In this series, I interview specialists in various fields and try to uncover different strategies, perspectives and anecdotes about the job-hunting and interview process. Everyone’s job-hunting story is unique, but there’s a ton of ways we can up our game by learning from each others’ experiences.
The following is an interview with Allison K., who works at a New York-based nonprofit specializing in youth development, educational access and organizational development. You’ll notice she shares with us some valuable lessons about the interview process, and places special emphasis on being authentic about what you want and what you care about. Mission and values are front and center in the nonprofit industry. If you’re in a hurry, jump to the takeaways. This is a beast of an interview, and we’re very fortunate to have Allisonon the blog today. So with that, let’s get to it…
Tell us a little bit about what you do and how do you define success?
I am a nonprofit executive, specializing in youth development, educational access and organizational development.
Success is such a tough concept to define(!) and can be vary depending on differing values. But here’s a try: success is a culmination of events – both good and bad – that leads to leaving yourself, your team, your organization and your world better than how you found it.
What skills, characteristics or personality traits are required to succeed/excel in your company today?
As a nonprofit, a key trait that we look for in candidates is demonstrated passion and commitment to our mission. This values alignment is critical in our hiring process.
Other characteristics that we look for are motivation, collaborative (while still being able to operate autonomously) and openness for feedback (both taking and giving).
Hard skills are related to each role, so can span from content-area expertise to evaluation and everything in between.
What was the worst job interview experience you had and what did you learn from that experience?
I obviously never had a bad job interview 🙂
The worst interview I had was when I interviewed for a job I was over-qualified for and was not really excited about. I got the interview thanks to a professional contact’s endorsement. Although I prepared adequately for the interview, my lack of enthusiasm was clear to the interviewer. She was very gracious and stopped the interview to give me some “real-time” professional coaching. I learned several things from this experience:
- Be authentic in your job search. Yes, you have to pay the bills. And you also have to be intentional about the career choices you make. I learned that I should have let my professional contact know what I was feeling regarding the position and saved her endorsement for another, better aligned job opening. After she recommended me, I wasn’t prepared to fully leverage the series of actions that were set in motion.
- Be appropriately enthusiastic. Although I was not crazy excited about the job opening, I was really interested in the mission of the organization and its potential for growth. I should have let that enthusiasm be more present at the job interview. The interviewer can always sense a lack of interest.
- Be appreciative for feedback. While the interview did not go as planned, I was so grateful for the time she took to give me meaningful feedback. I learned a lot from that gracious and frank conversation. Since then, I’ve taken the time to do the same for a handful of interviewees that show great promise but are not exactly the right fit for us.
Think about the BEST job candidate you ever interviewed. What made them so memorable?
I have met many that I consider the best. Here’s what they all had in common:
- Openness to process. Hiring the best candidate takes time and the process to do so isn’t always linear. The best candidates I have ever interviewed have exhibited an openness to trusting our process. This shows me maturity, professionalism and patience – all important qualities to have in a candidate.
- Willingness to be challenged. We typically like to give candidates a simulated assignment to candidates that make it to the second or third round. The assignments are designed to be timed and semi-structured so we can better gauge their skills, their time management, how they troubleshoot and how they receive feedback. The process is incredibly illuminating to how the person will fit into our organizational culture. Our best candidates always produce high quality assignments and proactively seek feedback on how to make it better if they were actually on the job.
- Thoroughness in research. The best candidates always come to interviews prepared by thoroughly researching our website, social media outlets, LinkedIn profiles and all public marketing materials. They also come knowing the job description inside and out, so when I reference certain responsibilities listed, they know exactly what I am talking about. The most important part of the research is also coming up with a list of question they have about the role and the organization that they couldn’t read elsewhere. Nothing bugs me more than ending an interview when the interviewee has no questions for me.
[NOTE FROM CHRIS: Patience is so important here. I know you’re enthusiastic and want to move forward and get to that first paycheck more quickly BUT remember that it’s very easy to sniff out desperation on a candidate. Put on your poker face, keep your cool and – as Allison points out – trust their process!]
What’s one common mistake you’ve seen young professionals make during the job search and interview process?
Thank you notes. Some send really lukewarm thank you notes and some don’t send them at all! In this digital age, there’s absolutely no reason why an interviewer is not seeing a thank you e-mail in her inbox within 1 business day of the interview. A handwritten follow-up to the electronic is nice, but the wait time without an e-mail thank you is really unacceptable.
Additionally, when you write a thank you note, make it count. A generic template thank you can break the deal for you and leaves the interviewer thinking that you just don’t want the job badly enough.
What nugget of wisdom would you pass along to a smart, motivated young job-seeker today?
Let your passion be balanced with your savvy. While you might not get your dream job one, two or even three years out of college or graduate school, be strategic and thoughtful about the transferable skills that you can gain and leverage from one job to the next. The more you do that, the closer you’ll get to landing your dream job.
Thank you so much Allison! I really enjoyed this interview – that, right there, is a golden pile of wisdom. Here’s a few takeaways that I found valuable and will definitely keep in mind for the future…
- Authenticity is key. If you pursue a job purely based on financial reasons, there’s a high probability you’ll hit the “what the hell am I going with my life” wall at some point. Sure, you can trudge along for a few months, or two years, and you could make some nice $$$ for a while (You’ll hear this story often if you hang around young wall street traders). But if you don’t truly care about the mission of the company, or at least have some amount of passion for helping the company reach its goals, you’ll be running on empty very soon.
- Be strategic with opportunities that arise from professional favors. Allison pointed out a great lesson about how powerful an endorsement from a colleague can be. So when a professional contact sees potential in you, and wants to recommend you for an opportunity, be very honest with yourself and with your contact about your intentions. These types of opportunities don’t come easily, so you want to make sure you’re poised and ready to strike at the good ones, and be okay with letting go of opportunities that are not a good fit.
If you’re interested in working for a non-profit, the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service has a ton of useful resources tuned to the specific needs of this industry. I highly recommend you spend some time and check them out.
Do you work for a nonprofit? Or have you interviewed at one in the past? Have a helpful tip to offer? Jump in the comments to share your story…