I’ve been sharing in this series on professional growth about things like mentorship, writing your resume and public speaking. This week I thought I would speak a little about preparing for the interview.
My first word to you would be to Celebrate! The higher your journey takes you, the less opportunities there are – so it is increasingly difficult to get that coveted interview. When you are bestowed an opportunity to interview for a position, take a moment in the midst of the preparation to celebrate!
Hands-down, the most important key to a successful interview is to Do Your Homework! One of the main things that will set you apart from others is your knowledge of the organization and the role that you are walking into. My very first leadership position came about because of my homework… I had my eye on a specific Assistant Principal for Curriculum position at an area district. The leader of my Principal Academy was going to that district to conduct a training and I asked him to put in a good word for me. Three hours later while I was in our principal academy class, someone walked in and handed me a note to call the Assistant Superintendent of that very district. She had connected with our Program Lead and was inviting me to visit with her. We hit it off and she took me to the Campus Principal’s office. He was cordial and asked a few questions but shared that he didn’t think he could find the right person for that particular position and had already told HR to close the position. I told him I understood, but mentioned that I had been reviewing their AEIS report and saw that they were 2 students away from being Academically Unacceptable in Math and asked if they had been considering any specific intervention programs for those students. He smiled, put his pen down and asked me if I wanted to take a tour. I was hired at the end of our visit. Doing your homework matters!
This is just a snippet of the things I reviewed in preparation for the superintendent role in Gunter ISD. I read every newsletter for the last 12 months; reviewed every audit report and AEIS/TAPR Report for the last 5 years; studied every bond committee meeting summary and presentation; read every board agenda for the last 12 months; researched every board member; studied their Org Chart – the list goes on…
You may not be applying for the superintendency but this holds true for any position you desire. One of our coaches was interested in becoming a Head Coach and I offered to walk him through a mock interview prior to his real-deal interview. He walked in and not only had a detailed presentation of materials that were customized for the district he would be interviewing with, he had the team’s JV & Varsity roster out to the side with notes beside each name of what he saw from watching film (he got the job). Another one of our coaches showed up to a couple of our sub-varsity and youth games prior to interviewing with us and spoke in depth about every returning Varsity player (she got the job). Preparation matters.
I would also encourage you to Dive Deep on your answers. I joked in an earlier blog that I had a superintendent interview where I answered their 21 questions in about 21 minutes (not my best moment 🤦🏻♀️)… You don’t want to ramble by any means, but you do want to go well below the surface on your answers. I love the iceberg analogy. When we answer questions, we want to not just share our knowledge and answer the “what” – the “head” part of the answer. We also want to go into the “how” and the “why” – the values and beliefs, or the “heart” part of what drives our decisions and actions.
So what does that look like in an interview? Take a question about working through conflict or a contentious situation: The “what” talks about finding the root cause of the problem, bringing people together and trying to work towards consensus. The “how” talks about the time you were shifting curriculum programs and how you met with every campus to share information and listen for feedback; how you used that program as a foundation but then allowed your teachers to customize it to meet the needs of your students; and how you worked with specific individuals who were still struggling with the decision until they understood “why” you were doing what you were doing.
Along the same lines as going deep, I would encourage you to try to Lift the Language. One of the questions from my first interview asked how I evaluate staff. My answer never went past the shallow “what” (clearly, as I only took 60 seconds per question – LOL). I talked about my training in PDAS and T-TESS/T-PESS and the steps I took to evaluate staff every year. Lifting the language is thinking about the core of their question and speaking to that. In interview #2, when asked a similar question, I shared that one of our main roles as leaders is to grow the people around us. Everyone in the organization should be growing and becoming better every day. There are frameworks that we use to help guide us in that process but our job is to help guide our people to reflect on where they are and where they want to be and then empower them to get there. And then I spoke very frankly about the very real issue of how to work with people who are struggling in their roles. Nothing had changed about how I evaluated staff from the 1st interview to the 2nd. I just learned how to talk about it in a way that connected deeply with others – because I lifted the language and spoke about a greater purpose.
One of the things I encourage people to do in preparing for an interview is to Tell Your Story. Think about three things that you are proudest of in your current work that you want to share. For me, while interviewing for superintendent, it was in designing our Institutes of Study (multidisciplinary career pathways that included capstone coursework and internship opportunities); assisting in developing a tiered-approach to address impending financial shortages resulting in 100% retention of staff; and leading overall instructional initiatives that led to double-digit gains while still fostering teacher autonomy in the classroom. There is a good chance that they were not going to ask me about CTE pathways in that interview, so I listened for an opportunity to speak about that work within the context of one of the questions they did ask. You always want to answer their questions directly, but there are often ways you can incorporate your proudest work into the questions they ask.
Every interview will have different parameters, but unless you’re explicitly told not to, consider the possibility to Leave them With Something. For a head coaching position it might be an overview of your coaching philosophy and specific plans for offense and defense and how that meshes with the culture of that particular school. For a principal position it might be an outline of your core values and include highlights of recent initiatives and how that plays into the strengths and weaknesses of the school you’re interviewing with. For the superintendency, it is an Entry Plan. When I applied 7 years ago, it was pretty common that this was a “finalist only” kind of thing, but I’ve heard it is becoming more common to have something prepared in Round 1. And for other positions (especially Head Coaches), it is commonplace in the initial interview. An Entry Plan can look a million different ways and range from something in-depth and professionally-produced to something as clear and practical as this one from Tricia Meek, the newly-appointed Bells ISD Superintendent. Spend some time looking at the many examples found online. I wouldn’t recommend creating notebooks that will distract your interview panel while you’re speaking, but I would think about your core values and vision for the position you’re seeking and whether there is something you could produce that would reflect your great work and your desire to make an impact on their organization.
The interview is not just a one-way look for them to determine whether you are a good fit. It is also a time for you to determine whether they are a good fit for you. I jest that an interview is a time for you to Contemplate Marriage. Don’t just focus on getting the job. Focus on having the job. Is this the right position for you; the right organization for you; an opportunity where you will be able to find success; an opportunity where you will be able to fulfill your purpose / your calling; a job where you will be supported and an organization that you fully support. Just like a marriage isn’t easy to get out of; exiting a future-job marriage isn’t always clean or easy either. If it is a large district where you might be interested in future jobs or if there are search firms involved, you need to be careful about not burning bridges. Which is all the more reason to do your homework on the front-end to ensure that you selectively choose the right jobs to go for. In the end, if you feel you need to walk away, do so as graciously as possible.
The interview may officially be over when you walk out of the room, but your work is not done. The Follow Up is important! I always have thank you notes addressed and ready to fill out following an interview. An email also works (and is definitely quicker) but I’m still a fan of the handwritten note. Either way you go, have everything ready so that you can drop it in the mail after the interview. Be specific about what you heard that would make you want to work for them and share a sincere word of thanks for the opportunity to be considered. If you are not selected for the interview, consider asking for feedback. If you’re working with a search firm, it is in their interest to get you placed so they will want to share concrete feedback with you. Others may not be as willing but if you felt like you had a good connection it never hurts to ask. No matter what they share, the response is always “thank you so much – that is incredible feedback.” The decision has already been made so it is never a time to explain or defend.
Seeking feedback after an interview of a job you didn’t get might be helpful, but it can’t change the course of that interview. Consider finding someone you know and trust who will allow you to Do a Dry-Run. Ask your network if they have any sample questions for whatever kind of job you are seeking. Spend time thinking through your answers reflecting on the tips above. And then be bold and ask someone who has experience hiring to do a practice interview with you and give you explicit feedback.
This goes without saying, but Be You! Smile. Let them see your passion. Let them hear your commitment and the purpose from which you do what you do. Let them know that you’re not perfect, but that you’re reflective, coachable and take responsibility for when things don’t go as you had anticipated. Let them know that you are REAL!
Remember that every interview is an opportunity to learn and grow! I’ve had an interview go so poorly that I wanted to walk out and cry; and an interview that went so well that I knew in the midst of it, that I was going to get the job! Either way, be thankful that you successfully took one more step that will help get you closer to where you ultimately want to go!