We Asked the Experts: What Traits Do You Look for When Hiring Shelter Leadership?

May 10th, 2019

Co-Authored by Lifesaving Directors:

Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, Pima Animal Care Center; Dr. Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive!; Rebecca Guinn, Lifeline Animal Project; Cheryll Schneider, Wilco Animal Shelter; Ginny Sim, Southern Pines Animal Shelter; Edward Jamison, Dallas Animal Services; Mike Kaviani Animal Services; Teresa Johnson, Kansas City Pet Project; Paula Powell, El Paso Animal Services Center

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We asked a group of top lifesaving shelter directors to tell us what they look for when selecting people for leadership roles in their organizations. Here is what they’re looking for when hiring new leaders to manage their organizations.

A ‘Can Do’ Attitude

    We look for employees who find solutions rather than make excuses. Saving lives in your average shelter requires saying ‘yes we can!’ many times each day. There’s nothing more detrimental to a shelter than a manager who says, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘we already tried that and it didn’t work.’

    2. Belief That Every Animal Counts

      We need to focus on saving every life possible. This means we focus on the groups of pets still dying and implement lifesaving solutions for these pets. We look for leaders who will seek solutions to stop the needless killing of pets with medical or behavioral challenges that may currently put these animals at risk.

      3. A Question Everything Mindset

      Because we’re are working off of the broken foundation based in the old ‘pound’ mentality, it’s crucial that shelter managers question policies, procedures, and decisions, and not take anything for granted. Asking questions like ‘why do we euthanize all kittens under one week old?’ and ‘why do we euthanize owned pets on request without examining them first?’ will lead to saving more lives and shift the organization’s culture in a positive direction.

      4. Servant leadership

        We seek leaders who recognize that they are part of a team and that every staff member and volunteer has an equally important role to play in lifesaving. There is no room for ego or bad attitudes in our shelters because managers keep everyone focused on the mission of the organization and treat everyone as a partner in achieving this mission. 

        5. Unwillingness to Fail

          In the old, ‘pound’ model of sheltering, when a shelter reached capacity or some of the animals showed signs of upper respiratory illness, the easy solution was to ‘cull the herd.’ Dozens or even hundreds of dogs and cats were euthanized to alleviate an immediate problem. In lifesaving shelters, this kind of indiscriminate killing is not accepted, and new leaders must be committed to saving lives, even when things get hard. Resiliency, quick-thinking, and determination are all key attributes. 

          6. Fearless Change Agents

            Animal sheltering is a rapidly evolving field, creative, innovative approaches to solve problems have led to a massive reduction in shelter killing over the past two decades. As we continue to move forward to give every pet a fair chance at a live outcome, we look for leaders who not only welcome change but also are able to lead others. Change can be scary so leaders need to be able to bring their teams along to embrace the evolution in animal sheltering. 

            7. Excited to save lives

              If you’ve ever talked to a successful lifesaving shelter director, you know their excitement is infectious. They are honored to be doing this important work. Most lifesaving directors will tell you that helping animals is ‘their calling.’ When hiring leaders for their orgs, we look for people who find joy in saving animal lives and can inspire others to want to do the same.

              8. Can Hold People Accountable

                Resistance to changing the ‘way we’ve always done things,’ is a routine issue in animal shelters that embrace lifesaving changes. Leaders need to be able to create and implement policies and procedures that both improve the quality of life for shelter pets and increase lifesaving. Once these changes are implemented, it’s equally important that leaders insist that they are followed by every member of the team. Experience in managing challenging personnel situations is an attribute we look for when we hire leadership positions.

                9. Level-Headed Professionalism

                  Even the best animal shelters can be places where people’s emotions run high and crisis is a normal part of daily life. Leaders in our organizations must be calm and collected. They need to be able to handle criticism and have tough, honest conversations. This ability to stay level-headed, even in hard moments, is a critically important attribute of shelter leaders.

                  If you’re hiring new leaders for your organization, consider whether your interview questions help you identify any of these attributes in potential new employees. Alternately, if you’re hoping to work in lifesaving shelter leadership or administration, look through each item and ask yourself, ‘how do I stack up?’

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