How to Manage the First-Round Executive Interview

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By Ryan Crawford

As a search consultant for higher education, I have introduced thousands of candidates to executive-hiring committees for the initial interview. Before Covid-19, I would often meet candidates in a hotel lobby and escort them into a room full of committee members. More frequently over the past 12 months, candidates join a screen full of unfamiliar faces via Zoom. But whatever the medium, as soon as the interview starts, I’m reminded how unique and varied this “first date” can be.

Some search committees are warm and welcoming; others come across as rigid and intense. Either way, the initial meet-up tends to be an uncomfortable and somewhat artificial setting to enter as a candidate. Leadership candidates know they must be at their best. Everything they say — and how they say it — will be dissected and analyzed. And the committee members’ personal and professional experiences are often projected onto the candidates.

With the right choreography and perspective, however, the delicate dance between candidate and committee can produce positive outcomes. Keeping in mind the goal of identifying the candidate whose experience and qualifications best align with the committee’s expectations, I offer the following advice for how a search committee can best structure and evaluate its first-round interviews.

Script the interview questions. Many committee members prefer a free-flowing conversation because that is how they approach job interviews in a one-on-one or small-group setting. However, don’t assume that approach will translate well to an interview by a large group. Given the variety of viewpoints on the committee, and the number of topics that it will want to cover, it is better to stick to a script — for the most part. Experience has made me a believer that consistent questioning of candidates leads to a more-level playing field. Some committees may want to limit the number of questions in order to allow time for follow-ups. In planning the number of questions that will fit within the allotted time, a good rule of thumb is to expect a five-minute response to each question.

Keep questions simple. I have been a part of many committee deliberations that reached an impasse over the question list. We knew we only had time for 10 questions, for example, but our list ran to 15, so the committee started combining the questions. Resist the urge to shorten your list by drafting convoluted, multipart questions. The more complicated the questions become, the less likely you are to get thoughtful, substantive responses. If your committee thinks the two most critical qualities for success in the position are experience with strategic planning and resource management, then ask two separate questions on those topics rather than packing them into one. A search committee must learn how to prioritize and make difficult choices. Selecting interview questions is often the first (and easiest) of the many decisions the group will have to make along the way.

Ask behavior-based questions, rather than hypothetical ones. For administrative searches, I strongly recommend asking candidates to talk about what they have done rather than what they would do. For example, rather than ask, “In this new role, how would you respond to budget cuts?” it would be more productive to ask, “Tell us about a time that you faced budget cuts in your organization and how you responded in order to achieve your goals.” The best answers don’t just demonstrate what the candidates did (that’s what the cover letter and résumé are for), but give context to explain how they approached different situations, and why. It is easy for candidates to talk philosophically about what they would do, but actual experience and leadership style become evident when candidates provide detailed examples of their past actions.

Don’t lead the witness. If you want responses that best reflect candidates’ leadership experiences and values, try not to point them in the direction you want them to go. I have heard many committees add a preamble to their question, framing it in a way that alerts the candidate to what they want to hear — for example, “We have a history of transparency, open communication, and shared governance in decision-making. Can you provide an example that best illustrates how you approach making and communicating decisions?” While that may be helpful to the candidate, the best leaders for a position are the ones who will touch on such areas of importance without being prompted.

Ask about vision, but not one for your institution. One of the most important leadership attributes is the ability to think about the future and help an organization chart a path toward achieving its goals. Understandably, many search committees want to ask, “What is your vision for us?” That puts candidates in an incredibly tough position, given the limited information at their disposal. Before rendering a future plan, most leaders would want to meet with various campus groups, examine internal data, and better understand the history and context of the place. Information gleaned from the position profile, the campus website, and the conversations with consultants is not enough to shape a substantive vision. Instead, focus your questions on what the candidates see as emerging trends in a particular region, administrative sector, or type of campus. Or ask about past experiences that candidates have had in shaping institutional vision and achieving goals over the course of their careers. A few good questions to get at vision include, “What do you see as opportunities and challenges for institutions like ours in the future?” or “What trends do you think will most affect this particular field moving forward?”

Don’t rush to judgment. I have heard search-committee members say, “I know in the first five minutes if someone is a good candidate.” But snap assessments are frequently off base. First, some candidates are more adept (and practiced) than others at being interviewed by a large group of strangers — that does not mean they are the best candidates. Second, I’ve seen many candidates struggle during the Q&A yet shine when they reach the end of the interview and are able to ask questions of the committee and engage in more of a dialogue. It’s surprising how many seasoned, capable leaders I have seen walk into a first-round interview and show nerves. Finally, remember to focus on substance, not just style. While presence is important for executive and administrative positions, give a candidate a chance to work into the interview and really listen to what they’ve done and how they have done it.

Keep the initial interview in perspective. It’s an important winnowing step in the process, but remember, it is just one step. And it is a unique environment that can lend itself to favoring charisma. Be sure to take the time to revisit the candidate’s application materials. The first-round interview should build on — but not replace — what you have seen in the materials the candidate has submitted. Similarly, remember that more extensive interactions are to come. The first-round interview is a time to assess, “Do we want to know more?” Detailed insights into how successful they might be in the position will come later in the process, based on the campus visit and reference checks. All of these steps are intended to create a more complete picture of the potential hire’s experiences and style, and how those things align with your job opening and your institution.

Take a team approach. Remember why a large committee was appointed in the first place: to bring a wide variety of vantage points to bear in assessing candidates for a major leadership position. The best search committees are open and willing to listen to an array of viewpoints. From choosing interview questions to choosing candidates, there will be differences of opinion. But committees that establish an open, honest dialogue and focus on their common goals and the common good tend to end with the best results.

Ryan Crawford is a principal in the education practice of the executive-search firm WittKieffer. He is based in Austin.

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