Top 10 mistakes academic interview panels make in recruiting leadership

As the founder of EduShine, India’s 1st and only academic search firm, I have been a part of academic leadership recruitment including being part of interview panel, for hundreds of candidates. When we are discussing interviews, we always focus on the candidate’s perspective and even I can talk endlessly about things like how to prepare better, what blunders to avoid when facing the Interview Panel etc. But people on the other side of the table (the interview panel members) are humans too and as such have their own set of gaffes.

Therefore in this article instead of talking about how candidates should prepare and appear for interview, I offer here the most common mistakes committed by Interview-panel members, so that my fellow academicians can avoid it.

10. No Preparation for conducting the Interview: This could be very basic like simply not reading the candidate’s resume or CV before the interview. However the lack of co-ordination between panel members in conducting an interview is due to no preparation is however the bigger danger to watch out for. As unless it has been agreed in advance with regards to structure and guiding principle for the interview, it is almost impossible to conduct a purposeful, constructive conversation. Without prior co-ordination, panel interviews too frequently transform into either one-on-one questions and answers or even worse, a single conversation that meanders into irrelevant dialogue. Panel interviews work best when the members have agreed on a line of standard questions to prompt functional, useful responses, similar for every candidate (though not in a rigid fashion and more individual specific questions can be asked at the later part of interview), thus providing common ground for evaluating and taking a hiring decision.

9. Don’t understand the roles & responsibility: Unfortunately, this happens almost all the time. The Higher Education leadership in India, has evolved in line with the growth in the sector and has changed radically. Today the job profile of a Vice Chancellor / Director / Dean in private institutions can vary from being an academic head (figurehead) to a dynamic academic leader with Profit & Loss responsibility similar to a CEO. Similarly, while the role of Head – Corporate Relations might be limited to placements in some institution, in other institutions, the person might even be responsible for fundraising and endowment from corporates for e.g. starting industry sponsored Chair and Center of Excellence. Yet several people conducting interviews do not have an idea of the exact role and responsibilities of the position in concerned institution. In absence of such information, the interview panel members decide who is and who is not capable for the position (which they don’t fully understand) based on their own assumptions.

8. Not Approaching Issues Heads On: Academicians are known to be polite, more so in group settings. Instead of asking in a straight forward fashion about a complicated or controversial issue, they would either ignore it or ask in an evasive manner. Later they would either question the candidate’s motives about the issue or simply assume the probable answer to the question. By being polite and circumventive, the panel actually deprives the candidate an opportunity to present his side of the story and resolve the issue.

7. Speak more than Listen: Academicians by their nature are conversational and tend to explain things. Don’t we all know that, when an academician starts speaking and explaining, it is difficult to stop them. I have been a part of interviews in which, candidate hardly get 20% time of the allocated time and one or other panel member keep on explaining one or other point. Candidates too often either quietly listen to the panel member or try to put across his point in limited available time. Then, after the candidate leaves, interview panel wonder why candidate didn’t speak much. Or they extrapolate what they think they would have heard had the candidate got the time to speak.

6. Represent only their area or interests: Most academic interview panels are constituted with people from various areas to ensure participation from various areas. However it should be kept in mind that though representation of different interests is important, ultimately the candidate is being recruited for the entire institution. And hence the members should keep this in mind while trying to uphold views of their constituencies.

5. Remember that interviewing is still about recruitment: In a best case scenario, the institution and the candidates find themselves at the same stage of mutual consideration at the same time. It is obvious that during the interview, both the interview panel and candidate, are in discovery mode. Hence while the candidate is conveying to the institution that they want the job, the institution should be communicating them that how interested it is in them and retain their interests in the institution. If you forget that you would be evaluating a candidate who is no longer interested in the position. 

4. Treat candidates like mere applicants: This can have implications which last beyond the interview. If the interviewing panel as representative of the institution takes a candidate for granted thinking that their commitment to the job is a sure fact, they are sowing seeds of discontent in minds of candidate. A critical purpose of any interview is the aligning candidate’s interest in the job and the institution on a long term basis. If treated in an improper fashion, candidates will carry a negative impression of the institution. Even if they are selected, they might not join or leave soon on getting an opportunity at a more welcoming institution. Academic hiring is an expensive and time consuming process with good talent being hard to find. So as, a member keep that in mind and treat each candidate as a potential employee and brand ambassador.

3. Misunderstand the true purpose of leadership: A leader has to be a good strategist, analyzing situations and if required taking difficult decisions in line with best long-term interest of the institution as a whole. Such decisions may make some if not all stakeholders of the institution unhappy. While recruiting academic leadership talent, members of the panel must subject the candidate to difficult strategic choice questions and focus on the analytical reasoning and the likely impact of his decisions. They could also go through his leadership history to analyze his decision making skills.

2. Value process more than the outcome: Recruitment ultimately is a process and a selected candidate from a process with some faults may still turn out good, but a perfect process leading to no selection indicates a failure. A process has only one “goal”, result in selection of a suitable candidate, not be a result itself. When the institutions become so involved in the process and individuals conducting the process get obsessed with its micro level details that put process on top, things do go bad in a slow fashion. Here, how can I forget a globally benchmarked new university in Delhi / NCR, which has not started School of Management for the last 2 years due to failure in appointing a dean with credentials at par with Harvard and Wharton?

1. And the biggest mistake: Look for Academic Leaders through a walk-in interview. When you want a good partner whether on business or personal front, you have treat them in respectful manner and treat them with care. We all know good academic leaders are difficult to recruit. Still I am not able to understand how so called world class institutions expect academic leader with dignity to attend walk-in and wait for hours for their interview slot like a fresher? I will leave this point over here for you to think over.

I can continue expanding the list but let’s stick with the above for now. Additionally I am sure that your comments about this article will not only expand on the points I covered but also throw light on unexplored points.

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