After talking with friends who are seeking administrative positions, I am struck by the challenges of overcoming the limitations of hiring committees. I know, having served on search committees for administrative positions, that the easiest thing to do is hire someone who has already done the job at another institution. I mean, there are so many applications that search committees are often looking for ways to easily cull the stack. Yet, while the positions my friends are considering are loosely related to work they have done (i.e., it is administrative, creative, and interdisciplinary), the actual office, and its purview, are different. They have not held a job exactly like the one being advertised, and that is the problem.
If you are hiring a Director of Undergraduate Studies, for example, it is easy to reduce the numbers of applications by picking out applicants who have held the same position elsewhere (even at very different type/size/structure schools), rather than to consider someone who ran a scholarship program, an honors program, or an advising program at a similarly situated school. That said, many of the skills and knowledge required for the Director job are the same as those utilized in those other positions, and the individual who held the same job elsewhere may not have been any good at the job! This kind of committee myopia leads to shallow and stagnant applicant pools, while limiting the professional growth of talented administrative professionals.
Committees would be better off identifying the skills and knowledge the position requires, and then consider all comers who have those skills/knowledge. For example, program development is program development, whether in undergraduate or graduate studies, honors programs or programs serving low-achieving students. If you can find someone who demonstrates leadership skills and a vision they can communicate to those around them, you might want to look beyond the job title they currently hold. This holistic approach requires a close look at candidate cover letters, CVs, and letters of reference, and it is enhanced by questions about specific skills, knowledge, and experience during candidate interviews. Yes, this approach is a time-suck when you are doing it, but it saves time in the long run if you can avoid having to fill the position again in 2-3 years.
What can candidates applying for a new type of position do to better situate themselves? The cover letter is especially important in this situation. Applicants can highlight those skills and knowledge from their experience that translate and discuss how these capabilities would inform their leadership in the new position. They should also reference any service that relates more directly to the new position.
Applicants should reach out to their professional networks for assistance and support. A reference from someone who has a position similar to the one they are seeking can be very helpful. This way, even though the applicants don't have the specific experience of the particular job, someone who does hold that job thinks they are capable. Applicants should contact people they know at the institution where they are applying to get the skinny on the job and the priorities of the administration, and see if they can rally some support from those on-campus allies. If these allies are willing to reach out informally on their behalf, a well-placed word can get applicants through the initial cut to the in-person interview, where they can help the committee see their strengths.