Explaining how you do what you do

One of the challenges of application writing and interview responses is being able to articulate how and what you do when so much of this information is automatic, habitual, tacit and largely invisible. It’s taken-for-granted knowledge. This knowledge tends to be so familiar that many people give it little value. They assume that everyone knows it, can access it, and use it.

Even if this were true, and in many cases it isn’t, when explaining to a selection panel how you go about doing your work, you need to be able to make reference to policies, procedures, law, regulations, guidelines that are taken into account and may determine a course of action.

Let’s take an analogy to explain this further. If I’m preparing a meal using recipes, how stringently do I follow the recipes? Is there scope for varying the recipe to take account of factors like the number of people I’m cooking for, the availability of ingredients, dietary needs of guests? Is there scope for being flexible with quantities – is a pinch of cinnamon enough or could I get away with a teaspoon? What are the risks of making the flavour too strong? Will that spoil the dish? The recipe provides the instructions on how to go about making the dish. How closely do I follow it?

Similarly how you do your work is affected by instructions, guidelines, policies and procedures (the recipe). Is your work closely bound by these, or is there room for discretion? Must you comply or can you seek exemptions? This will vary with the level of seniority.

Some examples of how work is governed by ‘recipes’ are:

  • A finance person processing invoices needs to comply with the Financial Management Act, accounting standards, policies around payments, procedures around approvals and delegations.
  • A procurement person needs to be aware of procurement policies and guidelines, procedures for handling tenders and requests for quotes, contract management, probity issues, a range of laws that impact on a tender process such as crimes, taxation, audit legislation.
  • An administrative officer may need to use knowledge of meeting procedures, parliamentary processes, handling finances and credit cards.
  • A manager needs to use the corporate plan, diversity plan, enterprise agreement, delegation guidelines and many others.

What helps with introducing a strategic element to responses is to make reference to policies, key documents that influenced the decisions you took. Did your decisions:

  • Align with some objective for a project, program, section, branch, agency
  • Take account of risks and uncertainty? The more senior you are the more you’ll deal with the grey areas that fall between the cracks of policies and guidelines. While designed to cover most areas, may well not be 100% comprehensive.
  • Take account of trends and developments in industry, policy direction in other agencies, your profession, in science.
  • Involve using discretion to weigh up the pros and cons of competing ideas or options?

When preparing your case for a job, think about the policies and procedures that guide your work. All sectors have these and are required to comply with various laws. It might sound like stating the obvious, but referring to these details could make the difference between being deemed ‘suitable’ and ‘not suitable’ by the panel.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.