William Howell is the vice president and CIO at Accellent, a $500 million manufacturer of components and parts for medical products. He spoke with CIO.com contributor Jane Howze about his best practices for recruiting and interviewing top-notch IT staff in The Hiring Manager Interviews: Accellent’s CIO Values a Candidate’s Integrity and Attitude Above All. Here are edited outtakes from that interview.
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Is hiring instinctive or can you teach people how to make good hires?
Companies continually deliver interview training, but I frankly don’t believe that training is terribly helpful. It provides some degree of protection around not asking illegal or inappropriate questions, but invariably that type of training focuses on technical skills and not on the behavioral characteristics of candidates, which I believe are more important. It’s a lot harder to teach someone how to get at a candidate’s behavioral characteristics. You tend to learn those through the school of hard knocks.
In some ways, hiring may be the most important thing I do and have done in my career. In the final analysis, the best hiring managers have an instinct that they trust, and it gets sharper as they get older. However, when we’re in a business setting, we are scared to death to talk about that due to fears that it will be challenged legally and we won’t be able to defend the process.
Do you ever interview for non-IT functions?
I’m a member of the senior leadership team reporting to the CEO. In this role I regularly interview candidates for peer positions and for other senior positions throughout the company. For example, I participated in the interviews for our new senior vice president of human resources and our SVP of sales. I also regularly interview candidates for the role of plant manager, what we call our director of operations.
What was the worst interview you ever conducted?
I have had a number of interviews where in the first few minutes I sense that the candidate simply can’t work out, but I feel obligated to go through the interview process to see if I am missing something. I don’t want to prematurely judge an individual. In interviews like these, the clock stands still.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
Lack of eye contact. If the candidate doesn’t look me in the eye I am invariably left feeling that something is wrong.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
Good question. I think the individual organizing the interview owes the candidate the courtesy of telling them what dress code is expected—unless he is using that as part of his evaluation of the candidate. I’ve interviewed for jobs in informal companies and have felt very out of place when I arrived in a suit and tie. In today’s world, proper business attire is so confusing that I don’t think anyone should use it to evaluate candidates. They should instead give candidates a heads up of what is expected.
We are business casual at Accellent, but I expect candidates coming to meet me to be in business attire. I never have a major issue with a candidate who’s better dressed than the interviewers, but the other way around—if they’re dressed business casual when I’m in a suit—is always a negative. They should want to present themselves as best they can. I’m afraid we’ve gotten far too casual with our dress in the workplace.
At the same time that I think candidates should dress professionally for an interview, a candidate needs to be true to themselves and to the hiring manager. A woman who once worked for me told me a story about a job interview her husband once went on. Her husband wore an earring—a small stud in one ear—in the early days of guys wearing earrings. When he went on his job interview, he removed the earring. He got the job. Then on the first day of work he wore the earring. The hiring manager addressed it immediately by saying, “That wasn’t there when you interviewed, and it isn’t here if you are staying.” In this example, the candidate misrepresented himself during the interview and then attempted to impose his untended style on the hiring company.
What advice would you give to someone interviewing with a CIO?
Learn as much as you can about the individual before you arrive. Begin by “Googling” the CIO, then check LinkedIn and other networking sites. Find out where the person went to school, where they worked and if there any levels on which you can connect. Are there any talks the individual has given that would shed light on their views? Is this someone you want to work for? You have to be honest with yourself—you can’t be a chameleon simply to get the job. You can help yourself by knowing as much as possible before going in to meet that individual.
You have been a hiring manager with several different industries including pharmaceuticals and education. Do you hire differently for different industries?
Yes. When I worked for the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) graduate computer science department, we generally looked for the brightest individuals we could find and paid less attention to attitude and behavioral fit. This backfired badly on me and shifted my thinking on hiring.
Also, at a university I worried less about appearances and attire. After all, I was hiring for brain power. I was often looking for individuals who were creative, risk takers, nonconformists. At UNC we were looking to break through new barriers. In industry, we may talk about wanting to do all of that, but we also have to keep the ship running, which requires a lot more alignment. We need everyone rowing in broadly the same direction in industry, so regardless of what we might say, we do look for a degree of conformity in our hires in the private sector.
Company to company there are big cultural differences that are critical to factor into hiring decisions. For example, Glaxo was a group of very high integrity, hard working, committed individuals. We had few slackers in that organization and we hired accordingly. Eli Lilly is a more conservative company that didn’t value innovation and challenging the status quo as much as other companies I have worked for.
Have you ever brought someone in for a second interview after they had a bad first interview? Why did you do this, and what were the results?
I have brought individuals back when I felt the first interview was simply a bad showing for one or more reasons. But I can’t think of an individual that we hired after that second interview.
Have you ever had someone call you back and tell you that they didn’t feel great about their interview and ask for a second chance?
No, but I have had several candidates call me or e-mail me and tell me how great they felt about the interview and inquire about the next step. It must be coincidental, but these individuals who call me to ask about next steps invariably have done poorly in their interviews. These calls or e-mails simply cement for me that they are the wrong candidate because they don’t have sufficient self-awareness to realize that the interview didn’t go well. These calls also invariably are the beginning of several more calls where the candidate attempts to convince me that they are the right person for the job.
Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn’t? If so, did you hire the candidate, and did the person work out?
While I am a strong believer that the ultimate decision should belong to the hiring manager, I would not hire someone that the team didn’t support. Teamwork is too important, and as the hiring manager you have a responsibility for ensuring that each person comes into an organization where they can succeed. You don’t want to bring them into an environment that could be hostile, or even worse, passive-aggressive. That won’t help the individual, you or the larger team.
At the same time, you have to be aware that your team’s assessment of the candidate may not be entirely objective. For instance, if you have “B” players on your team, they may be intimidated by a candidate who’s an “A” player. In that case, you need to carefully consider who interviews and doesn’t interview a candidate.
Do you think it’s good to have some dissention among your staff regarding a hire, or do you require unanimity?
I don’t require unanimity, but I do require a clustering of the ratings—a trend if you will. We use a five point rating scheme. I wouldn’t hire a candidate if someone gave them ratings in the bottom two scores. I generally won’t look at individuals with scores in the middle rating category either. I am looking for consistent ratings in the top two categories, with maybe one outlier in the middle category, but none in the lower two rating brackets.
Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter or résumé they sent directly to you?
Yes. In general I see this as a positive. It shows initiative and ambition.
Has a job seeker ever gotten through to you on the phone to inquire about a job?
If they have, it was a mistake. I schedule my time and don’t allow the phone to dictate when I do things. E-mail is the way to reach me.
If they’re a quality candidate, would they have a better shot contacting you directly or should they go through human resources?
Either channel. I generally don’t do first round screening so if I get a contact I am going to send it off to the individual who is collecting résumés and doing screenings for me.
What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?
Spell check! Have someone read it as if they were me receiving it. I can’t tell you how many times the letters have said the exact opposite of what the person meant to say. Résumés and cover letters with grammatical and spelling errors or pleas for help are turn-offs and I’m unlikely to answer them.
Always send a thank-you note. It is a small courtesy that demonstrates your professionalism. Out of two similarly ranked candidates, the one with the well-written, spell checked cover letter, résumé and follow-up thank-you is going to get the job over the one who doesn’t.
If somebody doesn’t get a position and they send you a thank-you note, do you keep their résumé on file in the event you have an opening in the future?
Yes. There are individuals who understand that there are a number of reasons why a match between an employer and a job seeker doesn’t work at the time, and those individuals—particularly ones who follow up—are worth keeping track of. Situations change and individuals develop new abilities. A person with the right behavior is hard to find, so it is worth keeping a tickler file on these individuals.
What positions at Accellent have been toughest for you to fill?
Accellent has three small manufacturing facilities in Europe that require IS support: one in Ireland, one in the U.K. and one in Germany. The largest and most important of these is the Irish facility, but we want to provide quality service and support to all three sites.
The German facility is in a very rural area and, as a result, there are fewer bilingual employees at the site. An IS person needs to be conversant in German in order to be effective at that site. Over the past three years, we have, on two separate occasions, identified an IS resource of German descent with the appropriate skills living in Ireland, whose first language is German and second language is English. On both occasions my company’s HR employees and external recruiters told me that I would not be able to find a bilingual person to meet my requirements. I’ve done it twice, and both times the candidates have been great employees. I suppose the moral of the story is to not immediately accept what someone tells you is going to be possible. Set your sights on what you really need and go after it.
What are your thoughts on succession planning?
WANT MORE FROM WILLIAM HOWELL?
Accellent CIO William Howell’s Hiring Best Practices
At the University of North Carolina I became focused on developing successors for everyone in my little team. I never wanted a single point of failure. In August 1993, I brought my second in command, who had been developing and growing for over a year, into my office and told him I would be gone in one year, by August 1994. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do, but I knew that I had at most one more year to get him ready for the role. I swore him to secrecy about my plans and assured him that I was committed to this succession. We worked together ever more closely, and I gave him more and more of my responsibilities. I believe we even managed to do this without it being obvious that I was handing over my day-to-day activities. In June 1994, I announced my resignation and left around July 1st (with my accumulated vacation I was actually an employee through August 1994). It is now the fall of 2007—13 years later—and my successor remains in my old position. I have tried several times to hire him, but he is quite comfortable in his role and continues to do a good job.
Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.
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