Dog and Pony Interviews & Other Employment-Seeking Observations
The phrase Dog and Pony Show originated in the latter parts of the 1800s and it actually meant there was an event demonstrating the various circus-like animal talents of these animals. Many times the dogs and ponies were used to draw crowds in to buy a miracle elixir which more closely resembled Hillbilly Hooch than it did a medicine. Or, the canine and equine peformances were related to selling tickets to another Hooch — as in Hoochie-Coochie shows. Fast-forward to the 21st century and this is what Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers as the definition:
“an often elaborate public relations or sales presentation — also : an elaborate or overblown affair or event”
The second part of the definition is one I’d like to specifically discuss, as I have been a part of numerous job interviews which have essentially been of the dog and pony ilk. For some reason, the majority of my experiences with labeling the intervew as a canine & equine event have come from the educational-related realm. It’s not just for full-time employment, either. The bulk of such performances have come while interviewing for a high school head coaching position, but a few of these have also been during interviews for a full-time Public Relations/Communications position within public school districts.
The More The Merrier!
I have had jobs in radio and in the corporate sector, and never have I had to face interviews like I have seen in the educational areas. One or two interviewers? Yes, I was used to such. My interviews with public and parochial schools? It frequently resembles a Congressional hearing such as the Michael Corleone scene in The Godfather II.
The largest en masse interview where the figurative interrogation spotlight was focused on me happened about eight years ago in western Pennsylvania. Recently graduating with a master’s degree in athletic administration, I applied and received an interview for a high school football head coaching position (with an assistant athletic director position attached — or so I was told when originally contacted). As the escort to the interview opened the door, I saw a huge U-shaped table configuration with a small table and seat at the U’s focal point. Thoughts of a 13-year-old me watching the Watergate hearings appeared in my mind. Am I the coaching equivalent of John Dean?
Seated in front of me was a 17-member interview panel. It included the current AD, the former AD, the AD before the former AD, the Principal and assorted interviewers (teachers, other sport coaches, parents, booster members, two graduating senior football players, the area’s state legislator…well, maybe the last one wasn’t part of the inquisition). After being introduced and going through the niceties of who I am and what I bring to the job, the barrage of questions — the metaphoric equivalent of what the Allies launched in the pre-invasion hours to D-Day — began.
There were the ‘feeling out’ questions like:
- What does your family think about the time commitment this position requires?
- What is your position of your players participating in other sports?
- What part will you play in growing community support of our district?
- What makes you stand out from the other 15 candidates being interviews?
I can understand wanting me to explain how I stand out but what I heard clearly was 15 candidates! A 17-person panel is going to subject themselves to another 14 of these? What can be gained of such exploits other than as an attempt to impress school officials and the parents of players?
While the 17-member panel tops my list I have also been interviewed by varying numbers of panel participants, the least being three but usually in the 5–10 panel members range. What’s particularly interesting is these large numbers have been associated with football coaching positions. The interviews for athletic director of a school district have been in the 3–4 panel member range. Even so, usually it’s the Principal and the Superintendent asking the bulk of the adminsitrative-related questions with the other one or two persons as window dressing (a board member or booster president, e.g.).
Cue the Insanity!
The multi-interviewer panel scene brings its own brand of questioning. The modus operandi du jour for coaching jobs is one which includes student-athlete representation on the panel. Various athletic administration magazine articles explain how important in today’s all-inclusive world it is to have such a perspective for the decision-makers. I had become accustomed to a scenario such as graduating athlete and a soon-to-be-senior athlete being part of the panel. There was one district two years ago which decided that’s just not going to cut it with today’s youth. No, first interviews would be wholly conducted by a panel of six student-athletes — with the athletic director and principal of the district proudly witnessing how poorly the district’s reading scores must be. I had to calmly smile and express positive body language as I watched the skull tops of the six students, curling their shoulders around the prepared written question on the paper before them. (It was difficult, especially after noticing 50% of them were showing signs of male pattern baldness.) Such questions as:
- We are a close knit group. How will you keep us this way?
- Are the starters from a year ago promised starting positions with you?
- How will you make certain to get us to play college football?
The first question was a decent one is one of those administrative directed Kumbaya type questions often asked in interviews. Question number two was one I couldn’t believe would have made past the eyes of the athletic director. No coach potentially taking over a team, whether a winning or losing squad, would agree to such a preposterous thought.
As for question number three? I have been asked a few times what efforts would be made to assist players in playing at the next level. I actually had one athletic director ask me if I could pick up the phone that day and contact a Divsion 1 coach to get a kid a scholly? Not, what steps I would take to make college recruiters aware of a prospective recruit…but to virtually snap my fingers like Aladdin’s genie and poof! Here’s your scholly.
While writing some football-related articles about specific schemes, I sought an answer to such a question from a few D-1 coaches. You would’ve thought I poked them with a feather or had them listen to the latest stand-up clip of Dave Chappelle. Guffaws aside, each told me they would have said, ‘No One, not even if it’s a family member’ can guarantee a scholarship. Assist by contacting, getting video out to shools, etc., but there’s only ONE important factor— TALENT! (Oh, and GRADES! Talent is #1, but without grades it’ll be off to JuCo!)
Other Coaching Oddities
A question from a school’s tennis coach: A lot of parents know football. What will you tell them when they approach you about how you focus on the game? (Seriously, I am not making this up!)
A question from an administrator: What are your thoughts of hiring assistants from the previous staff? (Translation: I have already told a couple of assistants they will be on the staff.)
Another question from an administrator: Can you win immediately? (This question was asked during two interviews, both from western PA school districts, and the frankness actually impressed me.)
When the ‘Main’ Interviewer Leaves the Interview!
This has happened to me twice! Once, a few years ago while interviewing for a school district public relations position. The Superintendent was conducting the interview, along with three other administrators, and in mid-question answered his cell phone…walking out of the room, never to re-appear! The other interviewers were baffled as the interview session was only two questions deep. They tried their best to carry on, but the head-honcho had taken his questions with him. A couple of months later at a coaching clinic a coach from the district told me, I ‘didn’t have the legs or the breast size’ for the job as the Superintendent hired a recent college graduate…only to fire her six months later for lack of experience. (I thought it best not to inquire whether the experience in question was job-related.)
The second such walk out occurred recently, during a Zoom interview for a head coaching position. After a few minutes, the athletic director excused himself as he had a meeting with the principal to attend. Again! I do not make this up. As the two other interviewers, a soccer coach and an assistant football coach, were winding down the interview the A-D popped back into the Zoom conference and proceeded to ask three of the very same questions the other two interviewers had asked. Oh, and the kicker? The A-D, who was the previous head coach, asked if I would have any problems with him showing up at practice to help out? Now! That’s a Dog & Pony interview if I have ever seen one!
“What Was Your High School English Grade?”
This is my last education-related tale, I promise. As I walked into a Panel-of-Eight interview I was beaming with confidence. 20+ years of radio news, talk host, news director, newspaper reporter and multiple online content pieces, I gotta feel good! I go on to explain how I would take the district communications into the vast social media presence it needed. I spoke of videos, crisply edited and shared, etc. The various questions were tossed my way and I explained in detail of my past experiences and how I have kept up with the media business as it is now. Then, here it came — and from the woman who would have been my assistant if I were to get the job:
What were your high school English grades like?
I spent four years earning a journalism degree! I spent two years, while in college, working for a major city newspaper. I interned at a television station and actually wrote some of the copy for the anchors. Add the professional on-air time in radio and online content work I had been paid to write…and this person wants to know what my high school English grades were?
I actually laughed at her and followed with my response. “Have you even looked at my resume? Have you not listened to my answers to all these questions? What does a high school grade have to do with communications today?” I remained calm throughout my response, but felt something had to be said. I knew it was the Dog & Pony! It was, truly, as I found out a week later the wife of a school board member (not so coincidentally, the one on the interview panel) was handed the job.
Other Job Interview Observations
When I became a victim of corporate downsizing about 20 years ago, I naturally looked for any job at all while searching for the full-time job. I applied for a job where I would unload the produce trucks in the wee hours of the morning at a grocery store. I knew going in it was part-time, 15–20 hours per week. I was working in radio part-time, so the job would add to that income. The interview was set up and I went to the store manager’s office. At the time I am a 40-year-old man looking for any work to make ends meet.
In comes a kid with a voice akin to Roger Marble of the Flintstones. He explains he isn’t the manager, but is the team leader of the produce dock. As serious as he can be he sees I have been in corporate marketing for the last decade. His first question is, “What made you decide to leave your corporate job?” I mentioned I had been downsized and was in search of work which were the hours I desired. He then asked me again, “Why apply here…” Then came the kicker. “…at your age?”
Now, ‘Skippy’ was about 5–9, 135lbs (his pimples were bigger than his biceps). I refrained from the illegal age inference, taking pity on the kid. With a twinge of sarcasm I replied, “Well, about four years ago in my office I began to obsess about the possibility of unloading produce for the fine folks of Cincinnati.”
“Really!” Skippy answered enthusiastically. “That’s really neat you thought that far back, but I really have to tell you we already hired a guy for the job. My manager said it was too late to contact you, so I was told to interview you.”
While that experience left me feeling like Mae Clark’s grapefruit experience, it wasn’t soon after I was hit with another age incident. This one, a well-known package delivery company, was looking for package handlers for the upcoming Christmas season. Interviewing at 2:30am was really wonderful…not. Well, the first interview went well and a second interview for three days later at 3:30am was scheduled.
Walking into the interview, I’m greeted by a man about the same age as me (I was 44 at the time). So, here’s how I was welcomed! “Are you sure you can keep up with this package handling job?” This temporary job was just before the Christmas rush and basically I would be picking up packages and loading them onto the brown trucks (Oops, does that give it away?) for delivery. Up to 75lbs, but mostly typical size boxes. He continued. “I mean, you are plenty big enough but can you keep up with the workload,” not so slyly referring to my age.
I glanced out at the docking location, and I noticed most of the package handlers looked as if they had just been released from the local detox/rehab facility. I’d say they were strung out, but that would be too kind of a description. I wanted so much to ask him if the fact I didn’t look like I was on heroin was a problem, but I didn’t. Instead, I mentioned the fact I was a high school football coach and if I could withstand two-a-day practices in the hot and humid Cincinnati August weather I didn’t think four hours of lifting, three days a week, would be a problem. He wasn’t going for it, and gave me the thumbs down immediately. Lots of friends said I should have reported the man for age descrimination, but I ain’t that type of guy.
Persistence & Resolve
Why share all of this? Well, I just want to let you know there is age descrimination (with the more white hair, and lack thereof — it’s not getting better), but just keep plugging away. It’s against the law to ask a person’s age on a job application. However, it’s commonplace to make it mandatory to disclose your high school or college graduation date.
I am also sharing these experiences to point out just how ridiculous some interview questions are. Cut the feel good & inclusion acts to appease parents and students when looking for a new coach! The more-the-merrier approach is nothing but that, and it probably causes administrators more headaches.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have my writing abilities to help keep me sane. I do wonder, though, about those who don’t such have a fallback.