Not long ago, a column about "wrong answers" appeared on this site, advising faculty job candidates about what not to say and do during a job interview. As an executive search consultant, I'd like to borrow the idea and apply it to the administrative hiring process.
Let's start with pre-search problems -- traps to avoid before you apply for an administrative job. The biggest mistakes that administrative candidates make in this phase of their job search are failing to prepare themselves for the position they want, and overlooking the jobs for which they are truly qualified.
If you want to be an academic vice president or a president of a research university, how should you prepare yourself? You need to develop strong faculty credentials, including a record of teaching, research, and service that brings you to the rank of full professor. You need substantial administrative experience. You need to be someone who is sought after for significant institutional leadership roles. You should gain familiarity with disciplines beyond your own. You should become active and successful in fund raising, not only in the area of foundation grants but in private philanthropy as well. You should be working at an institution that is similar to, and even a peer of, the kind of place you would like to work.
Some people do become vice presidents and presidents without these credentials, but they are rare. If a top administrative post is your goal, strive to assemble the right mix of experiences. In addition to helping you get the job you want, they are likely to make you a better leader when you do reach your goal.
Say you are an associate dean who hopes to become a provost. Before you start applying for provostships, consider whether you are actually better prepared to become a dean first. You know how the dean's office works, you have probably worked closely with faculty members, you understand the mix of policy, procedures, and personnel that a dean confronts. You would be a wonderful dean, and having been a dean for a few years, you will ultimately be a much better provost as a result.
Once you're in the application phrase of your search, the opportunities to harm your candidacy with your own words are boundless. I see too many candidates whose strengths are not at all visible in their application materials. In fact, their strengths can look like weaknesses.
In addition to an astonishing number of typographical errors, here are some of the problems I see:
Confusing chronologies: A résumé that lacks a clear career chronology can hurt your case. Make sure that you include the dates of all the positions you have held. If you have held several jobs at one institution, consider listing them as subheadings under the institution's name. That way, you emphasize institutional stability and loyalty instead of allowing the busy reader to think that you have changed jobs every couple of years.
Too much information: Don't provide excessive detail without categories or a format to help the reader grasp the real meaning of what you have done. You do not need to list every committee that you have ever served on, or every administrative assignment you have ever taken. List the important ones, and make it easy on the reader by grouping them together by theme. You might have a category called "international activities" or one on "general education," with three or four items listed under each. This kind of format makes it much easier for readers to find key information, and can make the résumé a lot shorter. Without this format, your strengths may be buried in details that the reader just doesn't have time to wade through.
Inaccurate information: Candidates sometimes include inaccurate information in their application materials. Whether these are errors or deceptions, the candidate can be harmed. Deceptions, if discovered, will likely cause your candidacy to be summarily rejected. But even inadvertent errors can lead a search committee to feel that you cannot be trusted to get the details right, and that colleagues at all levels won't be able to count on your reports.
The next phase of your search is the interview process, which I've written about at length in previous columns. What's important to reiterate here is that you want the search committee to get an accurate sense of who you are. Don't let a poor interviewing style obscure your strengths.
If you know that you are inclined to nervousness during an interview and thus to uncharacteristic behavior, like talking too much, laughing too loud, fidgeting, or apologizing for yourself, you need to practice keeping those tics under control. Work with a friend who will give an honest evaluation. Get someone to videotape you. Or simply remind yourself systematically throughout your interview to relax and put down that paperclip that you've been playing with.
Even if you are quite calm in interviews, you need to think through the answers to obvious questions (e.g., What is your management style? Why do you want this position?) so that you don't waste precious time as you work toward the answer you want to give.
At several points along the hiring process, you will have the opportunity to hear some indication of how you are doing. Particularly if the search committee is using a consultant, you may receive some insights about your candidacy before an interview, or between the preliminary interview and the second-round interview. You would especially hope for feedback if you don't get the offer.
How you respond to all of this advice will be remembered, and if you behave badly, it could harm you long past this particular search. The lesson here is: Ask for advice and if you are lucky enough to get it, don't be defensive. You don't have to follow the advice you're given, but you gain nothing by making it clear you don't care to listen.
If you are fortunate enough to get the job offer, you still have some critical steps in the negotiation process to complete. Think with great care about how you want to approach the final stage. I have seen candidates whose job offers were rescinded because of the way they handled the negotiation process. And I have seen others who negotiated exceptionally strong packages.
How hard should you press for what you want? Should you have a lawyer negotiate for you? Are you treating all participants in the negotiation process in a respectful fashion even though you may be on edge? There is no single right way to handle this process, but you should be aware of the risks as well as the potential gains.
I've emphasized the negative here, which is exactly the opposite of what you should do in the hiring process. But you might try to compare your own approach to the pitfalls I've described here and see if some recalibration might be needed.