My Best Mistake – Svenja Vollmer

The best mistake of: Svenja Vollmer

“My gut feeling said it. My colleagues said it. I ignored all voices and ended up hiring the wrong candidate for the job.”

Sometimes we are too afraid of making mistakes, that out of fear for the possible consequences, we don’t take any action. Afraid to fail, afraid about what our environment thinks about it, afraid that it doesn’t fit in our “Instagrammable perfect life”…

Which is such a shame, because making mistakes is THE way to learn and develop yourself. That is why we at Doors Open celebrate making mistakes! Every month we interview entrepreneurs, leaders, professional athletes… People who, just like you, have gotten to where they are by failing and standing up again.They have told us about their best mistake: a mistake which has taught them a lot and has helped them greatly in their development.

In this edition

Svenja Vollmer

Residence: The Hague

Profession: Team Leader Youth and Women Empowerment, Division for Peace, United Nations Institute for Training and Research

An important part of Svenja’s job at the United Nations Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR) is to recruit both consultants and interns to support her team to implement training and capacity building projects. Not too long ago, she was in need for a new team member for a specific project. She knew upfront that a hectic schedule in that part of the year wouldn’t allow for the same sort of mentorship and guidance she usually offers to her team members, so she needed someone with experience, a steep learning curve and the ability to work independently. She ended up hiring someone with none of those skills.

What did you do wrong during the selection process for this particular candidate?

When I am recruiting, I am always faced with some sort of moral dilemma. I feel that it is my role and that of UNITAR – I mean, we are a training institute AND part of the United Nations – to offer empowering opportunities to people and to embrace diversity. The aspiration of the UN is to portrait the whole world, so I always pay attention to this in the recruitment process.

For this specific role, I had 3 possible candidates on the short list, all with different cultural as well as educational backgrounds. I ended up recruiting one of the candidates. She wasn’t the one that was the most qualified, but she met my values of diversity and empowerment. However, by putting these values upfront, I was putting my own needs and the needs of the organization at a second place.

“It turned out to be a mistake that affected both parties in a negative way.”

For my team member, who was not familiar with the UN context and not used to our way of working, it was quite a frustrating moment, as she didn’t get the time, dedication and mentorship that she needed. On the other hand, I was still faced with a deadline and a job that had to be done.

What did you learn from this?

It showed me that it’s important to be realistic when making a choice for a new team member, looking at your own time and resources. And of course that you need to balance your emotions and rational thoughts, as well as your values and the needs of the organization at that moment. My trainer’s heart almost always roots for the underdog. I am a very compassionate person and when I see someone with potential – and this woman certainly had that – I immediately think: “I can empower this person”. And if I would have hired this particular person for the same or another position in a different moment, I am sure that things would have worked out much better for both of us. So for future selection processes, I will make sure to be able to respond both to the needs of the organization AND the team member.

Is there something you could have done differently?

Yes. My colleagues were quite frank with me and expressed their doubts about my selection and the reasons for it, from the beginning. And honestly, my gut feeling also told me that I wouldn’t be able to give her the guidance she needed. I based my decision too much on my values, and in the end, no one was benefiting from that.

I also have the tendency to believe that the easiest choice may be the wrong one. That it’s wrong to hire the person who doesn’t need any guidance, because then you just make it easy on yourself. Now I know that sometimes, in everybody’s best interest, it’s best to go for this kind of solution. Don’t be too hard on yourself!

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