I have been coaching school leaders and aspiring leaders in preparation for their interviews for ten years. My clients frequently ask me how to answer questions that they struggle with. Here’s a sampling of a few of those questions, my strategies as to how to answer, and my answers:
1. “What would your direct supervisor say about you if I called her?” (You think you might not get a positive recommendation from her; what can you do?)
Analysis: You can’t criticize your supervisor, and you can’t say that she might say something negative about you. What you can do is to speak to your supervisor; let her know that she might be getting a reference call; and ask her for a positive recommendation that emphasizes the positive things that you’ve done. Most supervisors are not out to destroy your career. Who knows; she might see this as an opportunity to get rid of you, and give you a positive recommendation?
Answer: “I think she will say that I have great relationships with my students and their parents, that I’m always well prepared, and that I’m always willing to give my time and attention to assist my students.”
2. “If you get this position, how long do you plan on staying in it?”
Analysis: You probably don’t know how long you’ll stay or how things will work out. Your new supervisors probably don’t want to go through additional transitions in the short run. However, you won’t be credible if you say you’ll stay for the remainder of your career. Employers seek leaders who are honest. Your answer needs to offer a logical rationale that supports your response.
Answer: “Assuming that things will work out well, I think five to seven years would make sense. The literature says that it takes at least five years to implement and sustain structural improvements. I’m committed to see my work through to positive outcomes.”
3. “You’re a certified school leader with very little leadership experience, why should we hire you over more experienced candidates?”
Analysis: Your aim is to present yourself as a self-confident, “can do” person who will grow on the job. Your selling points are your accomplishments as a teacher, your potential and willingness to embrace being mentored and molded into the culture of your new school and district, and your raw undeveloped talent and energy.
Answer: “I may not be your most experienced candidate, but I can assure you that no one will be more eager to grow and learn, and work harder than I. I believe my colleagues will tell you that I’m a teacher leader who has played leading roles in some of our most important school improvements. My resume outlines some of these projects. Let me add that as a high school and college athlete I was often chosen as team captain. I’ve been told that I’m a “natural born leader.”
4. “I see on your resume that you live more than an hour away. Is that going to be a problem?”
Analysis: Never hesitate to “shoot down” any obstacle that might diminish your value. You should provide evidence that any of their concerns have been overcome or resolved in the past. Employers want to be assured.
Answer: “I take full responsibility for my attendance and timeliness. Although my present place of work is 15 miles less of a commute, my time in traffic commuting here would be about the same. It is fair to say that I’m never late and usually one of the first people to arrive. It’s not a problem.”
5. “As an experienced school leader, tell us about a failure you experienced, and more importantly, what lesson did you learn from it?”
Analysis: This is similar to the often-asked question, “What is your greatest weakness?” The worst answer is, “I really can’t think of one”. Being humble and self-reflective are very desirable characteristics. The example you provide should be designed to resonate with the interviewers’ experiences and evoke their empathy.
Answer: “As an inexperienced leader years ago, I made decisions based on gut feelings or intuition. What I’ve learned over the years was to put more trust in my ability take time… listen to people I trust even when they have divergent opinions and gather credible information and data. I’ve learned what I call, “watch the movie”. In other words, listen, suspend judgement, slow down the inquiry, and ultimately decide on what is in the best interests of my students. The example that comes to mind was when I was serving as a superintendent, I had a strong desire to initiate an International Bachelorette Program. As we debated the merits of the program, I became more inclined to start the program. However, I encountered some strong opposition from a segment in the community and from the teachers’ union. My gut told me that it would be divisive, and I backed away from moving ahead. I regret not listening to my leadership team.”
Larry Aronstein provides career coaching to school leaders and aspiring leaders. Learn more at larryaronstein.com