How do you strategically prepare for a higher education executive search interview process? The executive search process in higher education is more rigorous than many people expect. If you’re applying for a Deanship, Provost, CIO, or VP position, you’ll need an impeccable CV or resume. You’ll also need exceptional interviewing skills.

Universities and colleges take great care in hiring, especially for senior positions. Not surprisingly, competition for these executive roles can be fierce.  That’s why being prepared for each type of interview you’ll face is critical for landing an executive position.

As an Executive Coach to higher education leaders, one of the many things I help leaders do is prepare for high-stakes interviews. Landing a top position in your field won’t happen by chance.  You need two things: an understanding for how your leadership aptitude translates to executive presence and an interviewing strategy for each critical stage of the recruitment process.

In this post, I’ll walk you through the three main types of interviews you’ll likely face:  the initial connection with a search consultant; your first interaction with the search committee; and your on-campus interview.  You’ll learn what your interviewers are looking for and how to prepare for each interview. I also recommend reading previous posts about executive presence.

1. The Screening Interview with the Executive Search Consultant

It’s likely that your first interview will be with a search consultant.  Executive roles require a thorough vetting process and search consultants specialize in ensuring only the best candidates move forward in the recruiting process.

You must impress in this interview because your performance here will determine whether you move forward to the next set of interviews.

What Executive Search Consultants Look For

Search consultants want to get a quick impression of your qualifications and fit for the executive role.  They typically look for the following traits:

  • Your ability to tell a succinct story about yourself, your skills, and your experience
  • Your level of interest in the role
  • Your fitness for the role based on your qualifications

Your ability to connect well with the search consultant will largely determine whether you get to move on to the next step.  That’s why it’s important to practice the key points you want to make in this stage of the process.

How to Prepare

The first thing you need to develop is a rock-solid elevator pitch which is a short introduction of who you are, your qualifications, and why you want the job. Your elevator pitch should be three minutes or less.

While this is not the time to go into deep detail, it is important that you provide context in your pitch. For example, if you’re applying for a CIO role, incorporate pertinent knowledge of strategic technology issues into your pitch. Relate these issues to campus priorities. If you’re up for a Deanship, demonstrate knowledge about the school’s culture or department accolades.

The interview with the search consultant is your first chance to show how well your qualifications match the executive role for which you’re applying.  Exhibiting strong communication skills and enthusiasm for the role will help you make a positive impression.

Before the interview is concluded, make sure you ask what the overall selection process timeline looks like. You want to leave with a strong sense of what will happen next.

After the interview is concluded, write a short note to the consultant thanking him or her for their time.  In your thank you note, be sure to also reinforce why you’re the strongest candidate for the role by briefly highlighting the top reasons you would be excellent in the position.

A written thank you to each person you interview with is required at each stage of the interviewing process.

2. The Video/Airport Interview with the Search Committee

In this step of the candidate screening process, you’ll meet directly with university or college decision makers for the first time. This second screening interview is typically conducted through video. In some instances, you’ll meet with committee members at an airport hotel or conference room that is easy for everyone to access.

A preliminary step to step two might be a telephone or video meeting with a few members of the hiring committee. The preparation steps for meeting a few members versus the entire team are the same.

What Search Committee Members Look For

Search committee members want to make sure that they hire a professional who is a great fit for the executive position. This means they’re looking for someone with a solid background, an impeccable knowledge base, and excellent communications skills. They are also looking for someone who will thrive in the school’s culture.

In the interview, search committee members will assess the following:

  • How adept you are at conveying your professional story
  • Your ability to map your experience to key themes and issues relevant to the new role
  • How the questions you ask demonstrate your knowledge of what’s needed to succeed in the executive position
  • Whether you’re a fit for the organization’s culture
  • Your Executive Presence, or how competent and confident you come across to others

You must show that you understand the role you’re applying for and that you have both the skills and the experience to do the job. In addition, you need to convince committee members that your core values and leadership style are compatible with the organization’s mission and expectations for its leaders.

Don’t forget that all interviews are a two-way street. In this interview, you’re getting your first look at potential future colleagues and executives. It’s your first chance to ask yourself if you see yourself working with these people.

In the interview process, the smart move is to always present yourself as eager and well-fitted for the role. At the same time, subtly watch for red flags that could indicate the role is not your next best career move. You’ll have time to more fully evaluate whether you want to move forward with your candidacy after the interview.

How to Prepare

Before interviewing, ask for the names of the people you’ll be interviewing with and then do your research on each. Get to know their background a little, what their role is, what their specialty is (provided they have one), and possible linkages with your role and organization. You should also spend a fair amount of time researching the educational institution as well as any department you would be leading or working with if hired.

The more fully you familiarize yourself with the interviewers and the organization beforehand, the more likely you’ll be able to impress those interviewing you. Here are a few specific areas you’ll want to research:

  • Campus culture
  • Reporting structure
  • How this role fits into campus leadership/governance
  • What the organization is best known for
  • Operating budget
  • The number of people reporting to this position

Begin your research by looking at the school’s website. LinkedIn can help provide additional insights on some employees.  Alumni groups could also offer ancillary information that could be useful. Finally, if you have any connections at the school, now’s the time to reach out to your network to get a first-hand overview of how the organization works.

3. The On-Campus Interview

While there are unique nuances among higher education organizations, the on-campus interview process is similar across the board. This is your opportunity to meet with key decision-makers and the top influencers that will decide whether you’re offered the position.

You may be asked to develop a presentation on a topic of your choice to present to the search committee and possibly other interested parties.  In higher education, your ability to teach and demonstrate your knowledge through insightful presentations is considered a must-have skill.

You will have several interviews throughout the day or days you interview. Depending on the role you’ve applied for, an on-campus interview could be limited to a single day or span a few days.

You’ll meet with small groups of staff, faculty, possibly some students, and other critical stakeholders.  Expect one-on-one interviews with your future boss and other influential campus leaders. You may also be asked to attend breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings as part of the interview process.

What the People You’ll Meet On-Campus Look For

The people you’ll meet on-campus will be evaluating you on most of the same things you encountered with your steering committee interview. They’ll just dig deeper as they meet you face-to-face for an extended period.

Other areas that your on-campus interviewers will be evaluating include:

  • Your overall competency
  • Your level of likeability, in other words, would they want to work for you or with you?
  • How well you solve problems, based on the examples of past experiences you share
  • How well you communicate
  • Your level of Emotional Intelligence

How to Prepare

You’ll want to review the research you conducted for the search committee interview.  That interview probably sparked some new things to explore about the organization, so it’s time to take the research you’ve done thus far and drill down deeper.

Recall the search committee’s question from your screening interview.  What questions did they ask? Were there trends in the types of issues they repeatedly brought up during the interview?  Who did you already meet with that will be key-decision makers and what did these people care about most?

Make sure you know at least something about the key staff, faculty, executives, and stakeholders you’ll meet in the on-campus interviews. The higher the degree of influence an interviewer has over making the final hiring decision, the more you’ll want to know about them.

As you prepare for your interview, make sure you also draw from your own experiences. You’ve probably already been involved in interviewing others.  What questions came up? If the tables were reversed and you were the one doing the hiring for this role, what questions would you ask the person being interviewed? Think through how you’d answer these questions if they were asked in your interview.

Prepare yourself by reviewing your top accomplishments as well as the top challenges you’ve faced in your career thus far. What are you most proud of and why? What are specific examples where you faced a tough challenge and excelled?  What have you learned from some of the mistakes or less-than-stellar results you’ve encountered? Make a list of top accomplishments and challenges and prepare to talk about them in detail.

Think about your leadership, communication, and people skills. What is your leadership style?  How do you prefer to communicate?  How do you handle conflict and difficult people?  Prepare to address these questions.

Finally, your Executive Presence will be a key deciding factor on whether you get the new role or face rejection.   I’ve coached many executives on how to build their Executive Presence, so if you feel you need help in that area, contact me.

Next Steps to Prepare for the Executive Search Interview Process

After the on-campus interviews, you’ll once again send out thank you notes to the appropriate people.  In those notes, you’ll highlight the top reasons you are the right candidate for the position and why you want the job.  Don’t just write generic thank you notes; personalize each note based on the conversations you had with each person with whom you interviewed.

If all goes well in the interviewing process, you’ll be asked to provide references. The hiring organization will contact your references, so make sure you contact your references beforehand so they’re willing, able, and ready to give a glowing endorsement.

The final step in the hiring process is the hiring decision. If you’ve followed the advice and strategies outlined throughout this post, your odds of getting hired improve ten-fold.

 Do You Need Some Help Preparing for Executive Interviews?

As an Executive Coach for more than 20 years, higher education leaders have trusted me to successfully guide their preparation to obtain executive-level positions. If you need coaching to prepare for an upcoming interview or help honing your Executive Presence, contact me at [email protected]. I’m here to help you succeed.