers, and you doing a lot of talking, likely with little interactions with the members of the board. Assuming a standard interview, your answer to an individual question will last somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes. Which means you are going to talk for on average 6 minutes without them saying anything. Can you do that without practice, in an organized fashion, without repeating yourself?
Most people cannot do it. They talk in circles. They get nervous. They repeat themselves. They start digressing. They repeat themselves again. And all the time the markers are listening to your answer and awarding points.
There are only three strategies to manage this challenge:
- Practice…you can practice talking about an area (see below) on your own or with a friend, you can participate in multiple competitions so you get experience in doing it, or you might even try joining something like ToastMasters;
- Prepare…you will see lots of explanation below on how to prepare your answers in advance so that you’re not trying to think on your feet; and,
- Structure your answer.
If structure is king for a written exam, it is queen for an interview.
You want to give an answer that is logical, easy to follow, detailed, well-developed, and answers all the elements that are needed for that question to get full marks. The markers need to take notes, and they’ll award your score based on the notes they take. If they have trouble following you, any trouble at all, you lose marks. It is that simple. So you need to always be clear with your answer — where you’re going, what you’re saying, when you’re done.
For example, if you start your answer by saying you have four parts, three phases, five elements, or even eight, they know that you are now going to tell them 3, 4, 5 or 8 things. And they are structuring their notes accordingly. They’re probably even organizing them already with numbers in order for 1, 2, and 3. You have already given them a logical, easy to follow structure. That’s half your marks right there. Now all you have to do is populate your answer. (To be frank, if you are going beyond 4 or 5 things in ANY answer, you’re likely too far into the weeds, but you get the picture.)
But fear not, intrepid candidate. Candidates have been given a small advantage since about 2004/2005. Since then, candidates are usually invited to arrive about 30 minutes ahead of the interview. What happens in that thirty minutes? They’ll put you in a room, take away your notes and any cell phones, etc., and they’ll let you look at the questions for 30 minutes. And let you outline your answers a bit, take some basic notes to guide your answers. Everyone thinks this is all about helping the candidate, but it is mainly to help the markers.
Before the candidates were given this type of 30 minute preparation/review period, they would just get the questions cold in the interview room. Spontaneous, everyone said. Deadly, the markers said. Why? Because people would do the same three things when the question was asked.
- Stall. Say things like, “That’s a very good question, thank you for asking. I think that is one of the most important questions you could have asked me. I’m really glad you asked me. In fact, I would have been surprised if you didn’t ask me that extremely interesting question. I think it is the core of the job, that question there.” Were they really that bad? Not all of them, but some were. They were just talking to fill space while they thought of what their answer would be.
- Pause. Some would also punctuate their answers with “er” and “um” as they stopped talking to think about what they wanted to say next.
- Repeat. This would be kind of like them saying, “Thank you for that question. I think the three most important things are A, B and C. So, yes indeed, A is important. B is important too. And so is C. Yes, C is very important. Linked of course to A, which is also important. But B is in the mix too. Yes indeed, C, B, and A are important. Did I mention B enough?” I exaggerate of course, but sometimes marking “spontaneous” answers seems a lot like that. They aren’t saying anything, they’re just repeating everything they already said. It still happens for another reason with the current process, but I’ll deal with that element later.
For now, rest assured, a good structure to each answer not only helps you as a candidate but also reduces the pain for interviewers of watching a candidate flounder simply because they didn’t have a good answer on the spot when they were in an artificial environment, under the spotlight, and nervous.
Let me digress to tell you about my interview with Foreign Affairs and how I found out about the importance of structure. It was under the old style, questions were not seen in advance, you just went in “cold” to the room.
I was given a scenario question where I was the Public Affairs Officer in Bonn, Germany, Rick Hansen was coming to town, I needed to organize an event, and I had no budget for it…what would I do? I started with the simple stall as I desperately tried to think of what to actually do. So I started with, “Well, I think the first thing I would do is check our files for similar events in the files to see if we had previous situations like this and how we handled them.” A nice conservative start, I thought. Except there was a woman on the board whose body language was EXTREMELY overt and easy to read. I actually saw her roll her eyes, so I knew it wasn’t the answer that they wanted.
I zigged sideways and started again. “Now let’s assume that I check the files, and I find nothing. No ideas at all, and I’m starting from scratch.” The woman almost dropped her pen. She smiled, looked up at me, clearly now interested. I had taken the question out of the comfort zone, and she was now ready to hear what I would really say.
Confession time. I might have zigged out of that first stalling hole, but I had NOTHING. No idea whatsoever. So I reached into my bag of magic tricks and said, “Let’s look at the question a little more closely. I have to have an event, and I can’t pay for it. But that can be nuanced three ways, and it gives me some ideas. First, one interpretation is that I can’t be the one to pay for the event, but perhaps I could find a sponsor. Perhaps there’s a disability association in Germany who would like to honour Rick’s work. Second, another interpretation is that I can’t pay for the event, but perhaps there’s an event we’ve already paid for where we could add Rick in some capacity. Perhaps there’s an event celebrating Canadian-German relations, and our special guest for the evening could be Rick Hansen! Third, if I go with the basic interpretation, i.e. that I can’t pay for it, and I can’t find a sponsor or another event, then it would have to be some sort of free event — which likely means something outside. Perhaps I could talk to the City of Bonn, try to recreate Man In Motion through the streets of Bonn, and get them to give Rick a key to the city.”
I confess, at the time, I thought that was the STUPIDEST answer I had ever given to a question. You might be thinking it’s actually not a bad answer, but I was already working for the department on contract and I knew lots of creative public affairs officers who would have laughed those options out of the room. So I knew the content was actually kind of weak, but I had nothing else to offer. Yet the woman with the expressive body language kind of nodded her head, and we moved on.
I didn’t make the pool, and when I went for an informal afterwards to get feedback on my performance, we came to that question and I cringed. I figured I might have got 3 or 4 out of 10. I was gobsmacked to find out my score had been 10/10.
I was pretty candid with the HR person giving the feedback and bluntly asked, “How is that possible?”. He looked over the notes and he told me that he remembered my answer as the ONLY one in more than 500 interviews that he had been part of where the candidate had actually had any sort of logical structure to their answer. He admitted that other people had more creative solutions, some had really grandiose plans, some were really impressive even. But it was like watching some sort of wild brainstorming exercise, thoughts all over the place. The interviewers often had trouble taking notes because they had no idea where one partial idea ended and the next partial or full idea started.
I had a good structure and somewhat average content, and I got 10/10.
Others had a bad structure and great content, yet failed the question.
Such results aren’t often as startling now that people get questions in advance for 30 minutes, since they can use that time to create at least a basic structure, but structure still reigns. Repeatedly in interviews where I had weak content, I made up for it with a near-perfect structure. And received high marks because of it. And from the other side of the table, well-structured answers look downright awesome. As an interviewer, I sometimes feel like someone gave a great answer, yet afterwards when I look at only the content in my notes, it isn’t always as good as I first thought. But my first impression was that they had given a solid answer, easily passing the mark for that question. And I have never first thought someone passed and then subsequently failed them on secondary review. I might have lowered their mark from an 8 to a 7, but never below the line. And since marks are usually a consensus of the board, that isn’t just me being an easy marker…the other members of the board thought they were clear passes too, but in the final review, we might downgrade them to a more appropriate grade. Still a “pass”, but with some of the shine removed from a great structure. And some boards don’t even do that secondary review, they just go with their first impression.
Structure is queen, all hail structure.
However, once you understand those upfront elements, you need to prepare for four things in the interview preparations — knowledge, abilities, personal suitability, and what I call “extra” modules.
For the knowledge, it is exactly like the preparations previously described for a written exam. You’ll read the Departmental Plan (formerly Report on Plans and Priorities) to find out what is going on in the department. You may read recent statements by the Minister, particularly if they did any overview speeches with Chamber of Commerces. You’ll also need to refresh your memory of any of the special content / background documents you reviewed. However, there is a difference between the written and the interview. While the goal of the written was to have really detailed knowledge ready to “dump” into written answers, you are going to be using the info in the interview to populate some “extra” aspects of your answers. So you might get a question in the written exam where you have to explain the mandate and current priorities of the Department in detail in a memo, but in the interview, it is more like you will be asked to respond to a scenario of a new priority and how to handle it, and in your answer, you MIGHT want to drop in a reference to how this new priority fits within the existing priorities. You may not be getting a lot of points for “knowledge” in this part, but if you can throw it in, your answers are just automatically richer in content, and your overall score will go up. You’re just making your answers that much more concrete than without the knowledge. But if that is all you need, i.e. context, you’re more trying to drop in big headings in the interview, not the detailed sub-knowledge of each priority.
I do have one very large caveat to this comparison. I am basically saying that the written requires heavy knowledge content, almost an info dump, and the interview doesn’t, more the headings to help populate your answer a bit, make it richer. In the first instance, knowledge is the main course; in the interview, it is more like a mere spice to enhance flavour. However, this assumes that your competition had a written component that was separate from your interview. In other words, it assumes that by the time you get to the interview, you have already been tested on knowledge…but if you WERE NOT tested previously on knowledge, all bets are off in the interview. In that case, you WILL need to know all the detailed content.
When I applied to CIDA’s post-secondary recruitment, there was no written exam, and the first three questions of the interview were basically data dumps by the candidates to show the interviewers we had read all the priorities and could regurgitate them back in some form. And yes, that is as deadly as it sounds for both the candidates and the markers. Listening to the same answers over and over and over. It was even worse though because we didn’t get the questions in advance, it was just “enter and answer”. The first question I got was to outline CIDA’s six priorities. No indication of depth of answer required, no indication of what was to come. So I started answering. And I spent about 3-4 minutes on each of the six priorities to explain them in detail. Regurgitating what I had memorized. A complete brain dump. After my 15-20 minute answer, seriously, I stopped. I had no idea if that was too much or too short. They then said, “Okay, Question 2 is to take one of the six priorities and explain it in detail. You’ve already answered that, let’s go on to Question 3.” Oops. And Q3 wasn’t too far off some of the stuff I had already said too…I almost answered all three with my first answer.
Which is one of the reasons you get the questions in advance to review, so you can balance your answers better, but this type of answer is what I mean by the content required if you don’t have a written exam. If you have a written, that’s the spot for the detail; if you don’t have a written, the knowledge detail will be required in the interview.
For abilities and personal suitability, the possible questions seem endless. For example, if I’m running a competition and I’m marking initiative, and I ask you about a time where you demonstrated initiative, you might think that because everyone will have a different example, it’s impossible to figure out the question in advance. At first glance, lots of people think that way — because everyone has different answers, the question must be impossible to predict.
But it isn’t. It’s the same question. I’m marking X so I ask you to tell me of a time when you did X. And when five candidates answer that question, I am going to hear five different answers. But my marking grid, which I have to create in advance, has what I think is a generic answer that will allow me to mark everyone’s answer. For example:
- Did something that wasn’t assigned to them i.e. they initiated the activity;
- It wasn’t something they were expected to do as part of their job i.e. it was above and beyond or separate from their current responsibilities;
- It took some effort to do i.e. they had to figure out a way to do something or to do it better, something that wasn’t obvious, preferably something with options, and they had to make a choice / can’t be something really simple or obvious;
- There has to be a better result because it was done i.e. not just doing something different but actually improving something / so what; and/or,
- It challenged the status quo or was innovative.
So that’s my marking grid. Because that’s what initiative means. Which means when I hear the five different answers, I’m looking to see how many of those bullets you have. One or two? You probably fail. Three or more? Probably enough to pass. All five? High scores all around, well done!
Now let’s digress for a minute to look at those five bullets. Where did I get them from? Did I have some magical resource that exists only for managers? No. I have the same resources you do. Dictionary.com. Google. Thesaurus. Websites like Treasury Board’s that explain what initiative means as a competency or ability. And after you look at a few, you see some common denominators.
Initiative requires that YOU initiate. Lots of people will tell me of a project they led or we’re in charge of, and all the great things they did. Except they were told to do it by their boss. That’s not initiative, because you didn’t initiate; you maybe demonstrated management or leadership, but not initiative. The number of people who give leadership examples is astounding…close to almost 70% in my experience give a leadership example as they have never thought about what initiative actually means.
Or they say that they came up with a way to track all the correspondence in their unit in a special spreadsheet. Great. But what was their job? Correspondence manager. Someone who was expected to track the correspondence. It’s their job. So yes you came up with a tool, but you were kind of expected to do that anyway. It’s not anything “special” or “unique” or you showing initiative, you’re simply doing your job.
Often, too, people will talk about this fantastic thing they came up with as an idea, and yet it is extremely simplistic. For example, they were designing a new tracking system for urgent files, and they came up with the idea to use blue tags for correspondence and red tags for memos to allow people to triage the files quicker. Total time to come up with the idea and implement it? Thirty seconds. It was a good idea, but there was no effort involved. There were no real obstacles to overcome, no planning involved, you didn’t have to work at it. Which means as a demonstration of initiative, I simply don’t care about it.
Or the worst scenario? They’ll tell me how they completely revamped a system, because they thought it was fun to do, and when they were done, it made no difference whatsoever. No better outcome. No improvement in speed or result. No result other than that they did something different to fix something that was working just as well previously. I’ve even had people admit that after they left, their replacement dumped it and went back to the old way.
However, one thing that always looks good is if you were challenging the status quo or truly being innovative. Yet without those other four elements above, why will I care as an interviewer? Did you do a lot of work to improve something, or are you just someone who likes to spin their wheels doing things differently because they hate whatever is already in place and they just want to be “innovative” for no reason?
Ultimately, look at the answer grid. If you tell me that you set up a new colour code system because your boss told you to do it, it took you thirty seconds, it was different than what went before, but two months after doing it, they dumped it because it didn’t matter, how is that an example of initiative? Contrast that with an example where you’re perhaps in charge of finance, but you’re pretty good with Excel; you aren’t involved with the correspondence system, but you know they are over-worked and having trouble finding time to triage files properly or come up with a new tool; you suggest to your supervisor that perhaps you could take this on as a special project, and you study it for a couple of days or weeks and come up with three or four options but recommend one particular one that involves a new Excel file that you design and train people to use, along with a new colour coding system; it’s completely unique in the branch; and it works so well that response times are cut in half, your group is suddenly meeting all of its correspondence deadlines, you have a tool that generates reports for management, and other directorates or divisions are asking if they can have a copy of the tool to use in their offices.
If you contrast those two examples, which one do you think demonstrates initiative? As a marker, the second one gets 10/10, the first one perhaps 1 or 2, nowhere near a passing grade.
Now, you might suddenly say, “Yes, but I’m a junior employee, I don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate initiative, all my files are assigned to me.” That is absolutely a common problem. But it doesn’t mean you can’t give me an initiative example. You may have to give me one that was assigned to you, true. And as such, you’re not getting the points for coming up with it on your own. But if it took effort, if it was innovative, if it produced a good result, if you went above and beyond the tasking, then you’ve demonstrated the other four elements pretty well and you’ll get a good mark. Just be aware that in an ideal world, you don’t start off with that spot if you can avoid it. Or if you do, make sure you hit the other marks as best you can.
Going back a few steps though, the question was about initiative, but the context was whether or not you can predict the question in advance. Some people will tell you of course not, you’re not a mind reader.
But you don’t have to be. Here’s the magic trick. In almost 95% of all interviews that are asking about abilities or personal suitability, there are only three types of questions I am likely to ask you. Some call it past, present and future; some call it applied, situational or theoretical. I prefer to think of them as experience, process, and principles.
- Experience (or past or applied) — Tell me of a time when you’ve demonstrated strong interpersonal skills?
- Process (or situational or present) — Here is a specific situation, tell me how would your strong interpersonal skills help you to deal with it?
- Principles (or future or theoretical) — Why are strong interpersonal skills important to being part of a team?
When I do my presentations, people are almost shocked that there are only three types of questions. So they start trying to come up with scenarios or questions that would be a fourth type. Go ahead, do it yourself now. I’ll wait.
Now that I’ve hummed the complete soundtrack to Jeopardy, what have you got? Now take that question and ask yourself this…is it REALLY any different from one of the above three? Remembering too that the situation could be different, or your past might be different, or it says in a group instead of a team, but ultimately they are asking you to talk about interpersonal skills.
Remember above where I said they had a generic marking grid? They have it here too. For interpersonal skills. So no matter which answer you give vs. the next candidate’s answer, they can still mark both. So they googled “interpersonal skills” and came up with some headings. Like showing respect. Listening. Working together. Building trust. Clear communication. Transparency. And another four or five other possible headings.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I as the marker only decide to list three things about interpersonal skills — respect, trust and communication. Now, ask yourself…what is my marking grid if I ask you to tell me about a time when you demonstrated good interpersonal skills?
- Shows respect for others
- Builds trust with other people
- Clear recognition of the importance of communication
Now ask yourself…If I give you a situation where you are in a new team, there’s been some conflict, and I want to know what you’ll do to demonstrate good interpersonal skills, what does my rating grid look like?
- Shows respect for others
- Builds trust with other people
- Clear recognition of the importance of communication
Hmm, looks familiar. Now what if I ask if you think that good interpersonal skills are an important aspect of teamwork? What does my rating grid look like?
- Shows respect for others
- Builds trust with other people
- Clear recognition of the importance of communication
You’re not seeing double or even triple. It’s true. My rating guide for all three of those questions is (probably) identical. Oh, sure, I might have said “showed respect” in the first, and “shows respect” in the second, and “important to show respect” in the third, but it is the SAME rating grid.
Now, at this point, you know there are only three types of questions and you also know that I’m going to mark whichever one I ask (almost) exactly the same as the other two.
Doesn’t that sound like a question you can predict in advance?
Of course it does. Because I, as the hiring manager running the competition, am not a rocket scientist. I am not gathering magical information from the Oracle at Delphi to populate my rating grid. Instead, I’m basically doing the same thing you’re likely to do. Google it. Talk to other people about what it might mean. Come up with some headings. Put together an outline of possible things people may say. Call it done.
In the above example and summary, I keep saying that all three are “almost” identical, and they are. But there is a slight nuance difference.
In the first form of the question about experience, I need you to give me an example that shows those headings. In the second form of the question about a situation, I’m looking for the steps in a process that you’ll follow to show that ability. In the third and final form of the question, I need you to talk more about the principles involved.
But if you combine all three, you can create a single answer that answers all three and actually gives you more points for any of the three. Let me show you.
Suppose for example I ask you to tell me of an example where you demonstrated good interpersonal skills. You’re likely to immediately start with the context, what you did, etc. and tell me you showed respect, built trust, and emphasized communication.
But what if you started with, “I think the most important element of interpersonal skills is respect for other people. So the example I’m going to give you…”. Instead of starting with the details of what you did previously, you already are creating a great structure that says, “respect for others” and now your example is evidence of how you have done that exact heading. Then, as you go along, you might say. “After setting up those first few meetings and respecting what the others had to say, I felt it was important to start building trust with others.” Now you’re pulling from the process type response. And perhaps you finish with the experience example, “I really learned from this interaction the clear importance of communication, and I try now to incorporate it in all my interactions.” Wow, all three elements in the same answer.
Why would you do that? Because the first one is a basic answer. The second one is much more robust, more comprehensive, gives concrete examples, talks about principles and what steps you would take again, etc. And more robust while still maintaining a good structure means higher marks. Instead of getting 6 with your first example, you’re up into the 8 or 9 point range with a full answer.
Remember back in Chapter (x) where I said there was Secret Template #1? It is time for Secret Template #2. For every element that they are marking in the interview, you’re going to fill out the following table with short bullet points.
|Ability 1||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
|Ability 2||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
|Ability 3, 4, 5…||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
|Personal Suitability 1||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
|Personal Suitability 2||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
|Personal Suitability 3, 4, 5…||Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
See Annex 2 for a sample blank layout that you can use to populate your own info. Note that you do not want a lot of information, as you won’t be able to memorize it. I’ve listed 1 or 2 projects for experience, but ideally you can get it down to one really solid one that meets all your headings. For processes, I think in some cases it might be 4 or 5, but again, will you be able to remember them all when you get in the interview? And for principles, I like to stick to the rule of 3, as it is easier to remember those than it is for 4 or 5. And often if you are trying to do 4 or 5 principles, you’re too far into the weeds. Plus, if you did it right, you’ll be able to pull from ALL THREE columns for your example to create a really rich and robust response to whichever form of the question you get asked. So you won’t have room for two examples, five steps, and five principles in your answer. Keep what works, drop what doesn’t.
You’ll see in the above table that I have taken the identical approach to abilities and personal suitability. Some managers have noted that abilities tend to emphasize the experience and process/situational columns more so than principles, while personal suitability tends to use principle questions more often than experience or process. I tend to believe that is generally true, but I have no quantitative evidence to prove it one way or another. However, both abilities and personal suitability CAN ask any of the three types, and you need to be prepared, so I don’t recommend shifting emphasis in that fashion. Note too that you can expand the table if you want to include rows for the essential experience and knowledge, but the three columns don’t work as well for that. Essential experience is covered by the application, and you have a separate table to cover all the “experience examples” in more detail. For knowledge, you could put the knowledge factors down the left hand column, but usually you would be only using the process or principles at most, and highly dependant upon the type of job you’re doing (an FI might have some examples of where they used legislation, or the steps they used, or the principles behind the legislation, whereas an AS might have steps only). I think knowledge prep is mainly about the different types of documents referenced earlier, not putting it into a table like the two secret templates.
Finally, I said at the beginning of the chapter that there were four areas to cover and the one that is left is a heading for “extra” modules. If you did the work above, you know how to answer questions that fit 95% of the form you’ll see. Past, present or future, for example. You’re good to go.
Then you get in the interview and they ask you something weird. Something you are totally not expecting. And it doesn’t look like anything you have prepared. You start to panic. What do you do?
Well, remember how I said structure was queen? You need a structure to answer the question. Because a good structure is going to give you something to say, and it might be enough to get you half-way to passing the question. But what structure do you use for a question you weren’t expecting?
You are going to use one of the extra modules you can create to handle the unexpected. For example, if you google “problem solving cycle” or “steps”, you’ll see there are tons of examples. I like to cheat and look at the images tab to see what diagrams people have posted on various websites. Some will have 4 steps, or 5 steps, or 10 steps. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as it is one you can understand and remember easily. I tend to think of problem-solving as having five steps:
- Define the problem
- Analyse the problem
- Develop options and choose one
- Implement the chosen solution
- Evaluate the solution
Now, if you are doing policy work, you should have the policy development cycle too. Search the same way. Guess what you find? The policy cycle looks pretty similar. Define, analyse, options, implement, evaluate. If you’re in project management, look at the project management cycle. Hey, almost the same. It’s not rocket science, they’re all pretty general and generic. So, how do you use them?
Let’s look back at that example of Foreign Affairs where I asked how to have an event for Rick Hansen when I had no budget. I had no idea how to answer, so I reached into my bag of magic tricks and pulled out the problem-solving cycle.
- Define the problem — Have to have an event and I can’t pay for it;
- Analyse the problem — Three possible interpretations — I can’t pay for it because I have no money, I can’t pay for this event but could pay for another, or I can’t pay but someone else could;
- Develop options — Free event, merge with existing event, find a sponsor
I didn’t have to implement or evaluate the options for that question, I just had to give ideas. But it was an unexpected question and I needed a good structure — so I used my “extra” problem-solving module to give me the headings to use.
While problem-solving, policy development or project management are relatively the same, there is no universal set of headings to “choose”. The five part option listed above is pretty standard, but if a model that has only four elements works for you, use that instead. It isn’t about the right answer per se, it is about you having some headings that will let you give a good answer to an unexpected question.
There are lots of little cycles like this that are good for various types of jobs. If you are applying for a stakeholder relations job, it is a good idea to memorize steps in a consultation process. If you are in HR, maybe the steps in a general job process. If you are in finance, maybe the headings for the typical budget cycle. A researcher might have headings around managing a research project. Things that resonate with them and they can adapt to other unexpected questions on short notice.
I also like to have in my backpocket some sample answers to weird and wonderful questions that someone might use as an icebreaker or part of another question. They can ask:
- How you are the best candidate?
- What is your past experience?
- What are your personal strengths?
- What are your biggest achievements>?
- How would this job relate to your career goals?
- What is your biggest weakness? (Very rarely asked, as difficult to mark) and what you are doing about it (obviously you will not give an example that something needed / relevant to the job!)
- What is a challenging project or situation with a difficult employee that you have dealt with?
- Do you have any good examples of teamwork or partnering?
- Tell us about your leadership style / communications style / personal values and ethics?
These questions are generally answered badly by everyone, so most managers never ask them. However, if used properly by the hiring manager, they can be good questions to use as icebreakers or just to see how they answer a difficult question in terms of communication styles, etc. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on them, but their worth reviewing every so often.
For the summary of yourself or your experience, it can be the same summary for best candidate, past experience, personal strengths, achievements, weakness, etc. It’s up to you to decide how you want to respond, and again, they are not likely scored so there are no wrong answers in terms of an answer grid. They are really just trying to get to know the real you. And to make sure you’re not a general whackjob who says their greatest weakness is poor integrity or low attention to detail for a job that requires high values and integrity and a lot of precise details.
For me, I’m a manager, so I often get asked a general question about my management style. I’ll embellish a bit, and make it a bit more hypothetical, but I could say. “You know, I think my management style is tied tightly to my values and ethics and how I deal with other people. For me, it starts with respect for others. Embracing diversity, the use of french and english in the workplace, and a strong commitment to lifelong learning. But I think my biggest accomplishment as a manager has been tied to transparency. I focus heavily on sharing information when I can, and using that information to create a shared vision with my team that is clear and open, and I feel like I have had a lot of success with this in my last 10 years as a manager.” Off the top of my head, is that a perfect summary? No. But I can tweak it, practice it a bit, improve on the structure and then voila! I’ll have a handy dandy little speech module that I can use in different ways depending on what “weird” or “unexpected” question comes along.
Interviews are complex, and you need to be ready for all the parts that come your way.
E. Best Fit
At the beginning of the chapter, I mentioned there were five types of interviews, and the one that is left is what is called the “best fit” interview. This is the interview where they are seeing, amongst a small pool of fully qualified candidates, who is the best fit for the team.
Let’s go back for a second to an earlier example. Let’s say someone has a bunch of tech support workers working for them, and also say that they have three areas to cover – mainframes, PCs, and Macs. So they have an opening and run a selection process looking at experience in providing tech support, knowledge of various elements of different systems, abilities to be a front-line service worker and the personal suitability factors for dealing with a lot of different types of people all coming to you for help. Now suppose they have an opening, and have found three really good candidates who have been tested, evaluated, all good – any one of them could do the job. But there is only one position available. And you have to choose one that will fit well with your needs.
Suppose for example that you have existing workers who are really good with mainframes and PCs, but you’re a bit weak on Macs. And one of the three candidates is REALLY strong with Macs. Then you might choose them as the best fit for completely legitimate operational – yes, all of them are qualified, but this one brings a little extra experience with Macs to the table, and you’re short in that area. Tomorrow, someone might leave from the mainframe team and suddenly you’ll pull a mainframe person off the pool.
That’s partly what best fit is about – seeing which candidate fits your basic and extra needs the best.
But I need to warn you of something else. That previous example could have probably been decided just on paper. So why an interview? Often the processes are large and complex undertakings with lots of managers doing the interviews. So it is quite common for a hiring manager not to have seen EVERYONE that was interviewed earlier. They may not have met YOU for example. So if they are good managers, they’ll narrow the pool down to a potential sub-list that looks good and then call 3-4 of them in for a quick conversation.
What are they looking for? They’re making sure you’re not a whack job, for one. I’m not joking. Just because someone passed an interview or wrote a test doesn’t mean necessarily that you want to work with them on a day to day basis. Anyone can clean up nice for a formal process, answer the right questions in the right way, and maybe no alarms go off. But they’re a whack job. Look around your own work unit…chances are there are a couple of people you would rather not work with, but hey, somebody hired them.
The “nicer” way of thinking about this best fit interview is partly just getting to know you and partly to see how you interact on interpersonal skills in an informal setting. Are you shy? Are you aggressive? Are you constantly joking, are you deadly serious? They just want a feel for who you are, what you’re like.
Another area they want to gauge is how interested you are in the job. I know what some of you are probably thinking…what do you mean? We applied for the job, of course we want it, doesn’t every one of us want it the same? The short answer is no.
Some people applied just to be in a competition and hopefully make a pool so their own manager could pull them and appoint them where they are working now. They don’t want the job AT ALL. They’re just playing the game to get promoted.
Some other people are victims of time…they applied nine months ago but since then, their lives have changed. Maybe they have a divorce in the works, or a new baby, or a new boss, and they don’t want to move right now after all. They want to stay put. Or their boss has offered them another opportunity. Or they made another pool somewhere else, or are about to make one. Lots of things could cause them to change their minds since they first applied.
Are managers going to outright ask you if you still want the job? Probably not. They’re instead going to ask you to tell them a bit about why you want the job. Maybe ask you what elements in your past experience make you think you’d be a good fit. Ruh roh. Yeah, that’s right, it is still an INTERVIEW. And you need to be ready.
Your main focus is different though. Instead of knowledge or abilities or personal suitability factors, they’re mainly judging two factors – indirectly your experience (it will be what you use to populate your stories and flesh them out) and more directly your interpersonal skills.
But you have to make a choice at this point in how you choose to respond.
Some people will say, “If you want the job, you have to be the duck.” Just like in the rest of the competition. Don’t deviate from that message. What do you like about the job as a duck? Being able to quack. What did you like in your past jobs? Whenever you got to quack. Quack, quack, quack. You’re still going to answer the questions, but every third sentence should be about quacking. It’s safe, it’s conservative, it’s traditional.
However, what if you’re actually a swan? Then you have three options.
First, if you REALLY want the job no matter what, just quack. Less risk.
Second, if you want the job but you also want to be yourself, quack and also show off your swan features. Let your wings unfurl. Strut a bit. It’s a compromise of being true to yourself while still pursuing the job strongly.
Third, if you are interested in the job, but you aren’t going to be happy if you can’t be a swan, then fully unfurl and strut. You have to. Because you don’t want them thinking you’re a conforming duck and hire you into a job that is a bad fit for you.
But this also leads to some good news.
You get to interview them too. You can ask what it’s like to work in the unit. Chances are they will tell you anyway before you ask. They’ll often describe the job in detail, or the division, or the branch. They’ll give you a bunch of info you didn’t get reliably earlier…and you may or may not like it.
Some people have thought the job was like X and then found out in the best fit interview that it was mostly about Y. Which they had no interest in, and now they’ve wasted a huge amount of time to get that far and they’re not interested in the job anymore. It happens. Mostly to people who applied for anything and everything without finding out what the job was about at least in general terms.
You also get to see the manager and / or director in an informal setting and see if you want to work for THEM. You can see how they describe files, people, the work, etc, and decide whether there is a whack job in the room, and it’s not you.
Those are the basics, and the challenge for giving advice on this section is so many of the questions you might have are “what if…” scenarios. Too many to address in their entirety, but I’ll attempt to address some common general themes.
Option 1: What if I’m invited but I actually don’t want the job?
Remember all those other factors I mentioned above? Life happens. You can politely decline the best fit interview and say you’re not interested in the job at this time, with or without an explanation, no harm, no foul. They might be a little annoyed, but they’ll get over it. If you have something else, just say so and move on.
However, I advise against declining. First of all, they ran a competition, invested a lot of time and resources in it, and you DID apply. The least you can do is here their pitch at the end.
Second, you actually don’t know what they’re considering. Tons of pools get used to fill OTHER jobs than the first one posted. You might think it is about training programs, and you’ve decided it doesn’t interest you in general, but in reality, they have a new initiative looking at training geared towards gender equality that is one of your passions. You don’t know, and you won’t know unless you go and have that little interview. And after you hear from them, if you don’t want it, email them the next day and thank them politely for their consideration but tell them it doesn’t seem like the best fit for you at this time. Even if they offer you the job, you CAN say no.
Option 2: I had the interview, seemed to go well, and I want the job. Now what?
Ideally, they offered you it on the spot and you said, “Quack yeah!”. More likely, they said, “Thanks for coming in, we’ll let you know.”
But you should also give them an extra bit of info – you WANT the job, now that you’ve heard more about it and met your potential bosses. So email them the next day and say thank you for considering me, and that you remain very interested in the position if they think you would be a good fit in the team. Lots of people think this is redundant, but the reality is that it is new info for them. They may THINK you will say yes if offered, but they don’t know for sure – they know you’re interviewing them for best fit too. So telling them you’re interested (or very interested) lets them know that for sure if they offer you the job, you’re going to say yes. You’re a sure thing. All uncertainty is gone. And there is a small psychological element in there too – just like in dating or friendships, it’s nice to be wanted, and you’re telling them you want to work with them.
On both the upside and downside, their response will likely tell you which way they’re leaning. Now they may have to interview lots of others too, you can often tell by their response if it is GREAT, thanks for letting us know, or just okay thanks.
Option 3: I had the interview and I don’t want to even KNOW them, let alone work there
So email them the next day and politely tell them it doesn’t seme like the right fit for you at this time. No harm, no foul.
Option 4: I want the job, but one detail is a dealbreaker for me, when do I tell them?
The short answer is whenever you feel comfortable raising it. Not very helpful, I know. So let’s tease that out a bit more. It depends a bit on what the detail is about.
If it is about the job, you need to at least raise it as a concern in the best fit interview because that is pretty clearly linked to your best fit. For example, if you hate public-speaking and you find out that there is a component of that in the job and you didn’t realize that previously, try and probe a bit to find out how extensive it is. They’ll be able to tell that you don’t like or have a problem with that component and the conversation will address that to some extent.
Or perhaps there is a need to do a lot of outreach during the week, but every Tuesday at lunch, you are doing Toastmasters. You could mention that as something you do, and ask if that would likely be an issue. You aren’t trying to say “no”, because they’re not offering you anything yet to say yes or no to anyway, you’re just working out the ramifications of the job and another commitment you have. You can do all of this in the best fit interview.
However, if the detail is something about YOU, not the job, then you can wait for an actual offer before raising it. They’ll call you to let you know they want to choose you, at which time you can ask to meet to discuss a couple of issues you just want to clarify before you say yes fully. You’re still telling them it’s a likely yes, you just want to mention a couple of things.
Some of these things might be highly personal. For example, suppose you have to pick up your son every Tuesday at 4:00 without fail. It’s not an everyday thing, as that could have been discussed at any time in terms of the workhours for the team, etc. Instead, this is a dealbreaker for you. Will that be a problem? Usually it isn’t. But you want to know before you say yes.
Or perhaps you have a one-week trip planned in six months where you’re taking your great grandmother back to the home country. It’s planned, booked, and you’re going no matter what. If it is that important to you, you may say, “Is this oging to be a problem?”. Usually not, particularly with advanced notice, but this category is about something YOU decided was a dealbreaker for you, so you need to know if it is a problem or not.
After that, there are a huge number of potential really personal issues you might want to raise. Maybe you have a religious ritual that you do at certain times each day, and while they’ll accommodate you, maybe you want to know it isn’t simply accommodations but they are actually supportive and would never ask you to do it after you finish some urgent task. Many of these areas could even get into questions of human rights, but you want them to know before you start.
Which takes me back to the original response. Tell them what you want to tell them when you feel comfortable doing so.
Now, lots of activists out there will tell you that you don’t need to share, and I agree. You don’t HAVE to tell them. But you also don’t want to necessarily be faced with having to fight for something with neanderthal bosses…you want to know their views before you accept.
For me, it is the blog I write. I tell them in my best fit interviews, if not earlier, that I have a blog. And give them the URL if they want to check it out to see the types of things I write. Am I allowed to have a blog? Yep. Does that mean a boss might not give me a hard time about it? No, they could, and if that’s their attitude, I want to know that before I agree to work for them…mostly because I won’t accept the offer. I’m also going to feel them out about HR, training supports for employees, ways to approach certain types of situations. And all of that will be informally during the best fit because that is where I feel comfortable sharing it. Others might wait for an actual offer, but to me, that’s a waste of time. But I’m also not looking for just “any job” or trying to get a promotion. I will only accept jobs that are the right fit for me.