I Have to Ask: Overcoming Internal Baggage

Posted on July 12, 2020

Heidi Voorhees

In this series, ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt poses three questions to the guest columnist, and the guest columnist selects one to reflect on. This week, Heidi Voorhees, president and co-owner of GovHR USA, shares advice for when navigating the recruitment process when you are the internal candidate.

The good news is you are an internal candidate for a position you really want.  The bad news is you are an internal candidate for a position you really want.  Being an internal candidate is tricky.  On one hand you know a lot about the organization, its culture, personalities and challenges – this gives you an advantage that external candidates do not have.  On the other hand, they know you and your strengths and weaknesses.  Plus, what if you put yourself out there for the job and do not get it?  How will you face your co-workers and colleagues?  I have worked with dozens of internal candidates and have the following suggestions:

Prepare Like an External Candidate

This is the most important tip.  As you assemble your resume and cover letter for the application process, pretend they know nothing about you.  Potential internal candidates will sometimes say to me: “They know what I’ve accomplished and if they want to appoint me, they will.”  This is the completely wrong approach.  I’ve worked with a number of employers who have been completely surprised and impressed by the internal candidate’s accomplishments and ideas.  This is particularly true of elected officials who may have limited exposure to even senior staff members.  

Utilize Your Knowledge of the Organization and Community

When preparing your materials, weave in your knowledge of the organization and the community.  Show your passion and commitment for your current position and the work you do.  Elected officials love their community and they want to hire people who also love it and care about it.  I had a local government professional who was interviewing for the Town Administrator position where they lived.  After their interview, the Mayor turned to me and said, “They displayed less knowledge of our community than the candidates who live two states away!”  It was an accurate assessment.  The local candidate did not get the job.

Talk About Challenges and Opportunities

Be honest about the challenges and opportunities you see and how you will address them.  I would avoid specifically comparing yourself to the person who held the position before you.  Talk about who you are and how you would approach any issues, problems and future challenges.  Put together a 90-day action plan that shows your knowledge of the community and organization.

The Interview – Show You Care

Sometimes the internal candidate can be too casual in the interview because they know the interviewers.  They lean back and may even joke around with the panel members.  Familiarity is good to a point, but the interview is serious business.  It is not another committee meeting or staff meeting with your colleagues.  Bring energy and ideas to the table.  Again, show your passion and commitment to the organization and community.  The interviewers need to see your leadership skills and understand your plan for the future.

Overcoming Internal Baggage

The internal candidate may look at the hiring panel and see someone they’ve disagreed with professionally or worse, personally. There may be an opportunity to say: “I know there have been times when some of us have not always agreed on a direction, but I know we’ve had the best interests of the organization in mind.”  You can use those past disagreements to show you respect and welcome differing opinions.  If it is a more personal issue, you may be able to say that “I know I’ve had instances where I’ve let my passion for an idea or course of action take over – I want you all to know I’ve learned from those times and recognize the importance of a professional demeanor in the workplace.”  And then do it moving forward – whether or not you get the position.

The best approach to success as an internal candidate is to approach your current position as a team player, someone who is known to have a can-do attitude and who regularly and consistently works well with others.  Practice the basics:  be prompt and professional in your communications; don’t engage in gossip or other organizational intrigue; develop a reputation as a “go to” person in your department and the larger organization; and, treat everyone with respect.  

If you don’t get the job…

Be proud that you had the courage to put yourself out there. The timing may not be right for you.  Put a smile on your face and go back to work.  Others are watching how you handle this disappointment.  The elected officials or other senior staff in the organization now know a lot more about you.  If possible, a short time after you learn you did not get the position, seek out a couple of members of the hiring team to see if there is anything you can learn about why you were not selected.  You may lack some experience in a key area and they may be willing to invest in professional development for you or see that you otherwise receive the experience.  I guarantee that they feel badly for not being able to select you and most will want to support your future development.

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