Help! How Do I Hire Development People?

A standing-room-only crowd braved frigid temperatures to attend “Help! How Do I Hire Development People?” on January 31st at a special event hosted by the President’s Council of Women in Development–NYC.  As founder of The Professional and vice president for advancement of John Jay College, I have decades of hiring experience and felt a panel discussion on the current “state of the art” was in order. My goal was to moderate a discussion from a diversity of perspectives to shed light on what really happens during the recruitment process.

My panelists included Nancy Lewson Kurz , board chair and CEO of Beginning with Children Foundation; Lara Langweiler, talent acquisition and HR specialist for Columbia University; Lisa Mantone, senior vice president of development at the New Jersey Center for Performing Arts; and Esther Rosenberg, co-owner of Howe-Lewis International.

The panelists conceded there are unique challenges to recruitment, most importantly misconceptions about what a development staff member actually does.  “I do believe people don’t really understand what development is,” said Lisa Mantone. “And it sounds ridiculous to say that. I’ve been in the field over 30 years and even today people ask me, “What exactly do you do?” She encouraged leaders in the profession to educate others about the various roles of development staff in their organizations.

In addition to this lack of clarity about the field, members of an organization can have unrealistic expectations of what development staff can achieve. In fact, managing expectations was the underlying theme and in many cases the solution to hiring errors.

 We’re in the search business but really we’re in the managing expectations business,” said Esther Rosenberg. “We spend a lot of time up front getting to know each client and defining their expectations. Clients will say ‘Yes, we understand we can’t build a regional program over night,’ and yet, until they hear from the practitioners themselves that their goals may take a fairly long time, clients may not fully understand.” Lisa agreed. “My way of dealing with expectations that are unrealistic is to tell them there’s a ramp-up period. I educate them that there’s a process and say with confidence that we’ll get it done, but it’s not going to happen overnight.” Take note: realistic expectations can be taught.

Lara Langweiler also weighed in on expectations of candidates and their responsibilities. “There is no perfect candidate, and no perfect job description. I say to hiring managers all the time: “No one’s going to check all the boxes. Figure out your must-haves and your nice-to-haves.”

Nancy Lewson Kurz recounted her experience as a board member and CEO hiring her small non-profit’s first development officer. It took her three years and a series of “teachable moments” to finally hire successfully.  One of the key learnings: cultural fit and passion about the mission became more important than skill set for her purposes. For example, Nancy had hired a staff member from a large organization with all the requisite skills, but it wasn’t the right match for her small non-profit. Lara Langweiler advised that the size of a candidate’s current organization is a key data point that provides an understanding of culture.

The panelists, and audience, agreed there is no standardization of titles in the field, which adds to hiring difficulties. Lara called this “Title Bouillabaisse.” The good news: all of the panelists stated that they did not look at titles but rather qualifications. Esther Rosenberg said that frequently candidates are concerned about titles and whether it looks as if they’re making a logical transition in their careers. “We try not to get too hung up on titles.”

Another tip for candidates who are trying to understand what an organization is really looking for when they’re given an overly comprehensive job description:  “Jump to the qualifications” said Lara. There’s language there that’s a dead give-away about expectations and the core competencies and hard skills for the job.”

Additional Take-Aways:

  • Clarifying expectations and benchmarks up front is not only critical to the hiring process but essential to ensuring a new hire’s success, especially because “there is a real lag time between when a person starts and how you measure success.” (Nancy Lewson Kurz)”
  • Part of the search firm’s role is to “remind clients what they are looking for, so they are not swayed by someone’s presentation or charisma.” (Esther Rosenberg.) Tools such as feedback surveys that rank a candidate’s core competencies from 1-5 enable you to hire strategically.
  • Hiring by committee is challenging. Use a tick list, developed up front, as a great exercise to remind all involved what was agreed upon as must-haves.
  • Hiring managers can and should become mentors for candidates. Instead of hiring someone who’s been doing a similar job for five years and may get bored quickly, establish what’s teachable for the candidate “who is almost there but willing to learn.” (Lisa Mantone)
  • We must be deliberate about diversifying our field, and develop more “connectors” to attract more diverse candidates.   “I attend as many panels on diversity as I can that are hosted by the higher education recruitment consortium. Be intentional. Google ‘diversity career fair in New York City.’” (Lara Langweiler)

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