Why do 'internal candidates' fail so often?

An opportunity opens within your organisation. It represents the perfect logical next step in your career path. You feel you have the knowledge of what the position requires and the rationale for it. You have the experience, the ‘institutional memory’ and know what you need for the position to succeed.


“In five years, I see myself with the same job title, about the same salary, and significantly more responsibilities.”


Your colleagues say you have a fair shot at it. Your supervisor casually asks you if you saw the internal advert. The ‘scuttlebutt’ and corridor talk reinforces you are ‘the one’. Rational logic says this position was created for you. Predictions of fiery Sun and Mars have awakened a strong urge to accelerate the pace of professional progress during this time, and outcomes for your Zodiac are successful.


You apply for the position and are interviewed by a panel you know. Some from within your office and a couple who hold regional or global positions.


Two weeks later your world comes crashing down. You are informed you were not the successful candidate.


An unpleasant truth is an internal interview can be engineered to provide cosmetic transparency, fairness and credibility to ensure the selection of ‘favored’ or pre-identified candidates. This often happens within non-profit organisations. Within the private sector this is rare. More often the recruiting manager hand-picks the candidate, while inheriting the consequent accountability, responsibility and inherent risk of the decision and liability for the candidate’s performance.


Under these circumstances, if you are not selected, you are ‘collateral damage’, the outcome unfortunate and not within your control.


Obviously, your reputation within the organisation will be a key factor which will determine the outcome. Organisations have long memories. People will remember you for the one time you messed up against the many times you accomplished good work.


In most cases the purpose of interviewing internal candidates is to retain talent the organisation has invested in, reduce induction and orientation time and get a person quickly into the job and manage work.


Loyalty is created when the organisation demonstrates it values its people and their potential, and provides motivation for staff to ‘stretch’ beyond their job parameters, and a commitment to support personal and professional within the organisation. There are many examples where this process has seen junior staff reach senior executive positions, if not the highest within the organisation. Most of the time, organisations will give all internal applicants a fair shot and the opportunity of an interview.


So, why do ‘internal candidates’ fail precipitating external recruitment? Here are four main reasons. There may be others, but my experience as a panelist has shown these have been consistent in failed recruitment.

  1. Arrogance: An inherent, unconscious and subtle arrogance you are considered for the position because the organisation desperately needs you and your capabilities. Finally, the organisation has come to the realisation you are the only person who can manage the job. This perception grows in you and is fed and strengthened by your own subjective self-delusional reasoning. In every day-to-day interaction and events, you find justification to strengthen this delusion. The way your superiors interact with you, colleagues happy for you being considered, your interactions with peers, changing relationships and a general feeling of wellbeing. None of these are objective or are grounded. Your Cover Letter is sloppy, your CV assumes everyone knows of your work and accomplishments, and both are done at the last minute as an afterthought. All of this comes across during the interview. Your responses are supercilious and presumptive. Your responses to questions about your work and capabilities assume the panel must be aware of your accomplishments and performance. You find fault with how the previous incumbent performed. You provide a ‘mini lecture’ on how the position should be managed. It is incomprehensible to you why the panel asks such basic questions. They know you and your work. It is inconceivable that there are alternate choices, and you are the one. You leave the interview on this note.

  2. Complacence: The organisation knows you and your work. You know the panel, both in the office and within the larger organisation. Everyone likes you, you are conflict-averse, have never challenged the status quo and have always supported or gone along with every management decision. You do not need to understand or study the requirements or rationale of the position you are applying for. Once you are in the position you will work your way through understanding the job. The recruiting manager is friendly with you and you can depend on her/him. You don’t do a cover letter and your CV is a regurgitation of your current job description. If you do provide a cover letter, it simply states you are interested in the position and are grateful for being considered for the position. You know the questions you will be asked by the panel. All is well. At the interview you ramble. You are not able to respond to the questions. The examples you provide in support of your responses are not relevant. The questions being asked are not those you envisaged or expected. There are uncomfortable silences between the questions and your response. You use ‘jargon’ to explain away ‘follow on’ questions. After the first few minutes into the interview you begin to wonder why the panel is rushing through the questions and seems disinterested in following up on your answers. A panel member starts doodling. You leave the interview a bit bemused, but confident your likability and attributes will land you the position.

  3. Entitlement: You have been with the organisation in the same position for too long. It’s about time the organisation realized this and redressed their failure to recognize your true capabilities and potential. Have you not stepped up and ‘acted’ for this position? Don’t you know all the policies and procedures? Do not other colleagues, including those who are senior, come to you for opinions and advice? You know quite a number of people within the larger organisation, and they know you. Have you not always pointed out to colleagues and anyone who listens to the mistakes the organisation makes? You have the solutions of how things can be run more efficiently and effectively. You do not bring these issues up at staff meetings or other occasions as you know that no one will listen. But you are quite vocal in the corridors or at mealtimes about your misgivings. Being called for the interview has finally justified you…the organisation has realized its error in overlooking you for opportunities and now has come to its senses. The interview conversation is mostly one sided, with you explaining to the panel everything wrong with the organisation and how it should be managed. Your bitterness at management and their errors, and you being passed over for opportunity comes through. You leave the interview with a sense of fulfilment in having pointed out how the organisation could be better run and managed. Your colleagues ask you how it went, and you say, “I gave them beans”.

  4. Preparation or the lack thereof: The very fact you work for the organisation does not require you to prepare for the interview. After all, what can be new? You know the ins-and-outs of the organisation and its work. You are familiar with all the functional units. The Job Description and position requirements are not that different from the work you currently do. More important is the seriousness with which you take your current work, and demonstrate to your superiors how dedicated you are. You make it a point to come in early and leave late, and everything around you and your work becomes drama. By the time the interview comes around you are satisfied you have adequately communicated your suitability for the position. Such hard work, such dedication! The interview soon goes off the rails. The questions are not what you expected at all. The responses have no relevance or alignment to what the panel wants to know. There is an increasing level of frustration on both sides. Why aren’t the panel asking the right questions and why is the candidate not answering the questions? Very soon one of the panellists ends the interview. You leave vaguely aware something has not gone well, but in the end, everything will work out fine.

If you are an internal candidate and really want the position, how do you approach your application or expression of interest and the interview?

  1. Seriously, and with preparation: Make the effort to understand the rationale for the position and what the organisation expects as 'outcomes' or deliverables' from it. Dissect the job profile and identify the capabilities and competencies required. Assess if you have them and you are confident in meeting or managing them. Write down examples of occasions where you have been successful in what is being required. Identify areas where you do not feel fully confident but think of solutions which will help you ‘bridge the gap’. Be frank in acknowledging areas that may be new to you but with opportunity you can learn and master them.

  2. A thoughtful Cover Letter In your Cover Letter, explain why you feel motivated to apply for the position, what value you will add, what innovation you will bring to the position and how you will approach your work. Don’t rehash your CV in the Cover Letter. Mention in your Cover Letter the accompanying CV describes how, when and where you acquired the skills, capabilities and experience relevant to the position you are applying for. Your Cover Letter should be about your motivation, ‘value add’ to the position, how you would deliver on expectation, specifics on ‘bridging gaps’ and what support you would need from the organisation to be successful. Get someone you trust as a mentor or guide to review your Cover Letter. A one-page Cover Letter is ideal, two pages max.

  3. An effective CV: Provide a clean, simple CV. Don’t repeat the lists of responsibilities from Job Descriptions of the previous positions you held. Rather, for each previous position list out accomplishments you have been recognized for and are proud of. Highlight areas of accomplishment that are directly relevant and aligned to the requirements of the position you are applying for. Unless specified, keep your CV to a maximum of four pages. A two-page CV is the norm and sometimes is a condition for the application. For internal positions, the norms may be more lax.

  4. Review and revise your Cover Letter and CV: Don’t edit them to death. Review and revise as much as you can to make sure the key points you want to convey and the relevant experience, accomplishments and the value add that you bring to the position come out strongly. Reducing words and what you want to convey requires hard work. The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in a letter “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte”, which translated from the French reads “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter."

  5. An ‘important conversation’ for mutual benefit: Treat the interview as an opportunity for the panel to understand what value you bring to the position, how you will deliver on expectations and examples of where you have been successful. Do not ever assume or presume the panel knows you, of you or your work. Use the interview for you to better understand what is expected and use concrete examples or knowledge you have, to explain how you will deliver. Only if you are very sure and confident, suggest ways in which the expectations can be more effectively implemented or delivered, or changes innovated. Be frank and honest with highlighting areas where you might need to develop yourself to perform effectively or any support you might need. If you are not sure, say you don’t know. You might be asked about the one time you messed up. Be truthful and explain the circumstances objectively, without appearing to be defensive. If you have taken corrective actions in the aftermath, mention them also.

  6. Ask questions: At the end of the interview you might be asked if you have any questions. This might be a positive sign the panel is favorable towards you. Sometimes this is a mandatory question the panel must ask. Take the opportunity to ask questions. One of the questions you might ask is “Is there anything I can better explain to clarify anything that was not answered adequately?” or “Is there anything else I can share with you for you to be more confident I can take on the responsibilities of the position?”. Qualities of value are ‘situational management’, ‘adaptability’, ‘self-awareness’, emotional intelligence’ and a ‘learning attitude’. If there are no opportunities within the interview to highlight these attributes, ask questions which will give you an opportunity to address these with examples.

Credit: Cartoon by Drew Panckeri in The New Yorker Magazine, May 3, 2016

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