Higher Ed Job Candidates: What Do The Best Have In Common?

By Zachary A. Smith, Ph.D.

Sometimes described as a “dog-and-pony show” or likened to speed dating, the interview process for senior-level executives in academia is demanding and often imperfect. After many years in higher education, first as a campus administrator and now as a recruiter, I’m no stranger to either side of the search process.

Recently I had the opportunity to share thoughts on The Best Higher Education Search Committees in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It occurred to me that a sequel was in order, providing advice to candidates to help them shine in the search process.

Zachary Smith, PhD

In my experience, the best candidates share several tendencies, attributes, and behaviors, which I explain in detail in “The Best Executive-Job Candidates,” also in the Chronicle. The following is a brief summary of what I have observed the best candidates do:

  1. Draft a strong and well-written cover letter clearly conveying an interest and qualification for the position, and free from any grammatical and spelling errors. Precision counts here.
  2. Remain low maintenance throughout the process, paying attention to instructions, and displaying the behaviors sought in a leader.
  3. Be responsive throughout the process, despite conflicting demands from a current job or other responsibilities.
  4. Act respectful and gracious to everyone involved – even when things don’t go as smoothly as they could.
  5. Listen to the search consultant. Though our ultimate responsibility is to our clients, we really do want candidates to be successful and attempt to advise and coach them accordingly.
  6. Be brief, light-hearted, and relevant to allow the committee to ask all of the questions they planned, demonstrate an ability to handle the stress and pressure gracefully, and give the committee a chance to connect on a more personal level.
  7. Produce no surprises by being open, candid, and honest from the beginning of the search process.
  8. Want the job and articulate, sincerely, why, which projects an unmistakable level of enthusiasm, interest, and engagement to the search committee.

Candidates who fully invest their time and energy seeking the leadership positions they actually want, and who follow the advice above, will improve their likelihood of success.

Zachary A Smith, PhD is a senior partner and deputy managing director for Witt/Kieffer’s Education practice. Based in Irvine, California, he conducts nationwide searches for c-suite and other leaders within education, healthcare, and the non-profit sector.

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