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The Best Executive-Job Candidates

Written by: Zachary A. Smith
Published on: Apr 30, 2017

The interview process for senior-level academic executives is imperfect. If you’ve been on that market, you already know that. Some candidates describe it as a dog-and-pony show, while others liken it to speed dating. It’s a process that, whatever your view of it, will make increasing demands on you at each stage.

As a former campus administrator and now a recruiter for academe, I’ve sat on both sides of the hiring table. In November, I focused on the employer’s side in an article here on “The Best Search Committees.” Then it occurred to me that candidates might also benefit from advice on what makes them more favorably received by search consultants, hiring committees, and campuses.

So consider this Part 2 of the series. The best candidates share the following tendencies, attributes, and behaviors:

Draft a strong letter of interest. Yes, the cover letter still matters — especially in academe. When crafting one, assume committee members will read it more closely than their own child’s homework. I can say with certainty that they will catch your grammatical and spelling errors; they will scrutinize your use of capitalization; and they will absolutely, unequivocally, without hesitation eliminate you from consideration if you list another institution’s name by mistake.

A strong letter, first and foremost, is thoughtful and well-written. It is sincere and specific in explaining your interest in the position, especially if you are not an obvious fit for the job. A strong letter lists examples of your accomplishments (with a good balance of the pronouns “we” and “I”) and provides details to demonstrate your knowledge of the campus, its challenges, and why you are the right person for the job. If there are gaps on your résumé — or other potential red flags that might raise questions — deal with them head on. If you fail to do so, you can be sure the search committee will fill in the blanks with their own, often incorrect, assumptions.

Stay low maintenance. What do low-maintenance candidates look like? They are relatively self-sufficient. They listen to instructions and they don’t require a lot of hand-holding throughout what is often a very rigorous process. How you act during the recruitment and interview process is a “tell” for the behaviors you’ll likely display in a leadership position. If you’re overly anxious, disorganized, and needy during the search process, your chances of getting an offer will significantly decline. However, if you approach the process in a thoughtful, proactive, attentive, and strategic manner — and demonstrate those and other positive leadership traits — you’ll appreciably improve your candidacy.

Be responsive. Committees and recruiters know you already have a demanding job and are being pulled in a thousand directions. But if you enter a competitive search for a leadership position and have expressed your sincere interest in the job, it’s important to be responsive to everyone and anyone involved with the search. That is especially true for urgent logistical matters. Radio silence for any significant amount of time, especially over 48 hours, will surely raise red flags to a search consultant or institution and will signal your waning interest in the position. Call, email, or text but keep in touch.

Act respectful and gracious. The best candidates check their ego at the door and demonstrate humility and appreciation during the process (even, or especially, when logistical mistakes happen). They treat everyone with respect, including administrative assistants.

A client once told me about a finalist who was generally rude to the administrative assistant tasked with shuttling the candidate from meeting to meeting, but gracious and kind to the more senior people. That turned out to be a fatal flaw to the finalist’s chances after the assistant shared the behavior with the hiring manager.

Be polite, and treat people as you’d like to be treated. Equally important, don’t complain about the rigors of the hiring process. I can assure you that those rigors will pale in comparison to the rigors of the job itself.

Listen to the search consultant. I stole this idea from my “Best Search Committees” article, for good reason. Search consultants can help your candidacy, but you must be open to our help. We ultimately want the search to be successful, which means we want you as a candidate to be successful. We want committees and campuses to see your best self. Strong candidates often make major interview gaffes that ultimately kill their chances.

We’re all human, and mistakes are inevitable. However, you’ll significantly improve your performance if you listen to our guidance. Most search consultants make an honest effort to provide constructive feedback, both before and after the interview process. (Keep in mind that we hear candid views from committee members daily.) We will give you honest advice if you’re open to receiving it. Self-awareness combined with a sincere interest to improve will take you far.

Be brief, light-hearted, and relevant. In front of the committee, be conscious of how long you are taking to answer questions. Committees have a list of questions, often developed over many weeks, and they’d like to ask you nearly all of them. If you are so long winded that the committee gets through only three or four questions in an hour, your candidacy will be sunk.

Second, strong candidates smile and show a little levity. This may be a stressful process but it’s not life-or-death. Always stay professional and composed. The more you are boring, overly serious, and low energy, the more your odds of moving up in the process will decline.

Finally, think about ways to connect with the campus and the committee. Do your homework, but don’t be creepy. If you congratulate a committee member for his son’s winning goal at the 4A soccer championship, you’ll look creepy. But if you share a personal anecdote about the transformational effect that college had on your own life — which, in turn, demonstrates your ability to connect with the institution’s student population — you’ll look empathetic and human.

The interview process is a world unto itself of course, with plenty of good advice available. A few previous Chronicle articles I recommend are those from Rob JenkinsJulie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong, and my colleague Dennis Barden.

Produce no surprises. This point should speak for itself but, far too often, candidates wait until late in the game to reveal serious concerns they have about the job, major issues in their background, or significant barriers to their accepting the position.

One might argue that it’s the duty of the search consultant to uncover candidate “surprises” during the initial vetting, interviewing, and due-diligence process. And in most cases I agree. However, human beings are unpredictable and there are only so many ways we can ask: “Are there any red flags in your background? Is there anything that might embarrass the institution? Have you had any previous employment issues? Are there any barriers to accepting the position?”

Candidates also have a duty to be transparent, candid, and honest. You risk burning a lot of bridges by revealing these last-minute surprises.

The best candidates discuss potential roadblocks head on, early in the search process. They talk openly about compensation matters, and alert us to spousal-accommodation issues. They keep us informed of their status in other searches. Most important, they proactively communicate potential issues that could derail their candidacy if not resolved early in the search process. If you find it difficult to be transparent, then you’re probably in the search for the wrong reasons.

Want the job. I know that sounds obvious, but the best candidates genuinely want the position and articulate their reasons during the interview process. It’s certainly reasonable to kick the tires early in the process. However, the best candidates project a level of enthusiasm, interest, and engagement that is hard to miss. They fully research the institution and have a deep understanding of its current challenges and future potential.

Candidates who are hesitant, unsure, or involved in a search for the wrong reasons (e.g., to get a counteroffer from their current employer) will be exposed by search consultants and campus constituents. Word may get around, too, that would affect your future options. Fully invest in leadership positions you actually want, and you’ll ultimately be a much more successful candidate.

Zachary A. Smith is an executive search consultant who joined Witt/Kieffer after a 15-year career in higher-education administration. In addition to working extensively with education clients, he also focuses on the health-care and nonprofit industries.