Find Your Unicorn

Posted on March 10, 2023

Pink background with clouds and stars, with text "Find Your Unicorn," and a white unicorn with rainbow hair dabbing.

Today’s Buzz is by Meredith Reynolds, Deputy City Manager for the City of Long Beach, Calif.

Follow Meredith on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram

What I’m Listening To: Josiah & the Bonnevilles Motel Mayday album (think Bruce Springsteen meets Ryan Adams)

What I’m Watching: ‘Shrinking’ with the epically hilarious pairing of Jason Segel and Harrison Ford 

What I’m Planning: The work of my city’s new Office of Climate Action & Sustainability

Our City has four Deputy City Managers – all happen to be women (shout out for International Women’s Day this week, on March 8!) – who assist with leading a full-service city with 22 departments that serve nearly a half-million people. Recently, our City Manager revisited the Deputies’ assignments to ensure our skills and interests aligned with the city’s priorities, and I was given the new job of leading the Long Beach Office of Climate Action and Sustainability. This is a particularly meaningful assignment for me because I started Long Beach’s Office of Sustainability with my colleague Larry in 2008, being one of the first in the country. So I guess you could say I’ve come full circle!

With this new assignment, I have had to put together a new team. In all, I was hiring eight positions that ranged from management to interns and had roles that ranged from supervision, field operations, analysis and budget, and administration and coordination. So as you can imagine, I’ve been doing a marathon of interviews lately, trying to find talented, passionate, and inclusive people to join my “coalition of the willing.” I knew I wanted to run an intentional process that showcased our team’s values so people applying and interviewing could see themselves in this work. This would be especially important given the trouble my colleagues and our local gov industry have had in the current labor market, and it might be the only time in my career that I put together a new team all at once.

I first thought about the work we would be asked to do, the type of skills that would be needed, and the type of positions that would handle this work. I thought about the social/emotional skills needed to work collaboratively, forge paths through new territory, work across disciplines and silos, and withstand the pace and expectations. And I thought about the type of team environment I wanted to foster, with people who are inclusive, empathetic, team-oriented and who bring their whole selves to this work because they are connected to environmental justice goals and the mission of our organization. Then I reflected on best practices from other hiring processes and relevant articles, and recalled advice from colleagues that helped inform aspects of the interview process that I believed would reflect who I am/the City team is and what would resonate with candidates for these roles. 

I wanted to share some of the elements that are indicative of our team values that have been incorporated into my recent hiring/interview process that can make your organization stand out from the crowd.

Strong Job Flyers 

Recruitment flyers should call out what a successful candidate looks like, and give potential candidates good information about what the expectations of the job are. We call out what a successful candidate looks like on the first page/one of the top paragraphs:

  • The successful candidate will be a highly organized professional who is experienced in climate/sustainability policy, planning and compliance, coordinating collaborative efforts and managing performance across departments, using data and making data-informed decisions and recommendations, and leading with an equity lens. 
  • The successful candidate will also be well-equipped with social-emotional competencies that help build strong teams and create an environment/work culture of collaboration and intersectionality based on shared values.

We call out the type of attitude and behavior we want the team member to model:

  • A helper who provides a strong backbone of support and models behavior according to team values; values others as subject matter experts while having the competency and authority to work through issues and problems, with a focus on guidance and support of others.
  • Serves as a trusted partner, supporting the Deputy City Manager through strong communication, managing up and anticipating needs, and building trust and credibility.

We call out passion, connection to the mission, and experience with equity concepts as key parts to a strong candidate:

  • Passionate about addressing climate change and advancing environmental justice, public health, and equity; derives joy from community impact and can relate how their work is tied to outcomes that make Long Beach sustainable, equitable and healthy.
  • Understanding and applied experience with nuanced concepts of racial equity and systemic racism and its impacts.
  • Fluency in one of the three major city languages (Spanish, Khmer, Tagalog) is highly desirable.

Start the hiring process strong by being thoughtful about job expectations and the needed skills to be effective. Strong job flyers yield a list of strong candidates.

Effective Interview Questions

Like well-prepared resumes that are specific to each job, so are well-crafted interview questions. You can create interview questions by working backward from what knowledge, technical and social-emotional skills, and abilities the position requires. Here are a few examples from one of my recent recruitments:

Job Flyer Description Interview Question
  • Facilitates stakeholder engagement and partnership development; meets with city departments, other governmental agencies, community groups, neighborhood, civic and business organizations, and members of the public on climate-related topics
  • Serves as a liaison and leader for a variety of community organizations, regional agencies and government working groups organized for climate equity, environmental, and sustainability purposes
  • The position has both internal and external roles. How have you engaged subject matter professionals, interest groups and individuals in your current or past roles?  
  • Ability to lead effective organizational change with skills at identifying, vetting, describing, selecting and inputting innovative and equitable strategies.
  • ​​At the heart of implementing the Climate Action Plan is managing change, including those who may not believe climate change is real. What is one example of an effort where you lead a change management effort? What was the effort and what was the result? How did you handle opposition? 


We also benchmark responses, identifying key aspects of a response that provides a benchmark to assist panelists in evaluating differences in candidates. This has been helpful in determining top candidates among high-caliber interview performance among similarly skilled candidates. Here is an example of an interview question with a benchmark response:

Interview Question Benchmark Response
  • This position will be responsible for independently prioritizing a large workload in a fast-paced environment, needing to establish methods to handle multiple assignments and successfully meet deadlines, in some cases without much direction. Describe a situation where you were given an assignment and did not know what to do and your supervisor was unavailable to provide guidance. What was the situation and how did you navigate it?  
  • Candidate’s answer should reveal what they did to anticipate this scenario and discuss expectations with their supervisor in advance, what tactics they used to ask for help/used their resources, what they did to evaluate situational variables and move the assignment forward, and reveal elite time management and prioritization skills, with the ability to accomplish tasks under pressure. 


Strong interview questions help interview panels and hiring managers make informed decisions about candidates best suited for the position. 

First vs. Second Interview Questions 

My hiring processes typically shake out to have a first and second interview, so in the first interview I focus on questions a panel should ask to screen for top candidates, and I reserve more nuanced questions for the second interview, so we can dig deeper into the candidate. 

In first interviews, I want the panel to assess how well the candidate might perform the duties of the position, how their career and skills are aligned with the work needed to be completed as a part of the position, and how they present their story and connection to the work. Here are a few first interview questions the panels have used when evaluating candidates and selecting top candidates for the new Office of Climate Action & Sustainability:

  • In your role, you would be expected to gain cooperation from people across the organization that you don’t have formal authority over. How have you been successful in this capacity in the past and what strategies have you found to be the most effective when there are obstacles? How do you establish group expectations and accountability, and how do you solve problems when team members don’t perform?  
  • The Climate Action Plan includes metrics that the city will be required to track and publicly report on. How would you go about tracking and reporting progress on the Plan in a way that is accessible to the City Council and the community? 

In second interviews, I want to understand a top candidate’s excitement and motivation, I want to know they’ve considered what it would be like to be in the position, I want to see strong self-awareness and vulnerability, and I want to learn what they need/want in a supervisor. Here are a few second interview questions I’ve used when evaluating top candidates and selecting the top person for the new positions in the Office of Climate Action & Sustainability:

  • What about this job excites you? What aspects seem promising and what aspects seem daunting?
  • What would your 12-month plan look like for this position? How would you measure/determine you were successful at this milestone?
  • Sometimes in our work we are told to do something we don’t believe in or for reasons that don’t make sense or we don’t understand. What are some ways you handle being told to take actions you don’t believe in? How do you cope and work through it?
  • No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Tell me about a time where you failed. What was the circumstance, what did you learn, and how did you rebound?
  • What are the most important factors that must be present for you to be successful at your job?  What are the things you look for in your supervisor to support your success?

Interview questions should elicit both technical answers and allow the candidate to showcase their whole selves to give hiring managers a sense of how they are likely to operate in the position. Questions that are aligned with your values also showcase your city culture and what is important to you as a manager.

The Night Before

We email a personalized welcome letter. This letter shares what the candidate can expect, the people who will be on the panel, and the types of topics the interview questions will cover, and acknowledges that interviews can be stressful and we want candidates to bring their authentic selves to the interview.

Screenshot of a letter welcoming a job interview candidate, as explained in the text above.

I remember getting one of these letters when I was going through the hiring process for the City of Irvine, and I never forgot how it made me feel. This letter helped me understand what to expect, which reduced my anxiety and allowed me to focus on doing my best in the interview. While part of any interview is observing how a candidate performs under pressure, such a letter will never eliminate the stress of the day. It is in the city’s best interest to enable a candidate to perform at their most optimal and be transparent about what a candidate can expect. 

Remember, the interview process is a two-way street, and candidates are observing how they are treated because this can be indicative of how they might be treated should they join your organization.

During the Interview 

Whether in-person or virtual, we have a copy of the questions available for the candidate. A copy of the questions is available on the table for in-person interviews, or one panelist drops each question into the chat as the panel asks them during virtual interviews. 

I tend to ask some complex interview questions, and I often set up questions by providing context before we ask the question itself. I have found that this leads to better-quality responses and a more authentic discussion during interviews. Recently I received some feedback from a colleague who was part of a past recruitment process. They pointed out that, while the interview experience was good overall, these types of questions can make it difficult to retain what the panel is asking, which can add to a candidate’s stress and impact their performance. They also shared that this experience can be heightened if a candidate has a learning disability or is neurodivergent, which can manifest as a candidate asking a hiring panel to repeat each question and frantically trying to remember questions to write them down. This can be seen as a candidate being unprepared, ineffective, or not qualified. To avoid this stigma or bias, being able to see the written questions could help any candidate anyone focus on effective answers and enhance their interview performance.

Providing a copy of the questions levels the playing field providing equal opportunity for optimal performance for ALL candidates. This removes barriers and helps all candidates, regardless of ability, to thrive. 

After the Interview

There is nothing worse than being ghosted by a city’s HR Department or recruiter. And if we say clear communication is one of our values or it is a key skill we are looking for in the candidate, we need to be prepared to perform at the same level and meet the same expectations. We communicate the next steps with candidates about when they will hear from us and follow through by doing what we say we will do.

When we set up our hiring process timeline, we discuss the time needed to make a hiring decision, including the offer letter process, and share this with candidates at the conclusion of the interview. We want to ensure that the decision-making timeline for a position is reasonable and achievable so candidates know when to expect to hear from us. 

Timely candidate follow-up is a top area of improvement for local government hiring processes. This demonstrates respect and can either build your city’s credibility or tarnish your organization’s reputation as an employer of choice. 

The No Thanks Response

Many government rejection letters I’ve seen are bureaucratic and sad. And while I recognize that we want to communicate news that the candidate likely doesn’t want to hear, while limiting any liability, let us please recognize that there is a human on the other end of every hiring decision. I’ve heard (and experienced) some no-so-great practices I want to avoid, and so asked folks what they would want to hear when they are not selected, and crafted something more aligned with our values. Our responses are human-centered, recognizing the tough fact that not everyone gets the job.

Screenshot of a job rejection letter that is kind and recognizes the candidate's effort.

Not everyone gets the job, and rejection can be awkward to navigate. Valuing a candidate’s humanity means exhibiting grace, acknowledging their effort, and encouraging an outlook of opportunity.

Finding that unicorn to join your team can be a time-consuming process, and likely even more so when spending the critical time up front intentionally planning to align the process and materials with your team’s values to attract top talent. The Office of Climate Action and Sustainability will kick off our activities as a part of our Earth Month celebration in April, but for now, suffice it to say, I am sooo excited about how our process led to our chosen team members. 

​​I’d love to see us share more examples and hear from the next generation of local government candidates about what is important to them as a part of this process. We get better when we learn together. Now off to go find your unicorns!

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