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A different type of interview

Acing a Search Committee Interview

Last year, we wrote a column about how to be a good search committee member and how a successful search committee should function. This year, we focus on the candidate who must meet with a search committee.

Despite what anyone says, a search committee interview is not the same as a one-on-one interview, and many people who are quite effective in individual interviews bomb in a group setting.

There are several reasons for this. In addition to the nerves that may arise when you are the focus of a group, search committee interviews are much more structured and formal. There is not as much of an opportunity for softer qualities such as warmth, sense of humor, or openness to come through.Nevertheless, there are ways you can ace the interview:

1. Prepare.

Obviously the first thing is learn as much as you can about the client. Read all public filings, visit locations, and familiarize yourself with the financials and any challenges the organization faces. Once you feel comfortable with the client and position, it is time to focus on the interview itself.

Learn as much as you can about the search committee. How many people will be on the committee? What are their backgrounds? Pay particular attention to the background of the Chair of the Committee as he or she may ask the questions or at the least serve as the moderator.

As with any setting, it is important to be able to respond to someone's question by using the person's name. Of course, you don't want to do it so much that you sound like a recent graduate of a Dale Carnegie course, which, some say, encourages the overuse of someone's name to the point that it sounds contrived. How long will the interview last? Gain as much information as possible. Will the Committee want written materials from you?

2. Have a plan.

Regardless of the format of the interview, you will be asked to talk about your background and experience. You should craft a three-, five-, and ten-minute version, and if you aren't sure which one to give, ask "how long would you like me to speak?" Or, you can make a joke: "I will keep it brief, and if I see any of you nodding off I will know my life is pretty boring or I've talked too long."

Write it down. Edit it. Refine it. It is one of the best investments you can make in your career and will come in handy in the future. You should also have a plan for detailing why you want and are qualified for the position. This should be shorter.

3. Practice.

Re-read the position description and plan for possible questions. Ask a friend, coach, or mentor to listen to your summary of your background. Film it. Refine it.

4. Distinguish yourself.

You can expect that the individuals with whom you are competing for the position will be equally qualified, and the search committee interviews are for determining the best fit.

If one of your strengths is your sense of humor, show it without trying to be Chris Rock. I remember one particular Search Committee meeting for a Board member. The candidate walked into the long cavernous room where the Board members were just finishing dinner and sat silently.

He walked to the empty chair at the head of the table, smiled, and said, "I hope you all don't want me to sing for my supper." It was a wonderful ice breaker, and as he was offered a position, the Board Chair said, "We appreciate someone who has a sense of humor." If you have an aptitude for remembering numbers, show that if you can do it in the context of your discussion. Know your strengths and employ them. In short, be yourself.

5. Calibrate and be nimble.

As the interview is progressing, assess how it is going. Is the Committee engaged? Distracted? Recently I was in a search committee meeting where the candidate brought a voluminous PowerPoint presentation. After the first two minutes you could hear members thinking to themselves, "Please tell me he is not going to go through all forty pages of this document." He stopped and said, "This is a lot of data—is it too much? If it is, let's focus on page 25, which gives you my ideas for my first year as CEO." The Committee breathed a sigh of relief, and he ultimately got the position.

Another candidate was not so lucky. Clearly the brightest and most experienced of the group, she failed to notice that some members of the search committee were not grasping all of the complex details she was trying to explain. After she left, the committee felt that they had been lectured to rather than engaged. Be willing to stop and ask, "Does this give you too much detail?" And, "if I am heading down the wrong path, please let me know."

6. Details matter.

You have heard that the devil is in the details, but what does that mean exactly? I ran a search committee a couple of years ago where the committee was deadlocked between two outstanding candidates. What broke the deadlock? One of the candidates answered questions with "what WE need to do," while the other candidate responded with "what YOU all should do."

Small stuff? Absolutely, but one candidate had already aligned herself with the organization.

Similarly, I remember one candidate who entered the small overly crowded search committee room with overcoat, briefcase, umbrella, etc. It just created too much commotion as he knocked binders off the table struggling to get out of his overcoat.

Another candidate who was considered for his first CEO gig slouched and just didn't look presidential, though he was clearly ready for the position. In the vein of "small but important stuff," arrive early but not so early you will run into other candidates. If you get to the building 30 minutes early, wait downstairs. Arrive at the location no more than ten to fifteen minutes early. Most interviews will have some period of time at the end of the interview for you to ask questions. Be conscious of your time allotment. Do not pull out a list of fifty questions. Have one or two and look to the Search Committee Chair and the clock for direction.

7. Follow up.

It never hurts to follow up. While thank you notes will not atone for a bad interview, they are a detail that can make a difference. If you are going to write individual thank you notes, understand that your notes may be forwarded to the entire search committee. Personalize the notes. Harken back to a question that a particular board member asked you.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director