As a faculty member in a leadership education program, I interact with a wide range of aspiring leaders. I stay in contact with a lot of former students and subordinates as well. One of the most common questions I hear is, “What do you think? Do I have a chance if I apply?”
Aspiring leaders will see a job posting and will often scrutinize each item on the posting. They will then debate with themselves as to whether or not they are qualified or meet the requirement. It is fairly common for employers to consider alternative experiences. For instance, maybe you don’t have the three years of teaching experience that the posting asks for, but you have five years of experience as a teaching assistant. Should you apply? Some organizations are more flexible than others. Smaller organizations tend to be more flexible than larger systems. Part of that is the nature of bureaucracy in larger establishments. However, it is generally advisable to apply.
“Make them tell you no,” is often my advice. Another common question, particularly over the summer, is, “Should I apply for an interim position?” Often an interim position is a good way to get one’s first taste of positional leadership experience. Interim positions usually have a more streamlined interview process and occasionally less stringent qualifications. Those are both generally positive considerations for those aspiring for their first leadership position. Additionally, the inherent temporary nature of interim positions gives the candidate a simple explanation if they chose not to continue in the position for the long term. It is a great opportunity to test the waters and try out a leadership position.
Once one decides to move forward and apply for a position that might be a bit of stretch, what should a candidate do to prepare? One piece of advice is that the candidate who is excited about the position is often the candidate who will rise to the top of the pile. True and sincere excitement about a position or an organization usually shows through in an interview. Often, a strong candidate who meets all of the requirements on paper doesn’t really sell themselves as being interested in being part of the team or doesn’t seem that interested about the organization. Those candidates may be offered a position, but more likely the interview process will leave them aside in place of someone who has more enthusiasm for the position.
Secondly, make sure to be an inquisitive candidate. When a candidate doesn’t have any questions during the interview process, that often sends a signal they are not seriously interested. When questions focus on time off or how to get reimbursed for the trip to the interview, the wrong message is sent as well. Questions should be focused on the substantive facets of the position. Save questions about the number of sick days or how often you can work from home for the negotiations stage of the process after the position has been offered. Many informal conversations among interview committees when debriefing included comments that this or that candidate didn’t seem sincerely interested.
Of course, first a candidate has to be given an interview. Make sure your cover letter clearly addresses each facet of the job posting. Don’t leave anything up to the reader to infer. Be clear about how you meet each point of the enumerated qualifications and experiences. If you don’t meet the criteria directly, make sure that the reader understands the alternative experience you have that gives you the same skills and abilities. If you don’t have the experiences, be honest about that as well. This is particularly important within the scope of preferred qualifications. Then explain what you will do to obtain those experiences or skills if hired.
One last thing is to ask someone, preferably with experience in the hiring process, to review your materials before they are submitted. No one is great at proofreading their own work. Get someone to go through and find that extra comma or the homophone that spell check didn’t catch. After that, submit the application and good luck with the job search.