Guest Column

Lessons From a Lost Interview

by Judith Palmer

I am a sitting superintendent who hadn’t been to a job interview involving my own career in more than six years.

Considering I had just led the charge to create a new high school and survived all of the political fallout that resulted, I felt more than qualified to throw my hat into the ring for a vacant superintendency in a nearby school district.

I was happy to be brought forward as a candidate for the position but surprised to learn I was not called back for a second interview with the school board. I am smiling while writing this because I know it sounds rather pompous to make such a statement, yet by all accounts I am considered a competent, dedicated school leader who has the skills and the personality to do the job well.

So what went wrong? In the end, I was my own worst enemy!

Sharing It All
In the days after receiving the news I would not be invited to the second round, I felt a considerable amount of distress. The search committee seemed to like me and appeared to be engaged in what I was saying. So what happened?

I came well prepared for the interview and was determined to share all of my knowledge with the committee, even though the interviewers were asking general questions that required fairly brief and straightforward answers.

The process began with a one-hour writing prompt. I was given a recent community survey and asked to describe how I’d implement the report’s findings. I took out my yellow highlighter and underscored the three specific items the prompt was asking me before writing a succinct, specific response. If only I had used my highlighter strategy during the Q&A with the committee!

The 10-person search committee was warm and welcoming. Within a few minutes, I felt comfortable and confident. I was eager to share the knowledge I’d accumulated about the new job-related skills required for the global workforce. For three weeks prior, I had carefully reviewed all of our work regarding 21st-century learning skills, technology integration, best teaching practices, meeting community expectations and every aspect of a comprehensive education for all students.

Just in case that wasn’t enough to carry forward, I studied up on the intricacies of NCLB and IDEA. I examined the state frameworks for mathematics, science and language arts. To ensure I was acutely aware of the needs of the district for which I was interviewing, I downloaded their strategic school profile from the state’s website and met with the current superintendent to discuss academic trends and future needs.

In case you haven’t gotten the point, I was fully armed to answer any question with details galore. However, I managed to overlook one key preparation — the importance of listening precisely to what was being asked instead of focusing solely on what I wanted to say.

Information Overdose
While it’s important to be ready for an interview, you cannot force what you want to say into answers to questions. One problem with preparing thoroughly is that you come into an interview with a framework of what you’d like the committee to know about you and your leadership. As a result, you end up focusing more on what you want to say and less on what’s actually asked.

Because I did that, my answers were elaborate and sometimes drifted to other areas that I was prepared to talk about. I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to share my experiences, so I created my own! At the end of the interview, I was proud of everything I had crammed into my responses, knowing they reflected best practices with a mind toward the future. Looking back now, I find my detailed answers rather humorous.

As I walked out of the interview room with the search consultant, she asked, “So how do you think it went?” “I think it went very well,” I said. “They seem like really great people.” She quickly replied, “You know you missed that last question. They asked you for three adjectives that described your leadership style and you went on to elaborate on every detail. Your answer should have been bang, bang, bang and move on. They didn’t get to all of the questions because you spent so much time answering. There were questions I really wanted to hear your answers to, but they just didn’t have enough time to ask them. Providing specific answers is an interview skill that is really important.”

Obviously, the three adjectives I should have used to describe my leadership style were “competent, collaborative and long-winded.”
Because she is an experienced search consultant, I knew her feedback was right on target and I trusted her judgment. Seeing the disappointed look on my face, she was quick to follow up with, “Your knowledge and passion for education and your interpersonal skills were certainly apparent. You never know what interview committees are looking for. I’ll let you know.”

The much-anticipated call came late the next night. I could immediately sense the bad news in the search consultant’s voice. I was not being brought to the next round, even though my writing prompt was excellent and in many ways I was just what they were looking for.

The next few days were spent mulling over and coping with this disappointment. I decided to use this experience to help others learn from my interviewing mistake.

I’ve since made a conscious effort to finish listening to questions asked of me before answering. I take a moment to mentally identify the specific points mentioned before responding. Sometimes, I even restate the question before answering. I also follow up by asking, “Is there anything else you need to know?”

These simple techniques have helped me to sharpen my listening skills when conducting everyday business. I look forward to the day when I have the opportunity to interview again. I know I won’t make the same mistake twice because out of rejection comes redirection.

Judith Palmer is superintendent in Oxford, Conn. E-mail: