How can you rise above other candidates in the educational leadership hiring process, even if you're an outsider with less experience?
I've directly coached dozens of administrators seeking new roles, and I've engaged with thousands more via webinars, live video, and email, and I've noticed that people take two distinct approaches to the job search.
Approach #1: Waiting for the Right Job
Some people are waiting to be chosen. They believe that if they're the right person, a job offer will fall in their lap. “We've heard about the great work you've been doing, and we want you on our team,” they expect to hear out of the blue.
People who are waiting to be chosen are extremely selective about the jobs they apply for. They're sure that if it's the right job, it'll be theirs, so they only apply for a handful of jobs each year—and if they don't get them, well, it must be because the right job didn't come along.
Only, they start to notice a pattern: other, less qualified applicants start to jump the line and get jobs. How is that possible?
“Huh,” the waiting-to-be-chosen leader grumbles. “Politics.”
So the years start to tick by, and they continue to wait for the right job. Every year, there are a few openings, but…gee, they must not be the right fit, because the offers never come.
Every week, I talk with frustrated people who can give me detailed explanations for why other people are getting hired and they aren't, but it comes down to this: they're waiting to be chosen, so they're not applying for very many jobs.
So that's the first approach, and let's be honest: it doesn't work. Actually, that's not quite fair—it works for enough people that it fools everyone else into the hope that if they just keep waiting for the right opportunity, it'll happen.
Approach #2: Competing for the Job You Want
But there's a second approach that people have always used, and that has always worked: competing to win.
The competing-to-win leader does many of the same things as the waiting-to-be-chosen leader:
- They do good work.
- They network and build relationships.
- They look out for jobs that would be a good fit.
What's different is their underlying mindset about how the admin job search works. They see it, fundamentally, as a competition to be won. And they're right.
When you understand that getting your next-level instructional leadership role is a matter of competing against other candidates, everything changes.
It's not like finding the love of your life. It's not like picking a dog or cat from the shelter. It's not like choosing a church. Treating those processes as competitions feels weird or even creepy.
But the admin job search is absolutely a competition, and you win the same way you'd win a tournament in sports—by competing.
Imagine that your teenager is on a soccer team, and the team is pretty good. They put in the hours of practice each week, they play hard in games, and they win fairly often.
But imagine that there's another team that doesn't really understand that they're in a competitive league. They're playing for the love of the game, and they assume everyone else is, too—and honestly, it bothers them how focused everyone else is on winning and keeping score. Tacky.
How well is this second team going to fare when they arrive at a soccer tournament? Are they going to advance to the championship? Not if they don't even understand that they're competing.
This is the tragedy of so many waiting-to-be-chosen leaders I encounter. In some cases, they've risen a bit without really competing. Perhaps they were chosen out of the blue for their current role, and they expect their next role to fall in their lap in the same way.
But the higher you rise in the profession, the more obvious it becomes that this is a competition, and to win, you must prevail in each of three specific tournaments.
No amount of waiting to be chosen will bring success in these tournaments, unless you get very lucky—and luck isn't an especially good plan.
Tournament #1: Application Screening
The first tournament is the application screening process. If you're an external candidate—applying to a school you've never worked in—your application represents your entire existence.
They haven't seen you teach. They haven't served on the leadership committee with you. They haven't interviewed your students.
You are nothing more than words on the screen at this stage—and understanding the terms of the competition is essential, because they'll change as you progress through the three tournaments.
Someone recently emailed me wondering why she wasn't getting more interviews. “I have great experience and great references,” she said. Why wasn't that enough?
It's simple: when districts are deciding who to interview, they aren't checking references at all. They're just looking at your application. And they're not really seeing your experience—they're seeing the documents you've submitted describing your experience.
So if you've undersold yourself in your application materials—especially your cover letter and résumé—your experience isn't standing out the way it should.
When you understand that the first tournament is all about landing an interview—getting in the “yes” pile—you can pour all of your energy into submitting a stellar application.
And if you still aren't getting enough interviews, despite having a strong résumé and cover letter, the solution is equally simple: apply for more jobs.
Waiting to be chosen, and applying for just one or two ideal jobs a year, isn't going to land you the job you're looking for.
These numbers are a shock to most people, but here's what I recommend:
Apply for 25 to 50 jobs.
Expect 5 to 10 first-round interviews from those applications.
And expect 1 to 2 offers to come your way, if you're a strong competitor in each tournament.
If you're not advancing to the next tournament, focus on winning the current tournament, according to its rules. Again, to win the application screening tournament, submit better applications for more jobs.
Then, you'll advance to the second tournament—the interview process.
Tournament #2: Interviews
When you submit strong applications for appropriate jobs, you'll land interviews…eventually. It's a slog, and it can be discouraging—especially if you get your hopes up and expect every single application to lead to an interview.
As you can see from the numbers above, 25 applications should land you about 5 interviews, and 50 applications should lead to about 10 interviews. If you want the job, commit to doing the work.
If your numbers are better, that means your application must be outstanding. Every year, I speak with a few people who say things like “I applied for five jobs, and I got interviews for all of them,” but this is rare, and usually only happens for people making lateral moves after years of experience in a role.
If you're moving up to a new level—for example, from assistant principal to principal—it's great to land an interview about 20% of the time.
If your numbers are worse—if you've applied for 25+ jobs with just one or two interviews, or even none at all—don't start to doubt yourself. Don't go back to get another master's degree or your doctorate. Don't wait until you have five more years of experience. Focus on winning the previous tournament—focus 100% of your energy on making your applications stronger, and submitting more of them.
Side note: occasionally I will see people try to skip a typical level on the path from teacher to principal. This usually doesn't work, but it's district-specific. For example, in some districts, athletic coaches and department heads are commonly hired as APs. In other districts, it may be typical for everyone on the principal track to become an instructional facilitator, then an AP, then a principal. Ask around if you're not sure, and make sure you're applying for jobs you actually have a shot at.
So once you've entered the interview tournament, how do you compete to win?
Like a youth soccer team, it comes down to fundamentals and practice. If your teen's soccer team has strong players who put in the practice hours each week, they'll do better than a team that barely practices or has mediocre players.
It's easy to miss this key: to win the interview tournament, you must both a) have good experience, and b) be able to talk about that experience in a compelling, interesting way.
The wrong way to talk about your experience is to frame it as simply a number:
“I have ___ years as a ___.”
When you frame your experience as nothing more than a number of years in a role, you invite unfavorable comparisons. There's always going to be someone with more years of experience. If you want to win the interview tournament, you must redefine the terms of victory for the interview team.
The best way to win the interview tournament is with stories.
In an interview, you'll be asked specific questions about your qualifications and experience, and if you answer these questions in a purely factual and clinical way—with job titles and duties and dates—that's how you'll be compared to other candidates.
Obviously, you will need to answer the questions in an honest and complete way—but you can also liven up your answers with stories.
Todd, who recently landed his first principal job, told me how he won the interview tournament:
“I used and practiced your interview questions quite a bit. I also used your advice to have some prepared stories to help (which indeed, I did beat out an internal candidate).”
Todd had never held an admin position before—he was a classroom teacher who had taken on leadership responsibilities, but without the title. He was competing against internal candidates who were already well-known to the district, and he was almost certainly competing against people with previous admin experience.
He beat them all, and won the second tournament, by telling compelling, true stories that answered the interviewers' questions and gave a rich picture of what kind of leader he'd be.
Win this second tournament, and you'll progress to the final tournament: reference checks.
Tournament #3: Reference Checks
If you impress the interview team and make it onto the shortlist of finalists, your references will be consulted.
Sometimes references are used to help break a tie—if one candidate's references say he's fine, while the other's references gush over her, it might become an easier choice.
But usually, reference checks are a “just in case” step:
- Is this person crazy?
- Have they done something horrible that we need to know about?
- Is there something they're hiding?
- Are they really as great as they claim to be?
References are contacted in order to minimize risk…but they can do so much more for you, if you're willing to ask.
Herein lies a key competitive advantage in the third tournament, because you can score points in ways your competitors don't even know about.
You need references who won't just speak well of you during a reference check. You need references who will mentor and advocate for you—and the time to enlist their support is now.
Don't wait until you need a recommendation letter within the next 24 hours. That's what most people do, and that's why most people get mediocre recommendation letters.
Give your references a heads up now that you'll be seeking a new leadership role in the future. Yes, this may be an awkward conversation, because you'll be communicating your intent to leave your current job. But if you're clearly on the path to a higher level of leadership and impact, your references will understand.
Set aside some time for a face-to-face conversation, and say something along these lines:
As you probably know, I've been planning to look for a ___ position, and I'll probably start applying when jobs are posted in ___ (month). I want you to know that I'm 100% committed to this school, and that this job has my full attention for as long as I'm in it. If there's a ___ job for me here, I'd take it in a heartbeat. But I also know there may not be an opening for me here, and becoming a ___ is a really important next step for me. I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket, so—and I know this is awkward to ask—I want to make sure I have your support as I take these next steps, even if it means going somewhere else, if that's where the opportunity is.
Between now and then, I want to make sure I'm demonstrating everything that you'd need to see in order to give me your highest endorsement without any hesitation. I know I'm probably not doing everything I could be, so I'd like to ask for your feedback now. What should I be doing to really make myself an outstanding candidate for ___?
And because I know it's always short notice when people ask for recommendation letters, what I'd like to ask for now is a draft—not something that's finished and ready to send, but just a rough outline of what you think of me and what I need to work on. Then, if you see me growing in those areas, you can revise the letter, and when I actually need to send one in, it should be a lot faster for you, because most of it is already written. Would that be OK? Could you write me a draft recommendation letter?
Most people won't make a request like this, because—let's be honest—it's an awkward conversation. But if you don't take the risk, you can't reap the rewards.
Is there a chance your reference will get upset? Is there a chance they'll say no? Of course. But that's true whether you ask now, or months from now when you're crunched for time.
The absolute worst time to get your references on board is when they get a call—out of the blue—from a district that's ready to snatch you away. If it's a surprise, they'll be caught off-guard, and they may be angry that you didn't tell them of your plans. They may panic at the thought of having to replace you, and they may feel betrayed. All of these feelings virtually ensure that you'll get a less-than-stellar recommendation.
So start now. Enlist their support. Get draft letters. Start acting on their feedback.
And as you start to get good recommendation letters from your references, include them in your applications. Most candidates don't do this, because it's not required, and because they haven't asked for letters yet. But it'll give you a huge advantage in the Application Screening tournament—and it'll virtually guarantee your success in the final Reference Checks tournament.
Strive to get 10 recommendation letters from your current supervisor, any former supervisors, other leaders you work with, peers, other contacts across the district, and even former students' parents. One of my key references when I was hired as a principal came from a director I briefly reported to while running summer school. Think of anyone you've worked with who'd be willing to help you move to the next level.
Want More Help?
If you'd like more help getting ready for the upcoming hiring season, you can apply to work with me here, and we'll talk.