When preparing for job interviews, candidates worry about unanticipated questions, and employers worry about making the right hire. There's now another unknown. Just what exactly are the kinds of challenges colleges and universities are going to encounter in a post-pandemic environment?
That means hiring committees must ask candidates how they would handle some hypothetical situation or, more vaguely, the overall unknown that lies ahead. In other words, candidates need to anticipate questions about unanticipated scenarios.
Good luck with that.
Actually, Michael Taberski had good luck fielding those types of questions. Recently hired as vice president for student and campus life at SUNY Geneseo, Taberski estimated that nearly a quarter of his interview questions were coronavirus-related issues. And even for questions not explicitly addressing the pandemic, he couldn't just ignore potential issues.
"I was proactively finishing an answer with '...and this is what I think this means in the new world that we're living in -- or potentially living in,'" Taberski said. "I tried to play up that I don't know what the plan will be, but I am confident with my experiences and with a great team [Geneseo has] in place, that we'll be able to figure this out and come up with the best option for all of our students."
Employers try to predict future behavior by asking about past behavior with prompts that start off as "Tell me about a time when you…" But no higher education professional alive has experience helping an institution through a global pandemic. Taberski filled the void of behavioral questions by preemptively answering situational questions, ones that start with "What would you do if…?" This is a great approach for candidates who lack certain experiences, even those more common than pandemic responses.
According to Geneseo's search committee chair, institutions aren't necessarily looking to hire campus leaders with distinct, pandemic-navigating leadership skills, it's just applying those skills will be different.
"The traits and the qualities are consistent," said robbie routenberg (lower case intentional), chief diversity officer at Geneseo. "What became new was the realization that all those things we were looking for, we would need that person to be able to apply them to a rapidly changing, unpredictable (environment). We're certainly trying to answer in our own heads, 'Can I imagine this person being able to lead us in these uncharted lands?'"
First, you must ask what makes a good leader during times of crisis or uncertainty.
"A good listener, a good convener, a good facilitator of complicated conversations, the ability to say, 'Everyone in the room is smarter than anybody in the room,'" said Sheila Murphy, a higher education search consultant at WittKieffer, an executive search firm that helps institutions across the country recruit for leadership positions. "That's what makes a good leader anyway, but now it's just in a slightly more intensified form. This is high stakes now. No institution can afford to mess this up and have to start a search over again."
"We're all looking for a better way to figure out how things are going to have to work in the new environment," said Dan Fitzpatrick, vice president of operations and COO at Concord University, who recently chaired a provost search. "We don't believe we're ever going back to a semblance of normal. We're just trying to figure out what the new normal is going to look like. And you need a tremendous amount of creativity (from a leader)."
So how do candidates exhibit their leadership skills in an interview?
"What we found (effective) is storytelling," Fitzpatrick added. "Just be able to relate experiences you've had and demonstrate creative solutions and creative problem-solving. I would say emphasizing online-learning experience and dealing with crisis situations (are important), but innovation and creativity are extremely critical."
"Hiring committees like a good story," Murphy said. "Walk the committee through a real experience that you've had and how it played out. Hiring committees are drawn to candidates who show some capacity for reflection and self-awareness, when they admit some parts that could have gone better, and a willingness to find a remedy to get it right the next time."
Even without being asked, candidates need to weave in stories about how they took on a leadership challenge and exhibited the ability to course-correct. If they don't have a real story to tell, come up with an answer to a situational question.
Candidates need to show that they can adapt to unpredictable circumstances. Because that seems to be all that's ahead.