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Congratulations! Your resume or application has passed muster, and you have been asked for an interview. Give yourself a pat on the back because that can be the biggest hurdle. But be aware that this is the stage where things really begin to get interesting!

An interview—whether it’s conducted over the phone, via Zoom, or in person—will make or break your chances of being offered the job, so it pays to be prepared. Following are some recommendations to keep in mind as you ready yourself for the big event.

Research the Local Government

  • Get to know the issues the host local government is dealing with. Local governments often post this information on their website. Read the past few council agendas.
  • Read through the archives of the local newspaper or local bloggers to get a different perspective on the issues. If there is a local chamber of commerce, review its website as well.
  • Find out who the key staff members are for the host government (such as the city/ county manager, assistants, department heads, etc). Visit the city/county manager’s website as well as their LinkedIn pages. Learn some details about the city/county manager’s approach to local governance, if possible.
  • If you’re a member of ICMA, you can learn more about the manager’s work history using ICMA’s Who’s Who, the largest database of local government professionals with over 85,000 listings). Contact managers and members in neighboring communities. You could also contact ICMA senior advisors in the area.
  • Familiarize yourself with the key functions, roles, and responsibilities of the government in general and the city/county manager’s office in particular.
  • Learn as much about the government’s financial status as possible (from audits, annual reports, most recent budget, and so on). If available on the website, read through their most recent budget and strategic plan. (If not available online, ask the host government if they can provide you with a hard copy).
  • Get to know which industries/companies contribute to the local economy.
  • Check the council meeting minutes for the past 24 months.
  • Arrive in town before the interview to look around and meet with people who are familiar with the area, even residents and shop owners.

Anticipate and Prepare for Questions Most Likely to Be Asked

While there are no perfect answers, some thought and discussion about potentially tricky interview subjects can help you avoid disaster. The following list of interview questions that tend to trip up job candidates has been taken from the most-read article on, “25 Tricky Interview Questions and How to Answer Them,” by Peter Studner.

What salary are you looking for? Whenever possible, do not provide a specific answer to this question until the negotiations phase, after a position has already been offered. To defer the discussion, try returning the focus back to the interviewer and noting: “It’s hard to discuss salary without knowing more about the job or responsibilities.” Or, if you are discussing a specific job: “What is your range?” Then relate your experience to the salary range without being precise: “I think my experience would put me near the high end of your range, don’t you?”

What were you making in your last job? If at all possible, do not volunteer information about your past salary. A diplomatic way to put the salary question aside is to reply, “I was well compensated in my previous position, but really do not wish to prejudice myself here by being too high or low. Can we delay this until after we’ve looked at all the aspects of your current needs? What is your range for this job?”

Have you ever been fired? If the answer is yes, have a good explanation worked out and test it with friends. For instance: “We had a change in general managers, and although I had been doing a great job as you can see from my accomplishments, I was let go for one of his former associates.” Or: “We would like to relocate to this area, so that’s why I’m looking around.”

Can you work under pressure? Indicate that you can and ask the interviewer how much pressure is involved in the position. Learn what the interviewer means by pressure. The definition can vary significantly from person to person and local government to local government. If you are a pro at pressure jobs, describe a few accomplishments or high-pressure situations you’ve found yourself in and how you’ve successfully handled them.

What did you think of your last supervisor? Whatever your true feelings might be, stay positive. This is not the time or place to list your boss’s shortcomings or frustrating behaviors. Suggested responses include “She was the kind of person I could learn from.” Or: “We were able to communicate well and things got done quickly.”

What is your greatest strength? Before interviewing, reflect on your personal strengths and make a list of them (e.g., “natural number sense,” “able to multitask,” “good with people,” “able to teach others,” etc.). Then tie each of them to a professional accomplishment. When asked this question in an interview, answer with the strength you feel best fits the position being discussed, and be sure to offer the anecdote that goes with it. Conclude your response by asking the interviewer if this is the kind of quality that would help the organization.

What is your greatest weakness? As with your strengths, prepare a list of weaknesses beforehand. This time, tie each weakness back to what could also be considered a strength. Your answer can be, for example, “I like to get things done. Sometimes I get impatient, but I’m getting a handle on it.” Or maybe you have actually come up with a way to mitigate your weakness: “I’m a stickler for details, but I do not want to be a micromanager. So at my last job, I asked each staff member to devise their own checklist of weekly tasks. It gave them some autonomy and satisfied my desire for quality control.”

You’ve moved around a lot; how long would you stay with us? Make sure that your answer doesn’t make you seem indecisive, fickle, or uncommitted. A good answer might be, “I’m seeking a long-term opportunity where I can learn and grow. Does this come with the position we are discussing?”

What motivates you? Resist the temptation to joke, “A steady paycheck!” Try to tie your motivation to the organization. In addition, you could mention things like the opportunity to learn and grow, to work with smart people who are passionate about their jobs, to innovate, and to contribute to the success of an organization.

What do you not like to do? This is a loaded question. A positive reply might be, “I’m the kind of person who does whatever is necessary to get the job done. When I do run into something disagreeable, I try to do it first and get it behind me. I have no particular dislikes.”

How would your boss, coworkers, and subordinates describe you? Be ready to give some examples of the kind of team player you represent. If you are not into office politics and have harbored good relationships at work, mention it. And remember that the interviewer may ask your references the same question. I strongly suggest meeting with your references before the interview stage in order to talk through your career goals and how they can best support them.

What is the toughest part of being a manager? A good reply is: “Taking the time to surround myself with people who are better than I am in their individual specialties.”

Why do you want to work for us? Your reply could be based on various aspects of the community. The most important thing is to avoid generic answers. Familiarize yourself with the city/county/town and be able to speak to its potential for you.

Why should we hire you? If you know the job requirements and can match them with some accomplishments, briefly share those anecdotes. Then say, “If there are opportunities to do that and more here, then this is a great fit. What do you think?”

What has been your biggest failure? Discuss this question with friends, mentors, and possibly your references before the interview. If at all possible, think of something you were later able to correct. Then the story isn’t just about a failure, but also about a learning experience.

What kind of day-to-day schedule did you have in your last job? The interviewer isn’t looking for a minute-by-minute breakdown of a typical day. Emphasize action, performance, and results rather than administrative work.

How do you feel about the progress you made in your last position? Rather than discuss your feelings, per se, stress your accomplishments so that you communicate your value as an employee while conveying positive feelings about your progress.

Did you have any frustrations in your past job? Frustrations are a normal part of any job, and interviewers know this, so don’t claim you didn’t have any. Relate some of the bottlenecks you experienced, but more important, indicate what you did to overcome them.

Do you like to compete? Competition is great as long as it does not sacrifice the rest of the team. If you are competitive, I suggest relating that quality to the total organizational effort and not to your personal ambitions.

How long do you think it would be before you could make a contribution in this community? Don’t be in a hurry when providing an answer to this question. There normally is a period of transition before a new hire learns the ropes. You might say, “If the transition goes according to plan, I would guess relatively soon. What would you expect?”

What was the last book you read? You do read. Saying that you don’t in this setting is a misstep. But be careful not to fib. Your interviewer may have read the same book!

Don’t you feel that you are overqualified for the position? Ouch! If you have a lot of experience and the city/town/county is thinking of hiring a younger person, you may get this kind of query. A good answer is: “I imagine my experience would make me more valuable sooner!”

Do you mind working for someone younger than you? It’s the job that counts. Stick to the job specification and don’t get sidetracked on implications.

How do you take criticism? Most people have problems taking criticism. If the criticism is part of a formal evaluation program where you can learn and improve, that is fine. “I would welcome the opportunity to learn how to do my job better. Do you have a formal program for employee evaluation?”

How do you spend your free time? Be reasonable. Relay something that you could also pursue in this new community. This is not the time to mention that you like jumping out of planes, even if it is true.

You may not be asked these specific questions in your interview, but knowing how you want to answer them will ensure that you’re prepared to discuss a wide variety of topics that might come up. You don’t want to have to formulate a complicated answer in the midst of an already nerve-wracking situation.

Expect Some Curveballs

  • Be prepared for panel interviews, generally consisting of the city/county manager, an assistant or department head, and HR person.
  • Some host governments may require you to participate in a role-playing exercise (e.g., dealing with an angry constituent).
  • It’s possible that you will take part in a written/analytical exercise. The exercise will test your communication and analytical abilities, generally dealing with the host government’s budget or divisive issue.

Overall Strategies for Success

  • Come prepared. Read between the lines of the job description and really ascertain which skills are being sought. Do the homework on the host government and be prepared to show verbal or written evidence of what you have learned. Make a cheat sheet that lists the top personal qualities you want to convey, the most difficult work/school-related situations you’ve dealt with in the past, and projects that would relate back to those primary job skills the employer is seeking.
  • Rehearse your interview. It’s good to practice either in front of a mirror or a friend.
  • Be confident. Look how far you have come; you’re a semi-finalist in a nationwide job search. You clearly have the requisite skills to earn the job—you must believe that and show it during the interview.
  • First impressions are critical. Show up on time. Wear your best formal business attire. Greet the interviewers with a smile, look them in the eye, and give them a firm handshake.
  • Be excited! This is a big deal. Your level of excitement will signal to the interviewers how interested you are in the job.
  • Answer each question directly. Speak slowly and clearly so you can be heard. When asked a difficult question, take your time and think about your response before giving your answer. Make sure to maintain eye contact with the individual asking each question.
  • Remember to be yourself; you want your personality to come through during the interview.
  • Before ending the interview, ask the interviewer(s) questions regarding the jurisdiction, the position, development and mentoring opportunities, etc. You are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. These questions will help you ascertain whether or not the host government is a good fit for you.
  • Thank each and every one of the interviewers for the opportunity.

Post-Interview Tactics

  • Go out and celebrate. Interviews are tough work.
  • Send personal emails of thanks to all those who took part in the interview process, including any administrative assistants that helped along the way.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask when you might hear about next steps. Sometimes showing enthusiasm for the position can tip you over the edge.


Go in there with enthusiasm, a great attitude, and believe in yourself. Good luck! Learn more about careers in local government and professional management here.



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