The Interview [Principals]

Jun 28, 2016

by Bob Thompson


Once you have sent your resume to a potential employer and received an invitation to be interviewed for the position, start preparing for the interview.

  1. Before the Interview. The Interview begins long before the Interview begins. To put it another way, the success of the interview depends largely on what you have done ahead of time to prepare for it.
    Note: These suggested interview instructions are generic to many positions. Therefore the term “interviewer” can be interpreted as superintendent, school board, interview team, or anyone else that interviews you for a position.

    1. You can’t sell yourself if you have nothing to sell. Build a record of successful experiences so you will have a wide range of expertise to offer a district.
    2. The interviewer won’t buy your candidacy if you seem ambivalent about wanting the position. To make sure you actually do want the job and are ready to move, here are some sample questions you should ask yourself before you go for an interview: (See “Knowing When to Take a Job”, for more detailed questions.)
      • What is my ultimate job goal?
      • Does this job take me in that direction?
      • If not, is there an overriding reason to abandon my job goal and go for this job?
      • Am I willing to pay the price (e.g. upsetting my present board and/or superintendent, moving my family, etc.) for pursuing this course? (More money is a poor substitute for being in a position where you and/or your family are unhappy).
    3. The interviewer won’t buy your candidacy if he/she detects you lack confidence. If you lost your last job, or if you have been interviewed several times and did not get the job, your confidence level may take a hit. Just remember you lost your job for one of two reasons: either your boss made a stupid mistake (at least in your eyes), or you made a mistake from which you learned a valuable lesson. Regardless, today is a new day. Also, keep in mind the old truism that the more you need a job, the less likely you are to get it. Relax. If not this job then it will be the next one. Don’t let them see you sweat!!!
    4. If you agree to an interview, do your homework on the job and the district:
      • Learn what you can about the decision makers (i.e. who will hire you and who will be your supervisor).
      • What successes has the district (or campus or other district function) experienced?
      • What is the staffing level compared to similar districts, campuses, etc.?
      • Study their finances: (e.g. what is their tax base, who are the largest taxpayers, what is the tax rate, when did they have their last bond vote and how well did it fare, etc.?)
      • Get there early and drive around to observe the district. Then sit in a blue-collar café and listen to the conversation. Buy or subscribe to the local newspaper. Check out any other leads or information you can find out about the district.
    5. Think through the interview:
      • What message do I want to get across?
      • What are the questions the interviewer is likely to ask me, and what will by my answers?
      • If I should bet the job, what is my plan for the first 90 days?
      • What are my objectives for this district (or campus, central office function, etc.) for the next 3-5 years and my plan (think boldly!) for getting them there? (Make sure it includes an accountability system for you and your subordinates).
      • What questions would I like the interviewer to answer?
    6. Dress for success:
      • Wear conservative business attire. Your objective is for the interviewer not to remember what you wore. If they remember, it was a distraction.
      • Wear a conservative hairstyle. No slick “razor cuts” or pompadours for men, and no high fashion styling for women (and short hair is usually better than long hair for both men and women). Your objective is to look neat and business-like without looking like you spent more than five minutes on your hair.
      • Men, lose the facial hair. Beards and mustaches will not help and often hurt your chances of being selected. You can grow the beard after you get the job.
      • Shine your shoes!!! And men – don’t wear cowboy boots, at least until after you get the job.

At the Interview:

  1. When you enter the interview room, walk around to each member of the interview team, look him/her in the eye, give a firm (but not crushing!!) handshake, and introduce yourself. Take your time making the rounds and be friendly and casual, even joke a little, to put the group at ease.
  2. If you are offered an opportunity at the beginning of the interview to make some introductory remarks, do it, but in a conversational tone, not a speech. Tell them about your background, your experiences, and your family. But don’t talk over five minutes. And if there is something in your resume that might worry the board (e.g. contract not renewed, not married, etc.) this is a good time to bring it up. It is best to break the news yourself and lessen its impact. (See next item below)! They will see you as candid and you will be in control. But if they bring it up first it will put you on the defensive. Finally, mention one or two complimentary things you have noticed about the district to let them know you have done your home work.
  3. The interviewer won’t buy if they detect you lack confidence. If you lost your last job, or if you have been interviewed several times and did not get the job, your confidence level may have taken a hit. Having gone through a divorce, suffered through your child being arrested for drugs, and other personal problems that have become public can also cause you to lose confidence.
    • If you lost your job it is for one of two reasons: either the board made a stupid mistake, or you made a mistake from which you learned a valuable lesson. Regardless, today is a new day and you need to think about how you will deal with questions that may be embarrassing.
    • If you have personal issues, it is also important to be upfront about those.
    • If you feel any kind of stress when you go for the interview (had your contract bought out, going through a divorce, etc.) there are three rules to keep in mind when going to an interview with problems on your mind:
      • One, break the bad news first. That way you won’t be on the defensive if someone brings it up.
      • Two, don’t blame your previous employer, previous spouse, or anyone else for your predicament.
      • Also, keep in mind the old truism that the more you need a job, the less likely you are to get it. Relax. If not this job then it will be the next one. Don’t let them see you sweat!!!
  4. Also, employers/committee members love to ask “What is your biggest weakness”. The best way to answer the question is to identify a weakness and tell what you have done to correct it, e.g. my weakness is time management and now I keep my daily calendar on my I Phone. Another way to answer the question is to tell them a weakness that they would consider to be a strength, e.g. I spend too many ours at the office, I am overly organized, I tend to be too candid, etc.
  5. Sometime during the interview provide answers to questions the board can’t ask, e.g. religion, marital status, number and ages of children, etc.
  6. During the interview sit up straight in your chair and, when you want to emphasize a point, lean forward.
  7. Ask if they mind you taking notes and then take notes so you will remember the question or a point you want to make when it comes time to answer the question.
  8. When you listen, listen intently and make eye contact.
  9. When you speak, pause and think before you speak and when you do speak make eye contact. And never, ever act like you want to say something while the interviewer is speaking. When you do, you are sending the message that what you are about to say is more important than what the interviewer is saying.
  10. Give short answers of no more than a minute. If the interviewer wants more information he/she will ask for it. (If you give an in-depth answer to every question the interviewer will also be thinking about how long the meetings will be if they hire you).
  11. If you don’t understand a question, ask a clarifying question or for the question to be repeated. Never launch into an answer when you aren’t sure about the question.
  12. If you think a question is “loaded” or a private hobbyhorse of one interviewer, you can say “I’ll be happy to answer the question, but let me get a little background. Has that been a major problem here?” or “Is there a pretty good consensus on the board that this is a major problem?” Regardless of what they say you should give an honest answer, but at least you will be forewarned.
  13. Give two answers to every substantive question. Give one for the left-brain members of the interview team and one for the right-brain members. (Example: A question from the interviewer might be: “How do you feel about discipline?” An example of a right-brain answer might be: “I want every child to explore and become all he/she can be, and a free and open atmosphere in the school foster that exploration.” Then say “However (and then give your left-brain answer, e.g.) unless there is order and respect, a child can’t learn and may keep other students from learning.” Then tie the two answers together by saying “I want the schools to have as open and creative an atmosphere as possible without sacrificing order and decorum in the school.”
    Note: The intent here is not to obfuscate or mislead (never, ever do that). Your objective is to tell them what you really believe in language that is easily understood by both left and right brain people.
  14. If you smoke, don’t take a smoke break, even if the interviewer invites you. Most schools now are tobacco free and the interviewer may be concerned about how you will handle smoking on the job. Better yet, give up smoking -you’ll live longer!!!
  15. When it is your turn to ask questions, don’t hesitate to ask direct questions. Some examples are:
    • I noticed your teacher/pupil ratio in the high school is low, which I like if you can afford it. Is this by design or did it just evolve over time?
    • What is the strength of this district/campus/central office function, etc.?
    • In what areas can this district/campus/central office function, etc. improve?
    • Will I be allowed to pick my team and assign or reassign them as is necessary to best accomplish your expectations for me?
  16. Don’t be afraid to disagree with an interviewer, but do it politely!!! The characteristic most valued by most interviewers is candor. You can be direct and say “I don’t agree.” Or you can be less direct and say “There is another way of looking at that.” But if you disagree with the interviewer, say it. If you lose out on a job for holding and expressing an opinion, count yourself lucky that you didn’t get the job only to find out later that they don’t value what you think.
  17. Don’t ask about money or benefits and don’t volunteer what salary and benefits you expect or need. The best time to negotiate those is when they call you to offer you the job.
  18. But if the interviewer asks you what salary and benefits you expect it is usually best to give them an upper end but “soft” answer. If you give a hard number you risk pricing yourself out of the job or, conversely, asking too little and leaving money on the table. It is usually better to say “I was thinking of something in the (quote a figure in the upper range of what you expect they will pay) range, but if salary is a sticking point we can talk about that”. You have laid out an ambitious expectation, but you have also let them know it is negotiable. And unless you see this as your last job before you retire, a larger traveling allowance is just as valuable as salary. Whole life insurance (with a cash value), an annuity, buying your out-of-state retirement years for TRS credit, etc. are other examples of ways to increase your income without your salary becoming a political liability to you or the board.
  19. When you finish the interview conclude by looking them in the eye and telling them that you really want this job. Shake hands again with each interview team member, comment on what a good a job they did in the interview, and make your exit. Don’t hang around. But do give them your cell phone number in case they think of another question while you are driving home. (It also gives them a chance to call you and offer the job before they leave!)

After the Interview:

  1. Wait a day then send the interview team leader a personal, hand-written note expressing your thanks for the interview and your pleasure in meeting them.
  2. If they have used a search consultant and you don’t get the job, call the consultant and ask how you might improve and/or what were the comments of the interview team? Then listen. What ever you do don’t criticize the interview team or their decision. The interviewer may be stupid (they obviously are if they don’t hire you) and you may be the best candidate by far. But the fact remains that they didn’t hire you. The question is “what did you do (or not do) in the interview that caused them to pass over you”? Grow from the experience and begin preparing for your next interview.
  3. Finally, keep the job-hunting statistics in mind. If forty people applied for the position and the board decided to interview four, you had one chance in ten of getting an interview, and only one chance in forty of getting the job. Don’t despair and don’t assume after two or three applications that the consultant has something against you or that there is something wrong with you. Dust yourself off, brush up your resume and interviewing skills, and apply for the next position.