5 Mistakes

Lucy Leske considers the errors that she sees derail candidacies of good people for leadership jobs in higher ed.

June 22, 2015

In more than 20 years of executive search in higher education and nonprofits, I have spent countless days, evenings, even weekends sequestered with search committees pondering the strengths and weaknesses of candidates for a range of leadership positions. Whether for the chief executive or a midlevel administrative position, searches seem to share a number of common characteristics and results, some of them unfortunate and easily preventable. One of the most tragic is the candidate who lost the opportunity to pursue the position due to technique, not lack of leadership ability.

Fundamentally, this happens due to lack of both experience and feedback. Despite many admirable efforts to the contrary that are, thankfully, more numerous every day, the academy still is not in the business of training its own for management positions. It is often left to serendipity and empirical evidence for candidates to know what or what not to do.

Here are five common mistakes I have seen in candidates when pursuing administrative positions, and ways to avoid them.

1. Using a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Unfortunately, the cut-and-paste method for writing cover letters is all too often the most common reason for candidates not passing the first muster. Having skimmed or read thousands of cover letters in my time, I can tell instantly whether the writer pulled the text off a hard drive, wiped out the former addressee and slapped on a new one. These generic narrative forms of the résumé are killers to candidacies.

The same goes for the CV. A frequent error, particularly among faculty members who are pursuing administrative positions, is to list every paper, award, class taught and honor received, without naming a single accomplishment relevant to the administrative job they are seeking. The operative word here is relevant: think about the position you are seeking and adapt your approach to fit the need. Reread and edit the CV, or better yet, write an administrative résumé that demonstrates longevity at your institution, progressive responsibility and key accomplishments that are related to the job at hand. People want to know that you can achieve results, so balance your attention to process with evidence of outcomes.

As for the cover letter, it should be completely fresh and uniquely focused for every job and need only answer the following three questions: Why? What? How? Why are you interested in Job X at Institution Y? What do you understand the opportunity to be, and what in your background has prepared you for it? And how would you go about it -- i.e., what values, philosophy and approach do you take in your work? A cookie-cutter approach simply does not work; the written case should reflect the organization and the job.

2. Assuming It’s All About You

This mistake trips candidates up all the time. Think about the process you are preparing to engage in. Certainly, you will be assessing the opportunity for yourself and likely family or household members who will be coming along with you. You will be thinking about how the role fits into your long-term career plans, and the organization may ask you specifically what you hope to gain from the experience. The decision about whether you will accept the job if offered ultimately rests in your hands, but the power is all in the organization’s hands.

Furthermore, the organization has a great deal at stake in this appointment. Imagine for a moment the stress and risk the organization assumes with a new hire, and what is going through the minds of the committee members or the individual making the decision. Put yourself in their shoes and start thinking about what it will take for them to be successful.

That is the role and job of a leader -- thinking about the organization. If you can successfully transition into this frame of reference and see your hire as part of a larger institutional transition process, you will have avoided a huge pitfall in candidacies. This is not about you; it is about them.

3. Playing the Past Instead of the Future Role

A mistake that happens all the time, partly because it is reinforced by the interview process itself, is that candidates fail to project themselves into the role. I often remind candidates that they are actually auditioning, not interviewing. To illustrate, I once coached a candidate preparing to interview for a dean position by suggesting that she use examples that not only reflected direct experience (her current job) but that were also based on observed experience (the jobs of her peers or supervisors). In other words, how can you demonstrate you are ready for the next level or future position if you have never been in it? You start by understanding the role -- the deanship -- and using dean-like examples to illustrate your points.

Reverting to your current role, using examples that are too narrow or based only on your previous roles, will paint you in the institution’s mind as not being prepared. The problem is multiplied when committees or interviewers drag you down into the details. Give them enough to show you can go there if needed, but try to keep the conversation at the level that it would be in the new position. If you think big and act big, you will be seen as big.

4. Skimping on the Homework

There are always one or two candidates who proceed to the interview phase in every search I support who fail to persuade the committee that they have done their homework. I had one candidate express surprise in a recent interview upon hearing the campus was unionized, a difficult fact to miss as the recent contract negotiations had been in the national news and the multiple unions were described in the job profile.

There is no such thing as too much research in advance, even before you submit your materials. Read the leadership profile or job description, then read it again. Dive into the website. Review the materials. Study the committee. Call the search consultant if there is one. Develop an understanding of where the institution is going, its position in the surrounding economic and political landscape, its challenges and opportunities, and its assets. The only risk is flaunting your knowledge; be careful about overdoing it, but be informed. Be prepared to answer the question "Why are you interested in us?" with well thought out, articulated statements that demonstrate you have taken the time and made the effort to get to know what is on their minds, what is important to them and, above all, what makes them great.

5. Ignoring the Visuals

At the risk of getting into some hot water, I will state unequivocally that lack of attention to the visual aspect of your candidacy can sink your chances. There is the letterhead, for starters -- most committees believe it is bad form to write cover letters on your institution’s letterhead. For Pete’s sake, get someone to proofread your materials. Typos are embarrassing and, sadly, very common. Be careful with your email responses to communications.

And when it comes time to show up, consider the entire experience a formal business occasion. Think about your audience -- 9 times out of 10, there will be a trustee or external community member who is looking at you as the external representative of the institution. Imagine yourself presenting at a downtown law firm or a big event; how you appear, how articulate you are and what people see or hear will outlast the content. As the late Maya Angelou observed, how people feel after having met you and shaken your hand is what they remember the most.


Lucy Leske is managing partner of the education practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.



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