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The SES screening interview: 4 questions to anticipate

Even if you are an experienced public servant, an interview for a Senior Executive Service (SES) position may hold a few surprises. Many a candidate has been caught off guard by the conversation that happens before you even face the panel; the screening interview.

The screening interview may be conducted by a variety of people within the process and may occur without warning. It can be a seemingly casual phone call from the recruiter or a chat that unfolds when you reach out to the contact person on the job ad. Either way, best to get your ducks in row before you pick up the phone!

SES interviews are highly competitive, and the seniority of the panel members dictates a time efficient process. When a recruitment company is involved, they will be motivated to avoid the embarrassment of putting an under qualified candidate forward. They may also be awarded a bonus if a suitable candidate is found. As such they may be more motivated to screen out than in.

Here are the 4 questions I hear candidates asked frequently, and some ideas for how to present answers truthfully and in the best light.

1. How much acting SES experience do you have?

For many folks this one is easy. Maybe you’ve been acting in the role you are applying for long term or covering multiple roles. I recommend you prepare a sound bite such as “I’ve been acting in my current role as an SES Band 1 for 12 months” or “Over the last 3 years, I’ve had cumulative acting periods of 18 months over two roles”.

When it gets trickier is when you have comparatively little acting experience. Sometimes this is because you are on a special project or taskforce, and in these cases be ready to discuss the skills you’ve acquired there. We’ll talk about this more when we get to question 4!

2. What is the largest budget you’ve had responsibility for managing?

Again, easy if you’ve got an answer that is a nice big number. In many cases management of budgets is not the focus, so be prepared to highlight the importance of other resources you do manage. It might sound something like “I currently oversee 4 teams of customer service representatives that deliver support to 10,000 callers each week. Our work is part of a government commitment of $XYZ of the federal budget”.

3. What is the largest team you have managed?

You are not confined to talking about your current role to answer this one and remember the “dotted line” team members! If you previously worked in an organisation where you managed more people, quote that as well as your current situation. Some Australian Public Service teams have a handful of APS employees and dozens of contractors. Your answer might be something like, “I have an APS team of 10, and oversight of 38 contractors. We work hand in hand with the 22 members of the human resources team”.

4. What’s your “elevator pitch”?

This one is by far the most important, and the hardest to craft. And if any of the answers to the first 3 fall short, this is where you can make up the difference!

An “elevator pitch” is a one minute or less spiel that tells a prospective employer why they should hire you and what sets you apart from other candidates. It’s sometimes called your “USP”, unique selling proposition. I like to call it your point of difference.

If someone is taking the time to screen you for an SES role, they have likely assessed that you are a strong contender. Now they need to know what makes you stand out from the rest. This point of difference will change with every role you apply for. For an internal role, it may be your existing relationships and deep corporate knowledge. For an external role you might bring a welcome diversity of thought and different perspective.

If you can’t claim acting SES experience, or management of large budgets and teams, be ready to show the impact of what you have delivered. Talk about the unique value of your work bridging government and industry, or what you’ve facilitated at the state level, or the key government priorities your task force or special project have delivered for citizens.

Thanks for taking the time to read my article! If I can help you prepare for your SES interview, I’d be delighted to hear from you.



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