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Assessing Integrity with SES Interview Questions; It’s About More Than Mistakes.

Updated: Nov 21




I don’t do “common” interview questions. If I can’t show a candidate the words in the job description that I used to formulate a question, and the framework I’m using to assess it, it’s not good enough.


In my opinion, there are a few less than robust interview questions that often make the rounds in Senior Executive Service (SES) selection processes. These include:

“What would your team say about you?”

“What is your leadership style?”

“What would you accomplish in your first 100 days in the role?”

And this old chestnut…

​“What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?”

Each of these questions irks me for different reasons. The first one asks you to read the minds of multiple different people, the second asks you to articulate unsubstantiated philosophies you hold about behaviours you’re not asked to demonstrate, and the third asks you to use your crystal ball to project yourself into the future.


As for the chestnut, it feels like a trick. You must come up with a mistake that is suitably bad, but not so bad as to show your complete incompetence.


An interview is an assessment. Tests should be fit for purpose. They should aim to assess a particular thing and use set criterion for judgement. Robust assessments minimise personal biases. Happily, frameworks exist in the Australian Public Service for precisely this purpose.


When I coach APS candidates for interviews, I follow the process described by The Australian Public Service Commission in their “Cracking the Code” factsheet. They recommend “doing a mock interview using the job description to think up possible questions”. I have yet to see an APS job description that asks candidates to demonstrate the questions I challenge above. And if I did, I’d have to know how to assess the answer without bias.


Solid interview questions will ask you to tell a story about how you behaved in a situation relevant to the job and will be assessed by an agreed standard.



The treasure trove that is the APSC website has great resources for just this purpose, and these are highlighted frequently in APS job descriptions, often with hyperlinks:


The Work Level Standards

The Integrated Leadership System (ILS)

The Secretaries Charter of Leadership Behaviours (DRIVE)

The Leadership Capabilities


All four are vital to review for an SES interview, and they are the framework I use to assess candidates in coaching.


Now, let’s circle back to the old chestnut, “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?”


I get the relevance of this. It’s an integrity question. It is vital to assess integrity, especially at the SES level. But integrity is about more than just addressing mistakes. And addressing mistakes is not unique to the SES level; it’s featured in every profile of the ILS from APS1 to SES3.


On the heels of the Royal Commission into the Robodept Scheme and the PwC scandal the Australian Public Service has a huge emphasis on integrity. It applies to consultants like me, and to public servants. Culture comes down from the top, so Senior Executive Service (SES) recruitment is very much in focus.


What I would love to see is a more complete assessment of integrity. The APSC defines integrity as “doing the right thing at the right time” to “deliver the best outcomes for Australia sought by the government of the day”.


Last week the APS Integrity Taskforce published their report, “Louder Than Words: An APS Integrity Action Plan”. The taskforce made 15 recommendations across the three action areas of Culture, Systems, and Accountability. I am delighted to see recommendation number one and its action points:


Recommendation 1

Appoint the right leaders. Recruit people whose behaviour is consistent

with the APS Values.


Actions

  1. Agencies to thoroughly investigate SES candidates through recruitment checks and questions that demonstrate self-reflection, commitment to inclusive culture-building, and sustainable delivery.

  2. Applicants have the opportunity to provide, through the recruitment panel chair or APS Commissioner’s representative, access to past performance appraisals and ‘360 degree’ reports (where they exist) to provide more information for selection decisions. The recruitment panel also to extend the opportunity for external applicants to provide equivalent appraisals.

  3. The APSC (in collaboration with agencies) to develop guidance to support the actions above.


Yay! Let’s have more questions that demonstrate self-reflection (can include, but not limited to, mistakes) and behaviours that show building inclusive cultures that deliver results and support employees’ well-being.


Yay again! 360-degree reports! No need for mind reading questions!


I’m excited to see the APSC provide more guidance too.




With the first priority of APS Reform being an “APS that embodies integrity in everything it does” let's devise some solid interview questions that assess the big picture of integrity more fully. After all, it’s the SES role to deliver that and the other 3 priorities:

  • An APS that puts people and business at the centre of policy and services

  • An APS that is a model employer

  • An APS that has the capability to do its job well.

Here are a few recent example of SES level integrity questions I’ve devised for real processes at the Band1 and 2 levels:

Give an example of a time when you experienced challenges as a leader. How did you remain resilient as you drove change and contended with constraints?

Give an example of a time when you made a tough corporate decision to achieve outcomes. How did you approach communication with stakeholders to anticipate and resolve conflict? What did you learn from the experience?

Give an example of a time when you clearly voiced your own opinion and challenged a difficult or controversial issue.

Thanks for taking the time to read my article. If you’d like help preparing for your SES interview, I’d love to hear from you.





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