In Search of Creative Team Players

By: Patricia Aiken-O'Neill

How one retired small-staff CEO found employees who wear many hats and jump in to help others at any time.

A small-staff association is no place for loners. You must like working with and being around other people. Small-staff association executives have to maintain a "happy office" where people work well together and step in to help each other.

When filling a position at a small-staff association, you seek out a team player who will step in and do others' duties as needed. You look for creative people who like to be busy and are interested in doing more than one thing. In a small-staff setting, everyone wears many different hats. When I joined the Eye Bank Association of America in 1990, it had four staff members. When I came, I brought government relations experience, so I wrote policy statements and comments on regulations as well as serving as CEO.

During the last four years of my tenure, I reassembled the staff so that we could hire someone to take over primary responsibility for GR as well as medical standards and accreditation. Before my retirement at the end of 2011, we had established and professionalized three senior staff positions: the one in GR and two in finance and meetings.

To accomplish this goal, we contracted with a search group that had been recommended to me by a colleague. We've done four searches with this firm, each of which took approximately two months. While working with the search firm to fill these senior-level positions, we employed five key strategies that might serve other small-staff associations well as they embark on a similar process.

1. Profile your organization. We do this in-house whether we're looking for a coordinator- or director-level position. We have a job description, and we review it to determine if it will meet our current and future needs. For example, we found a director of finance with more appropriate education and skills for the level at which the organization currently operates as opposed to 20 years ago. For each position, we brainstormed with the search firm, which made the vetting process more thorough.

2. Involve your board leaders. I had hiring and firing authority, but I voluntarily sought the counsel of the board, particularly when hiring the new director of finance. I contacted my chairman (who himself had years of finance experience), and he conducted the final interviews with me. It was the same when I hired the GR, medical standards, and accreditation staff person. I relied on a board member's specific expertise in making my final decision, which was helpful because it promoted buy-in and conveyed inclusiveness.

3. Give your final candidates homework. For each search, we typically narrowed a pool of eight candidates down to three or four who participated in two rounds of interviewing. Then, we asked them to respond to a specific scenario with a written 1.5-page proposal or policy position. We asked them to present it during the final interview. This provided insight into the candidates' thinking, preparation, and how they expressed themselves.

4. Change direction if necessary. At first, we weren't attracting the right candidates for the standards position (medical, accreditation, and regulatory) so we revised our process, which meant the search took a little more than three months to complete. Luckily, we could raise problems with the search firm and still have the relationship work. As a result, we were able to make midcourse corrections when appropriate and feasible.

5. Remain part of the process. Working with a search firm saves time and makes the hiring process more analytical and thorough, but don't think of handing it over. It is a collaborative process. Keep your eye on the endgame and make it a positive experience. Know yourself and your needs.

Ultimately, I knew the association: what our needs were and what would work for us. To ensure that candidates knew what they were getting into, we made sure to accurately describe what the association was like, what we did, and what was important to us. All the hard work paid off; today we have a highly dedicated and motivated staff team.

Patricia Aiken-O'Neill, Esq., is the former president and CEO of the Eye Bank Association of America in Washington, DC. She will remain on staff at EBAA as a consultant until the end of 2012. Email: [email protected]

Small-Staff Stats

Name: Eye Bank Association of America
Location: Washington, DC
Staff size: 8 full-time staff, plus a contract meeting planner
Members: About 85 organizations and several hundred individual surgeon members
Budget: $2 million

Patricia Aiken-O'Neill