Interview questions and what they mean

APS applicants can be faced with a range of questions, some of which are poorly worded and unclear in meaning. Here are 12 questions with explanatory suggestions to help your interview preparations.

Describe a time when you led the delivery of a service delivery project.

This is a broad question that could be left open, or could be qualified with questions to direct your response, such as How did you approach the project?

In responding, consider the context of the role. What level is it? What would be expected of you at this level? Is the role about project management, service delivery, or both? Based on this information, give a relevant example that demonstrates your leadership of a project.

Provide an example of a time you contributed to a program or project that involved ambiguity or unclear objectives.

Again, a broad question that could be qualified with a request to focus on how you evaluated the alternatives and what factors you considered.

In responding, avoid the trap of focusing only on actions, tasks and procedures. This is a question that invites you to explain your thinking processes, how you assessed information and options and arrived at a sound conclusion. In short, your judgement. The panel wants to know what created ambiguity and how you resolved this in order to arrive at a decision. If there were unclear objectives, how did you analyse the source of this issue, what impact it was having, and how to resolve it?

What do you see as the major issues/challenges currently affecting xyz industry in Australia?

Whether you’re an internal or external applicant (either in another agency or outside the APS), you should know something about the relevant issues facing the area you want to work in. These issues could be social, economic, security issues, or issues affecting a particular industry, sector, or section of the population.

Describe/outline your relevant experience.

This is not an invitation to catalogue your resume. The clue is in the word ‘relevant’. This question is an invitation to succinctly summarise experience that is relevant to the role and to highlight what value that experience offers.

What do you think are the necessary qualities required at the xyz level?

This question is likely to apply to those seeking a promotion and those seeking more senior roles (APS 6 and above), particularly if they involve stepping into team leadership roles. The question is asking whether you’ve grasped the difference between where you are and what the new level will entail in changed responsibilities and accountabilities and whether you’ve self-assessed your suitability.

What do you know about … [relevant Acts and legislation, APS Values and Code of Conduct, relevant frameworks]

This question is designed to find out whether you have any knowledge, and to what depth, about specific subject matter relevant to the role. An applicant needs to have carefully read the role description to establish what regulatory, procedural and policy knowledge is needed and be able to give a summary of that knowledge. This summary could include content, and could also include application, interpretation, and practical experience.

What makes an effective team and how do you believe you can contribute to it? What are the attributes of a high performing team? Provide an example of where you have contributed to driving team performance. What qualities do you look for in your team members?

Questions about what makes an effective team are only useful if your role involves assessing why your team is or is not effective. What’s really relevant is how you have built an effective team, and how you dealt with ineffective team members. There may be generic qualities you look for in team members, but context will dictate what you specifically look for in complementary skills, knowledge and experience. Knowledge of a team’s composition, whether a team is established or new, knows what its objectives are, and whether it is performing well is essential to answering these questions.

What do you think characterises good communication? What are the key attributes of a good communicator? Provide examples from your experience on how you have used these skills.

Similar to the team questions, these questions aren’t particularly useful. Good communication will depend on context, including purpose, audience, content and method of delivery. Generic characteristics may be largely inapplicable to the specific context of your new role. While a generic response may be sufficient, also think about what communication is needed in the role so you can give a more specific, tailored response as well.

What legislation, rules, standards or procedures do you take into account in your daily work?

If your work is guided by legislation, regulations, policies, standards or procedures, it would be wise to go to an interview able to summarise what these are and give examples of how you apply them. In selecting examples, pick those that involve the greatest complexity, that is, where action is not clear cut and information requires some interpretation, cross-referencing, or application of precedent.

What have you done during the last 12 months to build on your skills and knowledge? What does your current development plan look like? If you’re successful what skills would you like to learn or improve on in the next 6 months and over the three years and why? How do you keep up-to-date with issues that impact on your work?

Some panels are interested in whether you take your professional development seriously, so it’s wise to think about how you grow your knowledge and skills, both formally and informally, even if professional development is not a high priority where you work. If you’re moving into a role with new subject matter and/or that is a promotion, you need to consider what knowledge and skills you will need to develop and how you might do this. Where subject matter is important to a role, consider how you stay current and be able to explain this to a panel.

What do you think this agency’s role is?

Panels are often surprised at how ignorant applicants are about the area they are applying for, so you would be wise to learn about the role and objectives of the agency and its divisions. Researching websites, annual reports and corporate plans are places to start.

How do you see yourself contributing to the leadership and management of this team? What do you see as the essential qualities of supervision? What would you do to establish yourself as the senior manager of this team and what objectives would you set for your team to achieve at the end of the year?

If there’s any possibility that your role involves leadership and management then you need to anticipate these types of questions. Firstly, there is a difference between being a leader and a manager. Supervision of staff is one part of managing, but not the only part. Think about how you demonstrate leadership in your role and be able to give examples. If you’re applying for a manager’s role find out about the composition and history of the new team and tailor your response to establishing yourself as a senior manager to these circumstances. Keep in mind that in more senior roles you could be managing managers. In responding to the process of establishing yourself, structure your response around a time scale: first week, short term, long term.

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.