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In the competitive landscape of higher education, the recruitment of top-tier leadership is a major cornerstone of institutional success. As we navigate a new era in which skilled professionals are no longer seeking merely a step up in their careers but are also now wanting more meaningful and impactful opportunities, the importance of a thoughtfully curated interview experience is essential.

That is particularly true of the on-site or campus interview stage—which typically follows an already-rigorous virtual interview process. While video meetings are convenient and cost-effective, in-person interaction with candidates in the finalist stage tends to lead to more successful outcomes. Besides offering more in-depth engagement with candidates in seeking to better understand their alignment with the mission, values and culture of your institution, in-person meetings offer the community the chance to observe the candidate’s leadership style, approach to decision-making and level of enthusiasm for the role.

On-site interviews also provide candidates the opportunity to delve more deeply into understanding the institution’s distinct history, culture, values, achievements and ambitions for the future. Candidates will look to senior leaders and to the community at large as ambassadors for the institution, demonstrating the day-to-day life on the campus as well as the overall cultural tone of camaraderie, collegiality and professionalism. As post-pandemic candidates weigh their options more carefully and institutions work more rigorously to keep those candidates, such factors and characteristics are often the very elements they look to in determining their continued interest. All this suggests that the institution needs to develop a careful, insightful and nuanced on-site itinerary.

We outline here some strategies to ensure in-person interviews serve as the powerful recruitment tool they’re intended to be, as well as some specific ways to implement them.

  1. Be strategic in planning the itinerary. Consider the candidate’s perspective. Ask, “How can we give the candidate the most honest and accurate, yet forward-thinking, portrayal of who we are, where we are and where we are headed?
  • Help the candidate be comfortable and able to put their best foot forward. Assign a host to serve as point person for the candidate before their arrival and while they are on the campus. Allow space and time on the itinerary for the candidate to take breaks and reflect on what they are hearing.
  • Include meetings with faculty members, administrators and students who represent a broad spectrum of your institution’s community and who can speak to the various aspects of the position. Consider the diversity—in all forms—of the interviewers.
  1. Prepare all participants for the visits. Make sure the interviewers understand fully the key responsibilities of the role, including the challenges the institution faces and the opportunities the position affords for making an impact on it.
  • Circulate the job description to all interviewers in advance of the visits and invite their questions. Consider scheduling a forum for the ultimate decision-maker to address any of those questions or concerns about how the role is framed.
  • Share the candidate’s CV with senior leadership and consider providing a brief bio to all interviewers or community participants.
  • For larger group sessions, assign a skilled moderator to facilitate an informative dialogue between interviewers and candidate
  1. Communicate broadly. Clarify the process going forward, including points at which the community can provide feedback.
  • First, remind interviewers of confidentiality protocols. While the candidate’s presence on the campus suggests that they recognize they’ll receive some public exposure, instruct interviewers to be respectful of the person’s position at their home institution. Explain the referencing process to interviewers and the methods available to them to provide feedback.
  • In advance of the on-site visits, communicate, to the degree possible, the steps that led to this point and how the final decision will be made and by whom.
  • Provide a mechanism to garner feedback immediately after you meet with candidates using a high-quality online survey tool. Gather feedback from participants allowing them to share their observations and impressions of the candidate—focusing on candidate strengths, areas of concern and the participant’s level of enthusiasm about the candidate.
  1. Set the tone before and during the interviews. Remind interviewers that they are recruiting as well as evaluating the candidate and are to serve as enthusiastic ambassadors for the institution.
  • Be honest, open and compelling about the leadership challenges and opportunities for the position, including the institutional support or efforts that are already underway (strategic plans, fundraising campaigns or other initiatives on the horizon).
  • When discussing challenges with the candidate, avoid negativity and present those concerns in a constructive and thoughtful manner.
  • Do not pose questions that require the candidate to solve intractable problems, weigh in on hot-button issues or mediate conflicts.
  • Be sure to allow time for the candidate to ask questions.
  1. Avoid inappropriate topics. Understand the legal constraints of interviews and ensure all those involved in the interview process do as well.
  • Focus on issues relevant to the requirements of the position. Do not make comments or inquire about a candidate’s place of origin, family, age, religion or sexual orientation.
  • In accordance with specific state laws, be aware of and educate other participants that any written communication about a candidate is discoverable, and thus be especially careful about what is put in writing.

On-site visits for both candidates and the hiring institution are invaluable for fostering a deep mutual understanding of the job opportunity and creating a bond around shared goals and values. While giving candidates an accurate understanding of the institution is key, projecting your interest in their specific talents and experiences is also imperative.

Ultimately, these visits serve as the bridge that connects aspirations with reality, allowing both parties to make well-informed decisions that lead to lasting and mutually beneficial professional relationships and success for the person who is hired for the role. After a long search process, it is important to finish strong and be sure you are prepared for this final, and crucial, step in the process.

Patricia Hastie is a partner at Isaacson, Miller and a leader in the health care, academic medicine and health sciences practice. Alycia Johnson is a managing associate with the firm and is a part of the higher education practice.

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