Onboarding Isn’t what it Used to Be: Lessons from a Hiring Manager and New Staff Member at the University of California, San Diego

Online interview

Michael Bumbry, Ph.D., Senior Director of Alumni Outreach and Engagement, UC San Diego
Jennie Van Meter, Senior Director of Alumni Engagement Strategy, UC San Diego

Like many industries, higher education too has had to reimagine work in light of the global pandemic. Our decisions will have a lasting impact on the way business is conducted. At the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego), the department of alumni engagement hired and onboard professional staff during the early stages of the pandemic. One of us (Bumbry) started his employment remotely at UC San Diego in August 2020, while the other (Van Meter) is an alumna and long-time engagement officer at the institution who recruited, hired, and trained new staff remotely during the pandemic. Although the implications of COVID-19 and future of work are still uncertain, we would like offer our experiences, insights, and recommendations on recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new staff members during the pandemic and beyond, from both the candidate and recruiter perspective.
Michael Bumbry:

A whole new world: Applying for a job during a pandemic

In mid-March 2020, the majority of institutions notified faculty and staff that they would be working remotely for an unknown amount of time due to the COVID-19 outbreak. At the same time, I was in the early stages of searching for my next position. I thought to myself “well, I guess my search is going to have to be on the back burner” given the hiring freeze that most institutions implemented almost immediately. However, I was fortunate to reconnect with someone within my professional network who served at the institution at the time. She ultimately encouraged me to apply for a position at UC San Diego that matched my qualifications and requirements The conversation was a not so subtle reminder that pandemic or not, relationships still matter in the advancement profession. It is imperative to nurture relationships with colleagues just as we would with our constituents.

Tapping into one’s network is not a novel concept when searching for a new job, but requires discipline, time, and effort. Who are the folks in your sphere who you trust and will give sound advice? This is a question that I asked myself in the early weeks of quarantine last year, and set-up calls with individuals across institution type, geographic region, job title, and functional areas within higher education. This strategic approach to job searching is helpful in discerning the kind of place you want to work, where you want to live, the type of position you want to land, and in fine tuning your resume or CV. Below are some examples of questions that I asked, but also some additional ones that you might consider depending on your professional background, future goals, and lived experiences.
Employment Attributes and Considerations table
Beyond these examples, I found it helpful to ask my network if there were any professionals whom they would feel comfortable connecting me to who might further provide insights and recommendations in navigating my search. The key to this sensitive ask of your professional network is to FOLLOW THROUGH if and when a connection is made, to be prepared for your meeting with that colleague, and depending on the outcome of the meeting, sustain communication as your search evolves. Not only does these actions encourage your connector to make future connections, it will likely extend your own professional network with the colleague whom you just met.

Understanding the institutional culture

As a gay, Black, male, and millennial advancement professional, I have experienced pressure (that was both self-imposed and signaled to me by former colleagues) to excel quickly and deliver results. Although any new employee may encounter similar expectations, the “imposter syndrome” that many people of color experience can feel overwhelming given the lack of representation across race and ethnicity in our field. At the same time, new staff are expected to learn the institutional, divisional, and departmental cultures within an organization. When it comes to office culture, most new staff do not know what they do not know, so I would encourage managers to ask and answer questions during the interview stage that accurately characterizes what it is like to work at your institution. This approach is helpful for both the candidate and the employer, as both responses will illuminate whether the candidate is a good match and hopefully mitigate any surprises once the candidate starts. For many candidates of color, it may also be assuring to know the extent to which your organization values diversity, equity, and inclusion, and hear examples of how those principles are upheld. If employers do not raise diversity, equity, and inclusion relevant to staff retention, constituent engagement, and/or training and development throughout the interview process, it would be prudent for anyone, particularly people of color, to inquire themselves and make a determination based on the panel’s answers.

As a seasoned higher education professional, I was more equipped to approach conversations around culture in one-on-one settings with colleagues. For example, a candidate might ask “how would you characterize the workplace culture?” or “what are the core values of your organization and how do those reflect the culture?” Candidates might also find opportunities when answering questions to specifically discuss the type of workplace environment and culture that facilitates your best work.” At UC San Diego, my Associate Vice Chancellor and her leadership team recently introduced five values for our unit, with the first and most important one being “do the right thing.” While we have a mission and vision as well, the values provides guidance on how staff should interact with one another across departments, our campus partners across the University, and the external constituents we serve.

But regardless of how many years one has been in the field, it is critical that we give ourselves grace, because when we do, it relieves some of the pressure and allows us to take risks, push through adversity, and be innovative. I have found UC San Diego to be an institution that extends grace while not compromising high standards of excellence. As a result, I am able to do my job more effectively and be creative without fear of failure. This mentality is not accidental, but has been further fostered by our division, which has a management framework rooted in a concept known as “psychological safety.” Psychological safety describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Every manager in our division has been trained on psychological safety, and has been encouraged to introduce it to our staff and apply it in our daily work.

An innovative strategy that I implemented with my team to increase psychological safety among our group, and as a new staff member to better understand office culture, was the StrengthsQuest assessment. StrengthsQuest is an online tool which helps individuals and teams identify and make meaning of core attributes. In my first three months, I identified, recruited, and developed a plan with a certified StrengthsQuest coach who facilitated a discussion about our individual talents, our goals, perceived contributions to the organization, and what needs to be done to help us work together more effectively. Furthermore, the exercise allowed me to better understand my team, institutional and departmental culture, historical context, and was a starter conversation in building trust and rapport. In the follow up to the StrengthsQuest facilitator led meetings, we used a workbook that was provided to have subsequent discussions during one on one meetings and staff meetings.

While every department may not have the resources to hire an external consultant, I would recommend reaching out to your career center, human resources, or leadership development office to discover whether there is a certified StrengthsQuest facilitator on your campus who might be able to lead a discussion with your team. There are also other online resources, including Academic Impressions’ Five Paths to Leadership℠ Self-Assessment Tool, to help facilitate similar discussions with your team, whether you are a direct supervisor, project manager, or primarily responsible for your own work. The major takeaway for hiring managers is to create a culture for all employees that is conducive to doing their best work. This outcome relies on clear expectations, transparency, communication, accountability, support, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion, among other factors. For advancement staff who are people of color, these recommendations may be even more relevant considering their lived experiences.

Pick the low hanging fruit, but think big

Despite a robust onboarding plan, which included meetings with key stakeholders across the university, starting a new job six-weeks into the fiscal year, being a remote employee, and being in a different time zone, all of these factors initially presented challenges in understanding my role and what to prioritize. Onboarding conversations should include defining what success looks like in the first year (or even first six months) and identifying strategies that will help the new employee meet expectations. New staff might also explore long-term goals with their manager that will help the organization excel and provide growth opportunities.

Once I established key priorities for my role in the first few months, I was able to “think big” by helping to launch a new staffing model that provides alumni engagement support to our seven residential colleges. In conjunction with my Associate Vice Chancellor, manager, and two staff members, we established expectations and a six month plan that coincided with the end of the fiscal year. This plan primarily focused on strategic alumni events and our institution-wide day of giving, which provided a blueprint for what academic leaders could expect of us while allowing them to weigh in on certain aspects that would serve their interests as well. As we are officially in FY22, I’m encouraging my team to begin thinking about what the next six months will look like so that we are better positioned to leverage all of the resources at our disposal to exceed goals and deepen relationships with our colleagues and alumni.

Speaking of goals, we know that metrics are an integral in advancement, particularly for those who manage prospects. Our alumni directors at UC San Diego manage portfolios of about 300, and are responsible for increasing alumni engagement and expanding our donor pipeline. Another strategy that I employed to further increase psychological safety while also “thinking big” was forming a work group to assess portfolios and goal setting for the upcoming fiscal year. The work group consisted of two staff members on my team who were not appointed, but self-selected to join. Collectively, we engaged in candid conversations that not only informed my understanding of their day to day work, but illuminated challenges and opportunities that I could begin to address in an inclusive manner. The ability to make considerable change in year one certainly depends on a number of factors, but I have found that taking an active approach, asking colleagues, managers, and those you manage what can be done to make things work better, creating a plan, and following through signals to others within your organization that you are willing and able to meet critical demands while laying the foundation for the future. Whether working remote, hybrid, or back in-person, being explicit with new staff around expectations and helping them identify where the “wins” may occur is an effective way to onboard, instill confidence in your employees, and provide a roadmap that will allow both them and your organization to flourish.

Advancement is a team sport

Working remotely, in a new job, at a new university, managing full-time staff, and reporting to a supervisor who is also new to the institution has reinforced the importance of relationships in carrying out my responsibilities. You cannot get far in too many sectors in higher education without strong collaboration built on trust, shared responsibility, and effective communication. This is easier said than done in a complete remote environment, but it is possible. Boundaries withstanding, I believe that it is important to get to know your colleagues beyond their job description. This could mean anything from asking about one’s weekend at the top of a call to having a virtual coffee or happy hour with colleagues to learn more about their interests and hobbies (or meet in person when it is safe to do so). Building rapport with colleagues can also involve asking about their perceived challenges, barriers, and historical trends. These types of questions not only allow for different perspectives to address problems, but helps the new employee better understand institutional, divisional, and/or departmental culture as well, ideally avoiding any landmines in future meetings. As a liaison to two academic units, I am fortunate enough to have great partners who were willing to work with me, but also candid about previous experiences with our department that could be improved.

While the co-authors began writing this article when most institutions were completely remote, we recognize that the world, U.S., and higher education is evolving quickly as many staff return to campus in some capacity. However, we believe that the reflections, experiences, processes, and recommendations for onboarding new staff apply to whatever modality your organization is or will adopt in the months ahead. Hiring managers should help new staff understand how all of the pieces fit together, the larger strategy driving decision making, budgetary restraints, inter and intradepartmental challenges, historical context, technological and operational resources, and the people who make it all happen. I am fortunate for the senior leadership at UC San Diego Advancement, an experienced and inspiring manager, accomplished colleagues across the division, distinguished academic leaders, and a dedicated and competent staff who have made my transition so much easier than it could have been during such a complicated time in our world. Whether your institution is small, mid-size, or large, putting the “team sport” adage to work in practice will help new employees feel welcome and committed to the larger mission and big picture.
Jennie Van Meter:

Leaning into a new model

UC San Diego is renowned for being an innovative and groundbreaking institution that adheres to non-tradition as an abiding philosophy. Even so, before our campus began working fully remotely, no one would have suggested, let alone imagined, that entirely virtual hiring and onboarding within Advancement could be successful. Nevertheless, during our remote work over the past year, our alumni engagement team has filled all positions we’ve posted and seen several employees, like my co-author, pass their six month milestones, and beyond, as virtual employees. Though we’ve never met these team members in person, and they’ve had little to no time on the physical campus — Michael and I have yet to shake hands, grab a coffee, or walk across campus together — they are essential and valued colleagues. Most of them are now helping us recruit and onboard our next new hires.

Such a scenario might have been out of the realm of possibility in past times. Now, we’re contemplating the opportunities a virtual recruitment model offers our team and campus long term. The way we harnessed the virtual nature of the past year was to prioritize people, personal interactions, and collaborative activities just as we leaned into the limitations of the situation. We’ve come through it with more consistent and transparent communications and roles that apply as well to our team dynamics as to our recruitment, hiring, and onboarding processes. Some key focus areas have been elevating communications and technology, emphasizing collaboration, and integrating team members from across our department.

Such a scenario might have been out of the realm of possibility in past times. Now, we’re contemplating the opportunities a virtual recruitment model offers our team and campus long term.

Who’s on first

Our Alumni Engagement team sits within a larger unit, comprising various pipeline development groups, from annual giving and career services to international and parent/family programs. Our home department, which was solely dedicated to annual giving only four years ago, has grown consistently year to year, bringing multiple teams under one big umbrella. Like many other institutions that are adapting and evolving, alignment is one of our biggest priorities and, at times, has been a key challenge.

When recruiting and integrating new hires onto a team, misalignment can be a tripping hazard at the best of times. Throw in an evolving and uncertain work environment, virtual interviews, and remote onboarding, and the chance of conveying an accurate sense of the department and institution to potential employees can be in serious jeopardy.

The solution for us has been assigning a central lead in recruitment and onboarding activities. Our operations team serves this role, guiding and helping managers across our alumni engagement team and the broader department pull together concise and accurate job descriptions and coordinate interview panels. Though hiring managers communicate directly with candidates and shepherd them through the interview process, our operations team serves as the liaison with human resources and directs all internal and external communications related to recruitment, hiring, and onboarding.

As we transitioned from in person to remote work, having a dedicated unit with specific roles and responsibilities leading these details has further tightened up and truly helped our team keep a focus on the people and positions involved. Whether you’re a job candidate preparing to be interviewed, a current employee serving on an interview panel, or a team member helping get a new hire up to speed, you have an internal point of contact and are informed about the who, what, where, and when, from start to finish. This organization model has provided a sense of stability just as we were all juggling new and often unstable technical requirements and the vagaries of virtual interviews, meetings, and training sessions.

Something else that has supported our teams during our virtual work period has been consistency, depth, and breadth across interviews. Each interview panel includes a representative from our parent department’s senior leadership team, who guides the panel and the interview process. These leaders understand the job and how it impacts the global needs. All panels generally include representatives from across our parent department and often involve relevant campus partners, as well. This approach has been essential during our virtual process to provide interview candidates a window into specific positions on the team, our department infrastructure, and our holistic campus culture.

Aligned and consistent processes have enhanced our team’s virtual collaboration and efficiency, taking us from in person to remote recruitments fairly seamlessly. When someone asks during our hiring process, “Who’s on first?,” our team is able to confidently answer, “Yes.”

Mind the gap

The easiest, quickest way to achieving an effective, impactful, high performing team is closing the gap from where you are to where you mean to go. In a virtual work scenario, as you’re bringing new hires onto your team and helping them get to know the people, culture, and practices of the organization, consistent communications, opportunities for support, and attention to priorities are more critical than ever. The virtual environment can make these necessities feel overly challenged. In reality, the same rules apply as at any other time – but may require a fresh approach.

Something our senior leadership team initiated several years ago was a system of integrated teams that were nicknamed our “color teams,” since each one has a name associated with a hue (gold, vermilion, orange, etc). Every color team includes members from across our department units, including alumni engagement, career services, annual giving, international initiatives, parent and family, and operations.

The groups have allowed our unit heads to break down silos between different teams and illuminate how each team member, regardless of individual role, is a part of the holistic work we do together in pipeline development. The system has been successful: team members from different units have gotten to know each other better, understand each other’s roles, and identify opportunities for collaboration. The naming convention has enabled the teams to be fluid, so the group memberships can be mixed up periodically to continue to build relationships across the department.

When we went to remote work during the pandemic, we elevated our color team system, moving from quarterly, in-person gatherings on campus to weekly, virtual meetings on Zoom. By connecting more frequently, team members could stay well informed during a time when our work landscape had altered, and we could collaborate more closely on departmental priorities — like connecting with our constituents, who we knew were also reeling from the changed and changing global environment.

Therefore, during our entire remote work period, each employee has been regularly involved in pipeline development activities, ranging from career coaching for alumni and students, qualification and end of year giving outreach, donor stewardship, and engagement, such as outreach calls and event planning and implementation. We work collaboratively within our technology solutions, taking advantage of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google, and Slack to stay in close contact.

The color team system aligns incredibly well with onboarding goals, as new hires are added to a color group and immediately have a cross-departmental cohort to meet with regularly. Through their color teams, new team members have an intimate opportunity to learn firsthand about our department’s work, receive frequent leadership and campus announcements, partner on projects, feel a sense of belonging, and have an open channel to ask questions and provide feedback.

Our successful team integration activity has done double duty as an effective virtual onboarding method assisting our “one team” and new employees become bonded during our remote work period. All in all, the approach has reinforced for us that, in the words of James McAvoy, distance is a bad excuse for not having a good relationship.

Life after COVID-19

What are some lessons in hiring that we will take with us? Coordinating a thoughtful, intentional process that is transparent, with good communication throughout even with those who do not advance, internal partners involved (particularly those who are not in your specific department to deepen partnerships and understanding of AE’s role/work), etc. We recognize that candidates have choices in our business, and it is equally important for people to feel positively about UC San Diego, even if they do not join our organization at the conclusion of the process. This level of transparency and communication is evidenced by being responsive and timely to inquiries, and having an honest discussion among your colleagues in advance about the skills and qualities needed for that particular vacancy. We know from the work we do that impressions and relationships matter, none more so than those with potential, current, and new employees, who will share and carry out our values. Demonstrating how our department operates, what we care about, and who we are is a critical goal woven through our hiring and onboarding — whether we’re conducting those activities from across a table or through a computer screen.

No one has a crystal ball or will be able to say what exactly a “new normal” might look like in the months ahead. However, our experiences illustrate that as the saying goes, “best practices are best practices.” We have also learned that there might be new and more effective ways to recruit, hire, and onboard talent. Over time, these methods may influence the way in which applicants choose to apply to our institutions, those who join our institutions, and those who ultimately stay at our institutions. As senior advancement leaders grapple with talent management and retention issues in our industry, we hope this thought piece provides insights for future consideration.

Work Cited

Edmondson, Amy C., and Zhike Lei. “Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future
of an interpersonal construct.” Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 1.1 (2014): 23-43.

Dr. Michael Bumbry has served in progressive alumni engagement, development, and student affairs roles at a variety of institutions across the country for the past 14 years. Dr. Bumbry earned his Ph.D. in higher education at Loyola University Chicago, M.Ed in higher education at North Carolina State University, and B.A. at Elon University.

As Senior Director, Alumni Engagement Strategy at UC San Diego, Jennie manages her team in delivering and marketing an annual calendar of signature engagement weekends, regional and international events, and career programs. Her professional experience in public relations, marketing strategy, and community engagement spans organizations ranging from a globally-ranked university, a Fortune 500 company, and award-winning regional businesses.