William Howell holds strong opinions about hiring IT professionals.
When someone asks me what I'm looking for, I say an infrastructure person who also has business analysis and project management skills... I view these people as miniature chief information officers.
The vice president and chief information officer at Accellent, a $500m manufacturer of medical components, detests "Microsoft" type questions, brain teasers intended to test a developer's problem-solving skills. He's perturbed by the number of people who use the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator to pigeonhole job seekers. And he thinks most companies do a mediocre job training up-and-coming hiring managers in how to suss out candidates. The best training ground, according to Howell, is the school of hard knocks.
He should know. Howell admits to having made a few hiring mistakes, including one big one in the 1980s while working for the University of North Carolina (UNC), which he discusses in this Q&A. The incident at UNC irrevocably changed his hiring process, and his experiences have taught him to trust his instincts, to prize a candidate's integrity above all and to rigorously check references. If you've got any skeletons in your closet, Howell will unearth them.
Howell shared his lessons learned over the course of his 30-plus-year career in IT, and his secrets for identifying whether candidates have the right stuff for a job in his 35-person information services organisation, for finding objective references and for using LinkedIn as a recruiting tool.
What IT projects are you working on, and how do they impact your hiring?
Our biggest initiative is an Oracle ERP deployment. Three years ago when I joined the company, the chief executive officer at the time was very focused on implementing a common platform upon which to consistently gather and analyse business data. He saw that platform as a way to consolidate operations under one umbrella. We are implementing this initiative across 19 manufacturing facilities worldwide (15 in the US, three in Europe and a very large one in Mexico) in a controlled manner. We do two plants at a time and have done seven plants so far.
Most of our hiring falls into two or three areas. In particular, we hire Oracle ERP experts for our Boston corporate headquarters, senior business analysts and senior developers. These individuals are tied into our Oracle ERP deployment. They also support the sites that are now running on Oracle ERP.
I also hire IT people for our factories, which range in size from approximately 60 or 70 to 450 employees with an equal number of machine tools used to cut metal parts. In my ideal world, I would have one IT person per site, but I'm not quite there for financial reasons.
Do they ask probing questions? Do they think through the consequences of decisions? I need them to be tactically focused while keeping a longer-term strategic vision in mind.
What kinds of skills do you seek for these positions?
As we started deploying Oracle, I realised that I needed a different skill set from a classic infrastructure person who understands how to install a PC and answer questions about it because I'd never have the luxury of having two or three people at a site.
I modelled what I needed after an employee who works at the first plant where we deployed Oracle. He has a very diverse, non-classical IT background, yet he can look at a business process and translate that into IT language. He's able to do a little bit of programming and he has enough project management skills to hire people.
So when someone asks me what I'm looking for, I say an infrastructure person who also has business analysis and project management skills. Recruiters usually say they cannot find both skills in one employee. I've become a bit of an evangelist trying to get people to look differently at these jobs. I view these people as miniature chief information officers.
In everyone we look for, in particular for those individuals at the plants, we seek people who are self-starters, demonstrate initiative, are delivery focused and are service oriented.
These are demanding roles, but they are also very exciting and are a great opportunity for the right individual. Candidates need to be very capable and willing to roll up their sleeves to do whatever is necessary. If you find such people, they often like wearing different hats and their career growth in this role is excellent. But frankly, it is hard to find them. We've tried to grow some internally, with generally poor success. We can get great infrastructure people, but they don't have the business acumen or partnering skills. Out of 19 factories, I have 14 of these individuals.
How do you include non-IT professionals in your process for recruiting IT staff?
I insist that appropriate business partners interview IS candidates. I call my group Information Services with the emphasis on services. We are here to provide services to the rest of Accellent. As a result, it is imperative that anyone we hire understands that and knows that one of their ultimate measures will be whether they deliver quality service to our business partners. I focus on this right from the interview and have finalists for a position interview with the appropriate business partners.
For example, when we are hiring IS leaders for our manufacturing sites, we require the local plant manager, the local HR manager and typically two to four other business managers at the plant to interview that candidate. We have a formal process for collecting each of these individuals' views on a number of criteria. This helps set the tone correctly for everyone. The candidate understands who the real boss is: It isn't me. It is the business partner, and this process gets the business partner engaged from the beginning. We go into this together fully committed.
The eventual hiring decision belongs to IS, but if a business partner is not supportive of a candidate, I treat that opinion as a veto and I won't hire the person. It would be foolish of me to hire someone whom the business partner doesn't support from day one.
What do you base your hiring decisions on?
First and foremost I am looking for attitude. If necessary, I can arrange for training in technical subject matter. That is something we can all learn. But I don't know how to teach attitude. I look for individuals' chemistry with the culture of Accellent and the culture of the information services department.
While I believe that we can provide technical training, I do look for bright individuals who have a thirst for learning and for applying what they learn. Do they ask probing questions? Do they think through the consequences of decisions? I need them to be tactically focused while keeping a longer-term strategic vision in mind.
Accellent is a lean organisation, so we also need individuals who will roll up their sleeves to get the job done. I'm looking for individuals who are comfortable challenging the status quo but mature enough to know when to fight and when to align. We don't have the time or money to debate endlessly. We want individuals who are action oriented and delivery focused.
There's a job and a home for everybody, but there are lots of employee-employer combinations that aren't right. The hiring manager, company and candidate/employee all have to be willing and mature enough to acknowledge when the match isn't right instead of trying to force a situation. That's the hardest lesson to learn.
Did you receive training about how to hire?
No. I learned the attitude versus technical difference the hard way. I hired the absolute best technically qualified individual for a job back in 1988 or 1989 when I was working in the University of North Carolina's (UNC) graduate computer science department. It was a complete disaster. The individual didn't have any ability to fit into the organisation culturally. He was a one-man band who expected all of us to align to his way of thinking. It was a very painful experience; we wasted time and money and eventually had to let the individual go. For me it was the defining moment that shaped my views on hiring.
How did this experience affect your future hiring decisions?
It was a turning point in terms of how I select staff. After this mis-hire, I changed my hiring process completely. I moved to a much different and more formal process where various members of my staff and I each had an assigned role. Some had to check for technical abilities. For instance, one person's sole role in the interview was to describe a work tracking system we used and watch the person's response to it. The candidate's physical and verbal response was a key indicator of whether he or she would fit.
Do you ever use testing or external assessments to help in the hiring process? If so, under what circumstances and with what results?
Somewhere along the way I did a Myers-Briggs test and got really enamoured with it. A few of my direct reports did it, too, and we were really intrigued by the scores. We thought that we had found the Holy Grail on how to hire. I started asking if we could administer it to candidates. Boy, did I freak out my HR department at the time with that request. They prevented me from using it, and I'm thankful they did. They claimed it had no scientific proof of job performance. I took the test a few more times, and I can now confidently say that I can put my score on that test wherever I want it to be. The first time you take it, you may get a fair score, but afterwards you know where questions are leading you and you can manipulate your results. I've grown quite perturbed by people who pigeonhole others based on their Myers-Briggs score.
If you don't use assessments, how do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills and will be a good fit with the IT organisation and the company?
As I've mentioned, I don't spend much time on the technical skills. I let individuals who work with those technologies day in and day out focus on that.
I do look for an indication of how bright the individuals are, how knowledgeable they are, but I certainly don't make decisions based on schools attended or degrees earned. However, those can indicate individuals' ability and ambition. I look to see if they speak confidently and knowledgably. Do they ask sharp questions? Do they weigh pros and cons?
In terms of cultural fit I'll have the individuals talk about their experiences. I'll ask them which jobs have been good for them and which haven't. How do they rate the importance of work? I'll ask them to give me an example of a project that didn't go well and what they did to address it. Their answer will show me whether they are analytical thinkers.
I also ask questions to give me insight into how they view users of IS. Do they see them as a necessary evil? Do they understand that we are here to support them?
Do you have interview questions that you always ask? What are they, and why do you ask them?
I've been using LinkedIn since about February 2004. I'm currently the eighth-most networked person on LinkedIn, with some 19,114 connections.
1. Give me an example of a project that went poorly and tell me what you did to address it.
No one has all successes, so I'm looking for the individuals to be sufficiently aware of their abilities and experiences such that they can provide an example of a project that didn't go well. Next, I'm looking to see how they talk about responsibility: Do they take responsibility for any of what went wrong? I'm also looking to see their analytical ability: How did they approach the situation? How did they think about it? What did they consider or not consider? What skills and abilities did they contribute to resolve it? I'm looking to understand what role they did or didn't play in the project as well.
2. Give me an example of a project that went particularly well and why.
In essence, this is the inverse of my first question. It gives the candidates a chance to toot their own horn, which is easier to do than confront what went wrong. I'm looking to see how they describe what made the project successful. I'll probe to understand what parts of the project they were responsible for.
3. What brings you here today?
I generally phrase this question open ended like this, but if necessary I'll rephrase it and ask, Why are you looking to make a change now? Why do you to want to leave your gainful employment to take a chance on a new job? Why would you come talk to us? This line of questioning gives me a chance to see if the candidates have really thought about why they are making a job change. Also, it gives me a chance to see if they've done any research into who we are, what we do, and whether what we do is of interest to them. I'm looking for employees who subscribe to a higher ideal, who aren't just looking for a job that provides a pay-cheque, but for a job that connects to something more meaningful. In our case it is about helping people live better lives, and we want employees to get up in the morning to know that they are contributing to that goal.
I avoid asking "Microsoft" type questions. I was once interviewed for a job, and I got the litany of them from the hiring manager. For example, "Why are manhole covers round" type questions. Frankly, it turned me off royally. I didn't go to work there, and to this day I think this guy who interviewed me has real problems. I haven't followed it closely, but I believe that even Microsoft threw out that whole line of questions.
How do you use references in the hiring process?
I once worked for Fred Brooks, the "Father of the IBM 360" and one of the three best computer architects to ever live. Whenever Fred and I were buying new equipment he would want to speak to "happy customers." I decided to start checking "unhappy customers." I believe this is a better and more valuable reference check for vendors and job applicants. But these kinds of references are hard to find.
So how do I go about finding them? I search my personal Rolodex. I ask everyone on the interview team to search their personal Rolodex. In the spirit of six degrees of separation, I ask myself, Who do I know who knows someone who can get me a third-party objective reference? I google the person. I use LinkedIn extensively. I find a way to someone who knows the candidate. I've been doing this for years. I'll take one of these references over any of the three the candidate gives me. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on how the various social networks are making it easier for people to do this type of searching before a candidate ever arrives for an interview.
How long have you been using LinkedIn? Have you ever used it in your recruiting efforts?
I've been using LinkedIn since about February 2004. I'm currently the eighth-most networked person on LinkedIn, with some 19,114 connections as of today. I'm probably somewhat unique in that most of the highly networked people have something to do with recruiting, so people sometimes think I'm in that field because I have so many connections. In fact, I just have believed for a long time in the value of networking. It goes back to my days at UNC: If I had a technical question back then, I'd post it on a newsgroup, and about an hour later really smart people would have answered my question. It was a fabulous way to share knowledge.
In those days, I started building a Rolodex that just kept growing. Years later I got introduced to LinkedIn and I uploaded my whole Rolodex. I added people as I came across them, and I accept any invitation I get to connect.
LinkedIn would like individuals to connect only if they know each other closely, but my view of networking doesn't require that, so I freely accept any request to connect. I also subscribe to "Pay it Forward," so I move messages that people send me within LinkedIn on a continual basis. Every day when I log in I move all the items that have come in, simply in the hope that my helping someone will in turn cause someone else to help a few others.
During these years I've used LinkedIn, I've had at least two situations where individuals I didn't know and had never met thanked me by e-mail for forwarding them to such-and-such and who told me that they just took a new job as a result. Knowing I was able to help someone is such a great feeling.
In terms of recruiting through it, Accellent has advertised positions and done some searches on it. I have found contractors through LinkedIn. I've also developed leads in an interesting way. Because I sit at the hub of a lot of messages that get moved, I often see notes from people who are looking for jobs. Sometimes these are relevant to positions I or someone else in my company is recruiting for, so I'll reach out and say, "I forwarded this for you but wanted to let you know that we too have an opening that you might be interested in."
Integrity is the most important value that candidates can demonstrate. If they fail to demonstrate integrity, it will end the interview and any chance of them being hired. It will also end a person's career working for me.
I think LinkedIn is a great tool. The people who run it have become somewhat over the top in terms of trying to control stuff, which is frustrating to many of us who are just trying to help people, but I can't keep up with multiple LinkedIn-type tools. I tried for a while. I was a member of several of the various systems, but it just took too much time so I've focused on LinkedIn.
Is there a characteristic you prize most in a candidate or a hire?
By far, integrity is the most important value that candidates can demonstrate. If they fail to demonstrate integrity, it will end the interview and any chance of them being hired. It will also end a person's career working for me. I've had that happen a couple of times.
Two and a half years ago, I hired a direct report, a very senior individual in my company. At the time, we were retrofitting a new office building. I flew in to see how the project was going, and I found that someone changed the building plans so that a large window would go in the server room so people could look in on it. Windows in server rooms are a throwback to the "big iron" [mainframe] days.
I didn't think we had any business "advertising" our servers this way - they were simply machines that got stuff done for everyone else in the company. I also knew that our server rooms weren't as neat and organised as my staff and I would have liked them to be, and that such a window would make my staff feel like they were under scrutiny. I commented to my direct report that I thought the window was a mistake and I asked how it got there. He gave me some double-talk about it being on the plans, which I knew wasn't the case.
I later concluded that this new employee had in fact authorised the change, yet he never 'fessed up. His failure to be truthful to me was the beginning of the end. Shortly thereafter, I instructed him not to sign agreements with a particular telecom vendor. I communicated this to him in writing. I found out later that he defied my instructions. After that, he was gone in four weeks. That was probably the toughest firing decision I ever had to execute because he had only just started, was a director-level employee and was very well paid.
I had another experience where a candidate lied to me about her compensation to get a higher offer from my company. We only learned about it after she had started, and we obtained some documentation about her. Had we known she had lied before she was hired, we would never have hired her. When we did learn about the lie, we discussed what to do and we elected to keep it to ourselves, but she lost all her integrity with me. I never trusted her the same. It likely hurt her career at that company, too.
On another occasion, during my tenure at a pharmaceutical company, we did a national search for an individual to lead a new process automation group who would work for me. This was something we'd never done before, and we put a lot of time and effort into recruiting the right person for the job. We eventually found someone working in Michigan for a competitor whom we believed had all the right credentials. This fellow was of Indian descent. In all candour, I had a gnawing sensation that something wasn't totally right with this individual. But he had done well on the interviews with other people, and my boss liked him. And since it had taken forever to find him, we went ahead with reference checking, made him an offer, and he accepted.
He then told us that his father had a motorbike accident in India and that he needed to go home to take care of his father. He said he needed to delay his start for six to eight weeks. We agreed and wished him well. A few weeks passed, and one day during a meeting with my boss, my boss commented that he had spoken to this fellow that morning and that his father was improving and that it was hot in India, etc. I found this a bit puzzling and troubling. I wondered why this guy was calling my boss. I asked about the caller ID on the phone call, and my boss was somewhat confused but commented that it appeared to be a US number. He simply assumed that the call had been transferred in to him.
This call added fuel to my suspicions about this candidate, so when I went back to my office I asked my secretary to get this fellow on the phone at his office in Michigan. She looked at me like I was crazy and said he was in India and asked why would she should call his Michigan office. I told her to humour me, and that if she reached a receptionist, to simply ask for him and see what the answer was. To make a long story short, she called and on the first ring he answered the phone in Michigan at his old place of employment. My secretary passed the call to me, and I said, "You told my boss this morning you were in India." His response was, "Yes, I guess that's a problem." I answered back, "It certainly is," and I told him we would be in touch with him later. By the end of the day, we formally rescinded the offer. The lesson from this story is to learn to trust your instincts.
So you've had some hires that didn't work out. What do you consider a successful hire?
Someone who delivers more value than they cost, a positive ROI. Someone who is committed to continually improving the organisation, to challenging us to get better and better. Someone who is pitching in, unasked, to make it happen. And someone who is constantly growing, but growing at a pace that is in line with the pace of the organisation.
Are there particular hires who stand out? Ones who had a highly significant impact on you, your career and your organisation?
My most interesting hire took place many years ago at Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline). I was in IT and was moved into a role supporting a particular segment of the R&D organisation. This IT organisation and the corresponding business unit had a poor relationship. Simplistically, one of the key reasons for the tension was that the IT organisation for the most part had come from Wellcome and the business part had come from Glaxo, and the two units' different cultures didn't mesh. I got the job supporting the R&D segment over a fellow who was running a rogue IT organisation in the business unit. My getting the job reinforced the tension between IT and the business unit.
For reasons I won't ever fully know, at that moment [after I moved into this new position] I had the inspiration, desire, energy and determination to fix this tension. I reached out to this fellow who had lost the job to me. I had heard nothing but bad things about him. For my first meeting with him, I went across town to his office, with "hat in hand," looking to find a way to connect. Thankfully, as I entered his office, I noticed he had huge pictures of sailboats all over his walls. I too was a sailor, and it gave me a topic that I could talk to him about. It gave us common ground.
While talking with him, I could see all the bad things that everyone [in IT] had told me about him. But I also could see the passion he had, the fire in his belly. I knew that the business unit thought he nearly walked on water. In due course, I designed an organisation where I could bring him into IT as one of my direct reports. I talked to him about the need for change within IT and how he could help make that happen. At the same time, I talked to him about the need for him to become an IT professional and not a rogue hacker, and he bought into it. He came over to my organisation, and in that one action we dissolved years of tension and started these two organisations on a path of working together and being effective. It was a big gamble for me on a number of fronts, but it paid off huge.
Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas