“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 head principal, or a principal wanting to become a superintendent, “experience” is often the barrier to landing a job.
Let’s face it – this feedback stings. Not getting a job can be frustrating, especially when committees seem more concerned with your resume than your skills.
Furthermore, the “lack of experience” line poses a great irony: How is one supposed to have experience … if they are never given a chance to have experience?
Does experience really matter?
One study investigating the link between employee’s prior work experience and their performance in a new organization found no significant correlation between the two, determining that experience doesn’t predict a new hire’s success.
In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson suggest, “There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.”
Likewise, in Good to Great, Jim Collins reminds us: “In determining ‘the right people,’ the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work 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 often 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, some employees suggest there is an inverse correlation between both sets of names.
This same exercise applies to 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 you 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 an interview committee’s list of preferences.
Whereas interview committees know what they are getting with experienced leaders, inexperienced leaders are seen as wild cards. Even if the experienced leader is mediocre (as many well-traveled leaders are), interview committees often settle on a reliable veteran as opposed to take a chance on a boom-or-bust rookie.
When interview committees look at inexperienced candidates, they often assume worst-case scenario. Even when novice leaders interview well and show great potential, interview committees are notorious for second-guessing their abilities.
“How are they going to handle (name of the most difficult employee in the building)?” committee members ask. “They are going to get eaten alive!”
“They’ve never dealt with students as bad as (name of the 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 for 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 pick someone who isn’t so ambitious.”
Unfortunately, these thoughts reflect a scarcity mindset. Rather than pick the best candidate with the belief they can keep them long term – and, replace them with another talented person when they leave – interview committees opt for the safe choice, leading to years of mediocre leadership.
Although there is no data suggesting experience is needed to an effective leader, perception is reality. To combat these preconceived notions, here are seven ideas to help you shed the lack-of-experience stigma:
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 a 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 struggled 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 responses 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” issues during your interview. It is likely 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 my inexperience motivated me to learn and grow. Being coachable is one advantage that most novice leaders have over veterans, and is a concept that inexperienced leaders must highlight in their interview.
(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 your clothing, your hair, and your makeup. Wear glasses and cover tattoos. Sick of getting shut out on jobs, I grew a goatee and got a job on my first try. Similarly, a colleague who had similar bad luck shaved his head and immediately secured a new position. While these were likely coincidences, age can be an unconscious bias for many committee members. Finally, do you have a family? Use your spouse and kids to your advantage, as mentioning family makes candidates sound more mature.
The first known photograph of me with a goatee - it appears I aged five years overnight. Outdoor lighting may have also played a role.
Location, Location, Location: I have met numerous candidates who are fixated on working in large districts. “There’s no way I’m working in a small town,” they claim. While I get the allure of the big city, understand that bigger districts = stiffer competition. While you may think of people who landed big district jobs, it is likely they were an internal candidate, had connections, or lucked out with a shallow candidate pool. Understand that beggars can’t be choosers and you 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.
Let’s Be Honest: You may not want to hear this – but sometimes committees use the “experience” line as an excuse for not hiring you. It’s far easier to say, “We chose the candidate with more experience” than “Your interview was terrible.” With the legal system the way it is, it’s much safer for employers to use the “experience” line than it is to open the door to potential lawsuits.
As an assistant principal, I was told numerous times “We went with someone who had more experience” as the primary reason I didn’t get the job.
One time, I recall getting a rejection phone call on my way to the gym. Upset about getting passed over yet again, I crushed my workout while listening to Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” on repeat (listen at your own risk).
Next time you are told, “We’re looking for someone with experience,” use this advice to come back stronger. And when you finally get your chance, use rejection as your motivation to perform you job at the highest of levels.
If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.