Okay. I’ll admit it. Sometimes I write blogposts just so that I can crowbar in some favourite choons of mine. And this one is a case in point.
I’m also writing it because, every so often, I get a DM from someone asking me, from my vantage point as a school leader, about an interview they have coming up for a leadership post. Today I’ve had another such request, from an ex-student who became a colleague at my previous school. She was looking for advice for an interview she has for her first leadership post, as a Deputy Head of Department.
Having given her some thoughts about what to expect with regard to issues such as curriculum, staff development and the inevitable accountability questions, we chatted a bit about the human side of the interview process, particularly in terms of the nerves that always accompany such an event. My advice in these situations is always to try hard to enjoy the process and remember that, if you’ve made it to interview, that there must be something about the cut of one’s jib that the appointing panel already like.
And then I returned to a familiar refrain, about how she could ensure that her responses to the questions she receives are focused and well structured, with the corollary that she will be much more able to physically demonstrate that hoped-for enjoyment of the interview process. In doing so I told her about a formula for answering questions that I heard about four years ago, a formula that I have advised many others to use since that discovery. It’s a formula I utilised recently in my own interview to become Headteacher at Canons: the STAR formula.
I’ve always had a bit of a problem of my own when it comes to answering interview questions. Simply put, I talk too much. Put in a more complex way, I usually have too much to say and struggle to impose order upon these thoughts prior to them achieving escape velocity from my mouth. The result, down the two decades and many interviews I have had since, has been a poor to middling record in the old formal interview department.
My first, and most humiliating, piece of evidence for this was a mock interview for a pretend NQT post that I volunteered to undertake in front of my peers my during my PGCE course. I didn’t get the non-job and was ripped to shreds by the tutor before the eyes of about fifty fellow students.
After that I had my first real interview. I failed to convince the panel to appoint me, only to be called and offered a post when someone else left the school past the resignation deadline. My second interview was a qualified success. I got the job, but only because I was the only candidate and, in Hull at that time, schools never opted to re-open nominations. My third interview was a success, but only because the Headteacher was a Sunderland fan too (I’d have appointed my main challenger ahead of me in a heartbeat).
And so on. And so on. And so on. Dodgy interviews right the way along the line up until the day I secured a Deputy Headship at my current school with a ‘flash in the pan’ and ‘alignment of the stars’ couple of days where I surprised no-one more than myself.
I promise you that there is not a modicum of false modesty in all of this. As my bio says, I’m more than comfortable with self-confidence and self-humility.
Then came the lightbulb moment, intriguingly on an NCTL next -stage Aspiring Leaders course (I know!! A rare moment of quality in a government-approved leadership course!!!). As an aside to the main thrust of the final face-to-face day, the golden nugget of the STAR formula was thrust into my hand and it has stood me, and people with whom I have shared it (including my sister in a more corporate environment) ever since.
The STAR formula can easily be read about online with a quick google search, and it even has it’s own Wikipedia pages, so I’ll refer you to them right here because the aim of this post isn’t to elaborate upon the methodology or thinking behind the formula. It is, instead, to talk about how it might work for you in an educational leadership context.
STAR is one of those corporately sexy (and educationally dubious) acronyms, which asks an interviewee to respond to questions they are asked in the following way:
SITUATION – Based upon the main thrust of the question, identify a tricky situation you have faced as a leader, or potential leader, which needed to be addressed.
TASK – Explain what the you saw as the key strategic task that you undertook in order to remedy the situation you have outlined.
ACTIONS – Describe the different operational actions you took in order accomplish the task and therefore change the situation.
RESULTS – Outline the results your actions had, in order to demonstrate that you met (or at least partially met) the task you set yourself and, closing the loop, altered significantly the situation you had inherited.
That’s it. Simple. Or, at the very least, as I tell it. If you’re looking for complexity and like the sound of what you hear, then go find out more for yourself. Personally, I’m a big fan of simple.
At the moment I heard it, I reflected on those cringe-inducing moments I have witnessed when interviewing others and those gut-wrenchingly, aspiration-killing moments I have had myself at the other side of the interview table. So many if-onlys crowded in on me and mocked my former selves for their lack of brevity, lack of focus and surplus of crapola. It was a genuine moment of epiphany and I have no intention of looking backwards from that moment.
I’m not going to tell you here how to use the STAR formula for yourself. But what I will do is ask you to consider a possible interview question. In fact I’ll ask you to consider an interview question close to the one that made me think the hardest recently:
What would you consider to be the main threats to your leadership role of having an outspoken presence on social media sites such as twitter?
I could have given you a more obvious one on the new GCSEs or about tackling the underperformance of children/colleagues, but this one is the kind of curveball that you can’t prepare for, and this is where, in my humble opinion, the STAR formula can come into its own.
What was the situation that you faced that drew you to twitter?
What, strategically speaking, are you trying to achieve by being here?
What three things have you done with your twitter presence that reflect why you came here and what you sought to do here?
What has changed about your practice, and that of colleagues (in school and beyond) because of your presence here?
Now tell me, how much better might your STAR-struck response be than if you had simply waded in to that question without thinking? How much more likely would it be in avoiding your leadership train or thought from derailing? If the answer to both of these questions is ‘not much’ then the chances are that, unlike me and many others, you don’t need STAR in order to star, and good luck to you in that. I envy you greatly.
I said earlier that since the moment of STARry-eyed epiphany I haven’t looked back, but I have looked forward from it in a few ways.
Firstly, rather than use STAR reactively within the excruciating crucible of an interview, I use it proactively in the lead up to interviews. I know roughly the kinds of questions that I am going to get and I have always known roughly the kind of answers that I am going to give. With STAR I can plan specifically for my responses. Instead of just listing actions (the operations) I can locate them within an overall task (strategy) and within an overall situation (ethos), not to mention better linking to their results (impact). I’ve never felt more on top of interviews prior to the process and, consequently, I’ve never felt more at ease and confident, even happy, during them. This was a key piece of feedback from my recent experience, that I actually appeared to be enjoying my grilling.
Secondly, it has made my role as an interviewer of others (I grilled eleven candidates just the other day) better. Most importantly, STAR has allowed me to avoid the bland and generic feedback to unsuccessful candidates (I always choose to feedback to these people) of “you were a bit waffly” or suchlike. Instead I can specifically tell them if they failed to talk about the overall strategy underpinning their actions or the particular impact of them.
Finally, it has helped me help others in preparing for interviews within and beyond the school, in just the way I am attempting to put in writing now.
In closing, I wish to tackle the thorny issue of when a formula becomes formulaic. STAR has its uses, just like the PEELA paragraphs we ask our students to master in preparation for GCSE examinations. But just like PEELA paragraphs, STAR can constrain and limit the abilities of its users.
In truth, as much as I’d love colleagues reading this post to be able to say, like Prince, at the end of an interview “Baby, I’m a STAR”, I’d be equally comfortable with them dropping the situation element and rejigging the other components to be able to say “Baby, I’m a RAT” (think about it and you’ll see it could work just as well). Equally, why not rijig the formula and add on future actions, and call out “Baby, I’m a RASTA”. But I’m getting silly now (plus I’ve run out of comedic acronyms and I think you get my point), so I’d probably be better leaving you in the hands of the diminutive purple one (told you I was getting silly now!!).
Hey, take a listen
Tell me do you like what you hear?
If it don’t turn you on
Just say a word, I’m gone
Honey, I know ain’t nothing wrong with your ears.
And, if you want a video, you’ll have to make do with the deeply unsatisfying, but at least available on YouTube, Tina Turner version!!