Leadership Interviews: Anticipate the Inevitable Tough Questions

By Sheila Murphy

  • “Should we become a sanctuary campus?”
  • “Do you believe we have achieved gender equity in higher ed?”
  • “What’s your position on inviting extremist speakers?”

Sheila Murphy

As a long-time academic as well as executive search consultant, I’ve noticed how highly charged and over-simplified questions often surface in candidate interviews with search committees, campus leaders, donors, students or even the media. Some of these questions have no right answers and yet many wrong ones. Clearly, the stakes are high: Poorly constructed, faltering, or insincere answers can knock otherwise qualified candidates out of the competition and even disrupt careers.

My article “Wrong Answer” – in the September-October 2017 issue of Currents, the magazine of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) – advises candidates how to prepare for the politically-tinged or confrontational interview. The following are a few key tactics:

Get ready in advance for tough topics: Prepare for queries on everything from immigration, free speech, student protests and Title IX, to recruiting students from predominately Muslim countries, racism, international expansion, sexual assault and diversity. Be sure to research recent front-burner controversies at other campuses.

Show leadership: When committees ask tough questions, they want to hear your answer but also gauge your comfort level with charged issues. Organizations want executives with courage, openness, and agility. If you don’t know something, say so, but express your commitment to learn more and think further about an issue.

Deliver proof points: Ground your answers in statistics, examples and testimony, explaining what you’ve already achieved with a problem or opportunity, solution implementation, results or misfires, and lessons learned.

Facilitate dialogue: If you’re confronted with a difficult question or sense resistance, start a conversation. Among the possible questions: “How did this issue impact your campus? What position do you think this institution would be likely to support?”

Allow me to reiterate the concluding point in the article: “Handling a controversial, complicated question is less about knowing the right answer than anticipating that it’s coming.”

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