Being interviewed for the principal's post is a tense affair, but a grasp of the pitfalls will help
AS SOON as he started to tackle the third question in his job interview, Pete felt the ground slip from under him and with it all hopes of becoming a principal. The question from the chair of governors was straightforward enough: "How would you deal with the support staff strike threat?"
To this day, Pete cringes when he recalls his reply: "I would get tough. To tell the truth, it's the inability of my present boss to deal with endless industrial action that makes me want to leave."
In one ill-thought statement, Pete had criticised his boss, suggested he was more desperate to quit his current post than take the new one, and demonstrated what came over as a lack of strategic thinking. Worse, some on the interview panel were sympathetic to the staff. The rest of the interview hour was a write-off.
Pete Wade (not his real name) did finally make it to principal and is now occasionally involved in leadership training. He gives solid advice to young hopefuls: "Prepare, network, get known."
The failure of aspiring leaders to prepare themselves properly constantly surprises people involved in the selection process. In the old days, there was a standard route to the top good academic record, sideways movement to management, vice-principal and dead men's shoes.
Today, it is a far more sophisticated game involving head-hunters, networks and organisations promoting specific interest groups such as the Black Leadership Initiative Scheme and Women's Leadership Network. Nor is academe the only route. Mark Dawe, principal of Oaklands College in Hertfordshire, started as a finance director, then senior civil servant before being head hunted.
But the underlying issues have never changed, says Stephen Grix, principal of Mid-Kent College, who joined further education from his previous job as a brickie. He offers the same clear advice to anyone keen to reach the top.
"First, don't stick in one institution for too long no more than three years. Whatever your current role, when you have done two years, look for something that gives you progression. Always ask: `where does the job position me?' For example, I became a personal tutor because I was a brickie and needed subsequent jobs to broaden me and give me the academic edge."
The idea of head-hunters may seem elitist and intimidating.
"Not so," says Stephen Grix. "They get paid this much for dealing with the advert, that much for drawing-up the shortlist and the rest for the appointment. Tap into these people KPMG, Tribal, Veredus write to them, tell them you are interested. They need to nurture talent and will give you a mock interview. None of that existed when I was first appointed principal."
Recruitment panels now use a whole raft of tools such as psychometric testing and literacy and numeracy tests. "Head-hunters will let you into the office to have a go at them, to improve them." This may seem like cheating but it is not, Stephen insists.
"I am reminded of the world champion golfer Gary Player who said the more he practices, the luckier he seems to get. There is no substitute for preparation.
"If you are prepared, you can guess about 40-50 per cent of every question. Often, it's not the answer you give but the way you deliver it that impresses. It is like politicians. Their answers often don't bear much relation to the question, but they use it to get a point across."
The interview panel must be convinced you are hungry for the job. "Yes, you want that six-figure salary but they want to see commitment. Don't appear as if you are on a carousel looking for any principalship. And never knock your existing institution. Instead, point to techniques you have that can help them progress."
Many candidates also fail to realise that they know more than the interview panel. Governors, lay people and elected members have even less understanding and you can often tell from questions asked the message they want to hear. "This sounds cynical, but it is what works", Stephen says.
It works as a package for those out to nurture their talent from the start rapid progress at work, membership of supportive associations, prominence on the books of head-hunters, attending the right courses.
Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, works with head-hunters and is often surprised by what candidates neglect. "There are things that are understood, unspoken selection criteria: manner of dress, eye contact, deportment. Often, a candidate becomes disengaged from the conversation and lacks focus."
Others fail to show empathy or awareness of local issues and the real challenges for the college. Both Stephen Grix and Nadine Cartner say that unsuccessful candidates who have made an effort will be invited in by head hunters to improve their chances next time round.