A reader writes:
I've got a second round (final) interview for a state agency department district director position next Monday. I had been told the top 2 candidates would be moving on to this second round, so I assume that I am a good position here and want to make the best possible impression. I've been actively job searching for about 3 months now, as I was terminated from my last position as an Executive Director at a small non-profit for what they said was "not the right fit" (I had only been there 6 months) and they have since restructured and eliminated this position at this point. It was a tough situation for me, but I learned a great deal from the experience and am ready to move forward professionally.
For the first part of the interview, I have been asked to make a 10 minute Powerpoint presentation on a relevant topic of my choice. Then the panel has a set of questions for me. I have never had to do a presentation as part of the interview process before. Do you have any advice on this? There is a topic that is a natural fit for me based on my past experience and expertise that I believe would be interesting to all of the panel (I asked who the audience was when I was offered the interview), but maybe they would be expecting that...should I choose a topic that might be a little more work for me to prepare, but would demonstrate a larger breadth of knowledge?
I have also been asked to bring along a list of references of people who have supervised me. I've got just a couple, as I have been working since grad school but have had only 3 employers in 11 years -- the first two were about 5 years each, and then this last one was the short one. During the last month I have also been working temporarily as a PT project manager at a local business school and will ask my supervisor there to be a reference as well. Would it be better if I asked for a written letter of reference from the chair of the non-profit board that I reported to at my last job, to try to mitigate the circumstances of my leaving their organization? I feel it would be a red flag not to include a reference for that most recent position, and back when this was all going on he said that he would be able to give me a positive reference...but I am just not 100% confident about this. What would you suggest?
On the Powerpoint presentation, I think I'd go with the topic that you're the most comfortable with and feel most at ease answering questions about. You can even explain that you considered the other topic but decided to go with this one as it'll provide a better example of your work. I think they'll actually prefer that, and here's why: A colleague of mine who I often do interviews with will frequently pick out something from a candidate's resume that doesn't have much (or anything) to do with the job we're interviewing for and ask a ton of questions about it. The reason he does this is that when you get a candidate talking about something they're really comfortable with, you can see a lot about how their brain works, and that's really valuable -- even if the topic itself isn't directly correlated to the job they're interviewing for. Which is a long way of saying to pick the topic you know best; you'll do a better job.
On the reference issue, I'm not a huge fan of letters of reference. Any good employer is going to want to call that reference and ask probing questions, so the value of a letter is pretty limited. What I'd recommend instead is that you call the reference yourself, explain that you're in the final stages for a job you really want, and ask what sort of reference they're likely to give you so that you can make an informed decision about whether to offer them up or not. If you choose to leave that reference off, when you offer the list of references, you could explain it by saying, "I picked the people who worked with me the longest and know me the best, but let me know if you'd like contact info for anyone else." (Keep in mind, of course, that they can call any former employer, whether they're on your reference list or not, but this approach gives you some measure of control over it.)
Good luck! Let us know how it goes.