In hiring, it’s easy to focus on qualifications that don’t predict success—that’s what organizations have been doing for decades. We have an idea of who can do the job and look for someone who “fits.” But if you want diverse perspectives on your team, if you want the most skilled candidates, if you want to hire the person who can do the work that lands on the desk and create impact for your organization, you have to start broad and challenge your assumptions. Expand your thinking about who can do the job and the possible paths to get there. That’s how you get great hiring results.

Resume Credentials vs. Skills That Matter

It can be tempting to think that a candidate with a specific number of years of experience, industry background, or degrees presents less hiring risk. But extensive research shows this isn’t true.

With exceptions for some highly technical or scientific roles, credentials don’t tell you whether a person can do the job. They are an unreliable proxy for skills that could be gained through many career paths. Focusing on credentials eliminates candidates who could be even more skilled than those with more familiar qualifications.

Instead, focus on the 3-5 key competencies needed to do the work that lands on the desk. Think about what skills your team has in abundance and where there are gaps. What additional expertise will improve your team’s ability to meet goals?

We recommend developing structured interview questions and work sample exercises to uncover whether candidates have the skills to solve the types of business problems they will face on the job. Instead of relying on credentials, this allows you to evaluate real data to see how candidates approach the work and how they might add to your team.

Industry or Field Knowledge vs. Functional Expertise

Experience in a particular industry or field is a common requirement for many organizations. But is it needed to perform the job well? Remember that individuals perform in an ecosystem of supervisors, peers, volunteers, and others who can supplement missing knowledge.

When you limit your search to a particular industry, you are choosing from a much smaller number of qualified candidates. Statistically, there will be fewer with the highest level of functional expertise. Make sure domain knowledge is an essential skill for the role before requiring it.

Using custom data from the Staffing Advisors research team, here’s an example of how industry-specific experience can narrow the candidate pool:

  • Searching for a marketing director in the Washington, DC area with 10-25 years of experience gives you 3300+ candidates. 
  • Narrowing to those currently working in a nonprofit drops the number to 711. 
  • Adding health-related experience drops the number to 292.

Candidates who have “worked the problem” (marketing strategy, financial management, board governance, etc.) in different industries often have greater functional expertise and advanced problem-solving skills. And they can help your team think about the work in new ways.

Operational vs. Strategic Expertise

Even among your key competencies, making strategic choices is important—some skill sets conflict with others. Think about whether the skills for the position make sense together. For example, executives are typically skilled in high-level strategy or operational management; it is rare to find expertise in both.

More from the research team, here’s how these competing skill sets could impact the candidate pool:

  • Searching for a CEO/executive director in the Washington, DC, area gives you 84,000 candidates.
  • Adding association experience drops the number to 4300.
  • Tweaking for strategic expertise gives you 1600; tweaking to focus on operational expertise results in 1400.
  • Looking for strategic and operational expertise together drops it to 821.

If the role requires both skill sets (which often happens in smaller organizations), focus on what you need most. Be creative in thinking about how you can leverage the strengths of different candidates within the context of what your team needs.

Job Titles vs. Real Life Impact

Candidates from groups that are underrepresented in any industry or functional area may have taken untraditional paths to build skills and experience. Requiring specific job titles in a candidate’s background, especially for top leadership roles like CEO or executive director, needlessly narrows the candidate pool. You could be overlooking candidates who raised the game for their organizations but didn’t get the title to match their competency. For an otherwise exceptional candidate, don’t let a job title make the call for you.

Invite the Best Candidates in Rather Than Ruling Them Out

You want to start with the most inclusive approach possible—say yes to candidates who align with your goals for the position and let your structured interviews and work sample testing determine who has the skills to succeed on the job. When you start with the broadest pool of the most skilled—not most credentialed—candidates, you’ll be able to choose the best out of a larger number (think best in the nation vs. best in your town). The pool of candidates is likely to be much more diverse, your hiring outcomes will be reliable and predictable, and you’ll know you are bringing in the expertise your team needs.

(If you’d like to learn how this approach can help you hire and retain exceptional candidates who will drive impact in your nonprofit or association, contact the Staffing Advisors team. We’d love to work with you.)

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