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3 Ways to Research Before an SES Interview ; Take a Helicopter View of Government

When I was a guest on a podcast (Apple / Spotify) recently, I was asked to give just one tip for SES interviews. My advice was: Look Out Before You Look In.


Most folks feel like they are under the microscope in an interview, with all eyes on them. Candidates at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level are often specialists in their field, with deep knowledge and subject matter expertise.

Most SES roles are less about being an expert “on the tools” and more about collaborating with senior colleagues across the organisation and government. When you are a candidate in an SES interview, you are sitting opposite a panel who are doing just that, and are responsible to recruit someone with the same skills and understanding.


Here are three ways you might develop your understanding of whole of government strategies in preparation for an SES interview:


  • Corporate plans (especially placemats)

  • Speeches (try YouTube)

  • The Defence Strategic Review (no shortcuts, worth the time)


If you’ve purchased theatre tickets online recently you may have seen the feature where you can view the stage from the seat you propose to select. How does it look from high, from low, partially obscured behind a post? It’s a fair analogy for government stakeholders, focused on the same point from different angles.

For instance, if you’re working to deliver an infrastructure project, you must consider the viewpoints of states and territories, industry, central agencies, Indigenous Australians, environmental advocates, and beyond.


As step one, research into the organisation you are applying to is essential at the SES level. The corporate plan is a great place to start with a deep dive into the whole organisation. It’s tempting to zoom in to the specific area you wish to target. Candidates who do this can appear too operational in their thinking and not demonstrate a wider strategic vista.

I suggest you familiarise yourself with all the key activities or outcomes the organisation must deliver and consider not only how that fits into your targeted role but government in general. Many corporate plans have one page “placemats” that tell you the whole story, often with lots of graphics. Here are a few of my favourites;


The next step I suggest for your research is to take an even higher outlook and review material that demonstrates how government priorities overlap. The Federal Budget is a great place to start. Now, you don’t need to spend a week of your annual leave to review all the budget papers in depth.

My favourite shortcut is to listen to speeches. If you’re an auditory learner like me, or prefer to watch a televised speech, YouTube to the rescue again! Last week I listened to Treasurer Jim Chalmers present the Federal Budget as I sat by the pool. Last month, I listened to Defence Minister Richard Marles present the National Defence Strategy (NDS) while I cooked spaghetti. (Which, by the way, is also supported by an excellent placemat. The NDS that is, not my spaghetti !🍝)

My final tip is to review National Defence, The Defence Strategic Review (DSR). The DSR was commissioned in 2023 to assess Defence capability, posture and preparedness to best defend Australia in the current strategic environment. The review includes recommendations including moving away from White Papers to a biennial National Defence Strategy, as I discussed earlier. It addresses other whole of government considerations such as industry, education, foreign affairs and is inextricably linked to the economy.  In my opinion, The DSR is required reading for any candidate at Defence, strongly recommended for anyone else, particularly if you’re applying for a senior role at Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) or within the Intelligence Community.


Now that you’ve looked out you can begin to look in. It's likely you will be asked at interview why you are a good fit for the role. Effective candidates can articulate what the role delivers, for the department and for government, and how their unique background will add value and contribute to achieving those wider goals.

Crafting a compelling narrative about your point of difference is a blog post for another day... or get in touch and we can work together on yours!


Thanks for reading! If I can help you with your SES interview, I’d love to hear from you.




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