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5 Tips for a Successful Executive Selection in a Virtual World

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An excellent pool of highly qualified candidates is narrowed, and now the selection committee is set to start the first round of the interview process to fill a key administrative role.

The process sounds familiar at first, but COVID-19 restrictions quickly make the next steps — the interviews — daunting to say the least. Colleges and universities are struggling to replicate the personal interview process that connects their candidates to the campus community in a pandemic, where stakeholders can feel, well, disconnected at times. Many campuses have halted their searches midstream or delayed the selection process, frozen by the inability to pivot.

So, how does a selection committee replicate that 1- to 2-day intimate, on-campus interview process in an executive-level search when the pandemic pushes all interactions into a digital environment and into what feels like a tightly bound box?

David Forgues, Vice President of Cal State Fullerton’s division of Human Resources, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Carolyn Thomas, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, are eager to share their success in Thomas’s spring selection, which coincided with California’s shift to an entirely virtual teaching environment.

“I feared that we likely would not be able to pick the search back up this year, as all our energy was going into the pandemic response,” Forgues says. “As we started to get settled into our new reality it was time to pivot. We were eager to see if we could still complete a high-level search in the middle of the pandemic.”

Today’s candidates must continue to do their homework in preparation for meetings, but they also must convert their home from a workplace, a classroom or elementary school play area to a professional setting where studio lighting is a must, Wi-Fi is reliable, and silence is golden. Gone are the moments to ease into the interviews and get to know panelists on informal rides from the airport or cart tours around campus. And yet, everything remains uncertain: health, jobs, education, the future, says Thomas.

“In person, the nerves before meetings with the person who holds your future in their hands can be tempered with a handshake or with small talk about the office décor, or taking in someone’s nonverbal cues. Zoom doesn’t afford those things,” says Thomas, who took the role July 15.

Top tips

The following key virtual steps proved practical, affordable and more engaging, as Cal State Fullerton’s open forums with finalists drew about 400 participants from the campus community, four times as many than its usual in-person, on-campus forums. Recordings of each candidate’s presentations were made available to anyone who could not attend the virtual gathering, an option not previously available in a traditional on-campus format.

  • Connections are key – Ask candidates for honest feedback throughout the process to ensure a strong sense of whether applicants felt the desired connection.
  • Breaking bread – Deans, cabinets, groups of administrators, and presidents who previously dined in traditional settings with candidates should continue such practices by bringing their meals to a digital gathering.
  • Tour the campus virtually – Provide a link to a campus tour already offered for prospective students, or consider a video of a cart tour with your campus mascot.
  • Fit the format – Zoom meetings work well for 12 to 15 participants, keeping the conversation flowing. A webinar format with a moderator works best for open forums of 100 or more people. Encourage the candidates to spend 10 to 15 minutes introducing themselves and sharing their vision for the position before taking questions from the floor and questions gathered from employees in advance. Record the presentations, so the recordings can be shared with anyone who has a schedule conflict.
  • Collect feedback electronically – Use Qualtrics or other survey platforms to collect comments from employees who attend forums. Check in with candidates to determine what other information they might need to be confident about a decision if your institution makes an offer.

Embracing the virtual environment “in Zoomville” can benefit candidates, says Thomas. She encourages finalists to practice answering questions in the Zoom setting, use first names when responding, ask questions, be genuine, show emotion, keep answers short and follow up.

“Fortunately for me, Fram Virjee, the president, was exceedingly welcoming, knowledgeable, and easy to talk to. I realized when it was over that we had a true back-and-forth about important issues facing the campus and ways we could work together, that we’d gone well over our allotted time,” Thomas says. “The things I learned in my Zoom interviews are serving me well in this new context,” she adds. “And, while I long for the time when we can return ‘home’ to campus, I feel that the search process set me up very well to truly feel I belong here on campus, and that my colleagues, by and large, feel the same way. It’s a sensation that is, in fact, quite the opposite of being ‘remote.’”

About Cal State Fullerton: The largest university in the CSU and the only campus in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton offers 110 degree programs, and Division 1 athletics. Recognized as a national model for supporting student success, CSUF excels with innovative, high-impact educational practices, including faculty-student collaborative research, study abroad and competitive internships. Our vibrant and diverse campus is a primary driver of workforce and economic development in the region. CSUF is a top public university known for its success in supporting first-generation and underrepresented students, and preparing all students to become leaders in the global marketplace. Visit http://www.fullerton.edu/ .

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