|by Nick Charney|
I've interviewed a lot of candidates over the past few years supporting my department's Policy Analyst Recruitment and Development Program (PARDP). I love helping out on interview panels. It gives me a window into new talent and role in shaping the future of the organization. That said, not all interviews are created equal, In my experience, the difference between a good interview and a not so good interview really boils down to two things: structure and preparation.
As a candidate you will almost always receive information about what knowledge and competencies will be tested in advance of the actual interview. Sometimes you can glean the list from the job poster, other times it will be in email / correspondence from the department, and it will also usually be repeated by the interviewers during the actual interview.
Knowledge criteria is pretty straight forward, you have to know about the department, its mandate, priorities, and relationships with other governments departments and agencies, etc. All of this is publicly available information on the department's website.
With respect to competencies, while It seems obvious, it is paramount that you speak directly to the competency being tested in as concise a manner as possible. Being short and direct can often be a more effective strategy than spinning an elaborate tale. Interviewers are looking for specific things and the more explicit you can be about serving those up the better. Your job as a candidate is to make it as easy as possible for the interviewer to screen you in.
You may wish to restate the competency when you frame the response. For example, if you are being tested on 'collaboration', use the word 'collaborate':
"In my current role as a junior policy advisor I collaborate with my colleagues on a regular basis..."
Then speak to how you do it, use the words again if you have to:
"This collaboration often takes the form of email exchanges, meetings, jointly writing documents, assisting in briefings ... "
Speak to how you approach the issue and what result it yields in general.
"When collaborating with colleagues I prefer in person meetings because I find it helps build consensus. It allows us to work through issues in real time. My colleagues appreciate my open, down to earth style, and I appreciate theirs. It lets us build rapport."
Then speak to a hyper specific example (if possible) where your competency was required to overcome an issue or solve a problem. Provide as many pertinent details as you can. You want to demonstrate that you can put the competency into practice:
"When I was working on the division's TPS Report I was responsible for X ... We faced Y challenge ... Ultimately we were able to overcame it together by collaborating on Z."
Finally, circle back to the competency in your concluding statements (close the loop):
"In sum, I collaborate regularly as a part of my core responsibilities, this takes many forms but my demeanor always garners positive response from my colleagues, especially in more difficult situations such as the one I outlined previously. "
Again, knowledge criteria is pretty straightforward -- do some research (study!).
On competencies, questions often take the form of "Tell me about a time when ..." (e.g. you faced a challenge, you took on additional responsibility, you tried to innovate, you had a workplace conflict, etc). Therefore I recommend identifying compelling, work-related stories that demonstrate competencies in question,
Further, for ease of use / re-use, I would recommend that you use some of your down time to identify situations that you could use to speak to multiple competencies during an interview. You want to be able to tell a compelling story during the interview, so think about these scenarios as short vignettes and write out the important details in advance (remember, preparation!). It doesn't have to be overly complicated but even having a rough sketch of the situation, most important details, and knowing what competencies the story demonstrates in advance can prove incredibly helpful.
I did this type of advanced preparation when I interviewed for my current position. I took note of the competencies being tested, thought up ideas days before the interview, chose the best among them and gave each vignette a title that included the competencies being tested. I then took some time to write out the pertinent details (think story board). When it came time to do the actual interview, the first thing I did when I walked into the prep room (for my 30 minutes of prep time prior to the interview) was write down the titles of my vignettes. I used the remaining time to flesh them out on paper, writing down key points I wanted to get across. The interview itself was probably the smoothest one I have ever participated in because I walked in with a plan and was able to clearly articulate my story and demonstrate the competencies in question. Being prepared also has the ancillary benefit freeing up cognitive resources that would otherwise have to be expended thinking about an example on the fly and triangulating that example against the competency profile.
One other thing about preparation: it will almost always feel awkward to use some of the question answering time to quietly outline your approach but resist the urge to just jump into the question and start talking. Don't be in a rush, it is very rare for a candidate to use all of the allotted time actually answering the questions. So take your time. If you jot down key words before you launch into your answer you can check them off as you speak to them. This helps ensure that you hit all the major points you wanted to hit. Also, don't be afraid to come back and add more details later if you missed them on the first round. You aren't penalized for coming back to revise an answer, but you would be penalized for an incomplete answer.
Putting it all together: Structure and Preparation
I've had a lot of discussions over my career about the usefulness and effectiveness of formal interview processes, and while they aren't perfect and can obviously be improved, I think they can be incredibly useful. In short, in the absence of actually being able to get to know a candidate, or when dealing with high volumes, using interviews is an effective way to determine if a candidate can bring structure to their ideas and whether or not they take the time to prepare, both of which are incredibly important to me as a hiring manager.