I Have to Ask You: The Internal Candidate

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Mary Jane Nirdlinger, Town of Chapel Hill, NC, Assistant City Manager, writes about putting yourself in position to succeed as an internal candidate.


Question: You’ve held a number of positions with the Town of Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for being an internal candidate for a job opening?

Answer:

The only obvious conclusion most people would draw from my career path is that I have a low boredom threshold. Although I can look back and see a path built on in solving problems and working with new challenges, it wasn’t clear at the outset. If you’re trying to find your own path through your organization, here are a few reflections from this choose-your-own-adventure career.

Don’t get comfortable.

The first year of any job is an adventure. You think you know what you signed up for or you feel like you’re in over your head (and hope nobody notices!). You work hard, you stretch, you mess up, and eventually, you start feeling like you “belong”. Maybe your first big project was a rip-roaring success. Maybe you’re getting comfortable in your role.

Don’t.

If you’re serious about growing, share your ideas, ask for the assignment, and take each interview along the way just as seriously as you took the first one. Research. Role play. Get clear on what you’ll contribute to the organization in each new endeavor. Our work is a give-and-take, not a given. I’ve seen internal candidates waltz comfortably into an interview without giving it much thought only to be blindsided by another candidate who was hungry for the role and prepared the heck out of their interview. Guess who got to stay comfortable?

Listen with care.

At various times, I’ve been told be grateful, wait your turn, and don’t ask for too much. Early in my local government career, one supervisor felt compelled to inform that my master’s in urban planning really didn’t cut it. Without an MPA, I’d never move beyond planning. I probably listened to some of the early voices too carefully. Luckily, I’ve also been gifted insights and encouragement from others. Most importantly though, I’ve had mentors who weren’t afraid to hand me a few difficult-to-swallow moments of raw honesty about my faults. One particularly eye-opening moment for me came when a mentor asked if I realized I tended to frame things in extremes. “There are a lot of other options in the middle, if you’re creative,” she said.

We need people who respect us enough to tell us the truth. When they do, we need to hear them. If you’ve had someone (or several people) suggest a change and you’ve been ignoring them, take a moment to listen deeply. Those moments of truth are gold nuggets of wisdom for your journey. Gather them from your truth-tellers and listen to people who cheer you on. They’re often the same folks.

Say yes.

Our Town Manager, Roger Stancil, has nurtured a culture of leading from where you are and matching talents with organizational needs. We use a lot of training, EQi evaluations, and assessment centers for our jobs, internal and external. But don’t wait until the announcement appears before you prepare. Careers are marathons, not sprints and you need to build up. Find opportunities to lead and learn. Get training, volunteer for a new project, show people what you have to contribute. Remember Newton’s first law? An object at rest stays at rest, an object in motion stays in motion.  Be an object in motion. What are other departments doing that you could help with? Don’t be a slave to email and Outlook. Step away from your computer. Work hard, but work smart. After you’ve shown your worth, ask for what you need.

Be curious and talk to people. I’ve toured a power plant and sewer treatment facilities. Done environmental assessment work on firing ranges, and learned about how medical and academic facilities operate. The more you get out, the more you’ll begin to see connections in your community and the more value you’ll bring to your organization.

Don’t be afraid to try something outside your comfort zone. When I was assigned oversight of our Inspections function, it was a completely new world for me. I asked questions—lots and lots of them—and admitted what I didn’t know. At first I felt overwhelmed and afraid of messing up. If I’d let that fear stop me, I would have missed a lot of growing and an opportunity to contribute to some really important work. Those times when your brain is working overtime build you up in ways you never imagine.

Keep a life outside the office.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself and your relationships outside of work. Exercise, sleep, do interesting things. Everyone likes working with interesting people. Be interesting by being yourself, not just your job. Co-workers who are cycling enthusiasts, bee-keepers, artists, and travelers bring interesting perspectives to the table. Some of my best insights come during lunchtime workouts, like how to mesh a bunch of ideas around wellness, e-bikes, and alternate commuting into a grant proposal (fingers crossed!).

Always learn.

Many of us get good at what we do, then we plateau, which can lead to boredom. An adventure mindset at work can push you to stretch. After all, you never know when the next opportunity will materialize.

A few resources I’ve found especially helpful recently are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler and Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Stanley McCrystal. I’m also loving Cal Newport’s blog, especially his tips on Deep Work.


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