Getting hired is the ultimate goal shared by all jobseekers, no matter the particular job or path. While landing a new position is an exciting and necessary milestone in one’s career journey, how does it happen exactly? What is the mix of skills and circumstance that help people navigate this career step successfully? To help answer these questions and more, we have collaborated with the Global Water Partnership (GWP) to bring you the story of a recently hired staff member. From the observations and reflections of those directly involved, there are many transferrable pieces of advice and valuable insights to help you navigate your own hiring process, from reading the terms of reference, through to interviewing and starting a new job.
GWP is a world-wide action network that provides knowledge and builds capacity to improve water management, by engaging government, civil society and the commercial sector to work collaboratively to solve water challenges. In the interview below, you will read reflections and recounting from new GWP hire, Sandra Bruehlmann, who recently moved from Peru to join the GWP team in Stockholm, Sweden as a Programme Associate, dedicated to monitoring and facilitating progress on SDG 6; from Colin Herron, the Global Coordinator of Water Solutions for the SDGs and Sandra’s boss; from Jacqui Gogo, the GWP Human Resources specialist and administration focal point to Cap-Net, UNDP; from Darío Soto-Abril, the Executive Secretary and CEO of GWP; as well as from a member of the hiring panel, Rianna Gonzales, GWP’s Youth Engagement Specialist.
Here are the stories and advice GWP shared with us when we asked them about the journey to hiring Sandra as a Programme Associate.
JWJ: Why is the Programme Associate SDG 6 role important for the GWP?
Darío Soto-Abril (Executive Secretary & CEO): Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is a priority for all the countries and citizens of the world. Within those goals, SDG 6, related to water, is key to this success. The Programme Associate SDG 6 is an important function that will contribute to a better understanding of the multiple values of water and of water’s importance for implementing SDGs beyond the water targets of SDG 6. In her [Sandra’s] role, she will contribute to GWP’s efforts to support countries establishing their national integrated water resources management (IWRM) assessments. The Program Associate will also be key in our SDG activities beyond the water sector. Sandra will also play an important role in assisting us to establish priority issues across water-related SDG targets.
JWJ: How do you capture this in the Terms of Reference (ToR) for this position?
Jacqui Gogo (Human Resources department): The ToR is prepared by the line manager. Human Resources reviews it, ensuring it matches closely to GWPO’s Grade, Roles and Competency Matrix and proposes any amendments as required. In this case, no changes were made, as the position already existed.
JWJ: What characteristics and abilities were most important for you to find in the person you were looking for to fill this role?
Colin Herron (Sandra’s boss and the Global Coordinator of Water Solutions for the SDGs): In addition to looking for someone for this position who had a good enough understanding of broad water issues, the context of multilateralism and the world of water, I was really interested in finding someone with the ability to be highly adaptable and work on a range of different topics from communication, technical reviews, synthesising complex information, preparing budgets, fundraising, report writing, and so on, often simultaneously and with limited information. Therefore, it was critically important for me that the person we hired was a quick thinker with a critical mindset. I would say that, in the mix, that was possibly even more important than the extensive water background. On top of all of that, I was looking for a person who I could enjoy working with, someone with a good nature and sense of humour. I expected that I might have to make a concession on one or more of those characteristics, but fortunately we had an embarrassment of excellent options, and very much found what we were looking for with Sandra!
JWJ: Sandra, what made you excited about the Program Associate SDG 6 position that made you apply?
Sandra Bruehlmann (newly appointed Programme Associate for SDG 6 Support Programme): I have been working on water issues for the past five years with different organizations and at different levels. I have always enjoyed connecting local/national experiences with a more global perspective and vice versa. In that sense, GWP and specifically this position offered exactly that opportunity.
JWJ: How many people were shortlisted for the position? How are candidates chosen for the shortlist?
Colin Herron: In total we received more than 400 candidates for this position! Jacqui, our HR specialist, filtered them down to a longlist of 40+ candidates that were all a good match in terms of the basic criteria mentioned in the announcement, especially experience and education. The selection committee reviewed the CVs and cover letters of that 40+ longlist. To get down from the longlist to the shortlist, we looked at things like language skills, prior experience in similar organisations, in particular in the global south, the diversity of their skill sets, and how motivated the person seemed to be, based on their CV and cover letter. Based on that review, the selection committee members agreed by consensus on the nine most interesting candidates, with whom we held 30-minute screening calls, to get to know the person behind the CV. I’m sure there were many great candidates who didn’t make the cut, but we were very happy with the nine we ended up with. For those screening calls, the questions we asked were grouped under five categories: motivation for the job, alignment between the candidate’s profile and the job description, approach to learning, alignment with the organisation’s culture, and self-awareness with the ability to think quickly. Based on those initial screening calls, we were able to select a final shortlist of five candidates with whom we held a more detailed interview. To get from the nine to the five, it was really about the clarity of their responses and their thinking, which also showed how well they had done their homework.
JWJ: What stuck out in Sandra’s application?
Jacqui Gogo: The value additions that she could bring to GWPO, such as experience with the management of a thematic water network (ResEAU’s 250+ members), transboundary water cooperation, conceptualisation of a new water and youth strategy, and collaboration with the Swiss Water Partnership (SWP). With her gamut of experience in key GWPO thematic areas, her profile would fit well with the Network Operations team, having already had interactions within our Network and worked with our donor SDC. Plus, she had M&E (monitoring & evaluation) experience.
JWJ: Sandra, how did you feel when you got the news that you made it to the next step in the hiring process? What did you do to prepare for the interview?
Sandra Bruehlmann: Obviously I was very happy when I received the message, as hiring processes can be quite competitive and you never know what organizations are exactly looking for or what kind of experiences and skills they particularly value most. For this particular position, I think I did some online research on the strategy and past achievements of GWP and the particular projects relevant to the position, I got an idea of the background of the people on the panel using LinkedIn and other sources, and of course I went through my CV and my previous experiences, focusing on key moments or achievements that I could highlight to show how my profile aligns with the ToR. Generally, I try to reduce my notes to the minimum and I use them only as a safety net in case I lose focus during the interview, as I want the interview to stay natural.
JWJ: What types of questions were you keen to have answered during the interview to be able to assess the candidates for this position?
Jacqui Gogo: Questions focussing on personal competencies and if she would be a good cultural fit, not just an organisational fit, but also what other values and attributes she would bring to GWPO. The other focus was on flexibility and agility. Her credentials and experience matched what we were looking for, so the interview was also to confirm her working style and interactions with others.
Colin Herron: For the final interviews, we asked eight questions, each related to one of the key aspects of the job description, for which we requested longer answers than in the first screening calls. Those questions were deliberately wide-ranging, to allow us to evaluate their strengths and opportunities in many different areas. They included both technical considerations (about IWRM and the 2030 Agenda) and more personal ones (for example about how they describe themselves). We also asked them to give us an elevator pitch on a topic, to evaluate their ability to be concise and to the point while thinking on their feet. The final question we asked was if the candidates had any questions for us, and that was also very revealing in itself, since some candidates had done their research and come up with very probing questions, which also showed that they had a good understanding of the position.
JWJ: Sandra, what types of questions were you keen to have answered about GWP or the role during the interview? How did you know that GWP and this role was going to be a good fit for you?
Sandra Bruehlmann: I usually focus less on technical aspects of the job, but more on the “enabling environment”. If I remember correctly, I think I wanted to know more about the team composition, management style of my supervisor and also about the reasons why the current holder of the role was leaving. This usually already gives me a good first impression of the working environment and whether I would feel confident that this aligns with my values and priorities. Given that the interview took place during the pandemic, I was also curious to hear more about their working modalities.
JWJ: What new information did you learn about candidates during the interview that you didn’t know in advance? What impressed you the most about the interviews for the Program Associate SDG 6 position?
Rianna Gonzales (Youth Engagement Specialist, on the hiring committee): I learnt in more detail what interests the candidates in the job and why they chose GWP. It almost felt as if we (the panel) were also being interviewed, as many of the candidates were very concerned about the ways in which GWP works, as it relates to decision making, communications and flexibility for innovative thinking. I was impressed by how prepared some of the candidates were, as they did some in-depth research, specific to the tasks identified in the ToR. As this was one of my first interview processes for GWP, being on the other side of the table, I was impressed by the preparation for the interviews, especially keeping on time and the diversity of the questions used to ensure that focus was not only made on their technical abilities but also on their soft skills.
JWJ: Sandra, what was going through your mind during the interview? What were you confident about? Did you feel like you made any mistakes?
Sandra Bruehlmann: You can feel if your answers resonate with the audience, and in that sense, I felt that the interview went well and that I connected with the people on the panel. During the interview, I try to focus less on mistakes that I just made in a question, and more on the overall atmosphere of the interview – this takes off a lot of pressure.
JWJ: How did Sandra do during the interview?
Colin Herron: She did very well! Each of the members of the selection committee gave the candidates a mark out of 5 for each of the eight questions/criteria, as well as for an anonymized written assessment they performed, so they could get a maximum of 45 points from each committee member. The selection committee was unanimous in placing Sandra very high on each of those criteria and for her written assessment, and she averaged at around 40 out of 45, which is really high.
JWJ: How did Sandra differentiate herself during the interview process from the other candidates?
Rianna Gonzales: Sandra articulated her answers very well and presented herself, her experience and what she can bring to the position confidently. She was able to interlink various areas outside of the traditional water discussion and highlight their importance into the conversation. One of the main things that I remember was when she asked about the working environment in GWP and wanted to know the reason behind why the person in the role was leaving. I liked her upfront manner of asking questions and she did not have too much fluff in her responses to the questions.
JWJ: Colin, when you selected Sandra for the position, how did you break the good news to her?
Colin Herron: I wrote to her to ask her when a good time would be to talk, and then I set up a phone conversation to discuss it directly. She was based in Peru at the time, and while she was our preferred candidate, I still wasn’t sure if the position would be a good fit for her both logistically and financially, so I preferred to discuss the details in person, rather than by e-mail.
JWJ: Sandra, how did you feel when you were offered the position? What happened next? Did you negotiate or ask for anything in particular before accepting?
Sandra Bruehlmann: I was very happy to hear back from Colin. Before accepting the position, we had a round of clarification on exact working modalities during the pandemic, and we also had a short round of negotiations on my salary. Once we found a joint agreement, I signed the contract and started working with GWP three weeks later.
JWJ: How did you announce Sandra’s hire to the GWP team, and to the wider water community?
Jacqui Gogo: The announcement is done by the CEO/Executive Secretary (ES) or delegated to the line manager by the CEO/ES. HR sends a hire packet through once contracts are signed and in this hire packet there is a request to the new hire to write an intro paragraph. In this paragraph they indicate their qualifications, years of experience, organisations they worked for or are joining us from, plus hobbies and a fun-fact. An email is then sent to all GWPO staff informing them of the new staff member.
JWJ: How long was it between when you applied for the Program Associate SDG 6 position and when you started your job? What did you do to prepare before your first day of work at GWP?
Sandra Bruehlmann: I think I applied in November 2020 and made it to the last round, but the then-holder of the role was selected (I think that decision was made by mid-December). I learned very early in the application process that I was competing against the current holder of the position, which is always tough, but still felt that it was worth trying because you never know – and it now turns out this was the right attitude. I was then contacted again in May, after that person resigned, and asked whether I was still interested in the position. So, this was a rather unusual hiring process, with a break in between so to say.
Before my first day of work, I asked for some background material on the programme to read through, knowing that the first days are usually very hectic and you receive tons of information at the same time, and I wanted to use that calm moment before the starting date to get the overall picture right.
JWJ: What is involved in on-boarding new staff? How do you integrate a new staff member like Sandra into the team?
Colin Herron: As soon as Sandra had signed the offer letter, and we had agreed on a starting date, I asked her if she would like to have access to some information beforehand, to get her up to speed, and since Sandra not only agreed but actively sought out information, I shared with her quite a lot of background reading on the position and on certain key activities that she would be involved in. That took place over a period of about three weeks until Sandra was able to come to Stockholm and start her contract, by which time she already had a great understanding of many aspects of the position. However, during her first week at the job, during which she had to self-isolate, we organised five different onboarding sessions to discuss in detail different aspects of the position. I organised that more as a dialogue than anything else, with Sandra asking many good questions as I walked her through things. Since I was going on leave just 10 days after she started, I wanted to make sure she could pick up as much of the slack as possible in my absence! Because of that detailed process, Sandra hit the ground running, and from day one I felt sure that we’d made the right decision with her!
JWJ: What kinds of resources or support can you offer to new employees like Sandra as they start a new job at GWP?
Jacqui Gogo: Pre-boarding includes two steps. The first is the new hire receiving the hire packet with information about relocation to Sweden, “A-Z Stockholm” with practical guidelines, plus other HR policies and procedures documentations. The second is the actual relocation to Sweden, where HR and the Executive Secretary office support with advice, logistics and immigration documentation (visas, letters to immigration and/or Ministry of Foreign Affairs as required).
New employees have two trainings to complete on Ethics & Integrity and Prevention of Harassment and Abuse of Authority. In addition, they get their IT access activated and if they are not relocating to Stockholm immediately or working from home (Corona-times), their IT equipment is sent to them and internet paid for them if not included in their rental fee.
For on-boarding, the programme agenda is shared as soon as most of GWPO staff confirm their availability. This is spread out over 3-4 weeks as there is quite a bit of information. We try to have an average of 1-2 sessions per day, of 30-45 minutes per session, or 60 minutes for bigger group sessions. Presentations, tools, processes, and relevant links are shared in advance. The new hire is encouraged to review these and prepare any questions for the on-boarding sessions. This is to focus the session on clarifying and to make it more of a discussion and less of a presentation. Individual staff arrange for 1-to-1 demos of our work tools with the new hire.
JWJ: What is your new role like? What projects are you working on and what kind of work do you do?
Sandra Bruehlmann: My new role is very exciting. I get to work on various projects related to SDG 6.5.1 (IWRM), and in particular on the SDG 6 IWRM Support Programme, which is coordinated by the GWP in collaboration with UNEP-DHI and Cap-Net, under the guidance of the UN Environment Programme. What I like is the variety of activities I am involved in, ranging from more strategic and conceptual thinking to more concrete support for implementation, on a wide range of thematic areas related to IWRM.
JWJ: Now that you and Sandra have worked together for a bit, have you discovered any “hidden talents” that Sandra brings to the team that you didn’t know about from the hiring process?
Colin Herron: One thing that I didn’t know from the interview process is that Sandra is very much a worker bee who can take on many different tasks at the same time with both focus and perspective. She’s also shown herself very capable of multi-tasking and taking initiatives straight away. Although I suspected all of that might be the case from the interview process, there was no way of knowing for sure until I was able to see her work first-hand.
JWJ: Sandra, what have you found most challenging about your role so far? What have you found most fun? How has becoming a Program Associate differed from your expectations?
Sandra Bruehlmann: As in every new job, it takes a bit of time to understand processes and know who does what, so I am still trying to figure that out, but am confident that I am getting there. Given also that most of the staff still works from home, I have really enjoyed the few days when I could go to the office and actually meet people in real life. Overall, so far, my work and role have pretty much turned out to be what I expected.
JWJ: What kinds of talent does an organization like GWP need to continue to make meaningful impact into the future? What do you hope future GWP employees are getting experience and skills in right now?
Darío Soto-Abril: We need innovators, disruptors, and transformational leaders in the field of water, climate, gender, and youth. We are looking for professionals of different backgrounds who could bring new ideas, and who could translate their ideas into action. We are also looking for talented professionals who are willing to listen and understand the needs of different sectors, whether governments, civil society, businesses, and international organizations, translating those needs into dialogues, and moving those dialogues to solutions. The ideal person for us has a mix of diplomatic, innovation, facilitator and convener skills, together with a strong technical background on water and climate related topics. We are looking for do-ers, go-getters, with good humor and with the maturity to not take themselves very seriously.
JWJ: What do you think is the most important thing for jobseekers in the water sector to keep in mind if they’re looking for a job, or embarking on the hiring process, right now?
Colin Herron: I think the broad understanding of water not as a “sector” but as a crosscutting resource that is essential for every single aspect of sustainable development is essential for anyone working in the water community nowadays. It’s clear for me that finding solutions to wicked water problems requires a range of skill sets, and no single discipline can solve those problems on its own, so I would advise jobseekers to increase their knowledge of different disciplines that relate to water, such as economics, social aspects, legal issues, broader environmental challenges and so on, to understand how water challenges are part of a bigger development paradigm. Taking additional courses while job hunting is not just useful, but also shows the interest in learning and developing as a person, which are important characteristics that many organisations are looking for.
Jacqui Gogo: There is a lot of competition for entry level positions, that is, those roles requiring one to two years of experience. We receive on average 200-400 applications from highly qualified applicants including those with five years plus of work experience looking to transition into WRM (water resource management). The profiles are very varied and interesting, and the hiring team find it increasingly difficult to short-list. We look for value-additions, not only credentials and relevant experience. Focus on what sets you apart from the rest as the number of graduates in water, climate, environment, and related subjects keeps growing. Pay attention to trends and in what direction the sector is going – innovation, smart-tech, circular/gig economy, private partnerships, non-traditional funding, etc. Think about shaping your role as we see more and more profit-making companies working in sustainability, including start-ups asking applicants to send in their CVs if applicants cannot find a vacancy on their website matching their profiles (e.g., CORPower Ocean). Search unconventionally – do not wait for jobs to be published; use your networks, research organisations online and make them a proposal.
A recent example: my sister completed an MBA in Energy and Sustainable Management plus an internship in Netherlands HQ in 2019. The France branch was planning to craft her a position after her March graduation in Paris in 2020, but she missed out on this opportunity due to Covid travel cancellations and a recruitment hiatus. I advised her to Google organisations working in sustainability and I started sending her links of organisations working in climate, energy, and sustainability. In 2021 we found Carbon Africa, and she sent an email we crafted together showcasing her experience, willingness to learn and value addition. The long-short of it, they had no position, but gave her a 2-day/week consultancy and after 2-3 months the Director of Carbon Africa recommended her to another consulting firm working in climate and energy advisory, and she got a 3-day/week contract, in addition to the 2-days/week at Carbon Africa. This is the gig economy and networks at work!
JWJ: What was the most important thing you learned about yourself throughout your journey to becoming a Program Associate at GWP?
Sandra Bruehlmann: Maybe less about myself, but more about hiring processes in general: always try to give your best, because if you leave a good impression people might remember you and get back to you for future opportunities even if initially it doesn’t work out.
JWJ: Is there anything else you would like to add or tell others about this hiring experience?
Colin Herron: I’m convinced that we got the right person for the job, and while it was hard work to follow such a rigorous process, now that Sandra is on-board, we are reaping the benefits of that hard work!
Darío Soto-Abril: GWP is a fantastic place to work. We place an enormous value on ensuring that people who join our team feel welcome, and then empowered to innovate and bring ideas to the table that they are capable of putting into practice. We are also rethinking our organizational culture so that our teams feel encouraged to balance their professional and personal life. In this context, we are promoting learning, time for reflection, vulnerability and experience sharing across our teams. We are also committed to empowering our staff to make decisions on their own. Finally, we have a particularly good package of benefits that puts our employees at the center ensuring that they can find happiness in GWP and in their life.