I’ve just started a new job, so it might sounds like an odd moment to talk about failing to get jobs. But I promised Terence that I’d be following in his steps, and document some of my job hunting failures. Someone recently told me: “you always get great jobs”; but let me tell you a little non-secret: there have been dozens of failed attempts at getting jobs. Some were applications I just sent in without thinking much, some others had been entirely missing the point. But it’s important, I think, to talk openly about failure. If you can deactivate or minimise the “feeling bad” part of rejection, you can learn a lot of useful things by just applying to a new role. Let me list a few examples and what I learnt from each of them.
I turned a good (but weak) hit ratio into hubris
In late 2014 I applied to two roles, after I hadn’t had any interview since 2010. I was invited to interview for both roles and I thought: “hey, not bad”. One of the two jobs was a Senior Civil Service position at the Department of Health, a story I’ve told dozens of times so I won’t tell it in full here. Let me just say that this could be marked as a half-success for reasons you’ll find out if you read the full story. But what matters is that I didn’t get the job.
The other was an Assistant Director role for a University library. This was at the time of my work at St George’s, University of London, so I was really plugged into library work. I had to do a presentation on the future of libraries, which I really enjoyed preparing and discussing with the library staff members, and the panel was challenging but friendly. I walked out thinking I had cracked the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the recruiting manager gave me some great feedback, suggesting she’d have selected me if only another more experienced candidate hadn’t absolutely smashed the interview.
What I learnt: I made a big mistake in thinking that two data points showed a pattern–i.e., I got convinced that I had cracked the job application bit, and that I should keep applying very selectively to roles. I was wrong, and it was arrogant to believe that. In fact, other than the job in the next paragraph, I didn’t get any further shortlisting for the next 4 years.
I know my stuff, why should I prepare?
I applied for a job as Head of Research Services at a large University. This was basically my existing day job on steroids, for a larger institution, with a larger budget and team. I didn’t prepare much for the interview, which was scheduled for the day I came back (late at night) from visiting Italy for 10 days. I thought that I would just be able to answer any question by mentioning examples from my existing job. It didn’t work. I didn’t know what to say. My mind went entirely blank. “Where do I start from?”, I kept thinking. This happened repeatedly on several questions — all of them, technical questions I should have been able to answer. It was the most cringeworthy interview of my life.
What I learnt: no matter how much you think you’re a subject matter expert, an interview is not just testing your expertise — it’s also testing how you tell others about it, especially for leadership positions. (Also, try and avoid setting an interview on the morning after a holiday…)
If more of the same doesn’t work, change
I applied to a series of similar roles in the Civil Service, usually roles as deputy director for data. All these applications were sent with pretty much the same draft statement that I changed very little from job to job, pretty much copied from my previous shortlisting. “They will see my skills and expertise, why would they not?” None of these went anywhere. The closest I got was getting onto a longlist of 12 from which the final 5 candidates would be selected, but didn’t progress further. I kept feeling a bit like England after the 1966 World Cup.
What I learnt: it took me a while to appreciate that one interview and one longlisting in — how long, 3 years? — weren’t really suggestive of “do more of the same”. I insisted on applying to roles at Senior Civil Service level 1 (SCS1, usually meaning deputy director, head of a division comprising multiple teams), mostly out of pride, and in part because of the better money (of course, there are much easier ways to make that kind of money, had money been really the major motivator; but I didn’t understand that at the time).
It took me a long time, but I finally got to a two-fold realisation: firstly, there aren’t many jobs SCS1 grade; only about 1% of the Civil Service is at any SCS level. Secondly, there are amazing jobs just one step below SCS1, at Grade 6. Many of the people I rate really high in the public sector sphere are Grade 6 or were Grade 6 for a long period of their career and did amazing things. When I finally understood that I could park this outsized pride, aim for that level, and recognise that this didn’t mean “going backwards” in any way, things changed massively for me.
Am I telling the panel what they need to hear?
This “switch” in understanding came in early 2018, and I started being shortlisted to roles. In fact, I declined two interviews because I realised I wasn’t a good match for the roles. One I pursued was as Chief Digital Officer for a large operational Government Agency. I put in a good, highly customised, statement, which was assessed with a score of 6 out of 7. This made me think “for the interview, they want more of the same”. I went in with the same examples and stories I had on the statement. It didn’t work, but I didn’t realise until I saw the rejection e-mail coming in. I asked for feedback and it was some of the best feedback I ever received: my examples were too focussed on tech and not enough on “digital”, which was odd for such a role.
What I learnt: never take things for granted. In this case, the fact that the statement had been rated high didn’t mean that it covered what was required at interview stage. Of course, there will be a lot of overlap; but there are certain answers that work for a statement, that is usually centred on skills and expertise, but won’t for the interview, which is more about competencies and being credible for the role. As much as it was briefly painful (the rejection arrived on my birthday!), this rejection was pretty helpful in allowing me to learn how to prepare for a job interview (and the next job interview I had after this one was successful and got me into my brilliant role at the DfT). It was great training.
Disappointing treatment? Yes, but.
I applied to a Director of Technology role for a large charity I really respect. I put together what I thought was a great application. I never heard anything back until I saw someone announcing they’d got the job. This was pretty disappointing because of a few reasons: the process was run by a recruiter who I rated high and had huge respect for; I knew personally a few people involved in the decision; the organisation seemed to really need someone with my profile; we were a great match for values.
What I learnt: you know what, I have a mild mistrust of recruiters (I’ve never, ever got a job through a recruiter), and both myself and really amazingly skilled colleagues experienced recruiters’ ghosting , usually because they couldn’t tick some boxes. Surely, that’s one way to read this story. But… that’s only the easy half of the story. The uncomfortable part is that if you want a job, it’s on you to push, and it’s ok to push. When a recruiter is involved, you need to build a relationship. In this case, it was my fault to think that the one e-mail with my CV and statement was enough on my part.
Don’t ignore influence, impact, and engagement
Early last year, I started doing some coaching and career reviews with people I rate high in the industry. This changed entirely the way I perceive myself professionally. One suggestion to “try and apply to a few jobs to see how your chances have changed” turned into the highest success rate of my life, with 4 shortlists out of 5 applications in the space of a few weeks. One of these is my current role, so let’s talk about the other 4.
The first one was a deputy director in a central government department. I made a first cut through online tests, and I thought I had a good statement that was entirely on point for the role. However, it wasn’t. I asked and received some good feedback suggesting I had not used the statement well: I should have showcased “a more solid ability to influence, manage and challenge complex senior stakeholder relationships”. This was very helpful.
I then had a go at a cross-government deputy director campaign. The weirdness of applying for a generic “promotion” as opposed to a specific role, made this a very insightful experience in how to adapt my professional storytelling in light of more abstract requirements. I had to run a Staff Engagement Exercise, which is a 30-min two-way conversation about generic leadership topics. This was really enjoyable, and the panel was super engaging and interested, commenting on my points, answering my questions, and asking me their own; this was followed by great feedback and a high score with most on the panel suggesting I’d be a good leader. The interview itself was hard but very friendly. The panel included an ambassador, definitely a first for me! They asked very probing questions, a mixture of competency and strength-based question, and I had a sense that I had answered well a slim majority of them. I must admit, thought, that I took notes during the process, to keep track of questions I had found particularly hard to answer. I didn’t pass, but the feedback was good. 2 out of the 3 panel members thought I was ready for a promotion, while one thought I wasn’t. The major failure for me had been the “Making Effective Decision” competence: apparently, my answers suggested I’d rely too heavily on support from my team and network and not have enough confidence in making the calls myself. Definitely great feedback and, all in all, a good learning experience.
I was also shortlisted for a role as Chief Data Scientist in an interesting public sector organisation. Ultimately, I withdrew from the final interview because I had decided to accept the NHSX offer; however, by that time I had taken enough steps to learn a lot of useful things. The process followed a similar pattern to the role above, with a Staff Engagement Exercise. In this case, however, I entirely bombed the exercise. It was cringeworthy. After the first exercise above, I had been expecting “more of the same” (you see where I’m going with this). The panel wasn’t particularly keen to ask questions; they wanted to hear more from me and my views. This might have been a consequence of being an exercise for a specific role, with people from the actual organisation, rather than cross-government as the previous one. What matters is that I hadn’t prepared for the eventuality of getting no questions. In the end, the exercise is not a pass/fail and is only used to suggest areas of probing to the interview panel; still, it was obvious that I had misread what running a panel could be like and was stuck with a specific type of panel in mind. The feedback confirmed I had completely given the impression of not having much to say and, as a consequence, to be not genuinely interested.
Finally, I was interviewed for a deputy director of tech, data, and tools in a smaller agency. This was still a leadership role but slightly more technical, taking ownership and developing an established set of services. This was, strictly speaking, the first of the lot I was interviewed for, and I totally was out of exercise. I got a few things wrong. First, there was a requirement on the job description to say something about the organisation and I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. Second, there were 4 members on this panel; each was supposed to ask a couple of question; we had a hour booked in. I should have immediately realised what this meant: give shorter answers. And instead, I rambled, and rambled, and rambled. I had to be interrupted a few times. At one point it was evident that they were rushing through the questions because we had run out of time. I had focussed all my preparation on “make sure you have enough to say”. But sometimes, enough is enough (and it must be the right content). I asked for feedback. Beyond the rambling, what was the key thing I had missed? Not enough knowledge of the organisation. To operate at a strategic level, that’s obviously a requirement.
What I learnt: this was a compressed series of applications, panels, engagement exercises (within 3 weeks)… pressure made it interesting as I only had evenings and weekends to prepare (ok, I was a bit lucky, too: two of these happened as I was heading to Italy for ten days of leave, doing social distanced visits to family and friends, so I had some extra time).
But fundamentally: i) learning to think of professional achievements in terms of influence and impact is key to a good application/interview; ii) not all staff panels react the same way (i.e., once again, “more of the same” is rarely a successful strategy); iii) prepare shorter, clearer answers — there’s always a way to expand and embellish; iv) always learn about the organisation from the inside out; v) always ask for feedback, it’s going to be helpful one way or another.
To sum up
Overall, there is one thing that I’ve learned to do that has been very helpful: deactivating the bad emotions that I used to connect to interviews. No one likes rejections, but I’ve learned to allow myself to navigate the anxiety of applying, walking into a panel (well, virtually these days), and live it as an experience. Rejections are not just much less painful: they’ve become useful as a sort of structured gap analysis. Although impostor syndrome is always ready to kick off, rationally I know that making comparisons between my failure at an interview and someone who gets a promotion the same day is pointless. As Terence has written, “Every person you admire, every person that you think is a success, is standing on a towering pile of rejection letters”.
I’ve got another blog post taking shape on how to prepare for civil service interviews. Stay tuned and, if you like data, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.