The Hiring Manager Interviews: Northern Trust CTO Nirup Krishnamurthy Looks for Candidates with Impact

Conversations with IT managers on how they hire the best

As executive vice president and CTO of asset management firm Northern Trust, Nirup Krishnamurthy leads a global technology organization with 1,100 employees. With an organization that size, Krishnamurthy has to do a lot of hiring. He's learned to pick perfect IT workers through experience, and he's been in IT since 1995.

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If Krishnamurthy's name sounds familiar, it may be because he served as CIO of UAL, more commonly known as United Airlines, before joining Northern Trust in 2005. He worked for United for 15 years and earned his stripes as an effective hiring manager inside that company. Krishnamurthy spoke with executive recruiter Jane Howze about definition of a successful hire, how he ensures that job prospects will fit with the rest of his team, why candidates have one chance to wow him in an interview and what they need to do to impress him.

CIO: What types of positions do you hire for as CTO of Northern Trust?

Krishnamurthy: Right now, at Northern Trust, I'm interviewing senior information technology executives, trying to fill positions in my organization, which has seven divisions in technology with 1,100 employees worldwide and 600 or so contractors, so a total staff of 1,700. The people I interview are all leaders in information technology.

Who was the first person you ever hired? What company were you working for and in what capacity?

The first person I hired was when I worked at United Airlines. I was a team leader for an IT project we were implementing. I needed to hire a programmer with specific skills and experience in a real-time system. That was my first hire in a management capacity.

What did you base your hiring decisions on when you worked for United?

One of the things I did when I first began hiring at United Airlines was to create my own multiple-answer questionnaire, which tested for basic programming, logical thinking and situational reaction skills. Just to get a baseline, I had employees take the test anonymously so I knew how to calibrate my requirements. When I became a manager for the group a year or two later, the process I created became very popular, and human resources started using it in their hiring process.

Did you receive any training about how to hire early on?

There was no hiring training at United. I followed an interview process that was set in place by the company.

Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people to make good hires? Are you an instinctive hiring manager, or have you gotten better over the years through experience and training?

Clearly, you can make good hiring decisions as you build up your experience, but I do think good hiring requires instinct. I'm more of an instinctive hiring manager, but I also don't hire in a vacuum. I get my senior team involved in the hiring process—especially right now, since I'm hiring senior-level people—to make sure I have their input. I think my instincts have remained the same, and experience and data have helped over the years. You tend to reach conclusions faster and you trust your instincts.

What do you consider a successful hire?

Someone who within the first two years has made impactful contributions to the team he or she has joined. Someone who fits into the culture and environment and successfully works with peers and business partners. Also, someone who can quickly assess a situation and come up with a plan that actually creates value for the company or for whatever his or her job is.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you've made, and what did you learn from it?

When I was at United I was in the process of putting together a team and I'd hired two fairly senior people. Although each was very good in their respective jobs, they couldn't work together. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have done a lot more due diligence and made sure that they would work well together before I hired them.

What specifically would you have done differently? Would you have had the two people meet?

I would have done that, and perhaps even done some objective assessments like a Personalysis test.

Have you given someone who had a bad first interview a second chance?

No. If the person is going to report to me, we need to hit it off, and if we don't in the first interview, I would not bring them back.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

My worst interview lasted 10 minutes. It was for a midlevel management position. The person showed up and wouldn't talk at all, giving one-word answers. I don't have any idea why this person was in my office. Some people slip through the screening process. I excused myself from the interview, and told the person to meet with the next person on the interviewing list.

Do you have any interviewing pet peeves?

Silence is one. Also, I've seen candidates fidgeting—playing with their tie or looking at their BlackBerry, which throws me off.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

I think candidates should be professional in their attire. They should dress on the formal side instead of informal. Northern Trust is essentially business attire for all executives, but it's business casual for team leads and below. For anybody who's potentially facing a client, it's business attire. If there is a question about this, the candidate should ask the human resources person who set up the interview.

If someone who interviews with you shows up in business casual attire, does that count as strike against them?

It could be slight ding. The person might have been misinformed or didn't understand the dress code. Of course, if a person came in to interview at my direct-report level wearing business casual attire, I'd think they hadn't done their homework.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn't like them? If so, did you hire them, and did the person work out?

If my staff is hiring someone that I interviewed, and my staff's interview may not have gone that well, I am open to my staff's opinions and will give them my input. I trust my staff and don't micromanage.

Do you think it's good for a team to have some dissention when hiring? Do you require unanimity on a hire?

I don't require unanimity. At the same time, I try to minimize dissention. It's OK to have different opinions, but at the end of the day, the team has to work together. If there are fundamental "fit" problems, I pay very close attention to those things.

I recall one time when I did hire somebody that not everybody on the team liked. What I did in that situation was first to understand what they didn't like about the candidate. If I feel that there is some merit to their reasons, I try to explain some of my rationale for wanting to hire the person. In this particular instance, when I looked back on my hire a year later, the people who were on the fence ended up working very well with this person.

Did you go ahead and hire this person because of a unique skill set? Were the team members' concerns overridden by experience the candidate possessed?

In this particular case, I knew the person better than the team members who were interviewing him. In my mind after listening to their concerns, I was still convinced he would be a good hire because I knew this person. I knew that once they saw him in action and worked with him their concerns would go away, and that's what happened.

What are the three interview questions you always ask, and why do you ask them?

  1. What would you accomplish during the first 30 days in the position?
  2. What was your first assignment in your career?
  3. What attributes do you value in people when you're putting your team together?

I've been using these questions for years. They give me a sense of how organized the candidates are, how quickly they can assess a situation and put a plan in place, and what they can and cannot handle.

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

  1. Communicate in a crisp, clear manner.
  2. Make sure that you understand the company you're interviewing for and understand the business.
  3. Quickly assess what the business issues are and why you're being interviewed for the job so you can ask the proper questions.

Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter or résumé they sent directly to you?

I have, but once I've met someone, I send them through the normal process and have them interview with my team. If someone contacts me directly, it makes sense to put them through the proper human resources channels, particularly if I'm going to put them in a team. I don't mind someone sending their résumé directly to me, though I don't get many of them directly.

Has a job seeker ever gotten through to you on the phone to inquire about a job?

It only happened once when I've picked up the phone by mistake [laughs]. I told the person who the hiring manager was and that he had to go through the human resources process.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?

I prefer short résumés to long ones. The one thing I like to see on résumés is not just what a candidate has done in their jobs, from a functional perspective, but what specific value or values they have created for their business or company. A thank-you note is good if it adds something to the interview or if the person wanted to follow up on a question or comment.

If somebody doesn't get a position and they write you a thank-you note, do you ever decide to keep their résumé in the event something in the future comes up?

Yes. And if it's a big position, I write back to them thanking them for their interest in the company and position.

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