I Think It Was an Inside Job

Posted on March 30, 2015

Phil Smith-Hanes, County Administrative Officer for Ellis County, KS, write about the hiring process when there’s a strong internal candidate for the job.

By Phil Smith-Hanes, LinkedIn and Twitter

You don’t have to spend too much time with Google to discover I was one of five final candidates for the County Manager position in Coconino County, Arizona, in 2013.  Google will also reveal to you that another of the top five was the County’s internal candidate, a long-time deputy manager who had been the interim manager.
Participating in a hiring process where there is a strong internal candidate can be awkward – both for the internal candidate and the externals. When you’re an external candidate you can wonder if the hiring process is just a “set up” – a way to justify hiring the person they’ve wanted all along. (To Coconino County‘s credit, that was not the case.) Conversely, as the internal candidate you’re acutely aware that the decision-makers are well-acquainted with your (perceived) weaknesses and you can’t go too far in glamorizing your strengths.
I have a fair degree of experience with this. In Coconino I was the external candidate. Four years prior I was the internal candidate in Humboldt County. As a hiring authority, I’ve hired both external and internal candidates. Sometimes I really have had a strong inclination as to who would get the job before the process started. Sometimes I’ve been surprised by who ended up with the job.
So what are the special pitfalls of competing for a job as an internal candidate?
Maybe it’s a “courtesy” interview
imagesNo one wants to waste time in the interview process. But oftentimes, an internal candidate gets the benefit of the doubt if it’s conceivable that he/she might be hired, even if the hiring authority would really prefer an external candidate. Why? Well, the hiring authority has to work with the internal candidate in the future, so upsetting him/her without good reason might not be the best idea. Plus, the internal candidate is a “known quantity,” so you might as well interview him/her because all the external candidates could be worse!
Aside: if an organization has viable internal candidates, why would the hiring authority go into a process seeking an external candidate? Possibly the “powers that be” want a change in direction for the organization, and the internal candidate is too closely identified with existing policies. Or perhaps the internal candidate has had limited exposure to those doing the hiring and they simply aren’t aware of the candidate’s capabilities and assume he/she isn’t as qualified as someone from outside.
So what do you do if you’re the internal candidate and you suspect you’re getting a courtesy interview? Make the most of it! Any interview is a chance to shine–or tarnish. C’mon, do you really care why they gave you the interview? You got one, and lots of other people didn’t. Don’t waste the opportunity. Do your best to knock their socks off, and see what happens.

Don’t assume they know you
On the other hand, treat it like a “real” interview. I’ve seen internal candidates blow it when they acted as if they had the job in the bag, were too casual in their approach, or didn’t bother to highlight relevant experience because they assumed those making the decision would be intimately familiar with their qualifications. To the extent possible, treat your candidacy as if you were applying for a job in a different organization. And above all, make sure your genuine interest in the position comes across.

You are not your (former) boss

One of the tightropes any internal candidate has to walk is how to remain loyal while also distinguishing himself/herself from the current job-holder. This cuts both ways:
Conversely, maybe people are quite comfortable with the way things are going. Even in that case, the candidate needs to say how he/she would be different. Why? Two reasons:
1. Trying to be a carbon copy of your predecessor is setting yourself up for failure; you’ll never be as good at being someone else as they would be.
2. When the person in charge changes, other folks expect change (even if they fear what it might be); failure to change anything will disappoint both supporters and detractors.

Personal anecdote: When I interviewed to replace my predecessor, I told her one of the things I’d recommend changing would be to merge two departments. She advised me against saying that in the interview with the Board. The current structure, she said, was a point of pride for one of the electeds. I didn’t follow her advice (because I really believed the change was necessary), I got the job, and we subsequently merged the departments.
What’s the plan, Phil?
So… What happens if you don’t get the job? Do you resign in a huff and burn bridges on the way out of town? (Hint: not a recommended strategy.) Do you silently seethe and undermine the new administration? (Also not recommended.) Do you stay, adopt a positive attitude about the change, learn from the new boss, and position yourself for success in the future? We’d all like to believe it works like that, but sometimes it’s not possible. When I interviewed to move up in this organization, I was clear (to myself; I certainly didn’t mention it in my interview) that if not selected I would move on within six months–not because I was mad, but simply because the reason I applied for the job was that I was ready to be a CAO.
On the other hand, what happens if you DO get the job? What is your transition plan? What will you change first? What will you keep the same? How will you communicate to others your decisions and the rationale for them? Simple things like how soon you change your office location can be symbolic to others in the organization.
Maybe the hiring authority is not a fan of the way things are going. But even if that is known, the candidate needs to avoid throwing the incumbent under the bus. After all, the candidate has been part of the status quo; why hasn’t he/she “managed up” to achieve the results the hiring authority is seeking?

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