How not to suck at NHS Job interviews
TL;DR: Understand the process. Plan your effort. Prepare and Practice. Suss the panel out. Prepare for the phone call.
If you’ve not sucked at the NHS job application, then you may just get invited to an interview. Having done quite a few of these over the last few years, and helped a few people prepare, here are my thoughts on how to approach a NHS job interview.
These thoughts are likely to apply for any role, but there are some peculiarities with NHS jobs that are worth candidates being aware of. I want to challenge those, but that will take time to change the approach of so many people with ingrained habits. So in the meantime, ensuring ALL are aware of these unwritten expectations are important if we want to get a more diverse NHS, with people from different backgrounds and industries feeling able to apply.
I’m always surprised by the number of candidates who don’t do enough preparation for the role, or in my view do the wrong preparation. So here are my top-tips for preparing for an NHS interview.
1. Understanding what the selection process involves
Things to really clear on:
- Do you have to do a presentation (more about that later)?
- Is there one interview or several?
- Who is on the interview panel
- Are there stakeholder panels (more on those later too)?
- Any psychometric tests to complete?
- How many stages are involved?
- Will it all be done in one day or over several?
- Is an agency doing the first stage selection before passing a shortlist onto the Trust?
It’s completely ok to ring up the HR team or the line manger for this post and ask a bit more detail on the process. Don’t be worried that anyone with think less of you. This is you being dilgent and preparing to give it your best shot.
Depending on what the selection process, you’ll need to make sure you’re putting your effort into these proportionally. What I mean is that there is a real danger of spending all your time creating your presentation and doing nothing on preparing for your stakeholder session. So I think it helps to have a clear plan on what effort you’re doing to put into each.
2. Reading Appropriately
I’ve come across a lot of people who read everything about the organisation, they go through years of Board reports, read every word of the annual report and so on. In my view that’s overkill and potentially effort you could spend better in other areas in the limited time available between being invited to interview and the dreaded day.
When I’m on the interview panel, I’m expect people to do have done a bit of research, but for me this isn’t a memory test. I know there will be gaps in knowledge when people come from elsewhere and we’ll give them time to acquire it after appointment. Lack of organisational knowledge rarely gets down-marked by me when I’m on a panel.
In terms of reading, my approach would be to:
- Read the organisational strategy . It should be published on the Trust’s website, but many Trusts are pretty poor at that. So you’ll probably have to search for it in the Board papers, which are regularly published. Look for the bits that are relevant to the role, understand the top priorities and focus areas and what are the organisational values. Don’t try and memorise it, just make a few notes that you can use to jog your memory ahead of the interview — or even take a one-pager into the interview (I’ll say more about taking material into the interview later).
- Read the latest CQC report. Remember this is from one particular lens but will give you a view on what the external regulator thinks of the Trust. It is pretty powerful if in your interview you have an example of something that you’ve done that would contribute to the areas that require work according to the CQC, but don’t go overboard and mention it in every answer. Organisational challenges are much wider than a CQC view.
- Use social media to find out a bit about the culture of the organisation. What posts/tweets have the corprate comms account made on LinkedIn or Twitter. Does the Chief Executive or the senior person associated with the role Tweet? Do they seem human or is it all corporate-speak?
3. Know Your Values
This is important as you’ll need to make sure the organisation’s values align to yours otherwise you’ll have a disconnect.
If you haven’t ever thought about what your 5 or 6 key values are, then a quick Google using terms such as “value card sort” will find loads of examples. This one from the University of New Mexico is one that I’ve done with my kids in the past (I know, what a fun Dad I must be….).
Once you do know your values, you’ll be able to have them to hand to draw upon through the selection process.
4. Anticipating the obvious questions
There’s lots of material around about types of interview questions to anticipate and it’s easy to get bogged down in them. Here’s a few that are really common, certainly in senior level jobs:
- You are doing to get a question in the form of “Why do you want the job/why are you the best person for the job”. And even if you don’t get that explicit question, that’s a key question the panel will be looking for, so prepare a knock out answer for that type of question (more about the practice and honing later).
- “Tell us something you’re really proud of?”
- “Tell us something that didn’t go well?”
- “What do your colleagues/boss say about you?” You do collect feedback don’t you?
- “What do you think the main challenges in this role will be?”
- “What will your first 100 days look like?”
When I completed the NHS Leadership Academy Aspiring Directors programme, we got given a list of “director-level” questions, which I’ve pasted into a separate article.
So just spend a while thinking about the potential questions, write them down and then spend time honing your answers and practicing the delivery.
5. Preparing your Answers
There are few people in the world who can turn up at an interview and give a perfect answer to a question without any practice. How many times have you reflected on an interview and got home and thought “I wish I’d said that”. This step is the key to reduce the risk of that happening.
My advice is to write down each question and prepare an answer to each. This is hard and boring and you’ll hate it. But it will be worth it, and when you’ve done it a few times, you’ll start to build up a nice library of answers to draw from.
My preferred method is to use the STARE template for answers (this is an extension to the popular STAR method by simply adding an evaluation on the end ). Things to be aware of when using this task is the proportion of your time spent on each area — many candidates spend far to long in describing the situation and task and not enough on what you actually did. This is the wrong proportion in my view — set the scene quickly and then provide evidence of what you did, preferably backed up with numbers to quantify the impact of your actions.
Doing that is a great first step, but you can do better by practicing your answers.
6. Practicing and Honing Your Answers
There’s a big difference to how you write things down and how they sound when they come out of your mouth, and this is exagerated in the interview situation. One way to improve on this is to practice speaking your answers. The best way I’ve found to do this is to video yourself speaking the answers and then be super critical on what you hear and see. Firstly doing it by reading your answers, and then after a few goes, try and delivery your answers from memory. This second bit is crucial because that more accurately represents the interview situation.
There are two aspects that you’re trying to address here — the content and your delivery. This will be an iterative process.
Review the Content:
- When you listen to your answer to the question, does it use simple language? Does the answer make sense? Does it go on for ages? Can you get your answer down to less than 2 minutes?
- Are you answering the question?
- Having listened to this, then re-write your answer and try it again.
Review the Delivery:
- Does what you’re saying sound energetic? Do you sound like someone with passion and enthisiasm for the role? If not, work out what you need to do to push that energy to get beyond your comfort zone. I often say to people that what your brain is telling you sounds like boasting will simply sound like a confident individual to the panel.
- Are you able to add a smile? Do you look like someone you’d like to work with? Do you look like a colleague people would like to be around? If not, adjust and try again.
- Are you using some simple delivery tips such as; using powerful opening sentences that make an impact; using the rule of three; talking about you (not we); and finishing with a powerful message.
- Having reviewed the delivery, you’re more than likely going to need to re-write your answers and go round this step again.
If you’re like me, you’ll really have to push yourself to put the required effort in at this stage. It is even more painful than writing the questions down, but so valuable.
7. A Word About Stakeholder Panels
Stakeholder panels are very popular with more senior roles in the NHS. They are an opportunity for more people to interact with you as part of the selection process and in turn, for you to get to meet a few more people in the Trust who may be your peers or your direct reports.
In my experience, it is common for both the candidate AND the panel to not have a clue what the stakeholder panel is for. It is often presented as “Lead a discussion with the panel on the topic of [insert random topic here]”. So is it an interview or a chat? Minefield! If the guidance is vague, this is where ringing up the HR name on the interview invite or the chair of the panel is a great idea. You’ll get a sense from them if they have a clear idea of what this is all about.
After floundering in the first ones I experienced, my view is that when things are vague in a stakeholder panel, your best best is to take control. There’s generally an expectation that you’ll kick off with a short presentation about the topic — I’d suggest no more than 5 minutes, but you can set the scene by starting the conversation with being clear what you’re going to do along the lines of “Great to be with you — glad to be talking about this. What I’m going to do is set out three elements and then see what you think about it and we can collectively agree some actions”.
Your presentation should be well rehearsed, with the same effort as you’ve spent on your interview questions in terms of content and delivery, but you have a bit more time to play with. I’d then have a set of pre-prepared questions on the back of what you’ve said and go to each member of the panel in turn, trying really hard to properly listen to the answers (I scribble some notes down):
- “Ramla, how does that sound to you?”
- “Amir, how would that offer need to be reshaped in your view?”
- “What would be the biggest barrier to that being adopted Fatima?”
Make sure you’ve given everyone in the panel a chance to speak — some of them may even ask you some interview-type questions which you’ll have to roll with. Finish by summarising the conversation, ideally with a few key actions arising out of the discussion.
8. The NHS Senior Role Bits
The bit that people don’t say is that there’s an expectation that you’ll ring and chat to loads of people in advance. I’ve been on stakeholder panels where colleagues have been offended that the candidate hadn’t rung them to have a chat ahead of the interview. In my view this is very unfair and actually if every candidate did this, it would burn up loads of time from everyone. For one job process I had, there were two stakeholder panels and an interview; a total of 22 people. If I’d called every one of them in advance for 15 minutes that would be over 5 hours of time. Say that there are 4–6 shortlisted candidates and given that you often only get a week’s notice of the interview, this feels unworkable to expect senior candidates and those of panel members to find that amount of time in their diaries.
So I think it is really unfair and I’d never think less of a candidate that didn’t talk to every member of the panels in advance, but not everyone thinks like that.
So as a compromise, I’d suggest as a minium it is advisable talking to the person you’d be reporting to in advance and the chair(s) of the stakeholder panel(s).
9. Sussing out the Interview Panel
So you might not have a conversation with everyone on the panel, but it’s worth doing your research on each member of the panel using the internet. You can hopefully find out a bit about their role, what their interests are, but beware of the rabbit hole. I wouldn’t advise spending ages on this, but a bit of background knowledge can be really useful.
You’ll get a sense of how open the organisation is through this route — are messages tightly controlled, or do some people show some of their actual personality online?
10. Taking Stuff into the Interview
When I’ve done some coaching with people preparing for an interview, there seems to be a view that you shoudn’t take any notes or things in. I’ve no idea where that comes from. An interview is not a memory test, so it’s absolutely fine to take some material in that helps jog your memory.
Things I’ve taken into interviews are:
- A one-pager that summarises the examples that I’ve prepared and honed so I can glance at to jog my memory when I’m responding to an answer.
- A one-page summary of all the things I want to have said before I leave the interview. This gives an opportunity at the end when they ask if you have any questions, to add “I didn’t get the opportunity to tell you about x”. This needs to be brief, but is your final opportunity to leave on a good note, so make sure this is also a very strong statement, well honed and practiced (see above).
- A two-sided, summary that I’ve left with the panel that gives examples of how my skills/experience align with their top objectives on one side and some quotes from recent 360 aligned to the organisational values on the other (see images below).
- An outline 100-day plan. This is a risky strategy unless you know a lot about the job — so you’ll have to weigh up the risk/reward, but if in doubt don’t leave it with them.
11. Time for Your Questions
Remember that although it probably didn’t feel like it, an interview is a two-way process. You are determining if you want to work with these folk, in the same way they’re doing that to you.
So at the end of the interview, you should get a chance to ask some questions. You may want to ask about what it is like to work there, what your line manager is like to work for, that sort of thing. My feeling is that you should ask at least one question — and something more thoughtful and meaningful than asking “when will you let candidates know?”. So think carefully about the questions you absolutely need to ask that will help you answer the “can I work with these people” question. Questions about working patterns, salary, annual leave etc should be left until you get the job offer.
11. After the Interview
So you think that’s it? Yes, it can be and that’s fine. Some people like to follow up with a really short email to the chair of the interview panel to thank them for their time and reiterate how much you enjoyed the experience (liar!) and say what a great fit you felt you were for the post. It makes no difference to me if a candidate does this or not — it does not have any influence on the decision. For my part, I’ve done this a few times in the past, but not in my most recent senior interviews.
The other things you should start to think about are:
- Having found out a bit more about the job and the people, are you clear if you’ll say yes if they offer you the post? You don’t have to say yes immediately, but worth knowing which way you’re leaning is important to give the right emotional response on the phone call.
- What would be your negotiating points on salary, annual leave, working patterns etc, and which ones are nice to have and which ones are red lines?Remember at the point of the offer, providing you’re courteous and polite, you’re in the strongest negotiating position ever be in this role, so think carefully before saying a firm yes.
- Are there any questions that you didn’t get to ask in the interview that would help you decide if you’re going to take the job?
- Would you like to do a visit or a further chat with your line manager to help decide if the role is for you? That’s perfectly acceptable and gives you a chance to see the organisation under less stressful circumstances.
- If you’re not successful, do you want to ask for feedback? Better to think of these things in advance than being put on the spot when that phone rings.
12. The Phone Call
If you haven’t got the job — I’d always say take up the offer to get some feedback, and then follow up to arrange that call. I’ve had quite a few candiadates ask for feedback and then leave it for me to chase them. This is your time to be proactive.
If you have got the job, then you’re into talking about the things you thought about in the last step, and that’s probably the subject of another blog…