Preparing for the Promotional Oral Interview

Feb. 8, 2017
Steve Prziborowski provides five suggestions to increase your chances of acing the promotional oral interview.

Chances are, when you applied to become a firefighter, or for that matter, applied for your first job, you probably had to successfully pass an oral interview to get hired. Should you have the desire to take a promotional examination, chances are you will also have to successfully pass an oral interview to get the promotion. For some, the oral interview can be one of the most stressful portions of a hiring or promotional process, mostly because it can be very nerve-wracking to have to talk about yourself, and in the process, “sell” or “market” yourself to the oral board or person making the final decision to convince them beyond a reasonable doubt that you are ready to step into the position and actually do the job you’re applying for.

When you first applied to become a firefighter, you probably had to pass a written examination with a score of at least 70 percent to proceed in the hiring process. When you take your next promotional examination, you’ll also probably have to pass a written examination with a score of at least 70 percent to continue in the promotional process. Many candidates spend hours reviewing material to prepare for the written examination. Reading countless pages in countless books just to be able to recall the information they studied or memorized, if and when they see it on that multiple choice question. As important as that studying was, passing or even acing the written examination usually won’t get you the job alone.

When you first applied to become a firefighter, you probably had to pass a physical ability test in a certain time frame with no safety violations to continue in the hiring process. Many candidates spend countless hours getting themselves in shape to pass the physical ability test, which is usually only scored as pass or fail. While the written examination and physical ability tests are important for various reasons, doing well in those two portions of a testing process do not make a great firefighter, nor does your scoring the highest in both of those phases guarantee you a job either. What usually guarantees you a job or a promotion is being able to successfully sell yourself during an oral interview, since most fire departments usually rank the oral interview phase as 100 percent or at least a majority of your overall final score or placement on the eligibility list.

In my experience, most promotional and entry-level candidates drop the ball when it comes to preparing for the oral interview phase of a promotional or hiring process when in fact there are many things they can be doing to successfully prepare for the oral interview and ultimately increase their chances for getting promoted or hired.

While you may be the most physically fit person, or have the highest written test score, and for that matter, also have the best résumé when compared to your competition, if you cannot successfully present or sell yourself during the oral interview, you will not get the job or the promotion! What it comes down to is that you need to efficiently and effectively communicate your knowledge, skills and abilities to the oral interview board if you want to be successful in the promotional or hiring process.

Now when I say the most important phase of the promotional process, I’m not saying it is the most important phase as related to the position you are testing for. I’m saying it is the most important phase because most fire departments usually score the oral interview as the highest percentage of your overall score in the process. I’ll be the first to say anyone can blow smoke or just talk the talk over the course of a 15- or 30-minute interview, and then not live up to the promises they made during the oral interview. I’ll also be the first to say that when we are evaluating a promotional candidate, the best promotional process includes an entire assessment center, which includes events such as a written test, a writing exercise, an in-basket exercise, an emergence scene simulation, a personnel counseling scenario, an oral presentation and/or teaching demonstration, and yes, even an oral interview. I’ll even go on to say that seniority does not always equal experience and/or quality in a candidate.

I know there are some who swear by seniority and experience and feel those are the only two things that matter when it comes to evaluating a promotional candidate, and while they are entitled to their opinion, my experiences have made me a believer in a full assessment center with a number of job-related events as mentioned above to evaluate who the best candidates for the position may be. But, many departments today still promote candidates without completing a full assessment center, and instead rely only on things such as seniority, a written examination or an oral interview. The oral interview is something that is the most commonly used phase of a promotional process, which is why I want to spend some time assisting candidates with preparing for the oral interview to be the best they can be. Even if your department requires a full assessment center to get promoted, and doesn’t rely on just an oral interview, chances are the final selections for who gets promoted may require you to successfully pass a final interview with the Fire Chief and his/her command staff, if not the city manager or even elected officials.

You may wonder how you can best prepare for your upcoming oral interview. Well, let me offer 5 suggestions:

1. Know yourself inside and outside. You cannot expect to be able to answer oral board questions if you do not know yourself inside and outside. Know your likes and dislikes. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know why you want the position. Know what you have to offer the position. Know what you want out of your life, both personally and professionally. Know what you have done and what you want to do. Know where you have been and where you want to go. Know what areas you are a subject-matter expert in and what which areas you want to become a subject-matter expert in.

The best way to start to do this is to take out your latest résumé, your latest job application, and a blank piece of paper so you can start taking inventory of yourself and what you have to offer. Use that blank piece of paper or other form of note-taking device to draw a line down the middle vertically so you can start brainstorming to answer some of those above questions. Likes on one side, dislikes on the other side. Be honest and open, and just throw it on the document as you start to see the true you. Take the time to really paint a picture of who you are so you can best talk about yourself when asked during the oral interview.

Also, don’t forget to ask your family members and friends for their honest opinions and evaluations on you. Be careful what you ask for, they may tell you something you don’t want to hear or are not prepared to hear! That’s ok; hear them out, be a great listener, take notes, and respect them and thank them for their opinions should they be nice enough to share them. The truth may hurt, and their perceptions are their reality, so don’t discount what they have to say, or immediately become negative. They are entitled to their opinions and you asked them

2. Act as if you are already in the position.

This is one of the easiest and toughest things you can do to prepare for your oral interview. Most successful candidates who do well in the oral interview answer questions like they were already in the position, not like they were testing for the position. If asked a question such as, “given the following scenario, how would you handle the situation as a captain,” a successful candidate would answer it something like, “as a captain, this is what I would do…” An unsuccessful candidate would answer something like, “if I was a captain, this is what I think I would do…” Be confident, without being cocky or arrogant, and when you’re in the interview, play the part and be the position!

Acting as if you’re in the position also means that while you are preparing, you are thinking and acting every day like the position you are testing and preparing for. You’re putting yourself in the place or position of your boss (the person you’re probably preparing for), asking them for feedback on your performance or asking for their advice, asking them why they did or did not do something (tactfully and respectfully of course), and asking them if they can ride the seat and actually do their job while they mentor and are able to directly supervise you should something go wrong or need slight correction.

One of the best things our department did was allow firefighters who are preparing for the position of captain to be able to switch spots for the day and run the calls, under the watchful eye of the captain, who was there to step in at a moment’s notice if needed. This has allowed our promotional candidates to really be confident and also more prepared when it came time for their next promotional examination because they were already doing the job, but in a comfortable setting where the captain could whisper over their shoulder or get things back on track if needed.

3. Prepare and rehearse for the most commonly asked questions.

If you are preparing for the position of captain, there are only so many questions you may be asked. There really should be no trick questions if you have adequately prepared yourself for the interview. The key to preparing is writing out your possible answers in advance (on paper, on the computer, etc.), and rehearsing those answers so you are comfortable answering most of the questions that may be asked of you. I’m not a fan of memorizing your answers word-for-word. I’m a fan of taking the time in advance to ask yourself certain questions as I will share below, and then writing out possible answers and more importantly, rehearsing and tweaking those answers as you continue to rehearse and learn more about yourself and the position, so you can have a well-crafted answer to offer your next oral interview board. Some say you don’t want to come in to your oral interview and immediately blurt out answers as if you have memorized them. I agree with that statement. But, I wouldn’t expect anyone to memorize word-for-word any answer that would be a minute or two in length; I don’t know anyone that good even if they wanted to. My suggestion when you rehearse your answers is to create an outline or bullet points of the key points you intend to cover. If you can at least memorize those key points, and then be able to form sentences around them when asked a question, it will hopefully not come across as canned or memorized answers; instead they will hopefully come across as prepared or rehearsed answers, as opposed to just answering a question with no apparent organizational or thought process that had been thought out in advance.

Let’s say you’re taking the captain’s promotional process. I would venture the 25 most commonly asked questions you may be asked during a fire officer promotional examination include, but are not limited to:

  • How have you prepared for the position in the way of education, training, certifications, work experience, community service, life experience, special assignments, etc. (the opening statement)?
  • Tell us about yourself.
  • Why do you want the position?
  • What do you plan to do if given the position?
  • What do you plan to do your first day in the position, as well as in the first 30 days, 90 days, 365 days?
  • What are your 5-year goals? 10-year goals? Career goals?
  • What are your greatest strengths?
  • What are your greatest weaknesses? And what are you doing to make the weaknesses your strengths or at least improve the weaknesses?
  • What do you know about the position?
  • What do you know about the department?
  • What do you know about the community?
  • What does our department do well?
  • What does our department do not-so-well? How can you help improve that process?
  • Hypothetical scenarios that may relate to ethical issues, hostile employees or citizens, or other challenging situations, to test your values, your integrity, your morals, and whether you can be the designated adult and successfully mediate a stressful situation and make it win-win for all parties when possible.
  • What is your understanding of being a supervisor, or of progressive discipline, and what levels of progressive discipline can you implement at your level?
  • What is your leadership style? What is the best leadership style?
  • What are the biggest issues facing the fire service, or our fire department or community today?
  • What is your understanding of department policies or procedures?
  • What is your definition of customer service and can you give examples of you providing excellent customer service in the past?
  • Would you be willing to take a 40-hour staff assignment?
  • How do you motivate someone who is already retired in place?
  • What makes you the best candidate?
  • Name one project or process you have been involved with at the department that has made a positive difference within the department.
  • What is the most important service this fire department provides the community?
  • That concludes the questions, is there anything you would like to add (the closing statement)?

Even if your department does not ask you those 25 questions in the exact manner as they were presented, if you have taken the time to properly determine how you might answer such questions in advance, regardless of how the question may be posed to you, if you have the overall concept of the above questions ready to go, there should be very few questions that would stump you. You notice I didn’t include possible answers to the above questions, and I did that for good reason. If I gave you the answers that worked for me, then you wouldn’t sound unique and anyone who read this would answer the questions the same, which wouldn’t be good for you if three of your competitors answered the questions the same way as you did just because you thought my answer was great. I want your answer to come from you; unique and personal answers are what makes a high score in the oral interview. Also, it’s not usually what you say as much as how you say it during the interview. Most oral boards do not have actual answers they want to hear; they want to hear you, your thought process and how you justify what you do or do not do.

If you are taking a promotional examination with another fire department, it is really critical that you do your research on the department as well as the community, as those may be questions asked of you to determine if you have an idea of what you’re getting into and whether you will be a good fit.

If you have sufficiently prepared for your oral interview, there should be no trick questions. I hate it when we ask a candidate a question during an oral interview and they start off saying, “that’s a good question!” Of course it’s a good question; we wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t! Don’t restate the obvious.

4. Remember to interview for the position you are testing for, not the one you’re currently filling.

A number of years ago, I was the rater on a battalion chief assessment center where all of the captains who were taking the test failed the assessment center. This is usually unheard of to have all candidates fail an assessment center. When the debriefing session was occurring with all the raters, I remember the fire chief commenting he thought the overall assessment center might be flawed if all had failed. One of the raters then made the comment that has stuck with me ever since: “Chief, the overall process seemed fair and realistic. The problem is it seemed that all captains were testing for the position they currently hold, as opposed to the one they were testing for.”

The rater went on to add, “I assume they are all competent captains who give you an honest day’s work, right?” The fire chief said “yes.” The rater went on to share how each of them were thinking and acting at the task level, when they needed to think and act at the tactical if not strategic level. They needed to have the big picture view, something most firefighters and many captains have a challenging time grasping, not because they don’t want to or are incapable of doing, but because that is not what they usually have to do. Think about it, firefighters are expected to think and act at the task level, and the average captain the majority of time rarely gets out of the task level and into the tactical level—let alone the bigger picture strategic level because they only have to focus on their crew, as opposed to a battalion chief who now has to focus on a number of crews and fire stations. 

If you are taking a promotional examination, especially for a supervisor position (company officer and above), remember that you are expected and getting evaluated on your ability to think at the level you are aspiring to if not at least one level above. Do what it takes to be able to not just talk that talk, but walk that walk. If you’re not sure about what it means to think big picture or more strategically, take the time to talk with a number of personnel in the higher ranking chief officer ranks such as fire chief, deputy chief, assistant chief and division chief, all of whom have to do that on a daily basis.

5. Prepare for the position.

This is where the rubber meets the road. If you were to do nothing else to prepare for a promotional than preparing for the position, then you should be successful! I know, easier said than done. Too many people focus on preparing for the test; what to expect during the process and how to best prepare for each of the events they may encounter during a promotional process (written examination, oral interview, personnel counseling scenario, emergency scene simulation, etc.). While it is important to understand what to expect during the testing process itself, don’t get so focused on what was done during the last promotional process or the ones in the past. Why? Because promotional processes can and do change, and I have seen many candidates fail promotional examinations because they focused too much on how the process was last time, when in fact had they just taken the time to prepare for the position itself, it would not have mattered what the actual events expected of them during the promotional process. If you want to be a captain, and you have prepared for virtually anything a captain could be expected to do, than it shouldn’t matter what is thrown at you during the promotional examination process.

Ultimately, it is not a question of if your next oral interview will occur if you desire a promotion; the real question is when it will occur. This is where many candidates lose valuable time; they wait for the promotional process to get announced, or even worse, until after they apply or even find out they have passed the written examination, before starting to prepare for the oral interview. Start preparing now as you know there is an oral interview in your future. It is not if, but when!

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