Focus

Opening Impressions Can Dictate Your Chances

CAREER PLANNING by RALPH LIEBER

You have been working as a superintendent or an assistant superintendent for 10 years and you’ve started to think about making that next career move, perhaps to a larger school system or a better-paying position.

If you are the typical, committed professional in the leadership ranks, you have logged by now well over 30,000 hours in your educational career. That represents a lot of experience. Yet in order to advance, you and your experience will be judged in a job interview that lasts between a half hour and 90 minutes. Are you prepared to package and market those 30,000 hours in that limited time frame?

The opening three minutes may be the most important moments of the interview. This is where the first and most lasting impression is made. If these moments go well, everything that follows builds on this positive foundation. If you are poorly prepared for these 180 seconds, the remainder of the interview is recovery time. While you may have excellent credentials, you may find yourself subsequently reading that letter that says "Thank you very much but we have selected so and so for the position."

Fundamental to creating an initial positive impression for the interviewer are dress and posture. After all, you are looking for a professional position paying in many instances $100,000 or more. You need to look and feel the part of someone in the upper 5 percent of national income levels. A firm handshake, good eye contact and an assured, graceful walk tell the interviewer that you believe in yourself and your leadership capabilities.

The interview itself should be played as a tennis match, where it is helpful to use a give and take or "offense/defense" strategy. You, as the interviewee, must subtly be in control to a greater or lesser degree at all times. However, you must never be "in charge" or think you are chairing the interview.

Clearly, some techniques can be learned that will enable you to take control without being in charge. Doing your homework to gather information about the position, including job responsibilities, history of the school district or past practices puts you in a better position to take charge.

Other skills that can make or break a job interview situation are your stage presence and ability to communicate. I find it unfortunate to watch fine candidates--at least on paper--make the mistake of speaking in monotones and totally without passion in their delivery. This level of performance leaves interviewers feeling cold and indifferent about the candidate's commitment to their profession.

Even in the best of interviews, candidates sometimes make one of the eight deadly errors, or what I call "eight ways to shoot yourself in the foot." Two of the most obvious ones are: (1) calling an interviewer by the wrong name; and (2) speaking negatively about your last employer or supervisor.

Even if your last supervisor or board president was a certifiable jerk, many ways exist to let the truth be known, if necessary, without sounding negative. And when it comes to remembering names, try writing down the names of the interviewer(s) at the table early in the interview.

As the interview comes to an end and you are asked if you have any questions, use this as an opportunity to leave lasting impressions of yourself. Pose questions that reflect the homework you have done for the position, but be careful to avoid asking too many.

What is important to remember is that you are competing with talented people similar to yourself. The final decision may come down to the little things that differentiate candidates. It may be worth investing a few dollars to obtain training in interviewing strategies or at least going through a dry run with a friend who knows this field and can assist you.

Ralph Lieber is superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood Schools in New Jersey and president of Educational Agents Inc., 466 Overhill Road, South Orange, N.J. 07079. Jacqueline L. Cusack, assistant superintendent of South Orange-Maplewood assisted in preparing this article.