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Inside Public Service: A Step Up

Between now and August 1st, I’m practicing what I preach by making space to be with the people I love most in the world. I have a vacation responder in place for emails and limited access to Internet and cell reception. And instead of new blog posts, I’ve lined up several great articles from my column on Shasta Scout to share with you.

This story was originally published as part of my monthly Inside Public Service column on Shasta Scout. Would you like to receive free, nonprofit, independent and non-partisan news about Shasta County and beyond? Sign up here.

Here's wishing you spaciousness in your life, however you can find it this summer.


“There’s a lot of turnover and motion in government right now,” Christina Prosperi told me a few weeks ago. “My boss is taking a 6 to 12 month temporary position at CalTrans headquarters which means I have an opportunity to test my skills and apply for her interim role.”

Christina is a CalTrans Senior Transportation Planner whose enthusiasm for her work is absolutely infectious. Conversations about street planning or geographic information system mapping technology might normally seem like a great way to lull anyone to sleep, but with Christina these same conversations feel like a high school pep rally with a marching band, pom poms, and a mascot doing backflips. Spend an hour with her and pretty soon, you too will have your face painted with the CalTrans logo and telling your friends about the value of transportation impact data analysis!

One might assume that with that much energy and enthusiasm, Christina would be be a shoe-in for her boss’s role. But there are many steps to the job application process, particularly for a government job, including union contracts, employment law, and human resourced departments to navigate. And at the heart of it all, a candidate needs to be able to distill years of expertise down to a crystal clear narrative that summarizes who they are at their core and the contributions they have made.

Here’s how I walked Christina through finding her narrative.

Step One: Don’t get screened out!

“As far as public servants go,” Christina explained to me, “there are requirements for having certain language in your resume, statement of qualifications, and application. There’s specific minimums you just have to meet. You absolutely have to follow it or risk getting screened out.”

It’s a great reminder of something that’s common in many industries. For most jobs, the first scan of an application is done by a computer or a warm body in human resources, not the actual team or supervisor who will be hiring you.

It’s very easy to get screened out if your written materials do not clearly and obviously show that you meet the minimum job requirements. You may be qualified, but if you’ve presented your skills or experience the wrong format or with the wrong wording, your application may get cut, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Christina and I discussed step one. All the checkboxes she needed were easily met and clearly laid out in the application.

Step Two: Land an interview.

Once your application gets past the computer or human resources stage, it arrives buried in a huge pile on the desk of an overwhelmed hiring committee member at 4:30 PM on a Friday. You must wow them in the first three sentences. Then, as they continue reading, convince them to move your application into the “to interview” pile.

Christina’s statement of qualifications had to shine. At CalTrans, the statement of qualifications is essentially a cover letter with three questions to answer in short answer format. I walked her through a process I use with many clients to answer these four questions using vignettes that could immediately hook a reviewer, and then prove exactly why she was the perfect fit for this role.

  • When were you the most proud of what you’ve accomplished at work?

  • Describe a time you made an impact on somebody else that allowed them to have success they couldn’t have had on their own.

  • How have the relationships or partnerships you built led to the successes you’ve just described?

  • Put yourself three years in the future. Imagine we’ve lost touch, but in those three years things have been beyond-your-wildest-dreams amazing, professionally and personally. You’re more happy and successful than you ever thought possible. You call me up to tell me about it. What would you say happened for you?

With most of these questions, Christina overflowed with clear, specific examples of projects she had worked on and individuals she had mentored. The stories she shared with me offered a treasure hoard of vignettes to tempt reviewers to move her application into the interview stack.

Yet with the third question about relationships and partnerships, her responses were a lot more general and a lot less specific. “I am a cheerleader,” she said. “I am an encourager for all people. I try to obliterate the limiting feelings of others. I help people strategically find a way through all the systems and processes.”

I prompted her to name specific organizations, people, or relationships that she had cultivated. Again, she struggled to name concrete examples. “I think it’s the words, ‘led to the success,’ that I’m getting caught up on. There’s so many people involved. It was never just me. I would feel comfortable with ‘contribute to the success’ or ‘been part of’. What I do is we not me.”

And there it was. This is where almost all public servants I’ve worked with struggle most when it comes to a job search. They place so much emphasis on “we not me” in their day to day leadership that when it comes time to tell a hiring committee about themselves, it’s hard to dissociate their own accomplishments from that of others.

I said to Christina, “Part of the difficulty of any job search is the humility that comes in. It’s very hard to pinpoint whether that was you or someone else or the team.100%. Let me restate the question another way: if the partnerships and relationships you built with others did not exist, would the plan or project have turned out the way it did?”

That reframing helped her begin to name specific partnerships and relationships she had developed.

With all four questions answered, Christina now had a list of vignettes to shape into a strong narrative. I invited her to share her application with me before she submitted, but she didn’t need the help.

A week later, she texts me: “I have an interview! I need some feedback and direction from a pro. That’s you. Can we meet?”

Step Three: Rock the interview.

She arrived in my office with a stack of two dozen post it notes alongside a book fluttering with so many bookmarks that it looked like it had been attacked by a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

“It’s intimidating,” she confides. “It’s a three person panel interview. I sometimes have a lot of anxiety and over-talk. It takes a lot of practice for me to not get nervous when my heart rate goes up. But when that’s your one shot, you can’t blow it.”

Clearly, Christina’s time-tested strategy to overcome anxiety is to over-prepare. She had read Elaina Noell’s leadership book, Inspiring Accountability in the Workplace, and tabbed all the pages that inspired her. From there, she spent the weekend brainstorming ideas for the new role and writing them down on post it notes.

“I want to walk in with a one-page: here’s what I want to gain, and here’s what I want to give. Here’s my work plan for the next 12 months.” So far, her ideas were far too jumbled to make sense to an interview panel.

I observed, “I suspect that the big challenge for you will be to narrow your ideas. You don’t have to present it all.”

Rather than prepare answers to a long list of common questions, I coach my clients to develop and practice five key stories to work into their interview. Nearly every interview begins with some derivative of, “Why you for this role?” And nearly every interview ends with, “What questions do you have for us?” You can fit two of the key stories into those two known questions, and slip in the rest wherever they are most appropriate given the questions they ask.

We spent the session clarifying the post-it notes she’d already created and writing new ones until her entire vision was strewn across the table like autumn leaves. And then we stepped back to look at them all from a higher perspective. Five broad, natural categories emerged.

  • Why me: here’s what I want to give from all my experiences to this point.

  • Hard deliverables: here’s the mastery I already have of the kinds of projects and portfolio that this role will be responsible for.

  • Strategy: here’s where I showcase my ability to solve problems and build relationships.

  • How I manage: here’s my workforce development plan based on the book Inspiring Accountability.

  • Develop me: here’s what I want to gain in this role that will set me up for my next career step.

Amidst the jumble of post its, she found her five key stories.

Several times, I had to remind Christina that she didn’t need to share absolutely everything in a forty minute interview. A lot of the details can be explored in a future conversation with her new boss once she gets hired. Once Christina felt comfortable with that, she was able to pull many of the post-it notes aside to save for that later discussion.

As we finished, she took pictures of her neatly sorted and labeled notes.

“Wow. Irene,” she observed.”That was a lot.”

I replied, “You did a great job. These are all your ideas. You did all the thinking ahead of time. I just helped you organize it.”

When I ran into Christina that following weekend she ran up to me buzzing with excitement.

“I got the job!”

Of course she did. She has mastered her own narrative.

Read More

Another tool that's often super helpful in preparation for a job search is a crystal clear understanding of the unique skills and strengths you bring to the role. Consider taking this free character strengths assessment to name those for yourself.

And if it's a struggle to toot your own horn in the face of an interview panel, use any of the tips offered in my blog post on impostor syndrome.

Going Further

Only 18 days left to join me and Tutti in Mendocino September 29-October 2 for a long weekend to restore, rejuvenate, and reconnect with yourself and other brave, adventurous female leaders. You will walk away with:

  • The ability to build the five aspects of integrated leadership -- spaciousness, flow, connection, inner wisdom, and outer presence -- into your life.

  • Clarity and confidence about the path ahead.

  • The skills to manage critical voices, both inner critics and external naysayers.

  • The ability to grow and empower new leaders around you.

  • Renewed commitment and passion for the work you do.

  • Supportive, authentic, deep connections with other female leaders.

Enrollment closes August 18th, 2023. Learn more and apply today.

Did you know I'm writing a book about the science of why we love to travel and how to create that same feeling in our everyday lives. If you want a taste, Chapter 5 is coming out in Hidden Compass magazine on August 8th, 2023. If you consider yourself a curious explorer, check out the incredible journalism and gorgeous narrative nonfiction happening over there.

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