Hitting the mark with senior job applications

People ask me why their applications for executive level jobs in the APS are not getting them to interview. These people usually have plenty of experience to offer and are ready for a promotion. What undermines their applications are at least four factors:

  • Not appreciating the difference between an APS 6, and EL1 and an EL2
  • Not understanding the job context of what they are applying for
  • Writing off-target responses, particularly to criteria on strategic thinking
  • Writing in the present tense and describing what they do rather than writing in the past tense about demonstrated behaviours.

Here is what can be done about each of these factors.

Not appreciating the difference between an APS 6, and EL1 and an EL2

You must read the capability frameworks to fully understand the transition points between these levels.

Moving from an APS 6 to an EL1 means you are now expected to shape strategic thinking. There is more emphasis on managing staff, self-awareness, negotiating and facilitating cooperation and partnerships. Complexity comes from focusing more on the future and working across the organisation rather than only within the immediate team or unit.

When moving from EL1 to EL2 there is an increase on leadership, inspiring a sense of purpose and direction, thinking in terms of the business unit, organisation and whole of government agency, anticipating issues, identifying risks, breaking through problems, achieving results, cultivating relationships and negotiating.

Not understanding the job context of what they are applying for

Taking the job description at face value is a dangerous step. To fully grasp what you are applying for, particularly if the job is in another agency, you must talk with the contact officer to find out about the what, why, who of the job:

  • If the job is newly created you need to know what is driving this.
  • Does the job involve managing staff and if so how many and what ‘state’ are they in – productive and effective, unproductive and/or ineffective?
  • What issues are facing the area? Has there been a new boss who wants a new direction? Is there a restructuring going on?
  • Who are the key players – clients and stakeholders?
  • What results are you expected to produce?

Without this information you could be guessing, and guessing inaccurately, about what to offer and why it is of value. Your reader may have difficulty seeing the value of what you are offering.

Do your research so that you can pitch your material to the needs of your employer.

Writing off-target responses, particularly to criteria on strategic thinking

You must write material that is on-target for the capability or selection criterion. If your first sentence talks about a skill that is not mentioned in the criterion you increase the changes of not being short listed.

Criteria about strategic thinking are most likely to present difficulties for applicants. To demonstrate that you have supported an agency’s strategic direction you need to pick examples that cover:

  • Conversations with people about the purpose of projects, the team, what they are doing and how this links to business goals. This does assume that you know what your unit or branch goals are. To find out you need to read corporate documents like business plans.
  • Letting people know what decisions have been made and what they are based on, what expectations you have about work standards and what needs to be done.
  • Situations where you took into account a range of issues and identified issues or trends that impacted on what you were doing.
  • Contributions to team goals, strategies and work plans, such as at planning meetings.
  • Analysing issues, drawing on a range of sources and making judgements about what is valid, important, and keeping open mind for new ideas.
  • Encouraging others to contribute to decision making.
  • Making improvements.
  • Linking business goals to organisation and whole of government agendas.
  • Anticipating issues.
  • Identifying gaps in information.
  • Keeping across what is happening in the organisation as well as what is happening externally that could have an impact.
  • Finding best practice approaches.
  • Managing risks.
  • Breaking through complex problems.
  • Exercising judgement.

When considering what exercising judgement means, ask yourself what you had to exercise judgement about in the examples you wish to use. Judgement could be used about people’s expectations, competing priorities, behaviour, accuracy of information, resource needs, risks, focus. After noticing these matters you then exercise judgement about whether to take action or not. If the former, judgement is exercised about what is the best course of action.

Writing in the present tense and describing what they do rather than writing in the past tense about demonstrated behaviours

This is a common pitfall at any level but it is going to have greater impact for more senior roles. Take a look at this example.

‘My current role requires me to consult with a wide range of people. To liaise effectively I ensure that the key stakeholders are identified, that where possible plenty of time is provided for comments, and that everyone is kept informed.’

This paragraph is written in the present tense and describes behaviours in fairly vague terms. E.g. I ensure that …

If your writing looks like this you need to express it in the past tense as demonstrated behaviours appropriate to the level of the job. For example:

‘I demonstrated my consultation skills when I researched options for a briefing paper on the paper industry. To identify key issues affecting viability I arranged and facilitated focus groups with senior executives from the eight largest companies; distributed a discussion paper to companies, unions, peak bodies and academics (identified as the key stakeholders); and circulated monthly bulletins on research progress. As a result of this process I won the cooperation of previously suspicious stakeholders and produced a briefing paper that accurately reflected industry concerns within the scope of government policy.’

This material is written in the past tense, using specific verbs and referring to demonstrated behaviours with concrete details.

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.