Making it Personal: Reading a Job Prospectus from a Mission-Based Viewpoint

by Katharine Stewart

When you are looking for a new job, how do you decide if a particular position might be a good one for you? If you are like a lot of people, you compare your experience to the items listed in the job description, and then you decide if you have enough experience to be competitive. And evaluating your experience relative to the needs of the position is an important part of the process. But in this blog post, I’m going to ask you to consider viewing potential jobs through a very different lens: your personal mission.

If you’ve been reading this blog series on Your Leadership Journey, you’ve read three posts designed to help you determine the “how” and the “why” of your leadership. You’ve also done a lot of homework, and if you did your homework from the previous posts in this series, you now have a list of your previous leadership actions, a list of the leadership opportunities that are important to you, and a draft of your “Big Why,” your personal mission. Congratulations! That’s a lot to accomplish. Now let’s apply that to a job search.

First, it’s important to say that you absolutely don’t have to be in “a leadership job” to lead. As I noted in Part 1 of this series (“Am I Really A Leader?”), we frequently lead from wherever we are. Certainly, nearly every job in higher education provides us with opportunities to lead. The question is less about whether a position is a “leadership job” and more about whether you are the right person to lead from within that job. So how do you go about figuring that out?

Most job postings will list the duties or responsibilities of the position, along with the qualifications that are desired or required. It’s natural to start “checking boxes” in your head as you read the qualifications, whether you’ve done something a hundred times or have no idea how to do it. When I work with coaching clients, I help them evaluate whether they are doing that mental checklist in a way that is really fair to themselves (unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t). But I also ask them to take a step back and ask a couple of entirely different questions: Why would you want to do the things listed as the duties or requirements for this position? How do the things listed in this job prospectus align with your personal mission? In fact, I ask them to write out the answer to this last question.

Another way to use the “how” and “why” of your own leadership identity at this point in your job search is to consider the list of the responsibilities or requirements for the job and ask yourself why the university might be prioritizing those specific things. Sure, they are tasks that need to get done, or skills that the person in the position may need to have. But out of the many things they could have listed, what are some reasons they might have prioritized the things they did? This part of your review isn’t intended to read the search committee’s minds – it’s to get you thinking about the connection between what they are prioritizing for the position and the types of things that you tend to identify as leadership opportunities. If you go back to your homework from the “You are More Qualified than You Think” post in this series, you can look at the list of the leadership opportunities that you identified for yourself in your current environment. Those items jumped out at you for good reasons. Perhaps there are obvious improvements that you believe could be made quickly. But often, they are things you really care about. Certainly, your list of leadership opportunities says something about the things you value most. Similarly, a list of responsibilities or qualifications in a job prospectus reveals something about what the hiring institution values. It reveals something about the values and priorities they want the person in that position to have. Reading a job prospectus from a mission-based viewpoint includes reading it carefully enough that you begin to see these things “between the lines.”

Now, if you’ve been following this series, you won’t be surprised to learn that I am giving you another homework assignment. Today, find a job posting for a job that looks interesting to you. Even if you aren’t on the market at the moment, this can be a useful exercise. Read the posting two or three times, and then write some notes to yourself about the following questions: (1) How does this job posting/prospectus align with my personal mission? How strong is the connection between my “Big Why” and the goals of this position? (2) What can I infer about the priorities and values that this university thinks are most important for the person who gets this job? What leadership opportunities can I imagine they are hoping this person will be able to tackle? What does it seem the university cares most about, based on this posting? Just make some notes to yourself, and in the next post, we’ll apply your thinking to one of the key tasks in the application process.

Katharine Stewart is the senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs and a professor in the department of psychology at NC State University. She is also the owner of Katharine Stewart Consulting, LLC. Katharine is dedicated to helping faculty and academic leaders develop successful and joyful careers and to helping universities make the most of their leadership search processes.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.