Tech & Work

Ensure "fit" in the hiring process

When hiring a new staffer, never underestimate how he or she will fit into your organization. Here's one CIO's story.

As a CIO, I've been in the market for a database administrator for a couple of months and, to be certain, this is definitely the most challenging task I've had when it comes to filling a vacancy. Well-qualified database administrators can be hard to find. After a couple of ads in newspapers and various industry web sites and some strategic listserv postings, I ended up with a total of two qualified candidates. Both candidates came in for interviews and, as both were qualified for the position, both underwent cursory background checks.

The first candidate's background check came back with major issues that disqualified him from further consideration. The second candidate's check was clean.However, we didn't end up hiring the second candidate. Actually, he passed us up, which worked out for the best for both of us, I think. I'm a big believer in the fact that new hires have to "fit" the organization's culture and management style... to a point, at least. In our initial telephone conversations, I was really excited about what this candidate could bring to the table. He had excellent experience that was a great match for what we needed and our early conversations were really good. We chatted on the phone quite a bit due to his distance from our location. In order to take our open position, the candidate would have to take a significant cut in pay. He would be coming to us from the Chicago area; we're more rural and my company's pay scale isn't at the top of the industry. The pay isn't low for this position, but our candidate makes significantly more in his metropolitan position. That was our first hurdle and, I think, played a big role in his decision to stay put.

Second, the person was looking for some benefits that we don't formally offer at our organization yet. To offer these benefits simply to hire this person could set a precedent that HR wasn't sure we wanted to do at this point. That said, we probably would have made the exception had it became necessary.

Where things fell down, though, was in the "fit" department. The entire onsite interview was very awkward—for both of us. The candidate was looking for a position at which he could narrow and focus his scope of responsibility and improve his quality of life. Both are laudable goals and ones that I completely understand. His eventual goal is to be a CIO for a relatively large company. I'd love nothing more than to fill this position with someone who can eventually replace me when I move on. The person who left the position was being groomed for just that until the opportunity of a lifetime came along for him. Where I became uncomfortable was trying to figure out if our candidate would actually wait until I was planning to move on before making a move for my chair. Again, I want someone on board with aspirations for my job but I would prefer that they wait until I leave!

Why did I begin to have these questions? One, during the interview, the candidate indicated a desire to rewrite, himself, one of our primary commercial applications. Although this application leaves a lot to be desired in many ways, rewriting it is, by far, not at the top of my priority list. More on this later. Second, our open position has a significant support element to it, meaning that the work is not all new project work. Although the candidate indicated that he would be willing to do any support necessary, his first goal was new project work. While there is plenty of new project work to be done, the fact is that we need to support what we have, too. I would hate to bring someone into a position doing work that really doesn't interest him... that's not good for either us or him.

The candidate and I had a very deep conversation regarding my management style. Because I'm the IT manager for a small group, I tend to be relatively involved in our operations and most decisions. I am not a micromanager, but I need to be involved. In fact, after this interview, I had an "off the record" meeting with my staff and asked them directly if my management style was "working" for them. During my time, as issues have come up, my staff and I discuss them. A couple of months ago, I was starting to push one of my staff to do an upgrade on an enterprise application. For a number of reasons, she was very uncomfortable with this path and came into my office with concrete reasons about why the timing for this upgrade was off and should be rescheduled. She presented a great case, so we pushed off the upgrade. All of the people in the room indicated that they are happy with my style and that, over time and as these folks have assimilated, I've "backed off" more and more while still maintaining reasonable oversight.

Why do I bring this up? I truly struggled with trying to figure out the reasons behind my discomfort with the candidate. Was I fearful for my job? Did I feel that he would try to undermine me in an effort to discredit me? You know the saying: "I'm not paranoid... sometimes they truly are out to get me." Or, was it something else? Do I want to surround myself with "yes" people? This was one reason I gathered my staff to get their thoughts on my style. Was I afraid of constant challenges on every decision? The candidate indicated to me that, if a decision came down to "my way" or "his way" on an issue in his domain, that "his way" should win out unless I present a very compelling argument to the contrary.

While I understand his desire for complete autonomy, I wouldn't make that commitment. If one of my folks comes to me with a solution and it doesn't quite fit what I had in mind, as long as it makes sense, I'll almost always go with them. I told my candidate that I would generally follow a recommendation but that I also reserve the right to veto anything that comes across my desk.

As for whether I want to surround myself with yes people... no, but with a caveat. I want to surround myself with people that will push back and give me options but that, once a decision has been made, will get on board and implement. In the past, I've had people that, even after a decision was made, would continue to fight—sometimes in very inappropriate settings—and worked to discredit projects with which they didn't agree. That kind of behavior is something that I simply won't tolerate.

Here's how I put it to one of my colleagues:  If I get sick and am away for three months and can't run my department, when I come back in three months, I want to come back to my department. I want my deputy to be someone that, when a decision needs to be made, will ask themselves what I would do and keeps things going on a consistent path. Is this micromanaging or too controlling? I don't think so. If I'm put in charge of someone else's area for an interim period in his or her absence, I'm not going to implement mass change just to meet my own agenda.

Would this candidate act like that? I seriously doubt that he would act maliciously in a conscious way. But, at the end of the day, my significant discomfort with the person was something that I took as an indicator that the fit wasn't there. In my opinion, making no hire is worse than making a bad hire. When I say "bad hire" I don't mean that he is a bad candidate; in fact, he is incredibly talented, but I don't think that my style and his expectations would have meshed. Although I'm willing to change my ways when necessary, I don't want to be pushed into a corner.


Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

Editor's Picks