Do the Work: What I Look for in a New Hire

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

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You may have seen this piece, recently, that exposed Notre Dame for posting a couple of jobs and the “preferred candidates” who had been pre-selected. Beyond being completely embarrassing for the institution, it touched on a pretty common fear among applicants for any position: that the process is rigged against them. And, while this sometimes can be true, and it’s true that sometimes an internal candidate has already been chosen for a position, even though the position is still advertised for legal reasons, the process of seeking and demonstrating that you are the best candidate for a new position doesn’t have to be hard or some mystical process.

I’ve been working for close to 25 (!) years now, and have hired and managed a fair share of people during that time. No matter the type of work, there are some commonalities in what I look for in a potential new hire, which I would like to share with you here.

First, I look for someone who demonstrates genuine passion and enthusiasm for the work. I want someone who legitimately seems excited to come to work with me and my team and to do the work that we are doing, because it connects with their strengths, values, and experiences. That doesn’t mean saying things like, “I just think that your job is so cool, and that’s what I want to do, too.” Or, “I had such a great experience as a student at this institution, that I think it would be amazing to come work here.” Both of which have been said to me many times. You know what? I know that my job is cool, and I know that this is an amazing place to work. That’s why I work here. Why do you want to work here? You need to be able to answer that question, and in a way that convinces me that we need you on our team.

Second, I look for someone who has done their homework. You’ve heard this before, but it deserves repeating: do not ask me questions that you could have answered with a basic Google search. And, don’t pretend to know something you don’t. I once had an applicant tell me all about the great work that I did around emotional intelligence and what a difference I was making with that work. Now, I like emotional intelligence and I think it’s important. But it’s not what I do. Doing your homework also means thinking about the trends and issues facing the industry, and coming prepared to talk about strategic solutions to connect our work with those trends. It means demonstrating how you can add value to our team and the work that we do, not just by regurgitating things that can be found on a website.

Third, I look for a specific set of skills. These are things that you should be able to find in a job posting, and that you should be able to speak to through your experience. I am always looking for people who are strategic and creative problem solvers, who don’t need a lot of oversight and hand-holding, and who are comfortable working at a fast pace and at an extremely high level. We are a team of three, who support 5,000 students, 3,000 faculty and staff, and many thousands of alumni. We don’t have time to carry dead weight or to show someone how work gets done. You don’t have to come in knowing how to design a website (though that wouldn’t hurt). You do have to come in demonstrating a willingness and an enthusiasm to learn how.

Finally, I look for fit with our team. I want someone who is going to add to, not take away from the relationships and connections we have as a team. I want someone with a good attitude, who gets our sense of humor, who respects their colleagues, and who works as hard to make the other people on the team look good as they do themselves. And, as an applicant, this is something that you should be looking for, too. Are these people the ones you want to spend the majority of your waking time with, every day? Does this seem like an environment that will support your growth and development, and enable you to be your best self, each and every day? Does this seem like a place that will challenge you, where you will grow and learn? If the answers to those questions are “no,” then that is not a great place for you to work. Remember, all interviews are a two-way process: you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. And if you don’t get the position, learn from it and move on. There is no job out there that you have to have.

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