Welcome to the 2023 edition of Be the Duck: Succeeding in Canadian Federal Government Competitions, part of a planned series of publications I like to call “PolyWogg Guides to Government”.
Let me start by introducing both myself and the origins of my guide. I started working for the Government of Canada as a co-op student in 1993 at what was then the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (aka DFAIT), but my journey started before then.
My real name is Paul Sadler, and polliwog was my nickname as a kid, courtesy of my sister. I’ve tweaked the spelling for online use, but it’s still just a nickname.
Back in 1990, I decided that after I finished my undergraduate degree at Trent University in Administrative and Policy Studies (i.e., a multidisciplinary economics, commerce and politics degree), I was going to go to law school (for an LL.B.) with a joint degree program with a Masters of Public Administration (MPA). To get in, I had to have decent undergraduate marks (just over 80% to put me on the Dean’s Honour List) and a kick-butt LSAT and GMAT score. Law schools use the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to pre-rank students, while business programs use the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).
I didn’t know much about either exam, but I did a deep dive in the fall of 1990 for six weeks of extensive practice. I started with practice exams where I scored 80th percentile, but that was not going to be good enough for early admission. Over the six weeks, I looked for tips and tricks, read books about the exams, did more practice, and honed my approach. On the day of the exam, I achieved 99th percentile for both. The point of that story is NOT that I’m amazing. It is that repeated practice on a standardized test improved my outcome. That may seem obvious but to go from 80th percentile (competitive) to 99th percentile (automatic early admission) was a shock. I really didn’t expect that level of bump.
I started in the joint LLB/MPA degree program at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, in the fall of 1991 as a law student. At the end of my first year, I was accepted into the law co-op program. Over the course of several weeks in the Spring, I went through a series of government interviews, almost all of them with the provincial government. At first, they seemed intimidating. What would they ask me, how should I prepare? After three or four interviews, I realized they were all asking the same questions. Maybe some of them would tailor it a little bit this way or that way, but the overall thrust of the questions didn’t change.
On the first couple of interviews, I ranked in the top ten but not high enough to guarantee a job. After about six or seven, I was in the top five. By the end of my ninth interview, I was consistently ranking in the top two spots. The interviews were a standardized set of questions, disguised as a conversation. As a young student with limited previous interview experience, that revelation was a bit of a shock. So, I did the same prep as I had done for the LSAT and GMAT. I looked for tips and tricks and I came up with good robust structures that would let me pull multiple bits of information from my previous work experiences to explain how I would make a good co-op student for them.
I didn’t have a lot of direct government experience, but I had worked in the office part of the university library for four years, and I had done some work on municipal issues such as the revitalization of the Downtown Business Improvement Area in my hometown. It was enough. When a job came up at the Ministry of Education and Ministry Responsible for Multiculturalism and Human Rights, I applied the first day hoping I would be the first one interviewed to set the bar high. I don’t know if that helped or not, but I got the job, and proceeded to work for them for four months as a co-op student and then another four months on contract.
I completed another semester of graduate school, in public administration for the most part that semester, and a bunch of jobs came up. I’ll digress for a moment to mention that as an applicant eligible for both public administration and law co-ops, I had a lot of jobs open to me, and I applied to about 20. Over the course of about a month, my previous approach became almost ingrained. It was intense, with an interview almost every day. If it was a law co-op, I would stress that I had the same legal knowledge as the other applicants, but I also had public administration too, plus I was pretty danged good with computers. It was effective — for about six really good jobs, another student three years ahead of me in the joint program ranked first and I ranked second.
I kept trying though, waiting for my “guaranteed” job offer where I would rank first. He was applying only for jobs in British Columbia, whereas I was open to going to Ottawa to work for the federal government. Even though I knew that eventually ONE of the six jobs would come to me when he chose one and turned down the other five, I switched gears and started applying to federal jobs. I was somewhat surprised to see that the questions were almost identical. In short order, I ranked first at what was then the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and second at Treasury Board Secretariat. My co-op director convinced me to take the DFAIT job, and so in January 1993, I started in Ottawa.
Understanding my perspective
I eventually worked two co-ops, several contracts and a term for DFAIT over four years, abandoned law school and transferred my studies for the MPA to Carleton University, and moved to Ottawa full-time, working for the federal government. I went through the Foreign Service exam and interview gauntlet, without ultimate success, but the structures were not unfamiliar to me. They were pretty standardized, they could be learned, and I could ask others for help. Eventually, a full-time indeterminate competition was held at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), DFAIT’s sister organization, and I jumped. I prepared hard and I got a permanent job offer, which I accepted. I became a full indeterminate employee of the Government of Canada.
Once “in”, I was surprised to find out that promotions, competitions, etc., were all about the same as my initial interview. Standardized questions, relatively clear criteria, and what bothered me most was that none of it was written down. There was no guide to tell people how to prepare. I saw really good people screw up on applications, mess up in interviews, or get totally stressed out because they hadn’t done very many interviews before the one they wanted to “win”. As a co-op student, I had done about 50 over two years that were less intense but still relevant. I knew how to prepare.
I would talk to people. I would ask them how they prepared, ask what they had felt was relevant in previous competitions, what they wish they had known when they did their last competition. Because from 1993 when I started up until 2005 when the law changed, they were indeed “competitions”. Only the person who ranked first was guaranteed a job offer. There might be other offers for those who ranked all the way to 100 in the jobs at DFAIT or perhaps 40 at CIDA, but if you were #101 or #41, you didn’t get a job. Just like the co-op positions. I had to rank first if I wanted to ensure I got the job.
The origin of my guide
In 2004, I met someone at work who was preparing for a competition, and I shared with her my “notes”. What I had learned, the tips and tricks that I had gathered over the years. At the time, there was a competition being run in our area, and I applied. Apparently, the consultant doing the screening was so impressed with my application that they thought I should share my cover letter with anyone and everyone so they could see how to do it “properly”. I felt odd about it. Didn’t EVERYONE do what I was doing? Weren’t ALL of us trying to learn the way to improve our performance?
Apparently not. My information and approach weren’t available anywhere online, nobody had written a guide like mine, and very few “coaches” were dabbling in this area. If you looked online, what you would find were a whole bunch of websites with tips on how to perform well in an interview, but they were PRIVATE-SECTOR interviews. Yet government processes are RADICALLY different for content.
Government processes are regulated by legislation that defines what qualifies as merit, how you can demonstrate it, and if someone appeals the result, the original decision has to be fully documented and defensible. Government money from taxpayers = government rules to ensure it is spent fairly and properly.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the amount of information online has increased exponentially. In the world of preparing for interviews, resume formats, and which search engines to use, the volume is off the chart. But almost all of the information assumes that employers are all the same, that all of them are in the private sector, and that all the techniques they suggest are transferable.
However, almost none of those tips and tricks aimed at helping you get a private-sector job are suitable for preparing for a Canadian government “selection process” (I’ll explain the difference below). The questions and processes are completely different, even when they use some of the same buzz words. Even the format for what qualifies as a cover letter are polar opposites to what the business books will tell you to do. If you follow their advice, you’ll fail, 100% guaranteed. You’ll see why when we get to the chapter on your initial application, and the first hurdle you have to jump perfectly.
With that information gap back in 2004 in terms of other material, my new friend suggested that perhaps I could make a presentation to a bunch of young officers who were new to government about how to prepare for competitions. I hemmed and hawed for about 30 seconds, and the kicker that convinced me was the focus: “What would I have wanted to have as a presentation when I was in a similar position?”. I was eleven years “in” at that point, seven as a full employee, and I did have something to share. Why not?
HR was NOT happy because I don’t work in HR. I’m mostly a policy and program wonk, with a side of corporate planning and reporting. So, when HR found out that a non-HR person was going to present on something related to HR, they got a little nervous. We tried to explain that I wasn’t presenting about HR, not really, it was about how to prepare as a candidate, but they weren’t sold. Until my friend sent them the draft deck. At which point they reviewed it and said, “Oh, you’re right, that’s not HR. Never mind, go ahead.”
But just to be irreverent and to cover our collective backsides, we called it the “Completely Unofficial and Totally Unauthorized” presentation. After the presentation, multiple people asked for a copy of the deck, and since I didn’t see any reason why not, I shared it. And then they shared it. With people in other divisions. Other directorates. Other branches. Other departments. A few weeks later, I got an email from someone at another department who was in a competition and wanted to know how to handle something “unique”. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me, but they had a deck with my name on it.
And they had no one else to ask
I helped as best I could. How could I not? When I was learning the ropes, I had asked other people and they had willingingly shared their experiences and tips with me. They didn’t hoard them, they didn’t tell me to go ask someone else. They shared what they knew. I felt like it was my duty to do the same.
Part of what bothered me the most was that this group of new officers didn’t have anyone else to ask nor was it written down. How do you learn something new if it is only shared orally and you don’t know anyone to show you the ropes? I started to tweak the presentation, and I gave it a few more times to different groups. It got a bit longer, I added answers to questions that others had asked previously. What started out as a simple 30-minute presentation eventually became more like a two-session training course of an hour per session.
My approach is not rocket science, I admit it. It is simply what has worked for me over the years, and when others have applied the techniques, it has worked for them. They understand how to better prepare, and better preparation inevitably leads to better outcomes.
I call the approach, “Be The Duck”
Government jobs by and large are pretty good jobs, if you like the work. There is decent pay, solid benefits and a great pension if you stick around that long. If you go through the first section of this guide, and decide that you want a job with the federal government, you are going to want to know how to compete well, which is the goal of the guide.
The name of the guide comes from a metaphor. Let’s say you see someone who is a manager, and they have an opening for a new person to join the team. And you have looked at the job, like the team, want to be part of this group, and so you start to look at what the manager is looking for to fill the position. And as you look at it, you see that the job is to be a duck.
If you want that job, are you going to say, “Hey, interesting job, maybe I could be a duck, hire me”? No.
If you want that job, are you going to say, “I’m not really a duck, but maybe I could learn to be a duck”? No.
If you want that job, are you going to say, “Hey, I know a few ducks, I can speak duck”? No.
If you REALLY want the job, you are going to say, “Quack. Quack. Quack.”
You want them to see that you ARE a duck, you have always been a duck, and you are the duckiest duck in the history of ducks. Because you want to be THEIR duck. Because they’re looking for a duck. Be the duck. Say “Quack, quack, quack.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating…a little
Some people read that and say, “Well, I’m not going to give up who I am to be a duck.” That’s not what I’m saying. Let’s put it more clearly, without the metaphor.
If you want to be an interpreter, are you going to say, “Well, interesting job, maybe I could be an interpreter”? Or “Maybe I could learn to be an interpreter”. Or “I know a few interpreters and I can speak another language”. No, no, and no. That won’t get you the job as an interpreter. Assuming you’re qualified, you are going to write to them as if you ARE the interpreter they are looking for, the best interpreting interpreter they have ever seen, that you eat, breathe and sleep interpretation. Heck, if you speak Duck, you could literally say “Quack!”.
Lots of people don’t do this in their applications or even their interviews. They find a hundred ways to screen themselves out of the competition by basically showing they are “duck-adjacent”.
If you want to be an interpreter, show them you have the experience of an interpreter. Demonstrate you have the knowledge of an interpreter. Display the abilities of an interpreter. Prove to them you have the personal suitability to be an interpreter. And when they test your actual language skills, rock the best Duck accent you can rock. Because you decided you want to be an interpreter, that’s why you’re applying. If you don’t want to be one enough to prepare properly, why are you bothering to apply?
Be the duck. Be the candidate they’re looking to hire.
Wait, isn’t it a “selection process” now? Why do you still call it a competition?
Back in 2005, the Government of Canada changed its approach to HR processes. Previously, you had “competitions” with ranked outcomes. If you got the highest score, you ranked first. If you got the second-highest score, you ranked second. If hiring managers wanted to hire someone, they had to hire person #1 first, then #2, etc. It literally looked like any other competition you have ever seen in athletics, school, or anywhere else. Everyone competes, the person who comes in first, wins.
In 2005, they changed the rules and the nomenclature. It is now called a “selection process”. Instead of a “ranked” list at the end, everyone who meets the qualifications set for the process ends up being deemed equally qualified and placed in a “pool” of qualified candidates. They have “demonstrated appropriate levels of merit” to justify that they can do the job. A hiring manager can then select anyone in that final approved pool. So, it is no longer a competition to come first; it is a process to qualify in a group of equally qualified people (a pool) and for the manager to then “select” the one that is the best fit for the team.
Officially, it is now a “selection process”, not a competition. Except here’s the problem with that taxonomy.
You ARE still competing against other people for the job. There are fewer jobs available than there are candidates. Maybe they’re hiring only one duck. But there are 50 people competing to be “selected” as that duck.
I continue to use the phrase “competition” because I don’t ever want anyone to lose sight of that reality. You still need to compete hard, even though you may be competing against your “personal best”, but anything less is likely to have you “phoning it in”. You cannot just throw your hat in the ring and expect to make it through with little to no preparation. Everyone else is competing, and each of you must demonstrate that you can DO THE JOB and that you have the experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability to make it through the process. The 80th percentile is not going to cut it. You need to push yourself harder.
How do I know this approach works?
Here’s how I have used it successfully:
- I competed in multiple graduate co-op interviews until I was consistently ranked first or second;
- I used it to make it to the interview stage of DFAIT’s Foreign Service process, one of the most competitive processes in government, my first two times trying;
- I used it to make it through CIDA’s post-secondary recruitment process to become an indeterminate PM-01; and,
- I subsequently won a PM-04 competition, an ES-04/EC-05 competition, an ES-05/ EC-06 competition and an ES-06/EC-07 competition, as well as ranking in the top three on three other similar competitions.
In addition, while I used it for the formal processes mentioned above, I’ve also used some of the techniques in informal processes for moving around within government at level, including two jobs at DFAIT, five jobs at CIDA, and now seven jobs at ESDC. I’m on the other side of the table as an EC-07 manager (converted from being an ES-06), and the tools and materials we use when running processes only further reinforce my techniques.
But I’m not the only one who has had success. Hundreds of people across the federal government have written to me and said, “Hey, I can’t believe your guide is free and it helped so much.” People who have been struggling to even get screened in suddenly understand what they’re doing wrong and how to correct it. Some departments formally point people to it for career development guidance. Thousands of people share the deck around. Heck, I’ve even had people in other countries adapt it for their government interviews. I’m not saying that to humble brag, or even just brag, but rather to demonstrate that others have validated the approach and find it useful to them. Maybe you will too.
Is my approach guaranteed to work for you? Of course not. The good news is that it’s not the only approach out there. All I can say is lots of people have found it useful and have asked for a book version. I’ve had it in deck form since 2004, and in internet webpage form since 2014 or so, but this is the first time it is fully in book form.