APS Executive Level 2 (EL2)
Equivalent State Government Level:
A Director at the EL2 level is responsible for delivering in a particular policy or program area, or corporate function, by overseeing a team of specialists.
An EL2 reports directly to the SES officers above them, and as such are often relied upon for providing accurate, high-level strategic advice on short (or no) notice, including to the Minister and their advisory staff.
The Director is responsible for representing the Department at a senior level at external meetings, including with counterparts in other agencies on joint policy priorities and ensuring that the priorities of the Government of the day are achieved effectively and with minimal fuss.
As a senior manager, the Director is responsible for the recruitment of staff into their team, as well as overseeing the performance and development of each individual in their team, so that they may achieve their own personal career goals. A large part of this role entails extending opportunities for personal development and training to staff and providing adequate opportunities to develop the skills necessary for advancement.
Fundamentally, the Director is responsible for the performance and output of their section; a strong, high-performing Director-level team will make a Senior Executive Service (SES) officer look good within the organisation and being part of such a team will accelerate your own career.
Government Selection Criteria:
The information below is taken from the ‘Integrated Leadership System’, published by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) and common to all Federal Government Departments, Agencies and Statutory Corporations. Most State and Local Governments have adopted these criteria (or criteria close to them).
Accordingly, whichever Government job you are pursuing, you should find this guidance to be an excellent place to start.
Shapes Strategic Thinking
Inspires a sense of purpose and direction
Translates the strategy into operational goals and creates a shared sense of purpose within the business unit.
Engages others in the strategic direction of the work area, encourages their contribution and communicates expected outcomes.
Understands the organisation’s objectives and links between the business unit, organisation and whole of government agenda.
Considers the ramifications of a wide range of issues, anticipates priorities and develops long-term plans for own work area.
Harnesses information and opportunities
Gathers and investigates information from a variety of sources, and explores new ideas and different viewpoints.
Probes information and identifies any critical gaps.
Maintains an awareness of the organisation, looks for recent developments that may impact on own business area and finds out about best practice approaches.
Shows judgment, intelligence and commonsense
Undertakes objective, critical analysis and distils the core issues.
Presents logical arguments and draws accurate conclusions.
Anticipates and seeks to minimise risks.
Breaks through problems and weighs up the options to identify solutions.
Explores possibilities and creative alternatives.
The EL2 level is a major step up in all areas, but strategic thinking is one of the most critical. As an EL2 officer you will be involved in many high-level discussions and decisions on the strategic direction of your policy area and also policy settings for the Government as a whole.
You will no longer be able to focus on all detail of the policies but will need to remain constantly abreast of the important information and developments. This is a balancing act that will require you to apply your own judgement every single day to ensure you aren’t too bogged down in the detail, or worse, left flat-footed in a high-level meeting.
As the interface between your section and the Senior Executive, you have two main roles – to articulate and model how your section is going to support the strategic objectives of the Department, and to shield your staff from the forces pulling them in all directions and ensuring their work remains focused on the pursuit of these objectives. It is easy to get side-tracked by the latest urgent distraction, but it is your responsibility to ensure everyone in your team understands what your priorities are.
This will require a great deal of vision and focus on the future. Many Directors struggle with this, but if you are only ever looking backward you will be surprised and upset by each new development that comes your way and never feel like you are on the front foot. A good EL2 will always be scanning the horizon and anticipating what is to come, so that when it arrives their team will be prepared to handle it.
Don’t forget that you are only one person, but all of your employees will take their cues from you. If you are organised and inspire a team to focus on delivering important, well-defined outcomes in a calm and orderly manner, your efforts will be magnified many times and you will have performed well.
Think about your work history, your management style – what are your strengths, and where have you fallen short? Ask those you have managed to give you fair feedback, and take what they say on board. Often, a small course correction can yield very significant results.
Builds organisational capability and responsiveness
Evaluates ongoing project performance and identifies critical success factors.
Instigates continuous improvement activities.
Responds flexibly to changing demands.
Builds teams with complementary skills and allocates resources in a manner that delivers results.
Marshals professional expertise
Values specialist expertise and capitalises on the knowledge within the organisation as well as consulting externally as appropriate.
Manages contracts judiciously.
Contributes own expertise to achieve outcomes for the business unit.
Steers and implements change and deals with uncertainty
Establishes clear plans and timeframes for project implementation and outlines specific activities.
Responds in a positive and flexible manner to change and uncertainty.
Shares information with others and assists them to adapt.
Ensures closure and delivers on intended results
Strives to achieve and encourages others to do the same.
Monitors progress and identifies risks that may impact on outcomes.
Adjusts plans as required.
Commits to achieving quality outcomes and ensures documentation procedures are maintained.
Seeks feedback from stakeholders to gauge satisfaction.
As an EL2 it is your job to ‘steer the ship’. You are ultimately responsible for delivering on the objectives for your section, however they are defined.
You have a number of tools at your disposal to achieve this, but the most important asset you have will be your team – they are the ones who will be implementing your requests and producing the work.
You must, therefore, clearly demonstrate that you have a history of investing in your team to ensure they will perform at their best, and that you are able to identify areas for improvement and work with them to close these gaps (whether through training or by exposing them to more on-the-job challenges and opportunities).
As you will be responsible for leading the implementation of the broader strategic objectives of the Department, you must also demonstrate your willingness to invest time in communicating these to your staff including, crucially, how they are expected to operate in pursuit of the priorities you set.
It will also be incumbent upon you to draw on resources – especially knowledge – from around your own organisation and, as necessary, outside. Accordingly, your history of identifying helpful partners is achieving results on an organisation-wide basis will serve you well as an EL2.
Finally, you will be responsible for overseeing, and ensuring the delivery of, a great number of smaller pieces of work that go on in your section – and of course, ensuring that everything stays on track along the way. You must, therefore, show the assessors that you are highly organised and able to prioritise both important and urgent work in the allocation of duties and of resources, including financial resources.
Moreover, you must demonstrate that you turn your mind to which individuals in the team are best-placed to lead areas of work, as well as who can benefit from the opportunity to develop professionally by taking on such challenges.
Cultivates productive working relationships
Nurtures internal and external relationships
Builds and sustains relationships with a network of key people internally and externally.
Recognises shared agendas and works toward mutually beneficial outcomes.
Anticipates and is responsive to internal and external client needs.
Facilitates cooperation and partnerships
Brings people together and encourages input from key stakeholders.
Finds opportunities to share information and ensures that others are kept informed of issues.
Fosters teamwork and rewards cooperative and collaborative behaviour.
Resolves conflict using appropriate strategies.
Values individual differences and diversity
Recognises the positive benefits that can be gained from diversity and encourages the exploration of diverse views.
Harnesses understanding of differences to anticipate reactions and enhance interactions.
Recognises the different working styles of individuals, and tries to see things from different perspectives.
Guides, mentors and develops people
Encourages and motivates people to engage in continuous learning, and empowers them by delegating tasks.
Agrees clear performance standards and gives timely praise and recognition.
Makes time for people and offers full support when required.
Delivers constructive feedback in a manner that gains acceptance and achieves resolution.
Deals with under-performance promptly.
Building on the previous criterion, the establishment and care of good working relationships with a range of stakeholders (internal and external) is critical to performing effectively as an EL2. This network of support will assist you in generating the best, most thorough and complete work possible.
As at least half of this equation is your willingness to share your own knowledge and resources with others – to be generous in investing in your relationships, so that those relationships will be nurtured. Your history of being generous in your support of others, and helping them to achieve their goals, will set you in good stead.
This ties in closely with another desirable trait – your ability to build a solid, supportive team that collaborates and shares ideas, knowledge and information for the benefit of all.
As a leader of people, you will be expected to provide support, mentorship and assistance to all those below you. You will be judged by their success, as well as your own – so be sure to highlight examples where you have assisted junior officers to realise their potential, or achieve a specific career goal. Your leadership selection criteria responses are critical.
On the flip side, managing underperformance is an often more difficult and requires significantly more finesse and emotional intelligence on your part. For this reason, it is usually a wonderful example to use if you have gone through the process of helping an employee boost their performance – remember to be very specific about the role you played and why you took the steps you did.
Exemplifies personal drive and integrity
Demonstrates public service professionalism and probity
Adopts a principled approach and adheres to the APS Values and Code of Conduct. Acts professionally and impartially at all times and operates within the boundaries of organisational processes and legal and public policy constraints.
Operates as an effective representative of the organisation in public and internal forums.
Engages with risk and shows personal courage
Provides impartial and forthright advice.
Challenges important issues constructively, stands by own position and supports others when required.
Acknowledges mistakes and learns from them, and seeks guidance and advice when required.
Commits to action
Takes personal responsibility for meeting objectives and progressing work.
Shows initiative and proactively steps in and does what is required.
Commits energy and drive to see that goals are achieved.
Persists and focuses on achieving objectives even in difficult circumstances.
Remains positive and responds to pressure in a controlled manner.
Maintains momentum and sustains effort despite criticism or setbacks.
Demonstrates self-awareness and a commitment to personal development
Critically analyses own performance and seeks feedback from others.
Confidently communicates strengths and acknowledges development needs. Acts on negative feedback to improve performance.
Reflects on own behaviour and recognises the impact on others.
Shows strong commitment to learning and self-development, and embraces challenging new opportunities.
For an EL2, this criterion is all about getting the job done – at this level, you need to own your work and lead from the front to ensure your team meets all its KPIs. This necessarily entails a balance of commitment and toughness, and ensuring you remain energetic and inspiring to your team at all times.
Naturally, you are expected to be above reproach in your professionalism and upholding the APS values and code of conduct, but beyond that to lead by example and demonstrate the importance of your work to the team, so that they can follow your example. A large part of this is to absorb pressure from above, such that those below are not adversely affected.
In order to be suitable for an EL2 role you must demonstrate that you understand your role and the impact you have on others – especially those subordinate to you. You must show you have a high level of emotional intelligence, and that you understand how the way you act and behave – especially when under a lot of stress – influences the personal wellbeing of those on your team (and how empowered they feel).
Finally, you need to be a pile-driver. You understand setbacks happen all the time, and don’t let them distract you from pursuing the important goals. The Directors who do not respond to the fires that are constantly appear, lunging from one crisis to another – but instead take the time to plan a proportionate and methodical response tend to achieve a great deal more success, and enjoy themselves more while they’re at it.
Communicates with influence
Confidently presents messages in a clear, concise and articulate manner.
Translates information for others, focusing on key points and using appropriate, unambiguous language.
Selects the most appropriate medium for conveying information and structures written and oral communication to ensure clarity.
Listens, understands and adapts to audience
Seeks to understand the audience and tailors communication style and message accordingly.
Listens carefully to others and checks to ensure their views have been understood.
Anticipates reactions and is prepared to respond.
Checks own understanding of others’ comments and does not allow misunderstandings to linger.
Approaches negotiations with a strong grasp of the key issues, having prepared well in advance.
Understands the desired objectives and associated strengths and weaknesses.
Anticipates the position of the other party, and adapts approach accordingly.
Encourages the support of relevant stakeholders.
Encourages debate and identifies common ground to facilitate agreement and acceptance of mutually beneficial solutions.
There are two critical lines of communication as a Director; up –taking on board the strategic objectives of the Minister and senior executives and down – communicating the key aspects of these strategies to your staff in a manner that both gives them a clear context for the work they are doing and is easily understandable and digestible for them.
As you will be routinely representing your Department as external forums, it is critical that you demonstrate highly attuned communication skills – from small talk in the sidelines of events to complex negotiations and high-level presentations to large numbers of people.
You will also likely be required to attend and represent your agency at Parliamentary Estimates hearings, where you will be expected to defend your policy priorities and budgets – using detailed briefings to respond to highly detailed and unpredictable questioning in a highly stressful environment. You must be able to demonstrate you are prepared to perform at this kind of high-level occasion.
Negotiation is a key skill for all EL2, as you will regularly be required to engage in negotiations with both internal and external stakeholders – whether for a budget allocation, or to seek out new and interesting policy work, or to attract a particular potential staff member from another area. Your demonstrated ability to approach such discussions constructively and in the spirit of mutual benefit will serve you well.
A related, and equally valuable skill here is your capacity to adapt on the fly to changing circumstances – often you will find yourself flat-footed but your ability to think fast and respond appropriately is a highly desirable trait. In any case, your self-confidence and articulation are going to be key to your success at interview, so show them off!
The key element of the EL2 role is being the effective manager of a team. This has a huge number of facets (of course), but the primary attributes of a good Director are the administrative tasks (nurturing and developing high preforming staff, managing budgets) and the delivery of high-quality work to senior staff and the Minister.
Accordingly, while you might not have experience managing large numbers of staff or large budgets at the EL2 level (or outside of the APS), as you will be expected to perform these tasks as an EL2, it is incumbent on you to ensure your interviewers are confident that you have the skills necessary to hit the ground running as an EL2.
The most important thing when preparing your examples for interview (and, equally important, when writing your responses to the Selection Criteria), is that you not only need to meet all the criteria for the role, but also bear in mind the fact that your assessors are acutely aware of the critical juncture at which you will sit once your feet are under the desk.
On the one hand, you will be responsible for absorbing the pressure from the Senior Executives above you (as well as the Minister’s office) – their unreasonable demands, the impossible timeframes, the severe budget constraints – and on the other, you will single-handedly become accountable to your own staff, to ensure smooth workflows, adequate delegation and strong career and personal development as they work their way up the ranks.
Your panel will be trying to push you – to nail down specifics, to stress you and see how you respond, because the pressure cooker of the interview is their only opportunity to see how you might handle the demands placed upon you in this extremely important role.
Everyone in the public service has experienced bad management at some point – a new Director can be a breath of fresh air but if they aren’t ready, their arrival can easily have a major adverse impact on a team. Worse, they can hold back the personal and professional development of their people. If you want to impress your interviewers, show them that you understand that the success of those below you becomes your success and drives progress towards the key objectives of your organisation.
Advancing to the Next Level:
Potentially the most significant jump in the APS is into the Senior Executive Service (SES). Suddenly, the number of staff for whom you are responsible jumps by a factor of 5 or 10, and you shift from being responsible for each individual staffing decision to struggling (but hopefully managing) to remember everybody’s name. Of course, you remain responsible for managing your Directors and guiding their own career development as well.
SES officers are responsible for setting overall strategic direction in their Departments, Groups, Divisions and Branches and for providing politically independent, ‘frank and fearless’ advice directly to the Minister, and the Parliament (via Estimates hearings) on their particular areas of responsibility.
Accordingly, in order to make the leap from EL2 to SES1, an executive must be able to demonstrate strongly that they are operating at a high strategic level in their policy thinking – and not just at the tactical level.
What’s the difference between Strategy and Tactics?
Much has been written on this topic, especially in the military context. In that context, you often hear of battlefield commanders referred to as a ‘great tactician’, while those of the high command (take for example, Sir Winston Churchill) often spoken of as ‘great strategists’.
The difference is subtle, but crucial.
The tactician’s job is to understand the desired policy direction and figure out, using the tools available to them, how to best implement that policy in light of all relevant factors. If you were playing chess, this would be the equivalent of looking at the board and figuring out the highest percentage move to make next.
The Strategist, on the other hand, starts the game with a specific gambit in mind. They react to their opponent’s moves, of course, but conduct the game according to their overall plan, which was laid out ahead of time. This provides them with a blueprint for success, and the ability to foresee roadblocks that might inhibit their prospects of success several moves down the road. Then, they change their tactics to prevent the blockage before it happens.
In the public service context, this is the equivalent of anticipating a policy initiative that might provide a benefit to the Australian people, directing detailed research, preparing a detailed submission and plan of execution and submitting it to a Minister with the recommended way forward. If there is one sure fire way to succeed as a senior public servant, it is making your Minister look good without them having to do any of the work themselves.