Thursday, April 15, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Interview for First Administrative Job

A new correspondent writes:

I am a faculty member in the humanities at a small comprehensive college, and I may be a finalist for a chief academic officer position at another small comprehensive college. The next step in the process will include an on-campus interview. I've experienced these interviews as an applicant for a faculty position, but can you give me any insight as to what I should expect when the position is an administrative one? What advice would you give for someone experiencing his or her first-time on-campus interview for an academic administrative position? What are questions that various constituencies may pose that will be different from the first two rounds of interviews? What questions should I ask at this stage?


First, congratulations on the interview! Jumping from faculty to chief academic officer is quite a leap, so I'm impressed that you've made it to the interview stage.

Having been through several of those, I've noticed a few patterns:

- The college is reacting to whatever its most recent failures were. Those failures could be anything: mercurial management, political infighting, budgetary drama, whatever. Some of the people there will be looking to you to fix those failures. You need to be careful not to overpromise, as tempting as that will be, since if you get the job you will already have set yourself up to fail. Manage expectations.

- The goal for you is not to get the job. The goal for you is to present a truthful version of your better self. This requires some self-awareness, which isn't part of many people's toolkits, but it's tremendously important. If you get the job because they misunderstood you, you will fail. If you're usually a shoot-from-the-lip type, go with that at the interview. If you're more the 'think first, then speak' type, go with that. Go with the version of you you default to over time. If that's what they need, you will have a real shot at success. If that's not what they need, you're better off not getting the job.

- Have anecdotes and examples at the ready. People will be anxious about where they'll fall in the local hierarchy when the new CAO comes in, so expect lots of semi-veiled versions of "what's in it for me?" Referring to concrete examples of ways you've solved problems or conflicts in the past will allow you to remain true to yourself, and will allow your questioners to get some sense of your style without extracting promises written in blood.

- Many of the hypotheticals you'll be posed will be very thinly disguised versions of specific live conflicts. Not knowing the facts, you're much better off talking about process. If even that's too freighted, default to principles.

- Remember that the goal is not to get the job. The goal is to find the right fit. This may or may not be the right fit; there's no way to know yet.

Part of finding that out involves you asking the right questions. Those will be contextual, and will require you to listen well. In an interview for a deanship back in the early oughts, I asked the outgoing interim dean if the faculty were unionized, expecting a yes or a no; he responded "not yet." From that point on, I knew what to ask about and what to look for. (I dodged a bullet with that one. A few months later, the CAO had been run out of town, and a few months after that the Presidency changed hands.)

Of course, there are the usual standbys. Students will ask about textbook costs, faculty will ask about your support for professional development, staff will ask about your relations with staff (which is a proxy for their relations with faculty), and other administrators will ask about your management experiences.

Good luck! I hope you're able to find the right fit.

Wise and worldly readers -- any tips to share?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Great advice all around. I'd also suggest being prepared to talk about what you do when you move into a new situation--what's your own process for being the new person in a new situation? Do you tend to sit back and watch for a year? Pick an immediate priority and engage people to act on it? Set up advisory committees? Go around and schmooze? I think many of the constituencies would be interested in that.
 
We had one candidate for a dean position who ended every answer to a question with some variation on "but of course I would have to get more data before I could answer that question." He did not get hired.

Look for ways that what people say they want differ from what they indicate they want through other non-verbal means. They may say that they want an outside person to lead them but if you talk to people, you will get a sense if that is really true. Likewise, I came from a faculty that talked a lot about the importance of faculty research - even though they themselves didn't do any. Those inconsistancies can tell you more about a place than anything people say.
 
It's entirely possible that the "above" folks will be looking for something very different than the "below" folks. Facutly may want someone who will support their vision of how things should be, for example, against an upper management that (from their POV) wants to shove the academic world into an increasingly business-like model. The higher-ups may want a =cough= "change agent" who can get a (again, from their POV) recalcitrant faculty to accept an "evidence based" culture. Every school will have these kinds of conflicts, but if they run too deep it's going to put a dean or VPI into a very difficult position.

Personally, I also appreciate someone who works a disclaimer into answers about process/procedure: "I'm going to answer this based on my experience. The processes are different at every college, though, so I'd be sure to adapt my approach accordingly if I were the successful candidate."

This may be somewhat personal, but I think a lot of interviewers are put off by someone whose answers consistently seem to assume they are going to get the job: "The first thing I will do . . ." Too much of that starts to sound a bit overbearing and cocky.
 
Go with the version of you you default to over time.

No better advice in any situation.
 
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