Jeffrey Keisling takes great pride in the relationship between his 1,800-person IT organization and the business at Wyeth: "One of the greatest measures of our success is that the employees in IT are indistinguishable from their business colleagues," says the drug-maker's vice president of corporate information systems and chief information officer.
The IT-business alignment of which Keisling is so proud begins with the company's hiring process. Business executives participate in interviews with candidates for senior leadership positions in Keisling's IT organization. Likewise, Keisling says he interviews candidates for positions outside of IT.
Further promoting IT-business alignment at Wyeth (which Pfizer is acquiring) is the fact that 11 of Keisling's 12 direct reports are members of line executive teams at the $22.8 billion pharmaceutical company. So they report both to Keisling and to the individual line executives they support. Keisling and the line executives participate equally in performance reviews for the 11 direct reports.
Another reason why IT employees are "indistinguishable" from their business counterparts is that many of them come from the business to work in IT. Keisling says he's hired employees from Wyeth's commercial and manufacturing groups to head up business intelligence and operational effectiveness initiatives.
With the emphasis Keisling places on IT-business alignment, it should come as no surprise that Keisling looks for candidates who are businesspeople first when he's hiring. He seeks employees who've had a clear impact on the organization's they've touched and who "lead with a clear sense of purpose."
Here, Keisling explains how he makes hiring decisions and offers his advice for acing a job interview.
John Mann: What are some of the IT challenges you face now and how does hiring figure into them?
Jeffrey Keisling: I think it is fair to say that every chief information officer in every industry today is challenged to improve the operational performance of the company while lowering costs in IT. What's interesting is that everyone has the same tools. Everybody can buy the same technology, whether applications or infrastructure, and the only thing that really makes a difference is the quality of the people. Across Wyeth, not just in IT, it is all about finding and retaining talent and strong leaders. Our leaders can and do move across the company, and in- and outside of IT. We have a long history of developing people, and we have a very comprehensive and mature model for managing talent across the enterprise.
Have you brought people into IT who have been with the company or in the industry, but who may not have had a strong technical background?
Absolutely. It's bi-directional. People who have come out of our commercial organization are now leading up business intelligence initiatives, and people who came in from our manufacturing group are heading up operational excellence efforts in IT. With the high degree of professional scientific and medical talent we have on staff, it is very common for us in IT to bring in people who can apply their knowledge of science and medicine to technology.
What types of positions are you currently recruiting for?
It is all depends on the level, but in general, we are very focused on two areas: One is business analysis, and the second, which is complimentary, is business process skills.
What is the process for interviewing a candidate for a job in your IT department?
With a senior leader in IT, we have a very deliberate approach. It would be a series of one-to-one formal interviews. For example, if we were hiring someone who would line up with Wyeth's public affairs department, the vice president of public affairs and one or two of his direct reports would interview the IT candidate. I would do the same thing with my shop in IT.
For a middle manager or someone in a business analysis role, we have more recently used panel interviews. I think that has served us pretty well. It tends to bring a diverse set of views and is pretty efficient.
Do you ever interview candidates for non-IT positions?
Yes. There is a strong sense of collaboration in our company, which is one of our values, so it is natural for me to interview candidates for positions outside of IT and vice versa.
Who was the first person you ever hired?
The first person I hired was when I was a manager many years ago. I have worked with this woman now in three different companies. I have hired her twice. She is working on our team here today, but I did not hire her here. I would have, but she was here before me.
What did you base your hiring decisions on when you first started hiring, and how does that compare to today?
Fifteen to twenty years ago, as a first-level line manager, I placed much more emphasis on technical competency. Today, I ask three things. One is about the candidate's impact. What is this person's history of driving change, leading change or delivering value to the company? Two is, What kind of leader do we think they are going to be? Three is about the candidate's values.
I think broadly about how a person fits into the overall team. It is much more obvious to me [now] what the non-negotiables are—the things I will never compromise on. Some of my non-negotiables include trustworthiness, forthrightness, and how enjoyable it will be to work with the candidate. There are a lot of talented people who have very strong technical skills who cannot work in a team environment.
Diversity is also a major factor. Our markets and customers are diverse, so we have to have people who can work across the enterprise, cultures and languages.
What do you consider a successful hire?
Someone who is a good businessperson first, who puts the members of their team ahead of themselves, doesn't take credit for others' accomplishments, leads with a clear sense of purpose and has impact.
What is the biggest hiring mistake you've made, and what did you learn from it?
In general I've learned not to compromise on talent. "Good enough" never works out to be very good at all.
Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed, but your team didn't?
Yes. We have always found that discussion and debate among the team members, including the business partners who are working with us during the hiring process, yields a better answer. So we frequently do not have a unanimous decision. Discussion ultimately leads to the best answer.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
What a candidate wears is not a major factor for me, but my advice would be to wear a suit. First impressions are not over-rated. However, if I were interviewing with Google, I probably would not wear a tie for that interview. You have to be sensitive to the culture of the company you are interviewing with.
What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO or to be a CIO?
The answer is the same for both: Be yourself and be clear about the impact you've had on the businesses that you have been a part of. A candidate should talk about what they have accomplished vis a vis what is expected in the position. Talk about how you lead and the values you bring that will make the company the best place to work.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
All too often, the person who you are interviewing does not simply say, "I want this job, and I believe I am the best person for it." I find it striking that someone would not express that during the interview.
What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?
In a résumé, I am looking for information about the person being an "impact player." Again, I see a lot of people who are technically qualified, but I like to see some expression of what the person has managed or accomplished. Thank you notes are fine, but they don't make much of a difference to me.
If someone is a quality candidate, would they have a better shot contacting you directly, or should they go through human resources?
In general, neither. I would advise going through the networking process and then [contacting me] directly. Someone I hear about through one of my colleagues here in the company will get a lot of attention in a very short period of time. We encourage our people to bring that kind of thinking to us, and they do a good job. I think it is more important than ever, particularly in this economy, for people to use that channel.
Do you find that most of the people you hire come from networking or internal referrals?
I would say that 80 percent or more of our hires come through networking.
What three interview questions do you always ask and why?
- Tell me about one or two of your accomplishments that you are most proud of and that describe who you are?
- Can you provide an example of a professional risk you took that worked out great and one that did not, and what did you do about it?
- What do you do for fun? I ask this because we emphasize people having balance in their lives and because it shows how a person "ticks." People open up about themselves in striking ways.
John Mann is associate director of The Alexander Group. He is based in the executive search firm's Houston office.