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How to Get Hired| An Interview With The Alliance For The Great Lakes

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We’re chatting with hiring managers and human resources professionals from a variety of organizations to get their take on how to land a great opportunity. Read all of the advice in this series. Want to be interviewed? Join our HR Council

I recently had the opportunity to interview Bettina Marshall, Office Manager of Alliance for the Great Lakes, the oldest organization devoted 100% to the Lakes. Headquartered in Chicago, IL, the Alliance’s professional staff works with scientists, policy-makers, businesses, community groups, and everyday citizens to protect and restore the world’s largest surface freshwater source.

As the “hub” of applicant processing, Marshall screens all applicants and manages the organization’s HR needs. During our conversation, she shared excellent advice for those interested in her cause area as well as general guidance for any job seeker.

Tell us about what you do at Alliance of Great Lakes Chicago.

I’ve been here for three and half years as the office manager. Basically what that means is I do HR- payroll, all the postings for jobs, and screenings. I pool the applications together and take a look at all the applicants we’re getting in.

I’m the “hub.” Every applicant goes through me. I sort all the resumes out to the hiring managers. I also send out the “decline” letters. I am the liaison between the organization and our benefits broker. I make sure a new hire is on-boarded correctly and all their benefits are set.

HR is usually centralized and you’d refer to the hiring manager who will make the decisions, but I do a small overview when we are hiring. I write the engagement letters for our affiliate (aka “internship”) program. I take more of an active role in that one but defer to the hiring manager who will interview the candidates. The rest is left to the team which is hiring.

What is your organization known for?

[pullquote]When you volunteer here, you’re like family. You’ll get a wealth of information. You’re not just volunteering, you’re making an impression, enlarging your network and learning things on the job. At the end of the day, that’s all still valuable.[/pullquote]I would say we are known for passion for our mission. Whenever I talk to other people outside the organization they always talk about how it’s a wonderful group of people. Even though I am in the organization, I’m outside of the program area and I have the utmost respect for what they do and how they do it. Whenever I am onboarding an affiliate I tell them, “Look, there is a wealth of knowledge in this place and you need to tap into it. They are well-respected in the environmental field and have a lot of knowledge.”

We have a couple of lawyers on staff who do policy work and things of that nature. Makes you respect how they got to where they are. I tell people all the time- most people who are in nonprofits want to be here- you are here for the mission and that says a lot about anyone. What you do when you’re here is that much greater. The program staff have a great rapport and their name is one that can be recognized, and the community can recognize them and the work that they do. When it comes to this work, I get to see a lot of passion at our retreats, I get to see how intimate they are with their work.

What should a prospective candidate know about your organization? Where can they find information about your organization (that goes beyond the general info)?

Most of our information is on our website but when you call our telephone number you will always be transferred to the appropriate person and you’ll get a wealth of information to your questions. I always encourage people to do informational interviews. This is somebody who is willing to sit and talk with you about their journey and how they got to where they are. You can figure out pretty quickly if you are on the path to where you want to go.

If someone calls and says they read an article about our work and wants to learn more, I have no problem passing them on to the appropriate person at the organization. Never once did anyone at the organization say, “Don’t do that.” A lot of them have had “wins” in the community and this is their time to talk about what they do.

The person who called is getting a wealth of information about how they can stay abreast of things in the community and what they need to do. We post positions on our website, so if someone wants to get into our organization, check our website. We also take volunteers at different levels. Get into the organization in any way you can- get in on a volunteer level.

When you volunteer here, you’re like family. You’ll get a wealth of information. You’re not just volunteering, you’re making an impression, enlarging your network and learning things on the job. At the end of the day, that’s all still valuable.

What do you wish interviewees asked you?

We look for evidence that you really want to be here. It was at another organizations, but the best question I ever received from a candidate was, “How will my position facilitate the mission?” Because you can look at the job description and see all the things you will do but you have to make the connection to what that really means to the MISSION. Now we can have a conversation if I can see you are fully interested in what you will be doing in the position and how what you’re doing will affect the mission.

It usually stumps the interviewer because they are not prepared for the candidate to make that connection. It takes a moment for it to sit in that the candidate wants to know how the position will affect the mission. Through that conversation you get to know more about the organization and its culture.

Find out if the organization believes in training and development. When you are in the interview, always bring across that you are here for THEM. As much as it’s about what the candidate can do for the organization, the main reason that person will advance is because they have a desire to develop and grow within it.

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

Oh I had a really cute one not too long ago that I keep in mind because I felt bad. We realized we weren’t going to hire anyone for the position. But I love confidence and she showed up with her resume in hand and said, “I applied for this position and never heard anything back.” I said, “Really?” I checked and didn’t see it. So I took her resume and personally hand-walked it over to the hiring manager.

I liked the fact she came in. It basically sent the message that said, “You didn’t possibly not call me back because of my experience.” Full of confidence but not rude, she was very personable. It turns out the position I was pushing her towards, they decided not to hire for but I told her I would keep her in mind because she made such an impression on me. I asked the manager who was on the short list and I made sure that this candidate was on the short list. Sometimes in a market when there are more people looking for jobs than there are job, you have to do something to set yourself apart.

What do you expect to see from a new hire in the first 30 days of employment? Three months? A year?

What I commonly see and you kind of expect is the new hires normally try to come in early to get comfortable and into a routine. Regardless of knowing how to do the work, they need to get to know the organization. I definitely would feel a greater appreciation for the person who is doing that within the first month or so.

There is so much information to digest when you are first starting a job. Sometimes it’s at the beginning and end of your day when you are really digesting it. How do you get the opportunity to digest the information you’re receiving from your manager and make sure you understand all your new job responsibilities? Make sure you know the questions you need to ask?

Avoid constantly asking the same questions. Review your notes of what you learned in the past day or past week. Most people will notice if you stay late or come early. The minute something is not done, they will think that you are really not putting in the time. It sets you up to be one step ahead. It’s not something you have to do indefinitely but at the beginning, it’s a good idea to put in the extra time. If it’s six months later and you’re still coming in late or early, there may be another issue.

How does your organization write job descriptions?

It comes a little from the hiring manager (initiated by them), then it goes to the VP of Operations who looks it over to see what’s covered in it. Initially the hiring manager has the most say in what is needed because they are the person who initially asks for the new staff member.

Where do most of your candidates come from: job postings or referrals?

So, I’m going to say from our most recent hires, they’ve all come from job postings. Recently, I’ve only posted on Idealist and one other local site (Chicagoan Environmental Network). If we are hiring for a marketing person, I may post someplace specific for that. Most are from job postings, some from referrals but not that many.

I now always post our jobs on Idealist. I knew about Idealist before I started working here but once I came on board I started posting our jobs here. My sister told me about Idealist and I found the quality of the jobs were spot-on and I knew this was the place to go.

What roles are the hardest to fill in your organization?

Actually the hardest are usually admin roles because most applicants actually want to be on the policy side of things or in the program area. But when you are doing admin work it’s work that you have to like, you have to be detailed.

Also, when you’re a smaller organization it’s very hard to always change out your admin workers every two or three years because they don’t really want to do this work and they want to do policy work. We don’t have a lot of turnover in people leaving in policy and likely you are not qualified for that position.

Some people are blunt and will tell you why they want the position and they just want to move on to the next level and that they really want to do policy work. You have to know enough about the organization to know if it’s one where you can move up in that way. We’re not large enough. Also, it’s about how the organization develops their talent. I think that should happen - small organizations should be able to develop their talent so they can move to another area.

Which is more important for the candidate to have: passion for your org’s mission, or the skills necessary to do the specific job? What is a reasonable balance in order for you to consider a candidate?

Varies in many ways, depending on the position. If we’re talking about policy roles you probably need to have the SKILL and the passion, but you really need to have the skill to do it. In marketing and PR- you need to have the skill. Different aspects of what the organization does can be taught and learned while they are here but the skill is not something we can teach. That is what we are looking for you to fill.

Regardless of role, what do you look for in all candidates?

For us, passion and cultural fit. It’s a very tight knit group here, they hang out after work, sometimes a few will go on camping trips together. Cultural fit has to be there in some way. How outdoorsy are you? I’m not an outdoorsy person so my cultural fit comes in another way.

They can share all their interests in the interview. Of course their interest in the environment is most important but I believe the interview is the place to display your skills and allow your true personality to shine. When an employer is interviewing you, they want to know that you have the skill set to do the job but they also want to see that cultural fit.

By Victoria Crispo

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