The Hiring Manager Interviews: Harvard Business School's CIO Builds Trust and Respect Among His IT Staff by Involving Them in His Hiring Process

If you're interested in learning how a hiring process can create a stronger IT department, and if you need effective techniques for assessing a candidate's cultural fit, you must read this interview with Harvard Business School CIO Stephen Laster.

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For me it's not, because I've been in those different industries. Certainly if you had people who were all from the same background managerially it would probably be easier, but I think you lose a lot of the creative tension that makes a team powerful. I think different perspectives and backgrounds are a wonderful thing on a team as long as the team is built based on trust.

How do you develop trust?

I think part of it is setting a culture where the bar for success is high and where there is no penalty for failure as long as you gave it a good, honest effort. Building trust is also about empowering people to make decisions when appropriate. There has to be management structure, and you want to push decision making down, but you want to approach information sharing across. You want to keep people informed. I think dialogue supports trust. I think other ways teams build trust is by just working on projects together and delivering great results. Success builds trust.

And what is the bar for success?

That means always delivering on our promises. We [in IT] are ambassadors across the entire campus. I told my team that their job is to each make 10 friends on campus. If we do that, since we're 110 people, we would have 1,100 friends on campus. The importance of each of us making 10 friends is to communicate our message, to make sure they understand the opportunity and challenges of IT on campus. In return, my team hears the needs of the campus very clearly in a trusted way.

Next: Laster's interview questions and advice to candidates.

Did you ever receive training on interviewing?

I never received training on hiring. I got great advice when I was in graduate school for my MBA. My organizational behavior professor pulled me aside at one point and said, "Stephen, I know you love accounting. I know you love economics. I know you love technology. But you really need to listen in my OD (organizational development) course because what I'm teaching you will be the most important stuff you'll ever learn." She was right. IT is a people business. Some people think it's a technology business, but it's not. It's absolutely a people business.

Do you think hiring is instinctive, or can you teach people how to hire?

I think you can help people be more aware of how they are approaching the hiring process. By coaching them and asking them to reflect on how they hire, they can grow in their ability to hire. People can adapt and grow. There are probably some people who are just innately not very good at hiring. In that case, it's probably a hard thing to teach. But I certainly think that everybody, through introspection and coaching, can get better at hiring. I certainly have.

Other than the coaching you have received and the guidance you received in your MBA program, have you been mentored in hiring by some of your managers?

Absolutely. It happened pretty informally. I had a wonderful manager when I was working in the sourcing division of Stride Rite, and I learned a lot from watching how he hired—in particular, how he hired me because I didn't have the exact skills for the job. He had sought me out and he knew because of my ability to form teams and my willingness to take risks in an inclusive way, that I would be a good member of his team.

Do you think that's where your concept of team and trust comes from?

I think that's a part of it. Not to sound too corny, but the other part of it comes from sail boat racing, which is a team sport. I used to race very actively. I raced for skippers who yelled and screamed. I raced and sailed with captains who exerted this quiet confidence and who would encourage risk taking among the crew in an appropriate way. They knew when to step back and when to step in. I think I learned a lot [about building teams] from that.

What should someone interviewing for a job in your IT department wear to the interview?

Please do not wear jeans. The year 2000 has come and gone. Call and ask what to wear, or if you don't want to do that, wear what you think is appropriate. Jeans are not appropriate for an interview. When in doubt, overdress.

Other than a candidate wearing jeans to an interview, what are your pet peeves?

Gum chewing. Aggressive conversation that's sort of about, "What is in it for me? Enough about your organization. Let me tell you what you have to give me to get me to join HBS."

What are some questions you pose in interviews? Do you have some that you always ask?

I am not that structured, but I think in general what I want to understand is, Why do you want to come here? What is your view of this organization and the opportunity? I want to see if their picture of the organization matches up to what I think our reality is. I also want to understand how candidates see their professional lives evolving. What are their professional passions? What do they enjoy doing? That question actually throws people off when I ask them. First they'll say, "Outside of work or inside of work?" I'll say, "At work, what's fun for you?" And I think many people have not thought about that.

Does that concern you when a candidate can't think of something they enjoy about work?

Sure, because we spend so much of our life either at work or thinking about work. If they can't come up with an answer to that question, it's not necessarily a show-stopper. We'll continue with the interview and see what happens. But as technologists, we have committed ourselves to life-long learning and change. And if we put that kind of energy into it, gosh, I hope part of it is fun.

Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group. She works out of the executive search firm's Houston office.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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