Interviewing for Self-Awareness

In an interview for school headship by a search committee, it is an exercise in futility to walk a candidate through their resume if you are trying to understand whether someone is ready for leadership. It is easy to fall into this trap. The resume is readily at hand – it is simple and obvious to utilize as a guide for what to inquire about next. After all, it is important to have a sense of a candidate’s personal story and professional trajectory. You can challenge all those active verbs on the resume, like “developed,” “initiated” and “collaborated” by asking for specifics and exploring for genuine knowledge and experience. A good search consultant, however, should already have accomplished most of this, so it is not a wise investment of resources to use too much of the search committee’s precious time with a candidate to do this again. Instead, what you want to ascertain is the capacity of the candidate for emotional intelligence, and most notably to take note of the candidate’s self-awareness.

Why is striving to understand the emotional intelligence of a head candidate so critical? Because no talent of a school leader is more often necessary. In the crucible of daily interactions with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, community members, alumni, etc., every interaction the head has with each individual may be the most important interaction that person has in that entire day. And rarely is that the case for the head of school, who may go reeling all day long from conversation to conversation, with vastly varying purposes and tones, with many that are planned, but others that are spontaneous, and perhaps some that are unexpectedly awkward. Plus, long-term projects and institutional success are dependent upon the relational skill of the head. Understanding how you are perceived, and retaining a solid, accurate sense of self-awareness, are the most important tools of a leader in those circumstances. To be poor at this, in contrast, may quickly lead to negative evaluations of the leader that stubbornly persist and ultimately undermine overall performance.

Testing for emotional intelligence in an interview setting can be daunting. As important as asking questions in this endeavor is the simple need to observe the candidate in the interview itself. Is the person “reading” and understanding the emotions, both subtle and outright, of the interviewers in the room? Does the candidate react appropriately to humor (yes, some levity is a valid part of an interview)? Does the person seem to grasp the implicit intent of the questions being posed? Is the candidate making eye contact with both the person who asked the question, and then with others around the table in the course of responding? Can you sense confidence? Humility? Warmth? Hubris? Is a strong ego evident, but an absence of egotism? Doing this well may in fact be a measure of the search committee’s emotional intelligence!

The actual questions, however, are where the search committee does its job thoroughly or misses a critical opportunity. The questions should be probing and require specifics. They should ask for self-assessment and should require that a candidate recount what they learned in an experience. Such as:

1.  Instead of asking a candidate to tell about something at which they failed or succeeded, ask the candidate to discuss a  time when they had to challenge the status quo in an institution, and ask them to explain what went well, what did not, and how that affected them the next time they had to lead change. 

2.  Rather than ask them about their strengths and weaknesses, ask them to discuss how they think other people would describe them as leaders, both in terms of their gifts and their areas for continued growth. 

3.  Rather than ask a candidate to recount a record of achievement in, say, development or enrollment management, ask a candidate to describe what they think the proper role of the head should be in fundraising or admissions, and also to describe the balance of their role with that of the other administrators in that area, as well as with the role of trustees. Then ask them to describe, if they haven’t already, when they have seen that balance under significant stress and how they handled that. 

4.  Ask a candidate to react to a specific scenario, one that involves subtle ethical and relational challenges, and ask them how they might navigate that and what would be most difficult for them.

Questions should dive deep, press well beyond predictable topics and soft serves, but do so in a manner that is both substantive and that fosters the relationship with someone who might someday be your head of school.

The other virtue of this approach is that the information and impressions you glean are verifiable, either through subsequent conversations with references, or through online reference surveys, or through subsequent interviews where you measure for consistency and clarity in the recounting, or through observations of other interactions and responses later in the search process. The candidate’s stories become the basis for the ongoing process, the measuring stick for a candidate’s accomplishments, character and integrity.

The journalist and author Justin Bariso recently defined self-awareness in a column published in an online blog for Inc. as, “the ability to identify and understand your own emotions and how they affect you. Through self-awareness you recognize how your feelings can help or hinder you from reaching your goals. You become aware of your emotional tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.” High EQ starts with this capacity. And high EQ is the baseline skill that is most essential for heads in a job that is increasingly complex year after year. It does not appear on a resume and will not emerge with any clarity in interviews or reference checks unless that is the specific objective of the search committee. Skilled head of school search consultants will help with both the development of focus and appropriate questions with search committees, as well as formulate and share their own clear insights into the self-awareness and emotional intelligence of candidates.