The Hiring Manager Interviews: Jack in the Box CIO Stephanie Cline Shares Lessons from Her Hiring Mistakes

Conversations with IT managers on how they hire the best.

Stephanie Cline, former CIO of Jack in the Box, spoke with executive recruiter Jane Howze in January 2007. Cline retired from Jack in the Box in February 2007 after a 28-year career with the San Diego, Calif.-based fast-food chain.

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

Stephanie Cline: The first person I hired was here at Jack in the Box 25 years ago. I remember at the time that I was not nervous—just thrilled to be able to make my first hire. I managed a small group, and I hired a young fellow by the name of Tom Sawyer who had about two years of experience working as a programmer analyst. During that first interview, he came across as a genuine, quality person with a "solid citizen" demeanor. He appeared to be the type of person who would be sincere, honest, hard-working and a really good employee. Of course, he also had the exact technical experience I was seeking. Tom is still with the company today as director of our distribution and restaurant development systems group.

Did you receive training about how to hire?

None at all. Back then they promoted you into management and off you went. I was very new when I made my first hire, but it worked out well. Frankly, I did a little reading on my own. One of the articles I read was from a search firm that talked about conducting an interview and gave examples of good interview questions. I also used my own common sense, social skills and intuition. I didn't realize then that there was a method to it and that you could learn about it. However, relying on intuition probably worked as well as relying on more professional interviewing techniques.

Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people how to make good hires? Do you feel that you're an instinctive hiring manager, or that you've gotten better over the years through experience and training?

I think I have good instincts and have received training coupled with lots of experience. I also think people can learn the skills to make good hiring decisions even if it is not instinctive for them. One of the skills you need is the ability to get to the heart of a person's mode of operation fairly quickly since you don't have a lot of time to get to know them during an interview. To that end, I like to get people to talk about what they've accomplished and how they've done it so that I can get a flavor of how their accomplishments and methodologies would translate to how they could meet the needs of Jack in the Box.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you've made?

Many years ago, I hired an individual who was big-picture oriented and had great people skills. He seemed to me like he had such potential. We hired him as a programmer analyst, and he frankly couldn't program very well at all. I thought he was going to make a great management candidate, but he couldn't do the technical basics. We ended up parting ways. I ran into him a couple of years ago after not having seen him in 20 years, and he is now a chief information officer! I guess the lesson is that people have to be suitable for the job for which they're hired, and there are a lot of chief information officers who are not technical.

Also, back in the 1980s, I hired another programmer who wore a gold medallion with his astrological sign on it and shirts unbuttoned to his waist. He had the technical skills but not the social skills. He would spray Lysol into the vents whenever someone smoked in the office because he didn't like the smell of cigarettes. The Lysol ended up going into the CIO's office and, needless to say, the CIO was not happy. One day he came into my office and told me he didn't want to be a programmer anymore. I told him that was his job, and so needless to say, we parted ways.

The important thing to keep in mind is that any good hiring manager will make mistakes. You're doing pretty well if you have a 50 to 60 percent success rate. If you don't make hiring mistakes, you're not reaching high enough or thinking creatively enough.

Have you ever hired someone when they had a bad first interview and you both knew it didn't go well, but you brought them back anyway? Why did you do this, and what were the results?

Yes, I've brought people back a couple of times, especially in instances where I've had a lukewarm experience with the candidate while others in my department have had a great experience, although I don't remember the specific cases. If I thought the person was a good fit for the position, I gave them another chance. I think I've had a 50-50 success rate when I've brought people back: Sometimes it turned out well and sometimes not. When it didn't, the lesson I learned was to trust my instincts.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

My approach to interviewing is to try to get the candidate to feel comfortable by asking them open-ended questions. I once interviewed a candidate who would not talk. No matter what question I asked, he answered in monosyllables. I'm very easygoing and can usually get an interviewee to relax and talk. Not so in this case. It was a long hour. If candidates can't communicate, they won't fit in with the culture at Jack in the Box because it is so team-oriented.

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?

Yes. I remember one situation where I persuaded my team to reconsider, and it turned out to be a good hire. In situations where I feel very strongly about a candidate, I will explore the reasons my team didn't like them and ascertain if those issues can be resolved with the team. I try to see through my team members' objections and understand what's behind their dislike of a candidate. Sometimes, they're put off by a high-powered person. In that case, I might bring the candidate back for a group interview with my team members. If that is unsuccessful, I would probably not hire the person unless the person was going to report directly to me. However, even that is not something I would do without a lot of thought because I don't believe in forcing someone on my team members. And if the candidate doesn't report to me, I don't push because another manager has to work with them.

Have you ever had someone call you back and tell you that they didn't feel great about the interview and ask for a second chance?

I probably would not let someone come back unless I felt there was more there than met the eye during the initial interview. For instance, if they had a great résumé but their skills and experience didn't come across well during the interview, I might ask them back. I might also let them come back if I felt that I was distracted during the interview and couldn't get them to bring out their best. Also, if there aren't many candidates to begin with, I might give them another chance.

What's the most unusual interview you've ever experienced as a hiring manager?

Once I had a guy show up on a motorcycle. He brought his helmet to the interview and placed it on the conference table. I hired him and he turned out to be a good hire, at least short term. Long term, I realized he had a strange personality. I later found out that he had several accidents on his motorcycle. He was in his late 40s or early 50s, a mathematician, and had previously worked for education and government organizations. He worked here for four years, before I had to let him go. As you move up in an organization, leadership and interpersonal skills become more important. So, given the personality, four years was not a bad tenure.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

I don't want a candidate to worry about whether they're dressed the right way because that's a waste of time. I tell candidates that Jack in the Box is a business-casual environment and to feel comfortable. That being said, I'd rather a person be overdressed than underdressed. My advice to candidates is ask what the dress code is. If the dress code where they're interviewing turns out to be different from the way they normally dress at their workplace and consequently would bring attention to them were they to leave their workplace for an interview more or less dressed up than normal, they need to relay that information to the interviewer.

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

I would tell them to do some research on the company, understand what the business of the company is and be prepared and ask thoughtful questions about the position and/or company. For instance, if a candidate were to say, "I visited a Jack in the Box restaurant and I'd like to know what are the tools that your technology team has contributed to making it better?" I would be impressed. Another question might be, "I see you have a new CEO. What is her alignment with technology, and has the direction of the company changed?"

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

People who continue to look at their cell phone or BlackBerry and not turn it off instead of giving me their full attention during the interview.

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

Yes, I have hired someone who mailed in a letter and résumé. In fact, I think the letter is a really good thing to send to the hiring manager. Sometimes the hiring manager may be aware of long-term needs that human resources may not be aware of. Sometimes if you find a person with great skills, you might be able to create a position for them. You might have issues in your own organization that you're trying to resolve (for instance, your staff may be missing some skills that are important to your long-term plan), and if you don't get that cover letter and résumé directly in hand, you might not be able to address that deficiency—or at least not as quickly as you would had someone not contacted you directly.

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

I would advise someone who is sending a résumé to find out who the hiring manager is and write a thoughtful letter and not a "To Whom it May Concern" letter.

I do not like topical résumés. I would rather see a chronological résumé that tells me what someone has accomplished in each position. With a topical résumé, you end up spending time and energy going through the résumé wondering when they accomplished this or that, and you end up having to totally re-create a résumé.

As far as the interview, preparation is important. I can tell if people have educated themselves about the company.

I do like thank-you notes, especially if they tie in something that we talked about during the interview that relates to the job, their past experience or what they bring to the table.

I think a good cover letter and a thank-you note gives you some idea about how people write and express themselves and goes a long way in supplementing the interview.

Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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