Treating Candidates Like Supplicants, and 9 Other Recruiting Mistakes

Top 10 missteps that backfire on administrative search committees

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

May 20, 2013

As search consultants, my colleagues and I regularly observe candidates doing counterproductive things during a preliminary (yes, I mean "airport") interview, in the mistaken belief that they are scoring points with the hiring committee. But search committee have their own set of gaffes.

Last week's column focused on the 10 most common missteps made by would-be presidents, provosts, and deans. In the spirit of turnabout being fair play—and with continuing props to David Letterman as master of the form—I offer here the top 10 things that search-committee members do (or don't do) in interviews that backfire.

 10. Don't understand the job. Ironically, this happens all the time. The nature of higher-education leadership has changed radically over recent years. The jobs of president/chancellor and provost/vice president, for example, have become so distinct that a majority of the latter have no interest in becoming the former. Yet all too many people conducting interviews have little or no idea of the day-to-day responsibilities and accountabilities of these positions. That simple dearth of information does not stop committee members from deciding who is and is not capable of doing a job that they don't know or understand.

9. Don't prepare. That can be as simple as not reading the candidate's materials before the interview. More frequently, however, it is the committee as a whole that does not prepare for the environment of a group interview. It is difficult for a group of people to conduct a focused, productive conversation without agreeing in advance on some sort of structure and guiding principles. Group interviews too frequently devolve into a series of individual questions and answers—or worse, into a single conversation that digresses into irrelevant or tangential topics. Group interviews work better when the panel agrees on a line of questioning that is intended to elicit substantive, useful responses and that can be replicated for every candidate (though not rigidly so; more on this later), thus providing common ground for a hiring decision.

After sitting in on several hundred hiring interviews, I am convinced that they are more productive when there is laughter in the room.

8. Forget the objective. Search committees too often cut to the last bar—they forget early in the process that there are several steps to take before a hiring decision is made. When committee members in a preliminary interview think that their job is to find the one person who will be hired, they forfeit the opportunity to use their imaginations, to think differently, and to encounter the unexpected. Group processes have plenty of time and opportunity to find the common denominator; the preliminary interview is a time to take an expansive view of possibilities.

7. Act as representatives of interest groups. Most search committees are assembled in the expectation that their members will come to represent not a specific constituency but the entire institution. It is important that the views of various constituencies be represented, but partisanship really must give way to the good of the whole. People who hold the interests of their constituencies as primary to the task thus violate their responsibilities.

6. Take too formal an approach. It is deadly when a panel is so focused on process that it feels that it must ask the same questions, using the same words, in the same order, with every candidate. Interview conversations go better, and institutions get a far better sense of the personality of the candidate, when they flow naturally, like a conversation. I am also a great believer that interview sessions are more productive when they are enjoyable for all parties. After several hundred of these things, I am convinced that they go better when there is laughter in the room.

5. Don't ask about the elephant in the room. People in group environments, particularly those who represent an institution, tend to be polite to a fault. Rather than confront a difficult or contentious issue, they too often either ignore it or probe around its perimeter. Then, after the candidate leaves, they wonder why he didn't raise the issue. Or they extrapolate what they think they would have heard had the question been asked. They may think they are being polite, but they are robbing the candidate of the opportunity to put their minds at ease about the issue. For goodness' sake, just ask!

4. Forget that interviewing is still recruiting. In an optimal search, the institution and the candidates find themselves at the same stage of mutual consideration at the same time. In my previous column, I spoke of the social contract between search committee and candidate, in which it is axiomatic that each is in discovery mode during the interview process. So, not only should the candidates be telling the institution that they want the job, but the institution should be telling them how interested it is in them. Even in an interview setting, the institution is still recruiting. Interviewers who forget that find themselves with great insights into people who are no longer interested in the position. 

3. Treat candidates like supplicants. This is No. 4 on steroids. When institutions forget that they are constantly in recruitment mode, when they treat a candidate as if her commitment to the job is already a given, they forget that part of the purpose of any interview is the cultivation of that candidate's interest in the job and the institution. Talent is hard to find. It needs to be invited in and to be given a reason to stay. That is a big part of recruitment, and one that hiring committees frequently forget in the heat of the interview process.

2. Misunderstand the nature of leadership. Leadership is about strategy, and strategy is largely about making difficult decisions in the best long-term interest of the institution as a whole. Leaders invariably make decisions that make some constituencies happy and leave others unhappy. Search committees must focus on the reasoning behind a candidate's decisions and the impact of those decisions on the fortunes of his current institution as a whole, rather than on their immediate effect on any particular constituency. A search for candidates who have a track record of keeping everyone happy is a search for an appeaser, not a leader. Those are two very different sorts of people.

And No. 1: Allow the process to become more important than the outcome. A hire that emerges from a less-than-perfect process may or may not turn out badly, but a perfect process that does not result in an appointment is a failure. Process is intended to serve result, not to be a result itself. When institutions become so immersed in the process that they come to believe that it's more valuable than the outcome (the hire itself), things tend to go awry—and they do so very, very slowly.

Given time and space, I could probably list more committee missteps, but let's stick with Letterman's precedent of 10. I suppose in fairness I should follow this with a list of the top 10 foibles of search consultants, but there are too many from which to choose. Besides, I am confident that the online comments about this essay will more than adequately cover that topic.

Dennis M. Barden is senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm in Chicago specializing in searches for academic and administrative leaders.