The Hiring Manager Interviews: Patrick Tisdale Shares His Techniques for Sussing Out Candidates

The CIO of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe always asks about a candidate's past work environments, community service and work-life balance concerns.

As the legal industry goes global, and merger and acquisition activity renders individual firms bigger and more complex, Patrick Tisdale’s job as a hiring manager is changing. The CIO of the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe is looking for a new kind of IT professional. Instead of pursuing classic IT engineers, he’s shifting the focus of his IT organization toward hiring candidates who can quickly create and articulate strategies and motivate employees from different functions within the firm to work together on cases for attorneys. And instead of seeking employees who’ve previously worked in law firms, he’s open to hiring IT professionals from other industries that, like the legal industry, use technology to connect far-flung employees and make knowledge and information easily accessible to everyone in the organization. Tisdale himself had no previous law firm experience. “I am challenging my managers to hire people with attributes that dovetail with where we as a firm are going, rather than hiring people with the skills that they’re most familiar with or the skills that worked successfully for the firm in the past,” he says.

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Tisdale focuses on sussing out a candidate’s personality, work ethic and cultural fit whether he’s interviewing a “rank and file” IT staffer, a direct report or a candidate for an executive level position with the firm. Given the consultative nature of IT work at the firm and the changes it’s undergoing, an individual’s ability to get along with the rest of the team is critical. So it’s a good thing Tisdale has honed an astute ability to identify successful candidates over the course of his 20-year career in IT. Here he shares the lessons he learned and the pointed questions he asks to determine whether a prospective employee is right for the organization.

When you first started hiring, did you receive any training?

Not at first. I was working for EDS at the time as a systems engineer. This was the early 1980s, and the company was in a massive national growth phase. In some cases, we were doing three to four team interviews a day with candidates for jobs as systems engineers and seasoned business analysts. The first training I received was devoted to labor laws—things to be careful about, dos and don’ts, anything that might come back to haunt you. Later, I got more sophisticated hiring training, but by then, I had several years of hiring experience.

Most of my hiring success has come from reflecting about the hires that worked out and hires that did not. EDS carefully tracked the career progressions of its hires, and managers had access to this information as well as to the employee-stated reasons or company-initiated reasons for them leaving. This background information helped me evaluate where I might have made a different decision or where I should have gone further with a line of questioning during an interview that might have indicated that the candidate was not quite right for the position.

At Orrick, our human resources department is identifying success determinants for different roles inside the firm. They’re evaluating where people have succeeded in certain roles and where they have underperformed, to determine the mix of skills and characteristics that are necessary to succeed in each role. These profiles and success determinants will help the company better define jobs and job requirements and thus make it easier for us to find a higher quality group of candidates in a shorter period of time.

What lessons have you learned about candidates that did and did not work out?

I’ve learned lessons about hiring recent college graduates (first jobs) and individuals who are midcareer. With recent graduates, you have to find the ones with strong responsibility and problem-solving skills. The ones who are bright and have done well as measured in grades have lots of potential but tend to struggle in a business environment where they’re expected to jump right in, take charge and figure things out. Many young people without some basic work experience or extracurricular activities haven’t been able to keep up without significant, and in some cases excessive, management. I’m not saying you should avoid hiring candidates fresh out of college, you just need to know what you may be getting into and share those lessons with hiring managers.

For midcareer professionals, I learned to better assess in interviews work-life balance issues. Situations where the individual will be relocating present greater than average risk for the candidate and employer. When I look back on hires and even internal transfers which have gotten a bit ugly, more often than not it was because we didn’t appreciate well enough up front the way a relocation can complicate a person’s life: the cost-of-living increases, the adjustment to the culture of the new community and the adjustment the individual’s family has to make to the relocation.

Rather than focusing exclusively on job requirements, I consider very carefully what the midcareer individual is trying to accomplish by switching jobs. Is their desire to change jobs a byproduct of a change in their personal relationships, the pace of their current job, subject matter burnout, or a loss of confidence from being laid off and having difficulty getting back into the workforce? In many cases, the candidate is still trying to figure this out themselves.

I’ve tried to spend more time understanding the very strong connection between people’s careers and their life scenarios without intruding on their privacy. Often, I’ll find a great candidate and become very absorbed in the elements of the job without necessarily discussing its demands in terms of time and travel requirements. I have found once or twice that the candidate will have an “aha” moment [when they realize what I’m getting at] and say, “I need to talk to my spouse about what we’re discussing.” This happened recently in an interview: The candidate said that his spouse had been talking about reinvigorating her career, which would have different geographic demands. So I asked the candidate to recalibrate with his spouse and make sure that their careers are in balance. In this case, the individual came back [for another conversation] and we did a little tinkering with the expectations of the role so that it fit what he and his spouse were trying to achieve in their careers.

How do you determine whether a candidate is the right candidate for your IT organization and for your firm?

I look at their work history, personal background and the experiences that suggest that they have worked in analogous environments or cultures. I look for a strong work ethic, take-charge leadership, respect for other people and a sense of urgency in achieving results.

I also draw on the early experiences I had hiring at EDS. The company was keen on identifying talent who brought, in addition to their technical aptitude, good personal values, a strong work ethic, an ability to manage complexity and thrive on projects with a high level of stress and lack of details. In doing team interviews with more senior employees, I learned the techniques they used to tease out whether a candidate was right. We sought examples of instances where candidates demonstrated those desired traits in either their business or professional life. For example, if someone had worked in a stock room or for a fast-food franchise, we wanted to see that that individual quickly rose to some level of leadership inside that company.

We also asked individuals about their contributions to their communities, places of worship or their own families. That gave us an example of their values and showed us they were capable of putting others before themselves. If a candidate told us about a fundraising opportunity or community need that they identified, such as a new ball field, and then spearheaded, that showed us the individual was a self-starter.

Today, I’m looking for the same traits at Orrick. It can be hard to identify those nontechnical skills, which are as important as any technical skill, but I learned early on to develop questions that tease out the nature of the person.

What three interview questions do you always ask and why?

  1. What has been the specific nature of your current or prior roles, the group culture that you worked or are working in, or the traits of the person that you reported to?

  2. What elements, conditions or experiences did you have in your current or prior jobs that you found rewarding, stimulating or positive?

  3. What kinds of personality traits, business cultures, working conditions turn you off?

If I can figure out the attributes of the work environment that push people and make them successful, I can give them the clear field to do what they need to do. By the same token, I can find out the things that are irritants or hold people back from achieving their potential and, if I happen to have those irritants in my organization, I can make a better hiring decision. The other reason I ask those questions is because occasionally I’ll interview somebody for a specific role and by getting to know what they are looking for, I may decide that the particular role I’m discussing with them is not the right fit, but that another role, possibly in a different department, is a better match.

What advice would you give to someone interviewing with a CIO?

A candidate needs to understand the role of the CIO in that particular organization: Is he/she more of a business leader in the executive group or more of a chief technologist? I would also advise candidates to ask how the CIO is incented (whether they receive discretionary or variable compensation) and the near- and long-term results the CIO is accountable for, because a CIO’s goals often influence the whole IT group. Those goals are usually the spoken or unspoken pressures and objectives at the top of the CIO’s mind.

What was your most challenging interview?

My most challenging interview was with an individual who has a hearing disability. The person who applied for an engineering position is deaf. The interview required me to prepare and engage with the candidate in a different way. Through a blend of correspondence, lip reading and note exchange discussions, the interview occurred and went well. I offered the individual a job. He accepted and has been promoted twice. This individual currently works for the firm in our global operations center.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

It was with a gentleman who was a recent immigrant to the U.S. I was explaining the nature of the role and our company’s benefits and compensation. We had standard benefits. This person came from a culture where everything could essentially be bartered so he wanted to negotiate our company’s benefit plans. He could not grasp that I was not empowered to do so. I think the person was perplexed that my company at the time, EDS, was so inflexible and was not coming around to his needs. I realized after 10 to 15 minutes into the discussion that we were in totally different paradigms. It was difficult for me to convey, in a tactful way, that these things were not open for negotiation and, furthermore, that they were well-reasoned, fair and competitive to begin with.

What’s been the strangest outfit you’ve seen in an interview?

I can’t recall any one that was too horrible. The ones that tend to give me a giggle are people just out of college who have worn pretty casual clothes for most of their lives and now come in wearing a brand-new suit that looks like it was designed more for their father’s frame than their own—or that still have the store tags on them. Another is women who are wearing what appears to be their first set of heels and are a bit wobbly.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

I remember a gentleman who came in wearing a wireless earpiece, which he wore throughout the interview. It was very distracting because it had a blue blinking light. The interview lasted about 10 to 15 minutes. I let him know in a tactful way that he might want to reconsider his presentation in future interviews.

What do you consider a successful hire?

A successful hire is somebody who embraces the culture and the values of the organization and who puts their signature on the business within 12 to 18 months of being hired, whether by making improvements to the business, introducing a new concept for a product, entering a new market or developing a new internal program. Businesses and market conditions are changing very quickly so if somebody doesn’t connect and produce an effect on an organization within 12 to 18 months, it would suggest you either underhired or have a disconnect altogether. A successful hire is someone who does more than mechanically address a function. It’s someone who possesses a creative spark. I know that a hire is a success when the larger organization sees their impact and shares my view of the hire.

Have you ever hired someone whom you liked but your staff did not?

I don’t think so. If I were to force a candidate into the organization, the candidate would start with an unlevel playing field and would have a hard time succeeding because they wouldn’t be fully supported and accepted by the organization.

When you’re evaluating your reports, do you consider how well they’ve hired their staff?

Yes. Attrition under a particular manager is something that doesn’t get enough thought. A wise person that I once worked for told me he had figured out how to assess leadership. He explained that it was the attrition rate of an organization’s leaders compared with the attrition rate of the organization—or industry—as a whole. It made a lot of sense: If you have people leaving your organization because they’re not getting coaching, don’t see a career path or aren’t being communicated with about their performance, that’s a failure of leadership. If a person is not being challenged, not being paid to market, not being rewarded or incented, you as a leader have an obligation and the ability to influence your firm’s institutional polices that might be negatively affecting retention. Therefore, a leader’s retention and attrition rate is a good metric for evaluating his or her effectiveness.

One of the hiring manager’s responsibilities is to take ownership of how the hired employee begins to perform, particularly over the first 90 to 120 days. If they’re not where you expect them to be at 90 to 120 days, be sure to give the person some coaching. At no more than six to nine months, recalibrate whether you and the candidate were on the same page during the hiring process regarding the cultural expectations of the organization. If you’re not, the best thing you can do is help them move into another environment where they’ll fit.

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