Leadership Lessons: Inside the World of Internal Candidacy

Summer 2019

By Tim Fisher

“You will have to change.”
“Please don’t change.” LL.jpg
These are comments I often heard from my colleagues during the four months I was an internal candidate for the position of upper school head at my school. It was a direct contradiction, and I often felt that tension. I’ve since come to realize that this tension encapsulates a unique set of challenges for school leaders, the community, and of course, internal candidates.
Now, 12 months after I made it to the final round and my school chose an external candidate, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the full process. I’ve been thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of being an internal candidate for a higher-level position. And I’ve been thinking about how schools can handle internal candidates and support them when they are successful or, more pressing, unsuccessful. After all, there’s a lot on the line.

The Playing Field: Equal But Different

My school is small. We have about 450 students, with about 140 in the upper school. A number of our administrators have successfully moved into their current positions from within the school, but most have been external hires. When I applied for the open position, I had been at the school for 12 years. I teach AP history and serve in some lower-level administration positions, including grade dean and director of leader development.
Several years ago, I approached my head of school and expressed a desire to move into administration and looked to gain more experience in advance of moving into a new role. But there were limited opportunities given the size of our school. I wasn’t actively being cultivated, but when the position opened, I felt like it was the right time for me to take the next step and be successful. Colleagues even approached me to offer their support for my candidacy before I made my intent public.
So I applied through the hiring agency, had phone interviews with members of the firm, provided written references, had video interviews with the search committee, and spent a day as a finalist on campus. It helps to have all candidates—internal and external—jump through the same hoops, from the application process to the interviews and everything in between. There were times things felt forced and clumsy—I interviewed via computer screen in my classroom with colleagues who sat just a few rooms away. But it makes sense that the school handled things this way. One of my colleagues on the search committee later told me, “In your video interview I saw your serious side, and I was very impressed.”
No system or process can hide the fact that an internal candidate is already known. Nor should it. Being a “known quantity” is a big plus for internal candidates, bringing advantages that should count. A familiar face will bring comfort especially during a time of transition. Internal candidates have usually established themselves as a good cultural fit, and any areas of weakness are already known and can be addressed. The search committee can start to see the internal candidate as a legitimate candidate and not simply “the guy who teaches in the room down from me” or the “guy who I joke around with in the copy room.”

Internal Advantage?  

Familiarity cuts both ways—some on the search committee will want to dig even deeper than they would with external candidates, and some won’t dig deep enough. My head of school said it can mean greater scrutiny for the candidate, “perhaps a deeper vetting than might be expected.” Questions for an internal candidate will quickly move beyond the basic, getting-to-know-you variety, and a history of the internal candidate’s actions can be critiqued. Meanwhile, one colleague who served on the committee told me, “I did not try to learn anything new about you. I wish that I had dug a little deeper into how you would reassure people that you had new ideas.” Familiarity bias can place the internal candidate at a disadvantage.
People often already have an idea of whether they want their colleague to be promoted, and the work done in the hiring process will have to be very robust to dislodge assumptions. Under the guidance of the hiring company, the search committee was instructed to ask me the same questions as the other candidates.
When a key focus of the new hire is change, an internal candidate—who will inevitably be seen in the context of the “old regime”—can be disadvantaged. From the earliest conversations with my head of school, I did not get a sense that I was too similar or too associated with the outgoing administrator. Moreover, I was intentional from day one to position myself as someone who had continuities but was different.
For the school, however, sharing information about the need for change can be exactly what makes the process challenging, especially if this is something that is put into focus during hiring. “There may be areas of growth expected in a position that have not been expected in the position as an internal candidate has observed it from their tenure with the school,” my head of school told me. A school might simply want a fresh start; but it’s hard to say whether that was a factor in my case.

A Lot on the Line

Schools take chances on outside hires. There’s also risk attached to pursuing an internal candidate. In some ways, there’s even more on the line, including possible public failure and the need to work with an administration that rejected them. At one point, my head of school told me that some schools shy away from considering internal candidates, and that the overriding concern often is the potential to lose a valued colleague who becomes disillusioned or disappointed and looks elsewhere if not selected.
Internal candidates, therefore, should be allowed to make an informal case to the head of school early in the process, behind closed doors. If they are unlikely to succeed, they need to know right away. Moving forward as a courtesy or a way to protect feelings is not an option. Beyond the early discussion, an internal candidate will soon become much discussed and scrutinized by the whole school community. As such, the bar for being pushed into the final rounds should be high, even higher than for an external candidate.
The hiring decision, at the end of the day, is that of the head, but the process must not be seen as a “done deal.” As my head of school said, every search has its own DNA, and there are myriad factors that go into who is hired. The strength of other candidates and the time when the position became available, for example, are issues over which neither I nor the school had control.
An unsuccessful internal candidate should be treated differently. No internal candidate should just get an email. A great deal of work is needed to rebuild a fractured relationship. Having the third-party involvement of a hiring agency is helpful here, my head of school divulged. It gives the process a framework and allows the candidate to hold up to scrutiny.
The feedback I received from both my head and the hiring company was that I would have been a popular choice, and there was not one factor that tipped the decision. The successful candidate’s couple of years of direct experience as a division head mattered. But what more could I have done? How much of the decision was attributable to me being an internal candidate? What might I have done to make myself a stronger candidate? 
I am disappointed I did not get the job, but I don’t regret applying. Going through this process also has sharpened my focus on my own professional development, making me realize the importance of advocating for growth opportunities. Now I’m far more flexible in the way I see my career unfolding. As I consider future opportunities, at my school or elsewhere, I do believe my experience as an internal candidate will be of great benefit.

Up for the Job?

If you are considering an internal job opportunity, here are some questions to ask yourself and others before you jump into the candidate pool.

Before you apply:

  • Is the position you’re pursuing a natural continuation of a path you have been on? Do you understand the demands of the job, or are you interested in applying because people around you think you should?
  • Have you pursued opportunities that will give you the experience you need in the new role? 
  • Is there a trusted colleague who can give you an honest appraisal of how you are perceived?
  • Have you made your desire known to others that you’d like to be promoted?

During the interview:

  • Can you articulate how you will be able to offer change/see the school with new eyes, even though you are not coming from outside of the community?

Throughout the process:

  • What happens if you do not get the job?
  • Will you stay?
  • Will you leave?
  • Are those both realistic choices?
Tim Fisher

Tim Fisher is grade dean and director of leader development at Spartanburg Day School in Spartanburg, South Carolina.