I Have to Ask: Acing the Interview

Posted on February 17, 2020

Santa Clara

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three questions from ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Lydia Rossiter, Santa Clara Valley Water District, gets you ready for your next interview. 

As a manager, when I interview someone, I am looking for an employee who is going to be productive and fulfilled in the position for which I am recruiting. Throughout my career, I have become more aware of the importance of fit, both from the perspective of the employer and employee. For me, fit has three key trait components:

  1. Curiosity: I want a person who will question the status quo and ask why, but is humble about it. If there are ways we can improve process and procedure, it’s important to explore them but also important to approach stakeholders, especially process owners, in the right way so they stay engaged. Approaching someone with “Can you please teach me about your role in this?” or “Help me understand what your pain points are” can make a huge difference.

If a stakeholder perceives that this person is coming in to solve a problem without listening well or with preconceptions about solutions, the chances of both a successful interaction and a successful process improvement decrease significantly.

  1. Grace under Pressure: Every position I have held or supervised has had more than one priority or task. It is a fact of life in modern government. The person must be able to deal calmly with shifting priorities, which may change over a matter of months, weeks, days or hours. The most successful people in my career have been able to efficiently switch gears and accomplish tasks. Doing this without getting flustered or dropping the ball in a high-pressure environment is an art.

In addition, they must deal with difficult people effectively. If they get too flustered or are bullied, it will affect both their attitude and the work itself. Showing grace in interpersonal relationships helps immensely in getting things done.

  1. Figure It Out: Given a challenging problem, the person must be able to come up with a thoughtful plan of attack. As a supervisor, I cannot be in all places at once and provided minute-to-minute direction, so I rely on my staff to assess situations and come up with solutions without my immediate input.

In the words of Frank Benest, who cites this as a key competency, “as you engage others in authentic conversations, incorporate different ideas and perspectives, try stuff out, fix things up as you go along and learn from your mistakes, you are practicing “FIO” (Figure It Out) skills.” This dovetails neatly with the two previous traits to make a winning combination.

A candidate interviewing for a position with me will be more successful if they are curious, exhibit grace under pressure, and know where to start to figure it out. I strongly believe that while many technical skills can be taught, these traits are the types of soft skills that are harder to internalize if they are not already present. The person with these traits will be more satisfied with the challenges our work in government presents, will experience less frustration, and will need a light hand in supervision.

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