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  • Mike Fry

The Costs of a Bad Hire Can Be Catastrophic - How to Avoid Them

A city-run animal shelter in Oklahoma is making international headlines for “euthanizing” dogs by shooting them.

In Pennsylvania, a shelter director was forced to leave her position for buying a dog for $1,000.

In Kentucky, animal advocates have filed a lawsuit against Shelby County for reportedly deleting video evidence of wrongdoing at animal control.

In Maricopa County, Arizona the head of animal control just resigned following a series of complaints about performance, including an investigation that concluded that in 2015 alone hundreds of animals died, or had other serious medical complications, at the facility due to poor care.

These are just some of the current news stories relating to problems in shelters in America - problems that could likely have been avoided with better hiring decisions. The cost of a bad hire can be catastrophic, especially at an agency that is responsible for housing and caring for living beings.

The general HR consensus is that a bad hiring decision at senior levels in corporate America can cost an agency more than three times the hire’s salary. At an animal shelter, however, the costs can go dramatically higher than that, and can even run into the millions of dollars, due to loss of public support and other factors.

Those are only the financial costs. There are other costs, too, including the loss of animals’ lives at the shelter, which are not easily converted into monetary terms. For elected officials there can be very real personal costs when municipal animal shelters are not meeting public expectations. These costs can include a loss of their public offices.

In spite of the potential severe consequences of hiring the wrong candidate to run an animal shelter, few hirers have taken the time to research the competencies needed to run a shelter. The most common factors used to select candidates for shelter director or manager jobs are education, technical skills and past experience at other shelters. However, for a variety of reasons, these prove to be poor predictors of a candidate’s ability to perform. Here is why:


Running an animal shelter is mostly about leadership and research into leadership development has almost universally concluded that leadership skills cannot be learned in the classroom. A person cannot learn to become a better leader by reading or talking about it. People become leaders through experiences they have in life that instill various characteristics into their ways of being.

A person cannot, for example, learn humility by studying what humility is. They can develop it through life lessons that strip away the self-important arrogance of youth.

Schooling can teach some basic functional or technical skills. But, these talents are actually poorly correlated to effective leadership.

Technical or Functional Skills

It is understandable that people hiring shelter leadership (who often have little direct experience in animal shelters themselves) try to simplify the skills needed to run a shelter into “animal skills” (i.e. if the people are “good with animals” they should be able to run an animal shelter). This accounts for the unusually large number of shelter directors who are veterinarians or that have other related animal backgrounds. However, it should seem fairly obvious on closer examination that the ability to diagnose and treat disease, or to be able to perform surgeries, does not in any way translate into being able to manage people, fundraise and manage public relations, or any of the other things shelter management needs to do routinely.

Past Shelter Experience

Of the criteria used to evaluate candidates for shelter management positions, past shelter experience is the best predictor of future performance, so long as the culture, history and performance at that shelter is consistent with the position for which the candidate is being selected. More often than not, however, candidates seek to move from one shelter to the next in order to rise to a higher level in management, which nearly always also translates into changes in the leadership skills required.

A New Leadership Paradigm

For all of these reasons some of the most successful new leaders in animal shelters have come from fields outside of animal sheltering. Some of the top shelter directors in the USA had very different careers before taking the helms at their shelters.

Whether they were previously attorneys, marketing specialists, technology consultants or whatever, and no matter what functional or technical skills they may have had when hired, these leaders shared some common leadership skills that made them fit well in their new roles. Most importantly, they were intellectual horsepowers who were great at learning quickly in challenging and ambiguous situations. They had strong and compelling visions and were able to articulate their visions, and enroll others to help bring them about. These leaders were not afraid to make difficult decisions, or honestly assess people, policies and practices in order to achieve their goals. They shared these and a couple of dozen other key characteristics that made them natural fits for the challenges they would face in the new jobs.

Good News/Bad News

There is both good and bad news about this new approach to management selection. The bad news is that identifying candidates who possess the leadership profile needed to be successful is not simple if you don’t have an understanding of leadership assessment or development. The good news is that there are many human resource professionals who, after having been provided the basics of the leadership profile required for the position, can help identify candidates who have it. The even better news is that doing this takes much of the guesswork out of the hiring process, making it more objective and more likely to result in positive outcomes in the shelter.

While there is no surefire way to eliminate possible hiring mistakes, the catastrophic consequences of bad animal shelter management hires means those involved in making these decisions should make every effort to ensure they are hiring with the best information available.

For more information about candidate assessments, please contact No Kill Learning.

#leadership #hiring #hr #humanresources

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