Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Hiring competent academic advisers can be a challenging task. There is no way to reliably assess if a candidate will be a successful addition to an advising staff. However, there is a promising new approach to conducting interviews that allows the interviewer to assess the fit, values, plans, and aspirations of candidates. This approach draws heavily upon the Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Advising literature and involves paying particular attention to the questions that interviewers ask during interviews.
There are institutions that have successfully adopted this appreciative approach to hiring. For example, in 2004, Centralia College in Washington successfully used the appreciative approach in the hiring process for thirteen total positions (Henry, 2005). Henry referred to the reaction of the president of Centralia College, Dr. Walton:
The process was significantly different from any hiring process he'd been a part of, that he learned things about the candidates that he could not have learned in a typical interview, and [Dr. Walton stated] These are the best 13 hires I've ever made. Every one of them is outstanding. (p. 2)
Another interviewer, John Martens, vice president of instruction, noted:
This appreciative process let us see the real person beyond the resume. Being good at playing the interview game is very different than being good at the job. This process gave us a much better view into who would be best at the job. In almost every case, the committee, the president and I came to the same conclusion independently. This process left no questions about who would be best for our college. (Henry, 2005, p. 2)
Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Advising are both revolutionary philosophies that focus on possibilities, instead of focusing on problems (Stetson, 2007). Appreciative Inquiry is an organizational development theory, while the Appreciative Advising approach is an adaptation of Appreciative Inquiry that is designed to optimize interactions between individuals (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). The purpose of this article is to explain Appreciative Advising and how it can be adapted to hire academic advisers who are good matches for the hiring unit. Although this article focuses on the appreciative interview, the appreciative approach should not end once the position is filled. It is important to continue this approach once employees are hired, because the approach can be used to optimize interactions with the employees and can even be used in performance evaluations.
The Six Phases of Appreciative Advising
The definition of Appreciative Advising is the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials (Bloom, Hutson, & He, n.d., ¶ 2). The six phases of appreciative advising are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle.
According to Bloom et al. (2008), during the Disarm phase of appreciative advising, it is necessary to recognize the importance of first impressions. The adviser intentionally creates a safe, welcoming environment to ease any anxiety the student may be experiencing so that later the student may be willing to share his/her hopes and dreams with the adviser. During the Discover phase, the adviser utilizes positive, open-ended questions to draw out the students' strengths, dreams, and passions. The adviser listens carefully to students' answers and asks appropriate follow-up questions. The Dream phase consists of the adviser asking the student questions about his or her future goals and aspirations.
In the Design phase, the adviser helps the student develop a plan to make the student's dream a reality (Bloom et al., 2008). The Deliver phase is when the student follows through on the plan created with the adviser during the Design phase. The adviser needs to be there if the student stumbles and believe in the student every step of the way. During the last phase, Don't Settle, the adviser challenges the student to always strive to become better.
The Appreciative Interview
The six Appreciative Advising phases can easily be adapted to hiring outstanding academic advisers. As when working with students, asking good, positive, open-ended questions will allow the advising administrator to learn more about prospective candidates than asking closed-ended questions. Chalmers (2005) identifies four essential job functions for the position of academic adviser: verbal communication, analytical problem solving, tolerance (patience), and motivation. In a phone interview with Dr. Louann Schulze (personal communication, October 13, 2008), assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Education at The University of Texas Arlington, she agreed that verbal, nonverbal, and written communication skills are essential characteristics of successful academic advisers. Dr. Schulze also stated that when she hires for the position of academic adviser she looks for commitment, work ethic, and helping skills.
The following section provides specific recommendations about how to incorporate the six phases of Appreciative Advising into the interview process for academic advisers.
Before the interview, the candidates should be sent a packet that includes a welcome letter, the schedule for the interview day, including the names and titles of all people the candidate will be meeting; information on the campus and the unit; and current strategic and/or evaluation reports. On the day of the interview, the advising administrator should warmly greet the candidate. This will help put the candidate at ease. The candidate should be introduced to the other members of the office and shown around the office. It is always a nice touch to offer the candidate water and/or coffee, if available. Ahead of the interview date, take the time to sit in the chair where the candidate will be seated to ensure that it is a comfortable seat and to understand what the candidate will be looking at during the interview. For example, do not place the person interviewing where the sun will be glaring or in a room that is either too hot or cold.
Begin the interview by introducing the candidate to all of the people in the room. This will give the interviewee time to adjust to the atmosphere and catch his or her breath.
The purpose of the Discover phase is to learn more about the candidate and what motivates him/her. Sample interview topics from Bertram (2000) include:
- Take a minute and think about your most outstanding, significant professional achievement. Tell me about this achievement and what made this achievement possible.
- Describe a time when you were most alive (involved, excited, engaged) in your work.
- What do you value deeply? How are those values reflected in your work? (¶ 1)
These topics are designed to elicit stories from the candidate. In Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, written by Watkins and Mohr (2001), Laura Simms, an American author and storyteller, states:
Storytelling has the capacity to directly engage the heart and imagination in such a way that a deeper level of listening is activated, which opens the eyes of perception. The greatest value that arises from a story does not arise from the content of the story text. That is the apparent value. The deepest learning happens in the unspoken story that is generated by the mind mixing images called forth during the telling. And, the pace of timeless sacredness experienced in the process. The thinking mind is kept entranced by the content, while the images dip down and uncover and awaken the dreaming imagination and intuitive intelligence of the listener. (p. 77)
By inviting the candidate to share his/her stories, the interviewer will learn more about the candidate's desires, skills, past, and views of the future (Bertram, 2000).
Search committee members should be encouraged to pay attention to messages that they may be sending to the candidate. Research published by the National Education Association states eighty-two percent of our communication as educators is nonverbal (Nonverbal Solutions, 2008, ¶ 1). Committee members can be reminded before the meeting to give the candidate their full attention by not gazing around the room but instead looking directly at the candidate. Other behaviors that can be welcoming include positively nodding the head while the candidate is speaking and asking clarifying questions, such as, Can you please explain that further?
Use this part of the interview to encourage the candidate to imagine the perfect work environment, the perfect position, and the perfect supervisor. The candidate's answers to these questions will help identify whether this person will fit in your organization. These questions will likely reveal what the candidate values and views as important. Potential dream questions may include the following:
- If you could create the ideal work environment, what would you wish for? What would you be doing? What would your interactions with your co-workers be like?
- If you were to create your own ideal position within academic advising, how would the job description read? What would your typical day be like?
- Describe your ideal supervisor. How would that supervisor interact with you and your colleagues?
Once an adviser has been hired, it is the supervisor's responsibility to create a set of attainable goals and performance measures with the new employee. This discussion should begin as the supervisor offers the position and continue within the first few days on the job. Talking with the employee about what he or she hopes to accomplish in three months, six months, and a year is an excellent place to start. It is important that the list of goals is created together because the new employee needs to feel ownership of this plan.
As a component of the appreciative approach, the supervisor needs to provide clear direction and good training. Finding time to meet with the employee regularly should be a priority for the supervisor. There should be a conversation about his/her progress toward meeting the goals outlined during the Design phase. If goals are not being met, the supervisor should reevaluate the goals with the employee and find out what changes need to be made for the academic adviser to be successful. The supervisor needs to be available to answer questions for the new employee.
The supervisor should concentrate on giving positive feedback to the newly hired academic adviser. Supervisors should energize employees and reiterate confidence in the employees' abilities. Performance evaluations are another way that supervisors can use the appreciative approach in the work environment. Stetson (2007) stated:
The formal appraisal process can also be appreciative. Employees can be asked to assess their own strengths and share their stories of success with the supervisor and colleagues in the department. The supervisor can share his or her perception of the employee's strengths; they each can learn from their stories of success. The appraisal process is also an appropriate time to ask employees if they are getting the support they need in order to do their best work. (p. 3)
When employees are appreciated for what they do, they are more willing to help and perform better. If an employee feels like the evaluation process is going to focus on his or her weaknesses, then we must ask ourselves, Why would he or she want to be evaluated? If the employee knows that the supervisor will be focusing on his or her strengths, then that employee will have a different view of performance appraisals.
Don't Settle Phase
During the Don't Settle phase, the supervisor must take advantage of the employee's successes and build on them. Stetson (2007) encouraged supervisors to ... find out what conditions exist when [employees] feels their strengths are most fully being utilized in the current position .... (p. 3) and expand on these strengths. Connect the academic adviser to programs or administrative areas in the office where the employee will be able to use his/her strengths. Encourage the employee to raise his or her own internal bar of expectations. When the employee has reached a goal, it is the supervisor's responsibility to ensure that the academic adviser receives credit and applause for his/her efforts.
The Future of Interviewing and Hiring Academic Advisers
Making a good match between a candidate and an institution is difficult enough. But if we fail to be explicit in our hiring practice about the expectations we have for advising, we run the risk of developing a disconnect between a candidate and our institution in an area that is critical to the educational process (Edwards, 2007). Given the importance of hiring excellent academic advisers, the appreciative approach outlined in this article will allow the hiring supervisor to gain the most information from the candidate in order to determine whether the candidate is an appropriate fit for the position and the culture of the office. Candidates at Centralia College who were part of the appreciative interviewing process had positive things to say about the process. For example:
Of all the interviews I've been through, this one was the most comprehensive and personalized. And it got to the point where the details of my credentials were less relevant and they were more concerned about me as a person and a potential colleague [and] I had an opportunity to honestly let them know me, my character, my values, my beliefs, more than I've ever had the opportunity to share before. I felt absolutely certain that if they hired me, they were hiring me, and if they didn't hire me, it would be because it wasn't a good fit and that would be okay. (Henry, 2005, p. 2)
Centralia College is an encouraging example of how to use the appreciative approach during the hiring process to achieve win-win results for candidates and institutions. Utilizing the six phases of Appreciative Advising in the process of hiring academic advisers can ensure that advising administrators are doing everything they possibly can to ensure that the candidate selected for the position is the best fit for the office.