The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered executive search processes by abruptly halting face-to-face candidate interviews and requiring all or most to be conducted virtually.
Out of necessity came some startling benefits — major savings in travel costs and much easier scheduling — as well as challenges to an effective superintendent interview process.
Anyone who might become a candidate in a future superintendent search needs to be aware of some key differences between in-person and virtual interviews with boards of education and adjust accordingly. This practical guidance for candidates comes from my handling of more than a dozen searches over the past seven years, including three since the start of the pandemic.
Candidates should have their background materials efficiently organized and easily accessible or know the content so well they can speak without notes. It is extremely disruptive to wait during a group Zoom call while the candidate shuffles papers. This advice certainly applies to in-person interviews, but it seems Zoom interviews encourage interviewees to have more background documents on hand.
The place for the interview is now determined by the interviewee instead of the interviewer. As such, the candidate wants to ensure the screen background does not distract. In the interviews I have conducted, I have looked to see what books, family photos, memorabilia and art are on the shelves and walls. While these items can provide information about the candidate, they also distract from what the candidate is sharing.
The background setting should be professional with minimal décor. Less distraction is better.
The candidate also should respect that school board members may be in their own homes or offices and maintain a professional demeanor. On one occasion earlier this year, the candidate commented about the décor of the homes of board members. This caused board members to feel uncomfortable about the candidate before the interview even started.
The candidate must ensure that co-workers or family members know not to interrupt during a virtual interview. Even a wave goodbye distracts from the flow of the interview. And family pets should be handled ahead of time to prevent a disruption by wandering into the room or screen view.
Internet Quality and Audio/Video Strength
While impossible to control completely the strength and effectiveness of internet service, candidates must try to find a strong, reliable signal and be proficient in operating the Zoom controls and their computer’s audio and video settings to ensure they can be seen and heard well. Minimize the potential frustrations for everyone.
Effective lighting can be advantageous — aimed directly at your face, no backlights or overhead lights. Natural lighting from windows is beneficial, but ensure the sun does not move significantly before the end of the interview. Ring lights can reflect on the interviewee’s glasses, resulting in an eerie image. Facial expressions and body language enhance communication. Vision and hearing are related, so if someone is in the dark on screen, it is more difficult to hear what the person is saying.
Eye contact is important during all interviews and tends to be much easier in person. During virtual interviews, the interviewee must make sure he or she knows where the camera is and how to maintain eye contact. With several interviewers on screen, the candidate wants verbal and nonverbal behaviors and facial expressions to be seen clearly. Whenever possible, it is helpful for the interviewee to use the interviewers’ names when asking questions.
Because regular board meetings were not held in person during the pandemic, livestreaming and recorded meetings became more prevalent. Community members increased their expectations for instant information through livestreaming. One candidate for a superintendency felt uncomfortable having his interview livestreamed or recorded for later showing because he felt that once it appeared on the internet, the recording would be accessible indefinitely, leaving him with no control of its usage. Candidates ought to find out ahead whether their interviews will be recorded and how they will be used.
Although it is widely believed virtual interviews will remain a part of executive searches, I strongly recommend that school boards meet the finalists in person to gain additional understanding and an overall sense of each candidate in ways that cannot be learned virtually. The most effective candidate must be skilled in virtual as well as face-to-face interviews.
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