Job Seekers: Q&A With Gary Bivings, Owner of the Bivings Group

Owner [disclosure: and former boss in the 90’s] Gary Bivings has offered some perspective to job seekers who are looking to apply their skill sets in the world on online public affairs. This follows my interview with Brian Batchelder of Fleishman-Hillard; different firms, different cultures.  Fleishman is a huge firm and Bivings is a smaller firm.  Different people prefer different work environments.

Have a read.

1. Tell my readers about the history and makeup of The Bivings Group.  What has been your market niche since the firm’s founding? And do you consider yourself a “boutique firm?”

The Bivings Group got its start back in the mid-90s.  At the time we were a traditional public affairs and crisis communications firm.  Although we were boutique-sized, our client base led us to establish offices in several other cities, in the U.S. and internationally.  But very early on we cracked the internet, so incorporating the web into our practice gave us an edge.  Of course at the time we actually had to explain to clients what the web was, what it could do for them! Over time, we developed into a more focused Washington, DC-based web development and internet communications firm.  Now a lot of our work centers on public affairs, such as The Pickens Plan (www.pickensplan.com), and we offer ImpactWatch®, a media management platform. Of course we continue to develop custom software applications too. The opportunity to invent things is one of the benefits of being on our team.

There are about 30 of us.  We work with large companies, trade associations, philanthropies, coalitions, and not-for-profits. Our relatively small size means we’re less hierarchical, more flexible than the big guns.

2.  Based upon the clients that you serve, what types of employees have your historically hired?

Like so many of our clients, we’re all over the map, quite literally:   our staff is multi-lingual, and most have had significant global living and working experiences.  But we also look for and attract staff with a cross-border or interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving: a journalist who’s also a graphic artist; an ex-TV news editor who’s teaches self-defense; a self-taught software programmer. But whether the focus is strategy, technology or content, everyone here gets the web and social media.

3.  Aside from being a good match on paper, what has traditionally made candidates — then employees – a good match for your firm?  What are the intangibles that make him/her a good culture fit?

Simple to say, hard to do.  Ideally, we want evidence of an eagerness to learn, a willingness to take (responsible) risks, a comfort with collaboration. All those less tangible qualitites matter, a lot, especially in a firm our size. Naturally you’re looking for candidates who are self-motivated, curious and fun to be around. With a lucky charm you may even get the whole package. We’ve made some very good hires over the years.  We’ve got five people who’ve been at The Bivings Group for more than 10 years.

I learned long ago that everything communicates.  When you hire someone, you’re also hiring an ambassador.  There’s nothing like hearing from a possible client that they like your staff.  It may be obvious, but it’s still important to keep in mind:  clients who like working with you will tell others.  That means your staff, whatever their job description, are also your best sales people.

4.  What are your most effective recruiting venues?  Placement firms? Job sites like Craig’s List?  Word of mouth?

We tried a placement firm once.  It didn’t work out.  Never tried again.  Not worth the effort to explain to a third party who we are and what we’re looking for.  So for us, word of mouth is best, and Craigslist works.  And then there’s the unsolicited resume that simply can’t be ignored.

5.  Working for an online public affairs firm is very different than working in-house for a corporation, for example.  Given the online nature of your clients’ challenges, what characteristics do you seek in successful candidates?

What’s interesting about our niche is that the work we do is both very focused and very broad. Focused because of the medium we work in, yet wide-ranging because our clients are engaged in everything from energy to finance to art.  Which means each member of our staff has to have certain core skills and at the same time be willing and able to become an expert in virtually any business, market and/or issue-often on a dime.

6.  Without naming names, can you recall a “slam dunk” interview in which you knew a candidate was a good match?  What demonstrated that to you during in the interview process?  [taking notes, follow up, asking the right questions, demonstrated research on the firm, “gut feeling”?]

There’ve been several.  At least I thought they were. Then someone else talked to the candidate!  So we’ve developed a process here that involves a few folks and a set of questions we’ve learned to ask.  It’s not perfect–even our hiring group has made some questionable choices–but we’ve found this process gives us a better batting average than simply going by just first impressions and intuition.

That said, first impressions really do matter.  Believe it or not, we’ve had candidates come through the door without ever looking at our website.  Once that’s been made clear it really doesn’t matter what else you learn about the candidate!

7.  What advice would you give to interns seeking work at a firm such as yours?  Recent college graduates?  People with traditional public relations or public affairs experience, but maybe not so strong on the online side?

Interns are great–one particularly great employee started here as an intern during his junior year of college–and we have nothing against recent grads.  Like anyone joining our staff, interns need to have a skill/talent in the online world, have a feel for computers and/or technology, and be very curious about the world.  Smarts counts, and it’s even better when it comes with a personality, because lots of work around here gets done in teams.

But a cautionary note:  over the years we’ve found that many younger hires are not well-acquainted with or prepared for the demands of a professional work situation.  From what we hear, this is a pretty great place to work—we’re supportive, fun to be with and encourage our staff to have full lives outside the office—but we do expect anyone who works here to be fully dedicated to the task at hand. It’s what we promise our clients and it’s what we expect from our staff. “That’s not my job” or “but it’s 5:00” won’t cut it here.  Nipping out in the middle of the day for a doctor’s appointment is a no-brainer, and so is taking extra time at lunch when workflow permits.  But when there’s a deadline, it’s all hands on deck and we expect everyone to be fully committed to getting the job done, and getting it done well.

8.  Which do you value more:  a candidate whose experience closely matches a job description, or someone who is eager, malleable and intellectually curious with the potential to grow into a role?

Tough one.  The truth is we value both.  There’s a technical side to our business, even our client-facing people have various skills – graphic arts, video editing, etc. But it’s real hard to turn down a critical thinker who’s a superb writer and is fun to be around!

9.  If one were interested in working for the Bivings Group, how would he/she apply?

As it turns out, we are looking for someone in the DC area with experience in the public affairs world and expertise with social media.  The job description is at here.

Editor’s note:  I spent the better part of five years at the Bivings Group – my crowning achievement was being manager of the softball team.

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