“We're looking for someone with experience.”
Aspiring school leaders hear this all the time when trying to move up the administrative ladder.
Whether you're a teacher trying to move into teacher leadership, an assistant principal hoping to become a principal, or a principal wanting to be a superintendent, we routinely get the "experience" line when we don't land a job.
And let’s be honest, this feedback sucks! Not only does it hurt hearing we didn’t get the job ... when the reason for not getting the job is outside our control, we get frustrated.
“How the (heck) am I supposed to get experience if I never get a chance!?”
Does experience really matter?
One comprehensive study investigated the link between employees' prior work experience and their performance in a new organization. They found no significant correlation between the two, and determined that experience doesn’t predict a new hire’s success.
In Rework, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried suggest, "There's surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months experience and six years. The real difference comes from the individual's dedication, personality, and intelligence."
And in Good to Great, Jim Collins reminds us, “When interviewing, place greater weight on personal attributes than on specific background, skills, or experience.”
But what about schools? Does experience matter for educators and - in our case - educational leaders? With limited research exploring the connection between experience and effectiveness of school employees, anecdotal evidence is where we'll turn.
When I lead interview teams and the "experience" discussion comes up, I like to share the following:
"Think of the teaching staff in your building. Imagine you have a piece of paper. On the left side of the paper, every teacher is listed from most experienced to least experienced. On the right side of the paper, every teacher is listed from most effective to least effective. As you compare both lists, do you see any correlation?"
Frequently, committee members smile upon realizing there is no correlation between lists. In fact, many employees suggest there is an inverse correlation between both sets of names.
This same exercise applies for school leaders. Consider the administrators in your district, or the administrators you have worked with previously. If you created two lists of administrators - one in order of experience and one in order of effectiveness - would see a connection?
It doesn't take a complex meta-analysis to determine there is little connection between administrative experience and administrative effectiveness.
Despite minimal evidence confirming its importance, "experience" is normally high on the list of interview committee priorities.
Whereas interview committees believe they know what they are getting with an experienced leader, inexperienced leaders are seen as wildcards. Even if the experienced leader is notoriously mediocre (as many well-traveled leaders are), interview committees find comfort in knowing what they are getting from that leader as opposed to a "boom or bust" rookie.
When interview committees look at inexperienced candidates, they often assume worst-case scenario. Even when novice leaders have all the right answers and show great potential in interviews, there will always be committee members who question their abilities.
"How are they going to handle (name of the most difficult employee in the building)?" these committee members ask. "They are going to get eaten alive!"
"They've never dealt with students as bad as (name of most difficult student in the building)!" they say. "We need someone who can put their foot down!"
The fear of an up-and-comer leaving after a few years is also a concern of some committee members. Believe it or not, interviewing "too well" is something I have heard in committee discussions. "They are just going to leave us in a few years," these individuals say. "It would be better to choose someone who isn't so ambitious."
Although these perceptions are unfair and inaccurate, they are reality. In order combat these preconceived notions, novice leaders must take experience head on when going through the interview process.
Here are seven ideas to consider as you attempt to shed the "lack of experience" title:
Resume Building: When considering dozens of applications, interview committees only have a few moments to look over each resume. One thing they typically hunt for are relevant leadership experiences. Candidates should list these roles at the top of the resume as opposed to having them buried deep in the document. Don't have many formal leadership roles? Do what you can to make them look formal. Are you a department chair? A mentor teacher? Assigned to special committees? Brainstorm and list leadership duties even if they don't have official titles.
Provide Examples: Let’s face it, experienced leaders have more examples to share in interviews. When asked questions like, “Share a time when you addressed a difficult employee" or "Tell us about your background with school budgeting" veteran leaders have plenty to draw from, while younger candidates struggle to deliver off-the-cuff responses. Novice leaders must come prepared to share examples demonstrating how their unique experiences translate to the administrative role.
Practice Makes Perfect: Because they've sat through more interviews, seasoned leaders are usually more polished as compared to their beginner counterparts. To close the gap, aspiring leaders should conduct practice interviews. Sample school leadership interview questions can easily be found online or by asking others for documents used in their district. Beyond verbally giving answers, writing down answers to questions helps with recall during high-stress interrogations. Have a lengthy commute to your interview? Conduct a rehearsal interview during your drive.
Admit Your Weakness: Address the "experience" issue during your interview. I guarantee the interview committee has already discussed the fact that you don't have any experience. Own It. During interviews, I would openly acknowledge that I was going up against individuals with more experience than myself. I would then explain how inexperience worked in my favor due to my eagerness to learn and my willingness to be coached. Also, I would look for opportunities share my story about the disconnect between experience and ability level. Rather ignore the elephant in the room, novice leaders should tackle the experience concern.
(Don't) Act Your Age: Like it or not, people have preconceived notions of what leaders should look like. Often, these leaders are older and more mature looking. Yes, I'm telling you to look old in your interview. Consider what you wear, your hair, and your makeup. Wear glasses and cover tattoos. Sick of getting shut out on jobs, I grew out a goatee and got a job on my first try. One aspiring superintendent who wasn't having luck shaved his head and secured a position during the next interview. Although these were probably coincidences, age is a factor for many committee members. Finally, do you have a family? Use your spouse and kids to your advantage, as mentioning family makes candidates sound older and more "grown-up."
Location, Location, Location: Sometimes younger candidates have their minds made up that they want to work in the bigger districts. "There's no way I'm going to a small district," they claim. While this is great, understand that bigger districts = stiffer competition. While you may know others who have gotten jobs in larger schools, they were likely an internal candidate, had connections, or lucked out with a shallow candidate pool. Understand that you can't be picky and may need to go to a rural district to get your foot in the door. And once you get there, absolutely kill your position so that others start to notice.
TBH: You may not want to hear this - but understand that sometimes managers are using the “experience” line as an excuse as to why they are not hiring you. It’s much easier to say “we had candidates with more experience” than “our committee didn’t like you." With the legal system the way it is and with people looking for every opportunity to sue a school district, it's much safer to use the "experience" line than it is to give feedback that could open the door to potential lawsuits.
As an assistant principal I applied for a handful of internal principal jobs in two different districts. Each time, I was passed over for someone who had "more experience."
One time, I recall getting a rejection phone call on the way to the gym. Pissed about getting passed over yet again, I crushed my workout while listening to Faint by Linkin Park on repeat. Two lines in the chorus of the song are as follows:
Don't turn your back on me
I won't be ignored
Next time you are told, "We're looking for someone with more experience", use the advice from this article to come back stronger. And when you finally get your chance, use rejection as your motivation to perform your job at the highest of levels.