Be prepared to play your A game if you ever interview for a job with Jessica Carroll. You won’t have to prove yourself out on the links (golfing is not a prerequisite for working in her IT organization), but you will have to demonstrate your technical skills, your problem-solving ability and your rapport with users while in the hot seat. Carroll, the United States Golf Association’s managing director of IT, wants candidates to show her their stuff during job interviews. And boy can she put them through the paces!
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Each year, the United States Golf Association (USGA), which writes and interprets the rules of golf in the States and in Mexico, stages 13 championships, including the U.S. Open, the Senior Open, the Women’s Open and the Amateur. These events involve lots of logistics and unexpected variables, and their planning and execution can be stressful. So Carroll seeks IT staff members who are flexible, unflappable, hardworking, solution-driven and, above all, who get along with the rest of the USGA staff. And she really tests candidates during job interviews to make sure they’re right for the job and for the organization.
In this Q&A, Carroll talks about her interview process and criteria for evaluating candidates, and she reveals her biggest hiring mistakes and the lessons she learned from them.
John Mann: How do you staff and provide support for major USGA events, such as the U.S. Open?
Jessica Carroll: IT is critical for our championship operations, mainly because the USGA staff that is running the championships cannot be worried about their equipment, the Internet connection or the network at the site of the championship. We strive for world-class championships, so it is critical for us to make sure that we have the equipment and network in place as well as onsite staff who can make sure that the championship staff does not have to worry about the equipment. It is a little bit tricky because I don’t have a large staff.
We start in November, and one step is for the network team to work in conjunction with the help desk team. The network team is charged with coordinating and making sure that we are going to have the appropriate high-speed network at the event. They do not typically go out and do a site visit. We do this over the phone and work with individuals at the event location. What is challenging for us is that every event is in a different location and is different every year, so it’s not like we always know we have a setup that is rock solid. We often do not know what we are getting into.
Typically, two weeks prior to the event, my onsite staff goes to the site. That could be one of the network staff, but more often it is one of the help desk staff. They are highly experienced with routers and setting up networks and wireless that they can go out and build on what they have coordinated over the phone. When the location IT staff arrives onsite, my team is there to make sure they connect and that computers and printers are working. We usually stay through the first day of the event, but for the U.S. Open, we are there throughout because that is such a huge event for us. We spend a good two to two and a half weeks out there.
What staffing challenges are you currently facing?
I believe Web 2.0 has a tangible benefit today in business for communicating, marketing and workflow. For me it is an exciting time, but for some people, including some IT people, Web 2.0 is a little uncomfortable. My challenge is to see if my staff can grow and adapt to this new thinking, or is it so uncomfortable that they really cannot move beyond what they used to do? I can see that most of the staff are enjoying this, but I do have some people who are really struggling with this new concept and direction. Those who can adapt are going to succeed and grow in IT, and those who cannot are likely going to need to consider other career paths.
What positions do you recruit for?
Help desk technicians, trainers, network people, security people and programmers. In all cases, no matter what the position, I look for a likable person. Since our first and foremost goal in IT is to be of service, it is key that we have IT staff that the rest of the USGA is comfortable with and like.
I want people who have a strong interest in what they do and who are flexible and have ideas, people who like to be creative and think through things. I like to see initiative.
I have found that bringing in people who are not ego-driven, who are more down to earth, who honestly enjoy working with others, who are tenacious about finding solutions to problems and who work really hard are the successful people in this organization. That is the type of individual I am looking to hire.
Do candidates have to be golfers?
That is definitely not my number one criteria, though most of the staff that comes on, even if they are not golfers, do take up the game. I have to be honest: I am not really a golfer, though I have played.
It sounds like it is critical to hire people who are calm under pressure and can handle the logistical challenges the USGA’s events pose?
You can always expect to have a problem. We have been doing this long enough that we anticipate problems. For the most part we avoid them, but it is almost certain that we will face a situation that could be stressful. We need to be sure that we have somebody who can handle that. I cannot tell you how many times we have the high-speed line run and everything is up and then a backhoe comes in because they’re putting in bleachers and all of a sudden the Internet is down.
What’s your interview process like?
I believe in a multilevel screening process. A traditional interview is necessary, but I do not believe that traditional interviews give you a really good look at whether a candidate has the aptitude to work with users in a help desk function, for example. So we take all candidates and put them in a “real world” scenario—usually during the second interview. For example, if a candidate is interviewing for a help desk position, we put him or her in a room with a real user who usually asks five questions. We look to see how technically adept the candidate is and how they react to the user. For instance, are they going to take the keyboard away from the user if they don’t know the answer to the question quickly? We once asked a candidate about a printer that was not working. We had purposely taken the paper out of the printer. It was fun to see how long it took for the candidate to figure out that there was no paper in the tray. It’s a simple question and something that happens all the time. It is telling when you watch somebody who is under pressure handle that.
Who was the first person you ever hired?
The first person I can remember hiring was an administrative assistant at the USGA. This person did not work out. She was completely unorganized and very easily frazzled, which does not work in IT. It was a good lesson for me about what I need to avoid in the future and what I need to look for.
What did you base your hiring decision on then, and how does that compare to today?
For my first two hires, I did not do quite so well. I think I was just so happy that someone wanted to come and work with me. I was overwhelmed with the idea of working together and did not really dig deep in the interview process. As I went along, I learned there is a whole lot more to consider than finding someone who wants to come work with you. Things like having a likable personality, technical skills, drive and an ability to handle stress are what I look for today.
How do you vet cultural fit in interviews?
I get a feel for cultural fit as I talk with candidates. There are certain questions that you can ask that pull that out of a person. I also see it when we put them in the test environment because we are putting that person under stress and we are asking them to perform in front of the people they want to hire them.
What three interview questions do you always ask and why?
- What do you like most about your current job?
- What do you like least about your current job?
- How do you handle a user who is angry and stressed?
The first one is an easy question. For the most part, everyone is going to find something that they like about their current job. If the person has nothing to say, that is a red flag.
Asking what they like least is also telling because if they are a really negative person, it will come out. I don’t like negativity.
The third question is really important in identifying the right personality type. We deal with all types of people and situations, so somebody who is calm with an ability to handle difficult situations is what works.
Whom do you consider a successful hire?
I consider a successful hire someone who has a strong work ethic, the likability factor and who is going to stay and be dedicated to the USGA and to my team. I am also looking for somebody who is comfortable in situations where they do not know the answer because in IT, you are always faced with that scenario. I look for somebody who is comfortable with the concept of not knowing the answer and who has the drive and constitution to find answers and solve the problems.
What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made?
There was a situation where I brought in someone from another area who was a nice person and who I thought was a hard worker. I knew this person was unhappy with their position and did not really have the skill set I was looking for, but I was determined to have this person anyway. So I hired the person and it was not the right decision. This person was not qualified for the job.
Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn’t?
Absolutely. I guarantee I will not hire someone who the rest of my team doesn’t like. If I believe that a person is not going to meld well with the rest of the group, it is an obstacle to our success, and it is not worth it. I can find somebody who is going to fit better.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
I have a very strong opinion on this: a suit, no exceptions. It is mostly golf attire here, but I tend to wear a lot of suits myself. I believe in an interview, you should put your best foot forward.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
I do not want to hear detailed complaints about a current employer. In fact, I do not want to hear any complaints at all. If you are unhappy with your current employer, there is a politically nice way to say that. Complaining does not reflect well on a candidate and wastes time.
Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call sent directly to you?
If somebody refers a person to me or I see a résumé that looks good (which rarely happens today; I do not see a lot of them that come across), I would give that person strong consideration.
If someone is a quality candidate, would they have a better shot contacting you directly, or should they go through human resources?
All candidates need to go through the human resources department at the USGA, and I do prefer it that way. If somebody is going to send me a thank-you note after the interview that is well-written, brief and with all the spelling correct, that goes a long ways for me.
What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?
I want somebody to send me a résumé on a nice piece of paper, and I want it to be a traditional résumé. I was an English major so I think that probably comes through a little here. I believe in proper protocol. I know many people are applying for jobs and filling out applications on the Internet, so if somebody takes the time to put a résumé across my desk that looks professional and well-organized, I am going to notice that person more than I would someone who did it over the Internet. This is not to say that I would disregard a résumé sent over the Internet.
Thank-you notes and a cover letter are extremely important to me. The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone is to do a thorough spellcheck and grammar check. If you have a spelling error on any of those documents, I am not going to hire you.
John Mann is associate director of The Alexander Group. He works out of the executive search firm’s office in Houston.
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