What I Look For...

If you’re looking for a job at IDEO.org, read this.

Despite my seemingly acerbic demeanor around the IDEO.org studio, I really like people.  I wasn’t always sure if I did.  In my past life, I held a highly technical role of managing a membrane chromatography product that optimized the production of complex biopharmaceuticals.  People seemed fuzzy, complex, and had all of the feels.  However, that complexity also made them mysterious, inspirational, and alluring — kind of a living puzzle that gave me joy the more I engage.  I realized after a few years in biotech that I was craving the opportunity to engage with people in a way that spoke to my interests.  I was looking for connection, creativity, and a challenge that was less numbers-focused, more human.

Luckily, my role as Senior Talent and Experience Lead at IDEO.org gives me that opportunity—to make sense from chaos, deepen my empathy, and marry my interests in people and process.  Scaling our organization has also afforded me the privilege of learning about the over 6,000 people who have applied for jobs at IDEO.org over the past 5 years.

All that experience meeting with and evaluating potential candidates has given me some insight into what makes a great IDEO.org employee, and what to look for when we’re hiring new talent. Our work at the confluence of the social sector, innovation, and design invites bright individuals with great intentions and big hearts to seek opportunities here.  In the spirit of Making Others Successful and demystifying the black box of recruiting, here are some of the themes about what makes a successful candidate that I’ve uncovered over the past few years.

Storytelling

The recruiting team reads and reviews all applications, and stories are what make the difference between a two-minute skim of your CV and a ten-minute deep dive into your application, portfolio, and a few minutes of light cyberstalking.

If you have a blank canvas on which to tell your story—words, pictures, videos, we take all types—give me a memorable one that highlights how you utilized creativity, or why you’re obsessed with that certain something, and highlight the ultimate impact that you’ve made. Focus on what you’re trying to communicate, and keep your stories short and crisp.  Storytelling is core to what we do here at IDEO.org, so when you hook me you’ll also give me confidence that you can compel a partner, a colleague, or a person that we’re designing with. We think about design as a conversation. Being a good storyteller helps you keep up your end of the dialogue.

Show, don’t tell

Job descriptions and résumés are two sides of the same coin. The job description has a list of required skills for the role, and the résumé argues that the candidate not only has those skills, but has put them to use. But too often, that’s where it ends.

While I like seeing that a candidate has the right skills on paper, I love seeing them in action.

If your CV lists skills in Adobe Illustrator, show me some the illustrations that you’ve done that are relevant to this role. If you cite social media expertise, show me the social media strategies that you’ve created for previous clients and partners.

When we put out a job listing for a Community Specialist to manage our online presence through various social media channels, we knew we found a great fit when we saw Joyce Kim’s stunning visual cover letter.

Not only did Joyce demonstrate fluency in social media tools, but she showed her creativity, personality, and her passion for the work that IDEO.org does. Based on Joyce’s cover letter, I had a lot of confidence that she’d not only get the job done, but that she’d delight our audience in the process.

Connecting to IDEO.org values

IDEO.org is a tight-knit group of people dedicated to creating impact in the communities that we are serving. Part of the reason that we’re so close is our shared principles. Values, not pedigree, drive the IDEO.org community.

I believe it’s easy for a candidate to talk about her work experience, but what sticks for me is less about the number of international design projects that one has done, but more about the ways, means, and lessons learned from the journey.  

We’re blessed to have many qualified and talented applicants, so a big part of what I’m looking for is a person who shares our values. It’s easy to talk about collaboration, but what’s often more meaningful is learning about the way that collaboration had fueled your work.

I tend to ask questions about how you’ve made others successful; I’ll want to know about a moment when, despite not knowing the outcome or not having read every single paper on the subject, you rolled up your sleeves and made something; I’ll want to see a defining moment of optimism in the face of a really difficult challenge.

When an applicant is able to show us how they’ve collaborated, embraced ambiguity, or learned from their failure, they’ve already demonstrated two important things: they’ve done the legwork and researched what makes the IDEO.org’s community special and successful, and they’ve shared something personal about how they work and why it matters to them.  You don’t have to cite examples of how you’ve embodied all of our values, all the time.  We’re not looking for clones.  We are looking for individuals who are able to articulate why our values matter to them, and why their personal values resonate with the work and community we’re seeking to build.

Grit

Grit is a buzzy concept in hiring, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a great indicator of how successful a person will be at IDEO.org. We’re often designing in situations that are incredibly tough. In order to do great design, we wade into that uncomfortable place of the unknown in order to get to the nuggets of insight that can really effect change. Grit gives us the courage and confidence to stay creative even in states of ambiguity or stress.  Grit also pull our teams through seemingly overwhelming issues that don’t have direct solutions.  

Three sample questions I often ask to screen for grit:

  1. Describe a time where a solution that you’ve created didn’t work. How did you problem-solve? And what are the insights and learnings you took away?

  2. When working with teams, partners, and clients, how have you navigated conflict to drive towards a solution?

  3. What parts of the design process do you loathe? How do you confront it?

These questions give me insight into how a candidate was able to adapt to a situation that wasn’t going particularly well.  Beyond the constraints of the challenge, or the curveballs thrown their way, I want to discover how the candidate adapted to changes on-the-fly, and how this experience or set of experiences might shape how they tackle challenges in the future.  

A story of navigating uncertainty helps me understand a candidate’s process for learning and growth, and gives me insight into how IDEO.org might foster even more growth for this individual’s journey with us.

Sparkle, not shtick

Applicants come in all forms and shapes, but there are certain elements that make an application sticky and unforgettable: a narrative arc, a deft understanding of the audience, or a surprising passion. This is not license to collapse into schtick or lean on gimmicks, but the applications that stand out to me are those that inspire, delight, and are personal. I’m talking about that sparkle—the authentic way that an applicant shows up.  

You don’t need to make a music video to accompany your application—though one of our business designers did. Sparkle comes in many forms. I often witness this sparkle when an applicant gives a glimpse of her authentic self, or talks with conviction about her passions. One of our interaction designers has a side hustle of operating a pin club through collaborations with artists and nonprofits. A partnerships associate on our Health XO team creates handmade jewelry .  

Your sparkle doesn’t have to be related to work. You could be incredibly passionate about New York City pizza and buffalo wings (like our Amplify portfolio manager), but if that’s what lights you up, tell me all about it. I may even reciprocate by telling you about my love of creating handcrafted cocktails. Empathy is the foundation of human-centered design. People who are willing to share their passion openly aren’t afraid to be their most authentic selves, which creates openings for real human connection through the interview process and beyond.

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Now you know what I’m looking for when you apply to join IDEO.org. If you’re planning on throwing your hat in the ring for one of our open positions in New York or San Francisco, I can’t wait to meet you. And, if you turn out to be the interaction designer, technologist, or design lead our team’s been looking for, then recruiting is just the first step. Along with my colleagues on the talent team, I’ll be here to help introduce you to IDEO.org’s culture and chart your professional growth. And if you’re lucky, I may even pour you a cocktail or two.


Dave Zhou is a Sr. Experience and Talent Lead at IDEO.org. He likes making drinks almost as much as drinking them.

Illustrations by Andy Lacorazza

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