The Airport Interview Is Dead
The days when it was routine to organize a multiday, in-person parade of initial candidates for leadership posts are over.
It is late fall 2019, and I’m nervously pacing Terminal H at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Crosswinds have delayed my connecting flight to an airport interview for a first-round shot at a college presidency two states away. While my 50-minute, in-person meetup with the search committee is not scheduled until the next morning, a canceled flight could mean that I miss my time slot and not only lose yet another day of work at my home campus but also my best opportunity to impress a potential new employer.
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It is late fall 2019, and I’m nervously pacing Terminal H at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Crosswinds have delayed my connecting flight to an airport interview for a first-round shot at a college presidency two states away. While my 50-minute, in-person meetup with the search committee is not scheduled until the next morning, a canceled flight could mean that I miss my time slot and lose not only yet another day of work at my home campus but also my best opportunity to impress a potential new employer.
Fast-forward through 26 months of Covid. Airport interviews? Who does those anymore? The question now is: Should we ever return to hours of travel time, overnights at hotels, and multiple meal expenses — all for a 50-minute, first-look, in-person interview?
I started the pandemic as a college president and am now a search consultant for leadership positions in academe. As a candidate, a client, and a consultant, I have seen all the effort and resources that it takes to put together a set of in-person, first-round interviews for an executive search:
- Rent a hotel conference space for two full days in a city with a hub airport, oftentimes a couple of hours from a rural campus.
- Figure out how to coordinate the schedules of a handful of busy (and volunteer) trustees flying in (more than likely on their own dime), so that they can overnight at a past-its-prime hotel with a group of faculty and staff representatives pressed into two full days of service away from their core work responsibilities.
- Fly in first-round candidates (up to 12 or so) at great expense and pay for them to overnight at the same hotel. They are prisoners of their rooms, avoiding uncomfortable encounters in hotel hallways or elevators with the competing candidates. They, too, spend two days away from work and home — all so the hiring committee can see a candidate’s body language for an hour or less in person. While there is some benefit to the camaraderie-building that takes place at the restaurant lounge over hotel chicken Caesar salads, most of the search-committee members will head off to their rooms to catch up on email and to say goodnight to their kids so they can be up at dawn to nab a granola-laden parfait before they start meeting candidates in back-to-back presentations.
- Pay a search firm to guide the agenda and keep the committee on track. (The consultants also take notes and escort candidates to and from their appointments. The focus of those two days at the airport hotel is entirely on a single client in need of the consultants’ undivided attention. Efficient, it is not.)
As higher education continues to adapt to this new hybrid world of “in person when we can but online if it is more convenient and efficient,” it’s clear that the time-consuming and often mentally exhausting hiring process for leadership positions has been permanently transformed for candidates, search-committee members, and consultants.
The first-round interview at an airport hotel is a victim of the pandemic, and it seems unlikely that it will ever come back for most executive searches. Search-committee members can meet candidates via Zoom and other videoconferencing technologies that were, of course, available before March 2020 but that most everyone now knows how to use. Search consultants can get back precious hours that were lost to travel, candidate logistics, and worrying over undelivered lunch platters.
The result is reclaimed hours for candidates and search-committee members, too. But the benefits of virtual, first-round interviews are not just what is gained in efficiency.
Search committees now have an obligation to see how candidates present themselves online. In virtual interviews, committees can assess whether or not a potential new dean, provost, or president comes across the screen as genuine and knowledgeable. And on the technical front, search committees can see whether or not candidates can get their own lighting, backdrop, and camera adjustment right. That may be a factor in which candidates move to the next round because, in 2022, would-be academic administrators whose work involves communicating with alumni, faculty and staff members, students, and parents had better be adept and self-sufficient on the small screen as well as in person.
Of course this shift to virtual first-round interviews is not all good news:
- Because candidates now need to commit to only a short video call, some are less invested in seeing a search process to the end. I am hearing at least anecdotal evidence that more candidates are dropping out of their own accord after the first round of Zoom interviews.
- At least some of the long-term, creative payoffs of bringing together diverse campus stakeholders over a shared common goal — finding the best candidate — are lost in the limits of Zoom collaboration. Members of a search committee get less of the knowledge benefits that accrue from in-person crosstalk. Sitting together around a conference table at the beginning of a search can lead to future collaborations and benefits that go beyond the hunt for a new president, provost, or dean.
- A lot of personal bonding — between search consultants, new academic leaders, and long-term board members — used to happen during the breaks in the action of in-person, first-round interviews. That bonding doesn’t occur as much or as naturally in Zoom interviews.
The airport interview may still be used on occasion — perhaps by institutions that want to be cagey about someone on the candidate list. Or perhaps an in-person sitdown may be useful if there are a lot of high-quality candidates and the search committee wants to get a better feel for them at an early stage of the hiring process. And there are still a few traditionalist holdouts who find value in being in the same room as candidates from the get-go.
Beyond initial interviews, it’s unclear how much of the rest of the search process will stay online. In recent months, colleges and universities looking to hire search firms for an executive hire have started meeting in person again. Likewise, freed from Covid restrictions, search committees are (gingerly) coming together in person for second-round interviews and later stages of the hiring process.
But the days when it was routine to organize a multiday, in-person parade of initial candidates — picked straight from their CVs and cover letters — are over. Those who care about finding the best candidates to lead our academic institutions can be thankful for the streamlined and improved process, and grateful for the days, hours, and minutes returned to them to focus on their students and the future of their institutions.