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The “I” vs. “We” Balance: Highlighting Your Collaborative Prowess When Interviewing

The EvoLLLution | The “I vs. We” Trap in Job Interviews: How to Prove Your Ability to Collaborate
Search committees looking to hire senior leaders in higher education are constantly turned off when candidates overuse “I” or “we.” Striking the right balance between the two is more of a struggle than you’d think.

Collaboration. Collaborate. Collaborative. Collaboratively.

Whether used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb, the masterful use of collaboration as a leadership tool is undoubtedly at the top of every search committee’s list of essential skills required for a senior-level higher education administrator.

Yet in an interview setting, candidates for these top roles frequently struggle to strike the right “I” vs. “We” balance when sharing their experiences leading collaborative initiatives.

A higher education administrator for 19 years, I recently shifted my on-campus experience over to the world of executive search where I now consult with colleges and universities to recruit and place presidents, provosts, deans and other senior institutional leaders. After a year in this new niche, I chuckle when colleagues assume I can now reveal that singular, special and secret characteristic that makes a candidate stand out as a modern, senior campus leader.

They expect a complex or rare skill. I often surprise them with my simple response: “Collaboration is key.”

“Collaboration? Really? Humph!” is typically the response I receive. Sure, collaboration is a core leadership competency but it seems rather basic, doesn’t it? After all, most of us have (hopefully) been practicing the skill of collaboration since childhood.

More Than Just a Cliché

Sure, collaboration becomes much more complex as a professional. My wise colleague and friend Angela Baldasare points out in her piece, Overcoming Siloes: Promoting More Collegial Collaboration within Postsecondary Institutions, if campus leaders apply thoughtful effort and nuanced collaboration strategies to their campus partnerships, progress toward shared institutional goals is readily attainable.

As the traditional campus silos between academic affairs, student affairs and enrollment management crumble (hooray!) and these functions become more intertwined in the interest of advancing student success, keen collaboration skills are an absolute must in the new higher education landscape.

Colleges and universities see the need for collaborative prowess—as evidenced in the leadership profiles they produce for cabinet-level positions. A quick scan of five cabinet-level leadership roles that we recently helped place used the word “collaboration” or a variant 10 to 20 times each in their leadership profiles! These roles were from different functional areas but in the majority, collaborative engagement across campus is specifically cited as an institutional imperative for success. A leader with collaborative skill is top of mind no matter what sphere or aspect of the university that leader inhabits.

So the request is clear from our colleges and universities: Find us highly collaborative leaders who can work deftly across the horizontal as well as the vertical, building alliances and utilizing leadership by influence rather than top-down positional power. The role of the candidate then is to demonstrate to a search committee the impact of their collaborative efforts even though the committee wasn’t present to see the relationships develop, give and take and then bear fruit. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

Apparently, though, it is more of a struggle than I realized. Sitting in interviews, I’m shocked by how often candidates either make the conversation all about them (the “I”) or, in other cases, fail to promote their unique, individual role in the collaborative process (deferring to the “we”). Search committees immediately pick up on a candidate leaning either predominantly toward the “I” or predominantly toward the “we.”

Advice to Balance By

Search committees, and by extension, hiring authorities and campus communities, are longing for candidates who know how to balance the “I” and the “we.” In many cases, campus leaders are actually doing a good job at this in practice but are simply not great at talking about it in a job interview. Here are a few tips to ensure your fulcrum is set at the right spot to achieve the right balance:

Don’t Be Afraid to Own Your Leadership

 Many of us, especially women, are leery to own our full role in collaborations, preferring to talk about being part of the team rather than one of the key leaders. The use of team language defaults us to saying “we,” which leaves the search committee wondering what role the candidate truly played in the achievements of the institution. In an interview, if nowhere else, you mustgive yourself your due credit. Here are a few examples of how you can couple “I” and “we” language showing your leadership and responsibilities while crediting the group as well:

  • “I was the co-chair of the initiative which meant I was responsible for A, B, C while my colleague oversaw D, E, F. Together, the group accomplished X, Y, Z.”
  • “We moved X initiative from A to B. Y was my contribution to those efforts.”
  • “Colleague X and I brainstormed Y idea and then convened a group with A, B, C to flesh the idea out and move the initiative forward to Z outcome.”

Erase the Overuse Of “I” Language With Practice

When candidates phrase their accomplishments as “I achieved all this” with no acknowledgement of their partnerships, search committees are immediately turned off, assuming that the candidate is a narcissist. (That sounds harsh, but I recently heard a committee member say those exact words.) Once the search committee detects a non-collaborative vibe, it is very challenging to persuade them to let it go. For the most part, I don’t believe that a candidate who makes this mistake is a narcissist, though a few are! Instead, I believe the pressure of being in front of a group in a high stakes discussion leads them down the “I alone” path. Candidates are worried about providing concise answers, so it’s easier to switch to “I” language rather than taking a few moments to provide context and explain their partners’ roles in relation to their own. 

This is where practice comes in. Ultimately, a strong candidate should have a sense of the questions that will be asked based on the content covered in the leadership profile. Look to those themes, construct potential questions and practice them aloud, not just in front of your mirror or the dog, but also in front of trusted colleagues who can provide constructive criticism. They can help you avoid too many “I’s” and likely will provide other valuable advice as you prepare for the interview.

Readily Acknowledge That No One Accomplishes Anything Alone

At the start of a question that involves discussing complex collaborations, begin your response with this simple phrase and then switch the narrative to focus on what you have done. For example, “First, I want to acknowledge that no one person achieves anything on their own. It’s always a team effort. However, in terms of moving initiative A forward, I did X, Y, Z.”

Ensure Your CV and Cover Letter Are Balanced, Too 

Candidates frequently ask which is more important, the CV or the cover letter. The complicated dance between these two documents and which one leads is a topic for a whole other article, but regardless, the “I” vs. “We” balance definitely has a place in your candidate materials. No matter which document a search committee member picks up first, they must be able to get a sense of your individual efforts versus your team or collaborative efforts. Search committees are just as sensitive to this on the page as they are in conversation, so take the solemn oath to never, ever start every sentence in your cover letter with “I” and promise to always ask others to review your materials with a critical eye to this balance.

The “I” and “We” Teeter-Totter

When coaching candidates to speak with a committee and reminding them to balance “I” and “we,” I often tell them to think of an old school teeter-totter. Your goal is to transition back and forth between “I” language and “we” language as smoothly as possible. If one side is over-weighted, the game ends in frustration.

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