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10 Tips for Building Your Career Services Dream Team

Let’s be honest…working in Career Services can be tough. We simultaneously balance preparing our students to thrive in the 21st Century workforce, persisting in the goal-driven environment that is higher education, and nurturing collaborative partnerships across the entirety of our campuses. We need to be surrounded by the best, and to keep them engaged. So how do we as leaders recruit and retain our “Dream Teams”?

Last week a friend and frequent collaborator left the university…and left me with an amazing compliment. He shared that while there were knowledgeable people in every university department, he “fully trusted” everyone within NAU Career Development. He went on to call us “highly competent yet humble, very kind, and always focused on putting our students first.” At the end of a long academic year, these words made my day...because we work hard at being a great team.


Career Center vacancies are often accompanied by excitement, and more than a little anxiety! Just one new person can quickly impact team dynamics, therefore every hire is critical. The good news…we’re a Career Center; we’re experts on optimal hiring practices, so let’s remember what we know!

1. Hire for the future

It can be tempting, especially when leading a small team, to hire quickly. I challenge all of us to hire not just for tomorrow, but for the future of our Centers. When updating job descriptions and meticulously crafting interview questions, reflect on where the position’s predecessor was strong, as well as where there were gaps. Ask yourself what you want your Center to look like in a year, or two, or five, and what qualities you need in your new team member to help get you there.

2. Hire for gaps

While we want everyone within our Center to share common work values and a commitment to our mission, and while we want our teams to reflect the demographics of our campuses, diversity of perspective is also important. Our Centers have to skillfully navigate both the academic and student affairs realms, as well as form strategic partnerships with the private sector. I’ve always aimed for an equal balance of those three perspectives within our Center, and the need for one point-of-view can become the decision maker between two similarly strong candidates.

3. Screen for values and fit

Each Career Center has a culture of its own, and the most qualified candidate may not be the best fit. A fiercely independent individual used to being a “team of one” may not be happy in a highly collaborative environment, and an entrepreneur may struggle in a team that is highly process-driven. Design your selection process to assess not only skills, but who will fit within your Center, embrace the team values and culture, and be able to authentically thrive.

4. Rely on your data, but don’t ignore your gut

Hiring committees composed of representative stakeholders and well-crafted interview questions are a great starting point. However anyone can have a great initial interview, and anyone can have a bad initial interview. Again, don’t rush the process. As I’m sure many other Centers do, we now require multiple rounds of interviews, as well as presentations for our top candidates. For management roles, the entire department meets with the finalists without me present, to mutually determine if a cultural fit exists. I also strongly believe in letting direct reports have a voice in who become their supervisor. No matter the minimum requirements for reference checks, consider speaking with the references of several of your top candidates; often they can provide the deciding voice in your search.

If after compiling lots of data, there’s a distant voice saying that your “on paper top candidate” isn’t a good fit, then they probably aren’t. Listen to your instincts. Failing a search, while frustrating, is far easier than investing in the onboarding and development of someone who won’t stay long, or whose presence negatively impacts the team.

5. Put aside biases and personal feelings

Owning our biases is critical, as is being able to move beyond our fear of the unknown. About a year ago I found myself in a seemingly enviable position: three incredibly strong candidates vying for our Career Programming lead role. Two of these happened to not only be long-standing collaborators, but were also personal friends. Hiring the external candidate was easy; I knew that his leadership experience and outside perspective would be key ingredients in our Center’s future. Telling the other two candidates they didn’t get the job was one of the tougher things I’ve ever had to do.


While employee engagement in the U.S. is at an all-time high, Gallup tells us that just 34% of employees are engaged. We tell our students to find engaging work, but how do we ensure that our Career Center is an engaging environment?

6. Infuse professional development into your culture

It can be challenging to find time to pull the entire team together, and easy to focus staff meetings on preparing for upcoming events and educating on new processes. Taking time for professional development whenever possible can enliven our teams with fun, and insightful, activities. Our Career Center also runs NAU’s Student Employment program, grounded in the NACE Career Readiness competencies, and we are passionate about professional development for our student workforce in addition to our full time staff. If you’re not already, consider including Graduate Assistants and Student Employees in your team professional development. We are often a student’s first exposure to these types of activities, and their perspective as members of Generation Z can be enlightening.

7. Start with Strengths

Maintaining a strengths-based culture, where we match roles and assignments to individuals’ interpersonal and functional strengths, sets a positive tone and establishes a foundation where our teams are likely to feel motivated and achieve their goals. I’m a huge fan of Gallup’s CliftonStrengths, and their challenge to “Learn, Love, Live” your unique talents. Anyone new to our Career Center completes the assessment, and we do regular debriefs as a team where we celebrate each of our strengths and uniqueness. However with or without a formal assessment, most are fairly aware of their strengths; we are leaders need to be accountable for learning, and then leveraging, the strengths of our team, particularly when they are different from our own!

8. Grant flexibility where possible

A Career Center schedule can be intense during the academic year, with night and weekend work common. Managing burnout is critical, particularly as the academic year comes to a close and we become one of the most popular spots on campus. Fairness is important within our Center; we each take on an equitable amount of evening and weekend events, understanding that outside of work we are partners, parents, siblings, friends, and community members, and want time to have meaningful lives. Discretionary flex time taken at slower points in the cycle also serves as an incentive to keep us motivated when the going gets tough.

9. Share responsibility for team building

Sometimes the best ideas for team building don’t come from the Career Center’s Director. This year I was fortunate enough to have a student employee who led a themed activity for each month. We created a Halloween graveyard for career myths and out-of-date practices (RIP Objective Statement), expressed gratitude on the feathers of Ted, November’s Thankfulness Turkey, and held our own March Madness competition to see which Transferable Skill was the champion (Problem Solving was our winner). Another student employee organized a “Pink-Out” in honor and support of a colleague battling with breast cancer. These creative ideas, which I never could have devised on my own, infused energy and cohesiveness into our team.

10. Celebrate quick wins

It can be easy to focus solely on what’s next, and forget to pause in the “now” to celebrate success. One of our long-standing department traditions is our Success Tree, where we celebrate everything from key new collaborations to record-setting career fairs to approving hundreds of Handshake postings. This year we also implemented a “Job Bell” for our students to celebrate getting a job or internship. While the student is the star, “Ringing the Job Bell” often becomes a department-wide celebration. Recognizing these victories sets a culture of positivity and appreciation.

I am beyond lucky to have built my “Dream Team,” and I’ll try as hard as I can to keep them engaged, while simultaneously preparing them for their next great step!

Emily McCarthy has been leading Career Development at Northern Arizona University (NAU) since April 2013. During that time the department has grown from two full time staff and three student employees (serving over 30K students!) to eight full time staff, two graduate assistants, five student employees, and a graduate intern. The department has taken on a centralized role in internships and launched a campus-wide student employment program grounded in the NACE Career Readiness competencies. Prior to NAU Emily worked in change management and organizational development for government contracting organizations in Northern Virginia.

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