College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Interviewing? Good Questions are Important. Careful Listening is Paramount.

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 09, 2018 4 min read

For most, this is not the season of interviews. That comes in the spring and summer. We bring this up now, however, because we hope for it to provoke thought and discussion in preparation for the interviews that will most certainly follow.

What aspects of leadership are the most important to a community searching for a new leader? Usually a community of professionals, parents, and sometimes students are gathered to put together a set of questions they will ask candidates. Essentially, those questions are similar to the ones developed before or in other districts. Although there are differences between the roles of superintendent (district leader) and principal (building leader) often, for the committees, certain questions can be almost the same. Differences appear with superintendent questions about board relations, budgeting and community relations while principal attention may be more about student issues including discipline, curriculum, and teacher evaluation.

Sometimes, the district may recognize a specific need. If interviewing for a position in which the previous superintendent was beloved and had been there for a long time, the district may be looking for someone strong enough to follow that successful man or woman. For principals the same is true. Districts in financial crisis may seek someone with that particular skill set while others with student score focus may want a strong curriculum and assessment background. If a district has had a series of brief stints by several superintendents, they may look for someone who will offer stability and develop relationships among the school and in the community.

Increasingly, districts have made a point to gather input from different constituencies to develop qualifications and interview questions. Some do surveys. Some hold focus forums. Some ask for volunteers. Others ask organizations to identify members to participate in the process. A tangential benefit of all these forms of inclusion is greater and wider understanding of the process of choosing a leader and, if the process works, greater and more widespread investment in the success of the new leader. A startling truth is, however, for many, that is where the inclusion effort has stopped.

The Value of Good Listening

Listening, purposeful and careful listening, is a powerful asset, in general, and specifically, in the interview process. Although a committee may have worked hard and agreed on the questions to ask candidates, it is important to work hard and agree, after the interview, what was said. The filters one has will shape what is heard without discussion to ascertain accuracy and ensure an open mind and yes, even an open heart for candidates who don’t fit the historical leader’s profile.

Questions have intentions. Questions that do not ask for one right answer are the best. ‘How’ questions explore thought and process versus ‘what’ questions that can be answered on resumes. The answers reveal values and formative experiences. For example, if interviewing a principal and asking “How would you involve parents in the learning process of their children?” unpacking the answer may indicate the candidates opinions about learning and about parental participation. It may even tell how a candidate defines learning and who outside the school is in parental relationship with children. Will everyone on a committee receive the answer the same way? Probably not but the subsequent conversations hold their own value in helping a community clarify its values. Will everyone agree that the answer was sincere? thoughtful? bold and interesting? or the anticipated same old? Committees also will be influenced by the non-verbals of an interview. What was the message received from eye contact? body language? tone? attention? Did everyone get to share their perceptions and is the group able to come to consensus? Open listening can be individual and different. Each individual may receive information through an individually held mindset, even without realizing it, looking to advance an individual agenda.

Leadership Matters

The one leading the interview and selection process can make a significant difference. It must be someone in whom the board and internal and external communities can have trust. It must be someone who can serve the district and be an exemplar of listening, synthesis and consensus formation. That person or persons will be organizer, host, and facilitator. He or she will most likely report the interview results to decision makers. It is the ultimate test of that person’s ability to hear the candidates and the committee members all. The second role takes more leadership skill than the first. It requires finesse and it requires, sometimes, that one’s own opinions and perceptions get set aside or distinguished from those of others. Because time always feels limited, we tend to want to come to closure; the next appointment harkens, the committee appears tired, the decision is expected and we push through. That is short sighted and can leave some alienated and defeat the hope upon which the process was designed.Hiring is, arguably, the most important shared role of leaders and the governing body. It deserves and investment of time to listen openly and share perceptions and thoughts and come to consensus about them. It takes more than coming up with a list of questions. It takes sincere follow through in the entire process.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by 089photoshootings courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.