How To Compete With An Internal Candidate

I still remember an organization that I interviewed with more than 10 years ago that had one internal candidate and the rest of us who were participating with external perspectives.  It was eye-opening to hear from the numerous staff how they really weren’t fond of the internal candidate very much and how the organization would fail if she was chosen.  The comments were freely shared and spoke chapters about the environment of the organization.

Needless to say, the candidate who nobody liked was chosen by the Board of Directors and at last investigation of their website, she remains the CEO all these years later.  Either the staff learned to live with their cohort as CEO, the new CEO changed her personality with the increased responsibility or the disgruntled staffers moved on to other employment.  It does appear however that the organization has flourished and grown over the last decade with her at the helm.

Despite what many would call a fait accompli, the Board of Directors did bring myself and my wife to town, had me interview with the staff for 6 hours, drove my spouse to all the highlights of the city and even organized a luncheon with some of the power-brokers of the community in an attempt to provide what appeared from all angles as a fair competition among equal candidates.

The bottom-line was though there was internal strife, the Selection Committee decided on the less risky approach for the association CEO.  The candidate you know, even with verbalized deficiencies is generally speaking a more comfortable choice for a selection committee than an outsider whose resume they may respect but a person they will need to get used to.

Of course no one can assume that such internal strife was evident to the Selection Committee.  Disgruntled staffers may feel liberated in their discussions with outsiders but may not be so inclined to display their misgivings with directors they know and have an influence on their future livelihoods.

Though not always the case, an internal candidate does have the upper hand in a selection process and should always be a factor for those competing in a selection process.  With very few exception, one of my first questions I ask in a interview with a recruiter or selection committee is whether there is an internal candidate?  If I receive a positive response I then must assess whether the position is worth the additional work it will take to overtake the advantages an internal candidate will possess.  In most cases I will not throw my hat in the ring when an internal candidate is in the picture.

Many will argue the reverse and state that an internal candidate must compete during a selection process at a higher level much like a son who plays first base on his father’s little league baseball team.  The internal candidate must shine even brighter because more is expected of him/her is what some will contend.  But no one will argue that a known force does indeed get a nod more often than one coming from the outside world.

So how do you compete with an internal candidate for the position?  The old argument that an internal candidate is stained by the past within the organization and that there is a likelihood that such a candidate will not be as much of a “change agent” as an external candidate who enters the arena with a different perspective and without any preconceived notions is certainly a good start.  You do however want to determine whether the majority of the Board of Directors are interested in change for the organization before you verbalize such an argument.

There is no hard fast rule that an internal candidate, be it staffer or board member always gets the position.  I can certainly name exceptions to such a situation but all candidates should always be aware of who the other players are.

Positioning yourself in a favorable light to a group of strangers is difficult enough without the impression that not all is fair.  It all comes down to your homework and your research.  Your discovery must provide you all the needed information on who is involved and the best means to present your case.  If this scenario is starting to sound like a television court room drama, in many ways it can be pictured as such.  Any lawyer, not unlike a job seeker must be able to present all the facts and sell the jury on why his analysis is so much more believable than his opponent and ultimately sell the court on the positive attributes of his case.

Though no one’s life is at stake during a job interview, your reputation and self-confidence can certainly be at risk.  If you have considered all the factors and have done your homework, the opportunity of a new employment position is yours no matter whether there is an internal candidate or not.

Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations.  He currently is between positions and has written more than 50,000 words or 75 blog postings on the topics of job search and career transition.  He can be contacted at:


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