Kohl’s Corp. is one of the nation’s fastest growing retailers. Between 2004 and 2006, the Menomonee Falls, Wisc.-based company opened 275 new stores across the U.S., bringing its total number of stores to 817. Its revenues grew by almost 25 percent during the same time period, from $11.7 billion to $15.5 billion.
This growth requires an IT function that is nimble, entrepreneurial and well mobilized. To that end, Jeffrey Marshall, Kohl’s senior vice president and chief information officer, endeavors to build balanced teams that include a mix of leadership, analytical and relationship building skills. A balanced team, says Marshall, makes for a stronger team.
Over the course of his 20 year career in IT management, Marshall has learned to hire people whose skills complement his own. He’s also learned to hire strategically, for the long term, as opposed to hiring for a specific position. Those and other hiring strategies he discusses in the following Q&A have proven successful at Kohl’s: Marshall has hired over 700 IT personnel while limiting turnover to less than 5 percent in the two-plus years he’s been with Kohl’s as its CIO. Here he offers his secrets for hiring the right people for the long term.
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How do you go about hiring IT professionals at Kohl’s?
We have had to become more creative in how we go to market with our hiring requirements because we are in a smaller market, with headquarters near Milwaukee, Wisc. We started with ads, newspaper articles, radio spots, etc. Then we decided to do job fairs. We’re currently holding our fourth job fair, and they’re getting increasingly effective because we are targeting specific kinds of people with specific skill sets, such as infrastructure or Sella network management, rather than targeting people for specific job titles. We will market the fact that if a prospective candidate is interested in Sella, they need to talk to us because we’re using it. If you’re interested in databases, applications, middleware or enterprise service systems, that’s what we’re building. We’ll have another job fair that focuses on application development and another one that focuses on Project Swing or Apache. We find that we get a much higher caliber individual through the job fair than by advertising for specific positions. Our last job fair attracted several hundred people, and we now have a 10 to 20 percent hiring rate.
Can you describe the interviewing process for an IT candidate at Kohl’s?
Once our in-house recruiters get candidates on the phone and establish a certain level of interest in the candidate, we conduct a video conference. During that video conference, I take the candidate through the interview process and make sure they understand all that is involved [with the job], including the possibility of relocating. If they’re not certain that this [opportunity] is right for them, it’s going to be a traumatic experience and cost us a lot if the position doesn’t work out. We make a tremendous investment in the people we hire and we make a tremendous investment in the hiring process so that we hire the best people for our organization.
More on Marshall’s hiring process >>
The interview process is extensive. I interview anybody who will play a leadership role within information systems. The candidate also interviews with their prospective boss, their peers and others who they will be working with whether in information systems or a business partner. My interviewing team then follows up and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate and compares them with other candidates. We also look at how that person can be successful in their new role, how they will fit in with the personalities on their team and their customers. Based on that feedback, we make a decision. It is an expensive process, but it keeps our turnover under five percent, which is pretty much unheard of in the IT field. Our competitors’ turnover is much higher. It’s an investment of time, but our commitment to it and our low turnover sells well with candidates.
Who was the first person you ever hired? What company were you working for and in what capacity?
It was in the 1980s at Prime Computer, and I was in my first management position. His name was Jack. He was a systems analyst. I ended up firing him. Back then, I wasn’t given any training on interviewing skills, so I ended up looking for someone like me because I didn’t know any better. Today, I try to hire people with strengths in areas where I am weak to cover my bases. Some people think it’s riskier to hire somebody who is better [than you] in a certain area, but I have had great success in doing so.
Is hiring instinctive or can you teach people how to make good hires? Do you believe that you’re an instinctive hiring manager or that you’ve gotten better over the years through experience and training?
There’s certainly an element of hiring that’s instinctive. You have to get a feel for the person and be able to relate, connect and empathize with them. I think you can teach people a certain element of that, but you also have to have a certain aptitude for it. You might be able to determine the smartest guy for the job or the best person on paper, but the question is will that person connect with the people and culture of your organization? Sometimes only your gut will give you the right answer.
I definitely believe I’ve gotten better at hiring over the years. It’s something you practice. You learn how to probe and get a sense of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. You also learn from your mistakes.
Marshall’s biggest hiring mistake and worst interview >>
What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake has been hiring for the moment or for a specific position or when I’ve had a problem (i.e., someone has just quit) or I wanted to bring in some expert in a particular area as opposed to making a longer-term hiring decision.
What type of interview training does Kohl’s offer?
One method we use is book club meetings. We assign a book about hiring strategies, and with the help of a facilitator, we talk about what we learned and how to apply that knowledge in our particular environment. If the book is good and the facilitator is good, the meetings are amazingly productive. One of the books we have discussed is Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. Kohl’s practices this method across the board in all divisions, not just information systems.
What do you consider a successful hire?
Daniel Goleman wrote a book several years ago called Assertive Leadership[sic]. It provides a great baseline for what a good manager must produce: a successful team. A successful hire must create a team that is satisfied, must provide the team with the tools necessary to make it successful, protect the team from bureaucracy, and promote the team’s contributions internally and externally. A successful hire will help their direct reports blossom by focusing on their strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. People will do amazing things when you put them in the right environment. Given our culture and growth, a candidate’s adaptability to a new environment, new technology and change is also very important to their success at Kohl’s.
What was the worst interview you ever conducted?
It usually occurs when there’s a fundamental disconnect, where either the candidate was expecting the position to be something different from what you’re presenting, or I didn’t communicate our needs very well. It’s usually some kind of communication gap. If I’m having a bad interview, I’ll cut it short. Sometimes you can turn a bad interview into a relationship. I’m thinking about a guy I interviewed in NYC at NRF (the National Retail Federation). He was looking to become a vice president and he looked really good on paper, but when I met him, he was not impressive. Rather than telling him that, I tried to establish a long-term relationship because you never know where this guy will turn up and how you might be of mutual assistance to each other.
Marshall’s interviewing pet peeves and views on creating balanced teams >>
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
When candidates ramble on about their accomplishments. I also don’t like candidates who interview as though they’ve read a book, where they’re so rehearsed that you are not able to get a sense of who they are. I’d rather have somebody more prepared, who asks questions that are germane to the position and to their interests, as opposed to asking the tried and true questions that sound like they’ve come out of a “how to interview” book. I like candidates who ask questions and have done their research.
Have you ever brought back someone who had a bad first interview for a second interview? Why and with what result?
If my perception of the candidate is unfavorable but other people who interviewed the candidate think differently, we’ll bring him or her back. It could be that I was off that day or the candidate was off that day. We’ve brought back a number of candidates, and I’ve had a better experience the second time.
Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn’t? If so, did you hire the person, and did it work out?
If I like a candidate but my team does not—and I’ve had this happen—we won’t hire the person. Even if I have a gut feel that says ‘I know best’, I defer to the majority. If I’m trying to bring in a change agent, I’ll push harder for that individual, but at the end of the day, that person has to flourish in the existing environment.
Do you think it’s good to have some dissention? Do you require unanimity on a hire?
I do not require unanimity and I believe dissention is a good thing. Spirited debate is good. A balanced team that includes leaders, analytical thinkers and relationship builders makes for a stronger team. It’s the nature of those personalities to have some degree of conflict and operate at different tempos. I like to get some kind of group consensus, but it doesn’t have to be unanimous. As you’re looking to build a team, whether vice presidents or directors, or you’re looking to promote from within, you have to look at the portfolio of personalities and determine whether the hire satisfies the needs of the business and will work well with the team.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
I’m old school: I think you should put your best foot forward in an interview and lean towards overdressing rather than being casual. If you’re interviewing for a more senior position, I would advise wearing a suit. If you’re showing up for an interview on a Saturday, I recommend wearing a sport coat with a button-down shirt, but I would tend to be more formal than less.
Marshall’s advice on candidates’ résumés >>
Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter or résumé they sent directly to you?
I’ve interviewed people who have sent a résumé in by mail or e-mail.
What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés and cover letters?
I like to see trends, consistency and direction on résumés. I like to see an evolving skill set. Whether it’s technical or demonstrates increasing responsibility, I like to see a pattern.
I’m also big on investigating the reason for transitions. I always ask candidates about their transitions. Why did they move from one responsibility or industry to another? What did they hope to gain? Why did they think they’d be more successful?
I do take time to read cover letters. I believe you get a sense of the person—whether they can write and how they construct their thoughts. The cover letter gives you a “snapshot” of their brain.