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Career Spotlight | Waajida Small, Director of HR at Wildlife Conservation Society

Waajida Small, Director of Human Resources at WCS.

Ever wonder what it’s like to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)? I sat down for a chat with Waajida Small, Director of Human Resources, who shares a wealth of information with me about what it’s like to hire at WCS, the global leader in saving wildlife. 

Thanks for speaking with me today, Waajida. How long have you been at WCS?

I’ve been at the organization for about seven years. I moved into my current role of HR Director in July and am responsible for overall HR operations.

How did you get into this work?

I started in HR as an intern in college. The internship was at Metropolitan Hospital Center, part of the Health and Hospitals Corporation which is the largest municipal hospital center in the United States. I volunteered first, then had a paid internship. After that, they couldn’t pay me anymore and I needed work. I had the opportunity to work at a different nonprofit but later reconnected with Metropolitan, and that began my career in HR.

How frequently do you hire at your organization?

It depends on the workforce we are hiring for. Depending on the turnover, we hire 120-140 full-time permanent positions per year, domestically and globally. When we are looking at temporary/seasonal hiring during peak season (between March and May, for park operations), we are hiring about 200-300 per month.

What things should candidates know about WCS and its mission when applying for a job?

We’re not just the zoo! There’s a misconception that WCS is the Bronx Zoo. We are much broader than the zoo; we are a mission-driven organization with a global presence. Our mission is to save wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education and inspiring people to value nature. The Zoos and Aquarium operate as one of our primary educational arms to our conservation efforts.

What is the best way for a candidate to demonstrate to you that they believe in the mission of your organization?

Just first be able to articulate what our mission is. When we ask some candidates what they know about WCS, their answer is usually “oh well I know the zoo...." They should know what our mission is and that we are a global organization. 

Second to that, once employed, being actively involved outside of what they are paid to do is something that gets noticed. They should serve outside of their work, as there are lots of opportunities in the organization to provide service within our campaigns.

How do you manage the differences between hiring for full-time permanent roles and your robust seasonal hiring?

We essentially have different teams: one for seasonal/temporary and part-time jobs and another that is for full-time global and domestic opportunities. The processes are vastly different, from when they interview to when they are on-boarded. 

There are about 10 staff members-including me- for general oversight on the team for temporary staff. The screening process is simpler. We make sure they meet the basic criteria and they are available during the times we need them. We start recruiting in February and those who are available earlier enter the process earlier.

We have Interview days for temporary staff where we invite candidates who have expressed interest in working for a particular department. They come in and interview with the department on the designated date. Multiple hiring managers will be hiring for their individual teams and depending on the length of the interview day and the number of candidates who show up, hiring managers can interview 3-5 within an hour. We tend to extend offers on the spot, pending completion of a background check. New hires are scheduled for a full day of on-boarding, HR orientation, and an overview of what type of services they will be providing to our guests (at the Zoo and aquariums).

When we hire for full-time positions, it’s like most organizations: candidates are screened by an HR recruiter, their resume is reviewed, and they conduct a phone screen. Appropriate candidates get sent on to the hiring manager of that particular department, and they make the decision whether to interview the candidate. Depending on the level of the position, the number of interviews they have and who they interview with will vary. For global positions, there is a wide range, depending on where they will be working.

What programs are you most excited about at your organization and why?

My colleagues and I are very excited about our organizational strategic plan. It hasn’t been announced to the public but we’ve released our new logo, website, and new branding initiative. We will be releasing our strategic plan regarding the species we plan to conserve and how we plan on doing this.

What do you wish interviewees asked you?

I wish that candidates would ask about the work environment and team dynamics. Outside of having the skills to do a job, the work you do really isn’t as fulfilling if you aren’t able to actively share accomplishments and challenges, with the individuals that you work with. That’s how, at least I believe, the best work happens- when you are able to work with people to achieve a common goal. No one can effectively achieve something at an organization if they are working in a bubble. The environment has to be a match or it isn’t going to work. Candidates will ask the basic questions about the organization and the role, but they don’t ask about the people they will be working with and the dynamics of team.

Please share a story of a time a candidate stood out to you. What did they do to set themselves apart?

Earlier this year we were hiring within the HR department. We have a youth workforce development program called the Future Leaders Program and we were hiring for a new assistant. What stuck out about this candidate is that she asked about day-to-day information about the job. As we were telling her, she said, “excuse me, but I’d like to hear from the person who actually did the job”. She said it in a very polite way and the person (who did the job in the past) was present in the interview.

I was impressed - it showed that the candidate was really thinking at a different level. Knowing first-hand what the job is about is important and she was bold enough to say that she thought she was going to get the answer she was really seeking from the person already doing the job. A lot of the other people we interviewed really didn’t ask about the day-to-day responsibilities that role entailed.

We hired her! She’s awesome and was just promoted in the HR department. We are quite picky with the people who join the HR team.

What’s a common mistake you see among job seekers?

Not being able to articulate your knowledge about the organization or the position. There’s the basic research that every candidate needs to do, but if you’re applying for a job you should know what you’re applying for. Don’t give me a generic description of the position. Otherwise, the perception is that you are really not interested.

Where do most of your hires come from?

As part of our process, everyone is required to apply online. Right now most candidates identify the website for being their source of learning about the position and that’s our primary hiring source. Secondary is referrals and next would be various community-based organizations.

What do you expect to see from a new hire 30 days after employment? 3 months? 1 year?

In 30 days, a realistic expectation is some ability to get around the organization. They should know our divisions, and who heads them, and be able to identify key players at the organization. Comparatively, we are not a very large organization but it’s important to know who the main players are and the role the play.

Within three months, they should be significantly acclimated to their role and what role their department plays overall in the organization, as well as how their particular role is connected to the organization’s vision and mission. You should know how you as a person has an impact on our overall goals.

Every person here is an ambassador for the organization. In order to be effective as an ambassador and to be a face for the organization, you have to know how you fit.

Within a year, I would say it really all depends on the function that you have and the level of responsibility. Generally within the first year you’ll be evaluated on your performance. By then you should really be able to do your job well and identify your own goals for professional development. Each person needs to have one professional goal that they will be held to.

At your organization, what is more important for a candidate to have, passion or skill?

You have to have passion for our mission. All nonprofits are mission-driven. Skills? The skills to do the job can be learned. If I know that what I need you to do day to day is teachable, what I’m going to look for (when hiring) is passion and drive, the commitment to come in every day and learn everything you can. The passion is the willingness to learn.

What’s one trait that all candidates need if they want to work in this cause area?

Determination. I say that because the work that we do, for lack of a better term, is pretty hard work. Our goal is literally to save 50% of the world’s biodiversity. It’s understanding that this doesn’t happen over a day or year but over the course of generations. Having the determination to reach that goal, in some way, forces the commitment you need to really be an active member of the organization.

Which programs have the greatest hiring needs at this time?

We’re pretty much slowing down. Temporary job hires will kick up again in January. Our full-time hiring is pretty steady. For global, we hire as needed. We have a pretty steady number of positions we recruit for each year.

What misconceptions do people have about your cause area and organization?

I really wouldn’t say there is a misconception but rather a lack of knowledge. Once there’s a better understanding of what it is that we do, then people start to understand the connections of what the org does as a whole. Coming in, again, most people only have association with the Zoo or just animals, and we are much more than that. We have been at the forefront of many significant scientific discoveries.

What roles are the hardest to fill in your organization?

Our specialty global positions- the scientists who need to go out in the field. We have a lot of field programs that require skills, such as having experience in an environment where ebola was prevalent. There aren’t that many candidates in that kind of pool. Even globally, it’s very small.

Specialty science positions in the field are the hardest to fill. For example, there are not many people with experience in the Congo tagging animals or testing reefs in the ocean. It really takes extensive searches to find the right people. We are looking for them to work with us forever. They have that specific knowledge that we need that’s really going to help us achieve our goals.

Featured image copyright: Waajida with 4 month old Cheetah, CopyrightKathleen LaMattina 

By Victoria Crispo

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