10 Lessons Learned from Leadership Interviews Featuring Women Who Lead

First published in TIE Online

As we move through the layers of leadership in international schools, the interview process changes and becomes more and more demanding. As part of the conversations for Women Who Lead (https://edurolearning.com/women), I asked the successful leaders what’s different about a leadership interview (in particular a Head of School interview) than what we may be used to in terms of teaching or even middle level leadership. In today’s article I’m sharing 10 key elements about a Head of School interview that are crucial to understand before you even begin thinking about the process.

1: Involves All Stakeholders

When you are interviewing for a Head of School position, you’re going to be speaking with all community stakeholders. Rachel Caldwell, Director, Pechersk School, Kyiv, Ukraine, notes that you need to demonstrate that “you really deeply care and that you can connect equally well with students, staff, and parents. People need to feel that you’re genuine in your desire to connect.” 

In order to make those genuine connections, Elsa Donahue, Head Of School at Vientiane International School in Laos, focuses on communicating an authentic, consistent, crisp and clear message about who she is and what she can offer the school community. She warned that “a trap that one may fall into is to think you might want to target your audience, and say what you think that audience group is looking for.”  Instead, be true to who you are, and focus on sharing a consistent message across all meetings.

2: Interviewing with Non-Educators

Something completely new for most educators not currently in a leadership position is being interviewed by non-educators. When you interview for a Head of School position by the Board, they’re very often men from the business world, who are thinking about things differently. Madeleine Heide, Superintendent at Lincoln American School in Buenos Aires recommends thinking about the questions from the Board perspective, “they will ask you about managing change, future of education, and how you would handle all the components of a school.” 

Another important thing to remember about Board members, highlighted by Deb Welch, CEO of the Academy of International School Heads, is that “they are typically people with different backgrounds than you: they can be host nationals, corporate executives, parents, or Embassy employees. In a for-profit school, you’ll be interviewing with the CEO and senior leadership of the company.” Being able to see the school, and the interview process from their perspective is essential.

3: Focus on the Big Picture

According to Tambi Tyler, Head of School at The Colorado Springs School, USA, a successful Head of School interview is all about common language and systemic thinking. In our day-to-day work, we often speak in the language of immediate tasks, but the Head Of School role is not really about “tasks,” it’s about “leadership as a whole and concept, in theory and conceptual knowledge. Demonstrating that you understand systemic challenges and roles is essential in the interviewing process.”

4: It’s Intense

Whether it’s a Head of School interview or a Principal interview, it’s intense. In a Head of School context, you are hired by the Board. Deb Welch, CEO of Academy of International School Heads, notes that “if you have made it to the finals and are brought to campus, you have an exhausting 2 days of being in front of every group imaginable, from faculty (maybe even there with the other finalists), parents, students, dinners. It’s exhausting. The last interview typically is the interview with the Board and they are looking at data that’s come in from the past few days, frequently in the form of a survey where they’re getting perception ratings from people about you. By that point you’re exhausted.”

Jasmeen Philen, Assistant Principal at International School Manila, shared her experience of being flown to campus with 5 other candidates to have 5 interviews over the course of 2 days including the principal and assistant principal, the leadership team from all divisions, the Head of School, a 12 teacher panel, the curriculum coordinator, plus class visits and observations. In the evening there are social events with everyone who conducted the interview and the other 4 interviewees. She sums it up by saying: “It’s a more complicated process. You’re vying for very few positions so the process becomes a little more challenging.”

5: Own Your Leadership

During the interview process, you need to present yourself as a leader, even if you don’t have experience in every aspect of the role. Madeleine Heide, Superintendent at Lincoln American School in Buenos Aires, recognizes that often women will own up to not being an expert, but that “you’re dead in the water if you do that.” She advises aspiring Heads of School to “present yourself as an executive leader who has an incredible skill set”. To do this, “you have to begin to shape your language around what they’re looking for and how you can be that person. Prepare, think about it and write it down. Do what you need to do to be prepared. You want to look like you’re prepared.”

Along those lines, instead of stating what you haven’t done, or what you don’t know, Bridget McNamer, Chief Navigation Officer for Sidecar Counsel, recommends sharing your point of view. Rather than saying “I haven’t done this before…” share what you think about the issue. “Don’t call attention to what you haven’t done, instead say “this is what I think about xyz, this is how I would imagine starting the process.” 

6: More Than “Just” Education

As educators, we are passionate about education, but Head of School interviews are about more than just education, they’re about being the director of an organization. Kathleen Naglee, Head of School at the International School of Helsinki, notes that a Head of School interview is completely different from any other interview than any other interview that you would have in education. “You have to understand that you’re applying as a CEO. You’re hired by boards, they are often business people. You have to look like, have the language of, and have the confidence of a CEO. For most women, the biggest barrier is to believe you can run the show.” You need to make sure you’ve taken courses in finance, and you have to be prepared to manage a large budget.

Similarly, Jane Thompson, Head of School at the American School of Paris, also spoke about this common mistake people make when transitioning from Principal to Head of School: not realizing that a Head of School interview is not really about education. It’s about finances and management. “You’re being interviewed by the Board, and they are responsible for the financial sustainability of the school, and that the school is as brilliantly led as an organization as possible. The education side is just a piece of that. For most of them it’s not the most interesting piece.” 

Echoing this, Sheena Nabholz, HOS Lincoln Community School, Ghana, recommends that aspiring Heads need to recognize that a Head of School role is often really about finance, communication, and management. When Heads of School struggle, it’s often because they haven’t had this level of management experience, particularly focusing on finance and facilities. 

7: Do Your Research on The Board

When Caroline Brokvam, Director American School Antananarivo in Madagascar, took her first Head of School role, she wasn’t prepared for how much of the job was working with the board. The fact that they’re not educators means that the conversations can be very different, and you’ll often have very diverse opinions and expectations. You need to be prepared for those close relationships once you get the job, so Caroline recommends that before you interview, do your research on the board too.

8: Know What You Want Them to Know

During the interview process, make sure you’re clear on the story you’re sharing. Madeleine Heide, Superintendent at Lincoln American School in Buenos Aires, recommends that you decide at least 5 things you want to make sure they know about you, and find a way to tell those 5 things no matter what their question is. When you leave the room, you want them to have those 5 things about you in their head. Find a way to weave that in, no matter what they ask you. You have to know yourself very well and what you want them to know about you.

Fay Leong, Director of Curriculum & Assessment at Hong Kong International School, recommends that you start by recognizing what specifically you have done in the past that you can bring to your next position. You need to “name it in your head and articulate for yourself, exactly how you specifically contributed. When you’re in a team and you’re contributing, what part can you own?” Not only can this help you tell your leadership story, but changing your perspective to think this way can help you step up and do more, enabling you to be even more prepared for the next step in your leadership.

As Nathalie Henderson, Chief Schools Officer, Indianapolis Public Schools, notes, a district level position interview is not so much about theory, more about “tell me a time”. Every leadership role she has interviewed for has included questions like “tell me a time where you have done xyz”. The higher you go up, the more you will have to speak to the impact and the results of the actions you took. “The questions that you are asked can be a chance to reflect on how you overcame past dilemmas, expose a bit of vulnerability, or show your grace and empathy during difficult situations.” To prepare for the interview, plan out your story with these goals in mind.

9: Start with the Headline

Bridget McNamer, Chief Navigation Officer for Sidecar Counsel points out that when it comes to leadership roles specifically, “women tend to do inductive answering, they’ll get to the answer by going through the story. What would serve them better is deductive, starting with a headline. Talk about a time when you faced a challenge, start with the headline. Keep the headline in mind and then draw the details in later, if asked.”

10: Level Up Your Skills

Catriona Moran, HOS Saigon South International School, highlights that “it’s not enough to get certification. You have to the certification, but you also have to have demonstrated that you have contributed to the organization in which you’re in.” She recommends that you take every opportunity to interview, because “every time we interview or put ourselves forward, we have to reflect on our beliefs, the underpinnings of our pedagogical approach, and ourselves, helps you become stronger in your beliefs.” Plus, when you apply for leadership positions, it lets the Head of School know that you aspire to be a leader. When a role becomes available, they may invite you to interview. “You have put yourself on their radar. People want to help others. You have to let them know that you have those aspirations. Most leaders get a great deal of satisfaction in mentoring & supporting aspiring leaders.”

Are you ready to take the next step? 

There’s a lot to think about when you’re considering the next step in your leadership journey. If you would like to get more insights like this – told directly through video from our Women Who Lead, join our next global cohort, or start the program self-paced today. There is nothing like hearing the “inside scoop” on the realities of interviewing for a Head of School position from over 20 Heads of School – or if you’re ready for a Principal, K12 Director, or even a Consulting pathway, you’ll have the choice to follow any of those pathways (or all of them!) too! Learn from the stories of over 70 successful women leaders and build your professional learning network inside Women Who Lead!

Find out more at: https://edurolearning.com/women/.

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