Friday, November 2, 2018

Bidding Tips from an Incumbent

"Bidding" is the Foreign Service slang for the process by which U.S. diplomatic personnel search and compete for future jobs. I got to experience a unique perspective on this process recently when my job was reclassified from an entry-level position to a mid-level position. In other words, it became open for other people to bid on it so they can have it when I leave Nairobi next year.

This was my first time getting any kind of a look at this process, because when you're entry-level you pretty much go where they tell you to go (supposedly after they take into account your preferences, but your mileage may vary). As the incumbent, I was the first person interested bidders reached out to to get more information about the job and to ask more off-the-record questions like how life is in Nairobi.

It's an interesting position because I neither interview the candidates nor make the final decision, but I did pass along information on the ones who stood out to me (in both good and bad ways) to the decision-makers. Also, those who took the time to ask thoughtful questions from me got thoughtful answers that I hope helped them in their interview.

So here are a few tips I'd offer based on my very limited experience of one bidding cycle as an incumbent:

  • Do your research. There was a lot of confusion about my job because it became available for bidding very late in the game. As a result, I had told many people that my job would not be available. One persistent (in a positive way) candidate kept checking in with contacts in Washington and discovered before any of their competitors that the job would be available after all.
  • Keep emails short and sweet. Especially if it's a competitive job with a lot of interested bidders, the incumbent is probably getting a ton of emails. Keeping your emails concise is a relief to the incumbent and an advantage to you.
  • If you want the real story, get on the phone. Everyone has things they're not comfortable putting in writing, especially on work email. It's worth asking to speak on the phone: the incumbent might decline if the timing won't work, but if it works out you will get a much fuller picture of the job and quality of life at post. Plus, you will probably take up less time than a series of long emails would anyway!
  • Don't make your full pitch to the incumbent. The incumbent is not the final decision-maker. It's important to be professional, as the incumbent will likely talk to the decision-maker, but you don't need to detail all your qualifications for the incumbent.
  • It's okay to be out of the office while bidding. Quite a few candidates (including the one we offered the job) were out of the office while bidding for travel or other reasons. This didn't really matter. Just let all the relevant contacts know your personal email if they need to reach you that way (and preferably more along the lines of [email protected] than [email protected]). If you are going to do a call from home or from your hotel, though, make sure you find somewhere quiet with a good connection - not a busy street or a Starbucks or a family reunion.
  • Keep things professionally relevant. This is my personal opinion, but I found it off-putting to get a job inquiry full of personal details about the candidate's family and even pets. It's not relevant and it feels a little emotionally manipulative, almost as if you're hoping I'll develop an emotional connection to your family and subconsciously have a more positive impression. (The exception to this is if you're sharing that you're a tandem bidder and you and your spouse need jobs at the same post.)
  • You never know which part of the application is the most important. There seemed to be a lot of personal preferences and opinions regarding what should and shouldn't matter in an application. Awards, references, pre-Foreign Service background and all sorts of other factors varied widely in terms of weight in the eyes of different members of our team. There's no way for the applicant to know these preferences, so it's better to put your best foot forward on all fronts and not to assume there's a magic qualification that will get you on the short list.
  • Talk positively about previous tours. It was annoying to hear people say, "I've only been a ___" or even worse, "I'm just a ____". It implies they look down on those job roles and did not seek professional development in their previous tours. Two candidates could talk about their former jobs in extremely different ways, and the one who spins all of them as opportunities leveraged to gain valuable insight and hone skills they could use in my job was much more impressive.
  • Be honest about where we stand. Especially if that post is your top choice, let them know early and clearly - but don't lie if it really isn't. It can make all the difference.

All opinions here are my own based on my minuscule sample size of one, but I found the whole experience enlightening and wanted to share. I hope these tips were helpful, especially for my early-career peers. (I also hope someone enjoys the stock photo from the beginning of the post as much as I do!) Let me know in the comments below if you've had a different experience or another tip to share.

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