The Interview [Superintendents]
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.
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. Here are some thoughts to consider when preparing for the interview:
- The customer (board) 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.
- One, break the bad news first.
- 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!!!
- 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. There are two rules to keep in mind when going to an interview with problems on your mind:
- Do your homework on the district so that you can discuss what you know in the interview and ask better question:
- Learn what you can about the board members (e.g. tenure on the board, personal agendas, splits on the board, coalitions, etc.)
- What successes has the district experienced (e.g. academics, sports, band, etc.)?
- What is the district staffing ratio, the teacher turnover rate, and other PEIMS data
- Study their finances: (e.g. what is their tax base? Who are the largest taxpayers? How large is their fund balance? 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 for a couple of hours to get a feel for the district. Then sit in a blue-collar café and pretend to read a newspaper while listening to the conversation.
- Buy or subscribe to the local newspaper. Check out any other leads or information you can find out about the district.
- Have a bold plan that includes steps to insure accountability and advance the institution. The plan might include something like the following example:
- Accountability of the people who will be working for you.
- District success goals
- Program Accountability through:
- External evaluation
- Fiscal viability
- Long range study of graduates
- Increase in Non-traditional Funding (e.g grants, entrepreneurial efforts, gifts, etc.)
- Builds on the strength of the institution by strengthening core programs, establishing lighthouse program(s) that bring recognition and distinction to the district, etc.
- Think through the interview:
- What message do I want to get across?
- What are the questions the board is likely to ask me, and what will by my answers?
- If I should get the job, what is my plan for the first 90 days, i.e. my “entry plan”?
- What are my objectives for this district for the next 3-5 years and my plan (think boldly!) for getting the district there? (Make sure it includes an accountability system for you and the other administrators).
- What questions would I like the board to answer?
- Dress for success:
- Wear conservative business attire. Your objective is for the board 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 back 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:
- When you enter the interview room don’t immediately sit down. Walk around to each board member, 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.
- 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. 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, and tell them why you want this job.
- Sometime during the interview provide answers to questions the board can’t ask, e.g. religion, marital status, number and ages of children, etc.
- During the interview sit up straight in your chair and, when you want to emphasize a point, lean forward.
- 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.
- When you listen, listen intently and make eye contact.
- 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 a board member is speaking. When you do, you are sending the message that what you are about to say is more important than what the board member is saying.
- Give short answers of no more than a minute. If the board wants more information they will ask for it. (If you give an in-depth answer to every question the board will also be thinking about how long the board meetings will be if they hire you).
- If you don’t understand a question, ask a clarifying question or ask for the question to be repeated. Never launch into an answer when you aren’t sure about the question.
- If you think a question is “loaded” or a private hobbyhorse of one board member 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.
- Give two answers to every substantive question. Give one for the left-brain members of the board and one for the right-brain members. (Example: A question from the Board 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 will foster that exploration.” Pause and then give your left-brain answer, e.g. “However, 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.
- If you smoke, don’t take a smoke break, even if a board member invites you. Most schools now are tobacco free and board members may be concerned about how you will handle smoking on the job. Better yet, give up smoking – you’ll live longer!!!
- 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 board?
- In what areas can the board improve?
- I noticed that your fund balance has been declining for the last three years, can you give me some insight into why that is happening?
- Will I be allowed to pick my team and assign or reassign them as is necessary to best accomplish your expectations for district performance?
- Don’t be afraid to disagree with a board member, but do it politely!!! The characteristic most valued by most boards is candor on the part of the superintendent. 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 a board member, 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.
- 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.
- But if the board 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 range of (quote a figure in the upper range of what you expect they will pay), 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.
- When you finish the interview, shake hands again with each board 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 or pager 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:
- Wait a day then send the board president a personal, hand-written note expressing your thanks for the interview and your pleasure in meeting them.
- 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 if he/she would share some of the comments made by board members were. Then listen. What ever you do don’t criticize the board or the board’s decision. The board may be stupid (they obviously are if they don’t hire you) and you may be the best candidate by far. 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.
- 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.