For those applying to competitions, you know that each competition/selection process is geared towards a specific job that is classified to a specific occupation group and level. For EX, the category is called “Executive”, and there are five levels:

  • EX-01 — Director
  • EX-02 — Senior Director or Executive Director (or Director General, in some departments)
  • EX-03 — Director General
  • EX-04 — Associate Assistant Deputy Minister
  • EX-05 — Assistant Deputy Minister (or Senior ADM)

There are variations across the government, even in some cases within departments. For example, some departments don’t have EX-02s or -04s, tending to move -01 to -03 to -05.

Generally speaking, very few EXs are hired directly from the private sector unless it is either a specific initiative to recruit private-sector people OR to recruit a specific person. For almost everyone else, they get there after passing through other classifications, frequently having been an AS-06/07, PM-06, or EC-07/08, for example.

However, EX competitions are unlike other categories and in many respects, are a lot closer to private-sector management or executive processes when it comes to how you prepare. While “lower” levels are a combination of experience, abilities, knowledge and personal suitability, the Executive-level positions distil everything down to a combination of experience and Key Leadership Competencies (KLCs).

But before you compete for an executive position, the wise applicant has to first grapple with the most difficult question of all.

Why do you want to be an EX?

Before we go any further on this topic, I have to clarify something. I am NOT an EX. I’ve acted, I’ve participated in EX competitions, I’ve talked to lots of EXs about their experiences and decisions to become an EX, but I, myself, am not an EX. As such, I have to rely on my bosses, mentors, friends and colleagues to tell me about the world of successfully becoming an EX. My advice only exists because I am mainly resting on their experiences.

However, I used to share one attribute with many would-be executives. For many, we have an almost-blind assumption that it is just natural to want to move up. Many of us have it throughout our early careers. If you’re an EC-02, you assume you’ll compete and become an EC-04. If you’re an AS-02, and you see someone who is managing you who is an AS-04, it’s natural to think the natural progression of your career is “up” and that you will become an AS-04 at some point.

Personally, up until I was in the public service almost 15 years, and had moved up to just below the EX level, I just assumed that someday I would become an EX. Not because I had thought about it, not because I wanted it, but rather that I just assumed that I should want it, that I was good enough to get it, and that I would enjoy it once I got there, so why not?

Yet, like many other managers sitting just below the executive level, I too have had the realization that perhaps wanting an executive job is not as “obvious” as I initially assumed. Some concerns about the level are obvious; some not so much. Some reasons to pursue are obvious; again, some other reasons, not so much.

Let’s start with the obvious reasons to pursue it. The best reason is born out of confidence, not arrogance, that you will do a good job as a Director (let’s assume for the sake of argument, we’re talking EX-01 to start). If you have any other reason for becoming an executive other than the confidence that you can do the job well, it is likely to end badly. Put simply, the payoff is not high enough on any front if you are not passionate about what you are doing and fully committed to what you believe is the ability to improve and/or deliver results. There are costs to work/life balance, the pay is not substantially better than you would have had as an EX minus 1 (i.e. one level below executive), you don’t get overtime anymore (if you ever did, hah!), your level of responsibility is higher, and problems flow to you from below and above — ADMs, DGs, and EDs will delegate a lot of problems down to you to solve, while your managers will delegate upwards. You are the “monkey in the middle”, and sometimes that job sucks. There are some EXs who believe that EX-01 is one of the worst levels in all of government. Some others believe it to be the best and that it only gets “worse” as you go higher. But I have met way more EXs who think it is the worst level rather than the best. If you don’t believe in yourself, and your ability to make a difference, it can be a really terrible position.

However, there are some who go for EX-01 as a stepping stone. What they REALLY want to do is reach higher, to attain higher levels of influence and decision-making, to be able to have way more say in how policy and programs are shaped long before some of the key parameters are set by someone else. If you prefer the private-sector entrepreneurial view, some want to be able to get in on the ground-floor before policies or programs are even announced, and to help frame the discussions in more positive ways. Often times it is a result of some previous experience that they want to capitalize on, sometimes it is to build better programs, and sometimes it is to avoid past pitfalls.

Yet there are others who get almost dragged into the EX-01 level by their files. A number of EXs framed their experiences slightly differently, as often it was a specific file that made them want to be an EX because they wanted to manage THAT file. They felt that they could not only manage the file well, but they also wanted to make sure nobody else came in and screwed it up! That seems harsh, and maybe it is, but it’s also realistic, going back to the question of confidence. If you have been working on an active file, building partnerships and relationships with stakeholders, and your director leaves, it isn’t uncommon for you to want to ensure that the current momentum continues in the same direction. And who better to do that than you, since you’re already managing it? Granted, the “new person” might not “screw it up”, but there’s no guarantee they’ll see the same vision you and your former Director were working towards. And so, some people have moved up to take on the file, not because they wanted the EX level per se, but rather that they wanted to be director of THAT area right then.

As a manager since 2005, one level below EX, I have repeatedly struggled with the question of whether or not I wanted to be an EX. From 2004-2010, I competed in several EX competitions. While I didn’t have a burning desire, I did have enough confidence to apply, but I never felt strongly about any of the jobs. They were interesting, but not compelling. One competition at a department looked interesting right up until the interview stage when I realized how toxic the work environment was, and I would never accept the position even if I got an offer. I withdrew immediately (which is not the best advice, admittedly, since you can make a pool and be chosen elsewhere, but it was the right decision for me). From 2010 to 2018, I applied for two more EX positions where I saw a job that looked really interesting, and they both were EX level. I didn’t care about the level, I just liked the jobs. But I had opportunities in there to see what EX-01s did, including my bosses, plus acting opportunities, and I began to realize something much more concrete. I actually don’t like most EX jobs.

Aside from the confidence or being attracted to a specific file, the simplest aspect of wanting to be a Director is because you like the type of work that Directors do. That should seem obvious of course, but many managers actually don’t have much idea what their boss does day-to-day. For me, the easiest way to know my bosses’ lives was to look at their calendars for a month.

For many Directors’ jobs, they are in meetings the full day. From 9:00 a.m. until noon, often something overlapping part of lunch, and again from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. At which time, many of them “start” managing approvals, inboxes, etc. Some are on the go, go, go for the full day, running from meeting to meeting, rarely having a chance to pause and think, and then when the day is over, they’re approving stuff that was sent to them during the day, etc. It is easy, some say, to mistake being “responsible and busy” with having an “important job”, and to mistake having an “important job” with having a good job for you. It is equally possible to be simply overwhelmed by that type of schedule and think anything like it is a “bad job”.

I have been caught in that hamster wheel from time to time, and to be honest, it isn’t the type of work I enjoy. While I like some management functions, and I tend to lean towards the corporate side of work-life and files that are “hopping”, I prefer having time in my schedule to work one on one with my team. For example, I like to be able to sit down with a new officer, provide some mentorship at a relaxed pace rather than as a quick feedback/transactional exchange. Most new EXs cannot carve out those spaces in their calendars, and in all my acting assignments, I never mastered it. In talking to numerous EX-01s who have been Directors for more than 5 years, many of them said it was hard to get a balanced rhythm going, and some of them did so only after 3-4 years of being an executive, and sometimes only after deciding that they didn’t want to go higher.

One other element is that EXs are generally working 100% horizontally with other colleagues. This is reflected in the Key Leadership Competencies (KLCs), of course, but for a manager who was previously master of their domain for knowledge and experience, many find it unsatisfactory and unsettling to be suddenly part of a much larger domain and having to do almost everything in partnership with multiple moving parts and, regrettably, a lot more corporate machinery to have to manage/influence.

In the end, the decision to become an EX is often a multi-variable decision. For some, it is more assumption, a natural progression or the love of a file that drags or propels them into the executive processes. However, for such a decision to be a success, you need to have the confidence that you’ll both like the work and be good at it, or with the recognition that it may be a stepping-stone for future opportunities.

But first, before you become an EX, you have to run the gauntlet of understanding both the key leadership competencies and understanding yourself.

Understanding the Key Leadership Competencies

Some executives advise to start with better understanding yourself, and while I see why, I’m going to start with talking about the KLCs first. In doing so, I almost feel like Morpheus from the movie, The Matrix…”Nobody can be told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.” In a similar way, I can tell you what the KLCs are according to Treasury Board guidelines, but you have to decide what they mean for you.

As noted above, the knowledge, abilities, and personal suitability headings from lower-level job processes are entirely replaced in executive-level processes by 6 Key Leadership Competencies:

  1. Create Vision and Strategy
  2. Mobilize People
  3. Uphold Integrity and Respect
  4. Collaborate with Partners and Stakeholders
  5. Promote Innovation and Guide Change
  6. Achieve Results

While non-core public administration positions might play with additional elements (for service delivery, for example), all core EX jobs build off those six KLCS. If you want to make it through the gauntlet, you have to know them, breathe them, live them.

In the rest of my HR Guide, I often recommend to people that they ignore private-sector HR advice as it rarely applies to what we do in government. Typical private-sector approaches to resumes, interviews, networking, etc.? Almost all of it is irrelevant to the formal job processes that the HR guide discusses for the federal public service. However, when it comes to Executive positions, some of the private-sector prep seems almost spot on.

You need to think like an executive, you need to have examples ready to use in the same terminology and at the same level that executives would expect and use, you need to interview like the executive you want to be, way more than any other position you’ve applied for previously. You still are doing the same thing in terms of demonstrating you can do the job that is above your current level, but now you are doing it on steroids.

From the TBS website, I know that the KLCs “…define the behaviours expected of leaders in Canada’s Public Service…[to] play a pivotal role in creating and sustaining a modern, connected and high-performing public service that is ethical, professional and non-partisan.” As such, the Government uses the competency profile “…as the basis for selection, learning and development, performance and talent management of executives and other senior leaders.” (as of June 2021).

As a prospective EX, you need to decide how each of the behaviours for each KLC are reflected in your own experiences and work history, and how you would demonstrate that to a prospective boss. Unlike previous competitions at lower levels where you might have received marks for “buzzword bingo” where you said “informs analysis” or “clear communication”, the EX competitions will not give you points for saying the words. Your examples will have to clearly demonstrate that a) you understand the elements at a fundamental and insightful level AND b) that you have demonstrable experience to back it up.

If you have been in the public service long enough, you may have heard a popular comment from some people who are NOT yet EXs. The line, often repeated, is “You can’t prepare for an EX competition”. Most of the people who say that never make it through, writing off their failures as simply “bad luck” or “internal bias”.

However, if you think of EX competitions a bit more like a bad movie about corporate executives competing for a job, you know that the interviewers are going to be looking for people who are confident, knowledgeable, experienced, and succinct, and who can cut to the heart of a question that demonstrates clear readiness for an EX job. You’re generally going to be interviewed by EX-02s, 03s, or higher. Don’t waste their time with irrelevant trivialities or your superior research skills. They’re not hiring a researcher, they’re hiring an executive who can lead.

How do you demonstrate that? Let’s take “Create Vision and Strategy”, for example. If you go to the TBS website, you will see that it lists five effective behaviours for a director (as of June 2021):

  • Informs analysis with a thorough understanding of the environment
  • Engages others to translate implementation strategies into concrete objectives
  • Contributes expertise and insight to the development of organizational strategies
  • Communicates with clarity and conviction
  • Implements strategies that respond to organizational priorities that improve outcomes for Canada and Canadians

If you want to be sure you’re ready, many Executives recommend the tried-and-true process of full coverage of each KLC by spending significant time on each KLC to analyse every example you have in your recent career that responds to EACH of the five elements. Think of it like performing a forensic audit on your career…what examples do you have in every relevant job that demonstrates that you “inform analysis with a thorough understanding of the environment”?

If you’re applying for a senior analyst position, you are more likely than not to focus on the “analysis” part. That’s what you may have done for your entire career, it’s what you are good at, and if that was the question, you’d knock it out of the park. But if you go into an EX interview and try to explain to them how you’re going to analyse the situation, you’re telling them “I’m an analyst”, not an executive. They want to know how you take that analysis (likely done by some really good analysts) and use it as one input to thoroughly understand the (management) environment. In short, how are you going to lead and manage?

And you are going to do that for every bullet in the “Create Vision and Strategy”. This will give you the raw material for you to start drafting a short speech module for yourself for each KLC. If that sounds easy, you didn’t understand the challenge.

Ask yourself the question as if someone said, “Tell me how you create vision and strategy”…can you do so in an elevator pitch of about 3-4 minutes that will hit ALL FIVE elements from the above list from TBS and doesn’t sound like you’re just spouting jargon, but instead is giving REAL examples? Now you see the challenge. This is not trying to hit some buzzwords and getting some points, this is distilling your entire management experience down to an elevator pitch that would be at the right level using concrete examples to illustrate your point.

For some Executives, they liken the approach to asking yourself, “If I was briefing my DM as a director, and I had 3 minutes to explain the WHOLE vision and strategy, not just the basic analysis, could I do that?”. A senior analyst will tell you the lessons learned from research and analysis, give you options and make a recommendation; a good director will tell you where the landmines are and what is even viable from the list of options.

During your interview, you are likely to have 5-7 minutes to answer a question, but the goal of your preparatory work is to be able to boil all of “you” down to a three-minute summary per KLC because when you answer the question, you’ll have to answer the question too, not just talk about you. As you do so, you’ll draw on what “creating vision and strategy” means to you and for you, but you also have to cover the actual content of the question, which lengthens your answer.

A popular alternative to the “full coverage” approach is the “self-identification” approach. Some EXs who follow this approach might look at the five headings above for vision and strategy and decide that, to them, the most important elements are engagement (2), communication (4), and implementation (5). As such, they then craft their elevator pitch around those three headings. And if they get asked a Q about creating vision and strategy, they will talk about those three elements as their key points. Why? Because it is what that KLC means to them, and it resonates with them. It’s what they already believe, breathe, live. So it’s easier and more natural. They don’t worry about full coverage of the KLC, they use it instead as a category where they talk about who they are as a manager and who they will be as an executive.

However, this approach has both potentially higher risk and higher reward. On the risk side, if the management board happens to believe heavily in the “environment” bullet and they are looking for you to hit that point hard, and you don’t, you may be out of luck. For example, if they aren’t as concerned about engagement because they expect everyone does that well, and yet they feel environmental scanning is crucial but that wasn’t one of the three bullets that resonated with you so you don’t mention it, you won’t respond to them in the right way. Not from a simple “buzzword” perspective but simply because you’re not going to talk about or emphasize the things they looking to hear. If you took the “full coverage” approach, you would cover everything but not necessarily as passionately. On the reward side, if a part of the KLC does resonate with you, it will show in your answer that you are not simply spouting words, you honestly believe what you are saying, and your ease and comfort can resonate heavily with the board. Ka-ching!

Many Executives have shared stories with me where they were on boards and it was obvious to them when a candidate was simply spouting words vs. living the words. Some shared their own experiences and examples, but in the interest of confidentiality, I’ll provide one of my own that worked (even though I didn’t pass the competition overall). In one of my few EX interviews in recent years, I was asked the popular but difficult question, “Tell us of a time where you have had to manage a Values and Ethics-type situation.” EX interviews rarely use that form of a question, often more about “Here’s a situation, what would you do?” (I’ll discuss this later), BUT for V&E/Integrity and Respect, it’s often hard to mark. So, not infrequently, boards may simply ask for you to tell them of a situation that raised V&E concerns.

In my case, I am very comfortable talking about V&E. I have strong views about how V&E is taught and explained in government (generally badly), and that most examples used are not real “ethical” challenges as there is no real counterweight to doing the right thing. Instead, to me, real V&E comes up when multiple positive principles are in conflict in a situation and are telling you to do two completely different things.

As such, I don’t try to do full coverage for V&E, I pick the parts that resonate strongly with me and that I am comfortable discussing easily. The example I used was related to confidentiality of budget cuts vs. transparency with friends and colleagues, and I am totally comfortable talking about it in simple terms to show the conflict, talking with some passion, sharing some evidence of the real struggle, and explaining how I worked through the issues to a solution. I worried that the issue might be too low-level, or that I didn’t hit all the buzzwords/elements (the risk of not going with full coverage per KLC), but in feedback afterwards, a DG told me that in 15 years of sitting on boards, it was the best answer she had ever heard to a V&E question because it was clear to her and all the other board members I wasn’t blowing smoke. I knew what V&E was, I knew how to talk about it and was comfortable wrestling with the issues, and I could explain it in a clear, understandable and even passionate way. It resonated with them (reward). Her advice? Don’t change a word in any future competition, it was perfect.

As I mentioned, some EXs are VERY passionate that you need to use the headings and behaviours in the KLC and cover everything; others were comfortable with high-risk/high-reward and went with subsets that resonated with them. Neither is perfect; the choice is yours. But you do need to know each of the KLCs inside and out if you hope to succeed.

Now…you know how to figure out the KLCs, but can you explain who YOU are?

Branding yourself – Who are you?

I mentioned previously that there is a bit of a coin-flip amongst successful EX candidates as to which comes first — your own branding or the KLCs. Again, as with the choice of how to handle the KLCs, there is no perfect answer. Way back in 2004, when I was first considering an EX track, one of the first pieces of advice I received was how someone had prepared for theirs by writing a summary document of “Who I Am As A Manager”.

They had started by writing a document that was about 6-8 pages initially. It was everything they wanted to say about themselves and their career to that point. It was very job-oriented i.e. “this is what I’ve done”. They then took that document and, after a lot of work, managed to edit it down to 4 pages. That is not a small task, by the way.

Imagine, if you will, condensing in prose everything that matters about your 10-15 year career perhaps down to 4 pages and doing so for the first time. You’re likely never to have thought in those terms except in preparing cover letters or resumes. But they weren’t done.

They then took that 4 pages and reduced it to 2. And then to 1. And then to half a page.

A 2-minute elevator pitch that says “This is who I am as a manager”. At the time, the idea of the KLCs was not as prevalent, and so the person did it more generically.

But that kind of approach is an amazing approach to figuring out your branding. And way harder than you think. There’s a classic quote from Mark Twain regarding a letter that he was sorry the letter was so long, but he didn’t have time to make it shorter. This half-page is an ideal way to be able to give an elevator pitch about who you are in any conversation with a Board.

The goal is to have a 2-3 minute spiel that provides an overview halfway between “Tell me a bit about yourself” and “Tell a senior executive why they should hire you.” This approach also puts you squarely in the same realm as private-sector executives. How do you communicate what you have to offer in a succinct, persuasive way that distinguishes you from other candidates?

Now, here comes the kicker for the public service. Ideally, you are going to do so with words and examples that reflect the KLCs.

In almost all cases, that means that you are going to have to make choices. You cannot take 6 x 3-minute elevator pitches that cover each KLC and reduce it down to a single elevator pitch for you that covers all 6 KLPs. From talking to various EXs, how you write / prepare this “personal pitch” is one of the hardest things you will decide in the entire process, and for some, it even raises some integrity issues all on its own.

For example, I’ll talk a bit about the “job-specific preparations” in a moment, but let’s assume that for you, the 3 most-important KLCs are the first three (vision/strategy, people, integrity). However, let’s also assume that in looking at the job that’s available, you know that they’re looking for someone who is awesome at the last three (collaboration, innovation and results). Of course, all of those are interconnected, sure, but let’s assume for a minute that they’re separate. If you’re preparing for the comp, do you stick with your three best ones? Or do you alter your branding to pitch yourself as the last three? Is that an ethical issue? Are you misleading them?

Some EXs would say it is a terrible idea for a whole host of reasons. Others would say that all EX jobs are generic and you have to have all 6 KLCs anyway, just because they’re not your top 3 doesn’t mean you can’t do the job.

Unfortunately, there’s no right answer to that question, and many people will point to the often-invoked, highly-popular advice:

You can’t choose your first EX.

For many people moving up, they take the first EX offered to them because they want the level. And then, over time, they move around to an EX job that is more in line with their interests, strengths and values. And to come full-circle, back to the original question of why you want to be an EX, this often-repeated mantra may make the decision for you. Do you want to be an EX or are you applying because you want a specific EX?

I work for a huge department, and I have no desire to get an EX just to get an EX. And I know I can’t choose my “first” EX job. And yet there are about 6 or 7 EX jobs around the department that I would be good at, enjoy, and would accept if offered. But most of the rest? No, thank you. So I made the decision not to pursue a position I didn’t want. For me, it is all about “best fit” and I trust in the process…if I think I’m great at x, y and z, and that’s not what the boss is looking for, I’m not the right choice. I’m willing to sell myself, not my soul, just to get a job that might not fit. 🙂

But many others feel that they can be the right choice, even if it isn’t their natural fit, and they do rebrand themself for each and every job.

You have to decide what you want to do. But regardless, you have to be ready to explain who you are and what you have to offer, and preparing your personal branding is the most common way to do that.

Job-specific preparations

I confess that this area blew me away when I was talking to multiple EXs. At the sub-EX level, of course, everyone tries to find out what the job is like before they get to an interview, if they can. They’ll read stuff on the websites, call up people they might know in the area, ask around to see if anyone knows anything. They might ask for the job description (however generic), or even call the current Director and ask some questions.

Determined and successful applicants to the EX cadre go a step beyond, apparently. It might even explain in a few cases why I didn’t make it through. 🙂 For lack of a better description, I would say it looks like private-sector preparation on steroids.

As a small digression, do you remember the book, The Firm by John Grisham? The main character, Mitch McDeere (played by Tom Cruise in the movie), is a law student about to graduate. He’s looking for a law firm to join, and a mid-sized firm from New Orleans invites him for an interview. McDeere is ready to sign with other larger firms, but he takes the meeting anyway. All they tell him in advance is that it will be with one of the partners (unnamed) and an associate (unnamed). McDeere prepares like gangbusters, and in the interview, the associate makes a slightly pompous statement about only hiring the best. McDeere responds noting that the partner came from a large school but that the associate comes from a slightly smaller school, even if he was the best of a small group. In other words, McDeere demonstrated that he had not only researched every partner and their background but had done the same for all the possible associates who might come to the interview AND remembered details about each. The Firm is sold, and the real plot begins. But the point is that he was uber-prepared. He knew what he was being offered, who the people were, what the issues were, etc.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you need to research everyone who works in the area that is hiring. But if you want to succeed, you should know four big things before the interview and you should use every resource and network contact you have to find out.

What is the job

You don’t want to know what the public description of the job is, you want to know what the ACTUAL job is. Ideally by talking to the person who is leaving or has left the job. Someone who will tell you what the REAL job is, what it entails, what the environment is like, what the staff are like, are they growing, holding steady, winding down, what are the pressure points, what are your levers to effect change, what is your potential BOSS like, what is the work/life balance like (if there is any). You could be a Director of finance where 90% of the job is dealing with HR planning, or a Director of finance where 90% of the job is managing reprofiling of program funds. Those are two very different jobs. And they might have the exact same job description.

In some cases, you might opt to call the DG directly. Your future boss. So let’s think about that for a moment.

You don’t know the job, you don’t know the environment, you don’t know what they’re looking for, and you’re going to make your first impression on the person about to hire you by showing you know nothing. Is that really the first call you want to make?

Once you know the job, you know if it is what you are looking for or even if you’re willing to do it. Or perhaps you’re just hoping to make a pool. Either way, you need to know what the job is that you are applying for, and asking a few questions of some friends will NOT get you there. I’ll expand on that in the next section.

What are they looking for

You also need to know what they are looking for, and I don’t mean that generically. Think of it more like the KLCs. Are they looking for someone with vision? Are they looking for an innovator? Do they need someone to come in and transform a toxic work environment into a workplace of choice? Are they looking for someone to design something new, implement something already designed, or someone to keep the lights on and the trains running on time?

What specifically are they looking to hire?

Now you see the challenge. When I asked you the first question, you probably said, “Well, duh”. Because every job needs that. Now you see the second heading and you think, “Oh, yeah, sure, that would be good to know too.” Except for EX interviews, it’s not “good to know”, it is “must know”. It’s the only way you can pitch your experiences the right way. The only way to fine-tune your branding and KLC elevator pitches.


How do you find that out? It’s not written down anywhere. Your future boss (the DG) isn’t a good candidate to tell you probably. You can’t call a manager in the unit who might be competing for the same job. HOW DO YOU FIND OUT?

For most EX candidates who know what they are doing, they start with networking and referrals, and move on to cold calls if they have to do so. They ask EXs at the department, in divisions around or near the job so to speak, and ask them what the job is and what senior management is looking for in the staffing. This looks like McDeere going whole-hog to find out what he needs to know to get the job with the Firm. You don’t need to know what school the boss went to, or their field of study (although if it comes up, great!), but you need someone at the EX level to give you the real details.

THIS is what blew me away. I honestly would never have been that brazen to cold call a director in the area and say, “Hey, Bob, you don’t know me, but I’m doing my research on a potential job over in Larry Smith’s shop, and I don’t know anyone who works in your factory. Is there anything you can tell me?”.

Obviously, that cold call goes a lot better if your friend Sue said, “Hey, I know Bob who works over there” and you milk that link for a referral to chat. But if your choice is “no info” or embarrassing yourself with cold calls, you have to do the cold call. I would have hesitated.

But you should also know you don’t get to stop at Bob. You want to talk to Mary and Arneeth too, two other directors working in the same area Some EXs say to talk to a minimum of 2-3. Others say more. A few were like, “Well, I went with 1, but I should have done more…”.

You know what the people who DIDN’T do advanced research tell me? Nothing, because I was asking EXs and the people who didn’t do the research didn’t make it.

What is on management’s mind?

For some candidates, they think this is simply about the hiring manager. Your future boss. And while that is useful to know, i.e. what they look for in people, how they work, etc., this is really about a broader conversation. How does management at that department talk about renewal, for example? Or, how does the DM at that area talk about Black Lives Matter and diversity? What is the management conversation that is going on RIGHT NOW in the corridors, in the boardrooms, by executives?

Because your future “boss” is not the only board member. In fact, they might not even be on your board. Maybe it’s a more generic pool, and three other people will be interviewing you. So you want to know what’s on every senior executive’s mind in that organization before they even enter the room.

Again, you’re likely to get this from your EX-level contacts or cold calls, which makes it even more important that you did them. When I did my interviews, I had no clue. Never even crossed my mind to ask. Perhaps that tells me something too!

Who is on the interview board?

Generally speaking, when people are applying for competitions at the sub-EX level, we often don’t know who is on the board until we show up. It’s not a secret, it’s just not shared, and we generally don’t ask in advance. It seems somehow pushy. Sometimes it’s also a bit annoying to the HR person because they may not be running the scheduling, and the scheduler may not even know until the day of or a day or two before, it’ll be more like 2-3 people of a small pool of available managers, often changing, depending on other priorities.

But for EX-01 interviews and above, they know who’s on the board, their schedules are too full NOT to know in advance. So you can ask. And they’ll tell you, it’s Mary-Beth from FPT relations, Ardith from Strategic Policy, and Rajesh from Evaluation. Full names, sometimes with titles, but if not you can look them up easily. You may even google them to see if their bio is online (often they are as they gave speeches somewhere or if they’re senior enough, it’s mentioned in announcements).

You’re fully prepared, now what?

Okay, let’s say you know why you want to be an EX, and you’re all in. You’ve applied for a specific job, got screened in, have all your KLC modules ready to be used, feel sufficiently branded and ready to talk about yourself, researched the heck out of the job, what they’re looking for, the management environment (including official and unofficial priorities), and you know who is on the interview board. You’re ready, right? It’s go time.

In previous materials for sub-EX competitions, I tell people there are generally three types of questions — experience-based (tell us of a time when); situational (what would you do); and astract (what do you think of this area). At first glance, that seems to continue at the EX level, but in reality, they are often quite different for two reasons.

First and foremost, the balance for the questions shifts heavily. While sub-EX processes often rely heavily on past experiences and examples, there are very few questions at the EX level that are simple “tell us of a time when…”. There is one exception to that, which are the Integrity/Respect or Values/Ethics questions, which are hard to mark so “tell us of a time” is common.

Instead, the vast majority of questions for other KLCs are going to be relatively situational. Here is a set of facts; tell us what you would do. People like to talk about the STAR method to respond, and while I hate the idea at the sub-EX level, it is a bit more punchy at the EX level and that’s a good thing. You are not trying to get points for buzzwords. You are trying to show them a) you have experience doing this, b) you can manage this situation well with a good solid approach; and c) you are EX ready, managing at the EX level not at a senior administration officer or analyst level. That means you need to give a 6-7 minute response combining your branding, your elevator pitch for that KLC, and your direct response to the question with strategic EX-level content.

For more abstract-style questions, they frequently look like C-level questions from language testing (English or French) where you have to give an opinion and nuance it. For example, if you do your research mentioned above, and discover that the department is struggling with bilingualism, you could get a question that asks, “To what extent do you think the Government’s bilingual policy is effective?”. It’s totally fair game for ANY EX to be asked that question, even if it seems to have NOTHING to do with the job area, since the policy applies to ALL jobs. Alternatively, another common one is to ask you, “What do you think of the Clerk’s latest pronouncements on working from home during COVID and likely issues post-lockdown?”. Pronouncements by the Clerk are common areas for Boards to ask about, as are ongoing management concerns that the Department is grappling with, as revealed by your research (hence why you wanted to know). Put simply, if they are struggling with diversity, they don’t want to hire a dud who doesn’t understand the basics if they can hire someone who has thought about it, has some ideas, understands the tensions, and is willing to grapple with it with them. Maybe it’s couched in terms of visioning or people management, but they are throwing you a slow-breaking curve and you better be able to hit it out of the park.

Secondly, however, unlike sub-EX interviews, the questions may not be as linearly presented as you might have expected. Let me give you an example where there are six questions in the interview, and if you are doing the math, you might reasonably expect that it is one KLC per question. That is rarely the case. Often, instead, question 1 is perhaps marking KLC 1 and 4; Q2 is marking KLC 2; Q3 is marking KLC 1 and 3; Q4 is marking KLC 4, 5 and 6; etc. In other words, sometimes when you are responding, it is not as clear that “this is the people question”.

In my experience, and as echoed by a number of EXs, this is the type of question that frequently trips up those candidates who were GREAT at sub-EX competitions but BOMB out in EX-level processes. While it is a bit simplistic, often a candidate at the sub-EX level may not have a great answer, but they can reason their way through it with the right headings and some examples to get a “pass” for the question. If you try that approach at the EX level, and it is marking say 3 separate KLCs at once (vision, engagement, and stewardship), you are going to get hopelessly bogged down in the details and have no idea what they’re looking for, leaving most likely to an answer that is not very strategic nor at the EX-level, more likely a senior analyst level. It won’t be direct, it won’t be succinct.

As I said, lots of senior analysts will try to “reason” their way through the question. A better approach, if you’re in doubt about what you “should” say, is to completely ignore the headings, ignore the KLC speech modules, ignore everything except a bit of your branding, and give an honest but simple direct answer as to what you would do and why. Make sure you pitch it at the EX-level of course, throw in some branding, and then move on. Numerous EXs have told me similar stories that support this advice, and to protect their confidences, I’ll use another of my own experiences to illustrate it.

Back in 2008, I participated in a large branch-wide competition with a LOT of people across the department participating. I made it to the interview stage. As I recall, there were about 5 questions, and EVERY single Q was marking multiple sub-elements. To be fair, in a philosophical sense, EVERY question on an EX interview is asking about all 6 simultaneously anyway, and can be reduced to a simpler version that each question is saying “Are you EX-ready? Are you EX-ready?”, but I was a great analyst and I tried to reason my way through.

I thought I was ready going in, I’m GREAT at sub-EX competitions and my analytical approach works well for a lot of people at sub-EX levels. For the EX? I bombed spectacularly.

On every element, I was totally confused, I spent all of my time on 4 of the 5 questions juggling content, trying to figure out what I was supposed to say, what they were looking for in the answers. On one, I emphasized vision, but it turned out they were looking for more stuff on people; on another, it seemed to be about vision, and they were looking for more on integrity. I failed all 4 questions that I answered that way. And I had a really good transparent conversation with the two Directors who ran the competition, admitting I was new to EX competitions, wasn’t sure what to do, etc. and they told me pretty clearly where I went wrong (including answering like an analyst, not a director). It was great feedback for the future. But the most interesting feedback was on the fourth question in the mix, the one that confused me the MOST.

It was a scenario-type question, dealing mostly with a sudden budget cut, and how I would deal with it. It wasn’t presented quite that clearly, you had to interpret it a bit, but generally speaking, that was the context. I had NO idea what they were looking for at all. I was completely lost. It didn’t seem to fit ANY of the headings I had prepared and reasoning my way through it didn’t seem to help me.

So I ignored all of it, and just told them exactly what I would do and why, and how I would handle the situation. BAM! I got 10/10 on the question, the best answer they got in the entire process from anyone. My reaction was simple…WTF?

But they helped me tease it out in my feedback conversation. Basically, I had turned my “analyst” brain off and just answered it the way I’m supposed to, like an EX. Like I was the actual director doing that job. “Here’s what I would do.” And they both said, “Okay, the way forward is clear. Turn the rest of that crap off and JUST say what you would do, because it was the perfect answer.”. Huh. The exact OPPOSITE in many ways of what I advise at the sub-EX level because if you’re slightly off in your approach, you can fail the whole element while using the right headings can save you enough to pass.

It doesn’t always work, but if the other pieces look like they’re getting in your way, you can turn almost all of it off. I still used some of my personal branding, but not much of the rest.

Managing the interview

I mentioned earlier that your goal, generally, is an answer that runs 5-7 minutes per question. Any more than that and chances are you going too far into the weeds. But that means YOU have to manage the interview, including the time. Some Boards will let you ramble AND will let you fritter away your time, taking your potential promotion with it.

However, there is one unique element that is quite common in EX Boards, more so than any sub-EX process, and that is that they may interrupt your answer and ask, “Okay, but what about THIS?”. Some candidates often think this is a simple test, they want to see how you respond under pressure, how you respond to being interrupted. That may be the case, it can happen, but more often than not, the reason the Board member is interrupting you is that you are off-track with the question. Instead, they’re prompting you because you have missed something significant and you’re likely to fail. Two specific examples come to mind from colleagues that are generic enough that I can use them without spoiling confidences.

In one case, the Board member interrupted them on a question and asked them if they thought there was an even more fundamental issue than the one they were explaining related to a Ministerial process. The candidate wasn’t sure what they were referring to, couldn’t adjust, and subsequently failed the question. Afterwards, the feedback was that they hadn’t discussed what the Minister’s financial authorities were, and that was considered a mandatory element, although the question seemed to imply it was already covered. Regardless, the Board member was pointing out, “You’re off track and you’re about to crash!”.

In another case, the candidate was asked a question about partnerships and was going on about external partners (mainly NGOs) and internal partners (central agencies). A Board member interrupted and asked the candidate if they felt partnership was only with entities outside the department…the candidate correctly interpreted the nudge and added elements on-the-fly about internal partners such as finance, HR, policy, delivery, etc. Although she passed and was hired, the Board member mentioned to her later that she had been doing SO well up until that point, the Board nudged her to see if she could answer the full question with a more robust answer, thinking outside the box she had drawn too narrowly.

This greater willingness of EX boards to intervene, ask questions or nudge the candidates make them more dynamic. For some senior board members, one of the reasons they choose to intervene is to stop someone who is just spouting jargon, not really answering the questions, and thus mostly just wasting their time. If they can’t make it real, they don’t pass.

While much of this is anecdotal, prompting / nudging usually only happens once per interview to help you get back on track and only the most foolish of candidates would ignore it.


Obviously, if you’re applying for EX competitions, you’ll have to pass the language exams and go through references as well as everything else, but there isn’t much special about those other than to make sure that your references can speak to your level to perform at the EX level. In essence, make sure you choose references who are already EXs (no peers), and capable of saying you are clearly EX-ready.

But from talking to numerous EXs, and my own experience, I would say that if you remind yourself this is not simply another step up / normal competition but one for an EXECUTIVE position, you’ll approach it with the right mindset and preparations. It might take more than one try to get used to the format and approach, but if you’re committed to the right preparations, you dramatically improve your chances. You not only CAN prepare for an EX competition, contrary to some people’s myths, you have to if you want to succeed.