When Stephen Laster is looking to hire someone into his IT department at the Harvard Business School (HBS), a candidate’s technical skill is the last requirement on the CIO’s mind. Foremost is whether a candidate will create another strong link in his 100-plus person team.
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Building a cohesive IT staff is paramount for Laster, who has served as Harvard Business School’s CIO since October 2006. His IT department is responsible for developing and supporting an IT infrastructure used by 1,900 MBA and doctoral students, 1,300 faculty and staff and more than 9,000 participants in HBS’s executive education program. To meet the needs of these demanding stakeholders, everyone in the IT department has to get along with one another. They also need to cultivate strong relationships with the end users, especially the ones on campus.
But finding friendly IT professionals who are also intellectually curious, good problem-solvers and who can wear different hats isn’t easy, especially in the Boston area, where there’s so much competition for talent. To that end, Laster puts a tremendous amount of effort into determining whether a candidate is right for his organization. His hiring process is lengthy. He spends time with candidates outside of his office. He involves many stakeholders in his hiring process. And IT staffers play active roles in job interviews with candidates. They also have a strong say in whom Laster hires. His process, which he further describes in this Q&A, may seem onerous to some, but it helps him get exactly the right people and it helps build trust and respect between him and his IT department.
All of Laster’s techniques and hard work on the hiring front pay off. Today, he oversees a staff that he truly appreciates. Of his IT department, he says, “I would just like to clone them all forever. They are truly nice, smart, skilled, adaptable folks.”
Amanda Brady: What are your IT staffing needs and challenges?
Stephen Laster: We have a large catalog of Java-based applications running the school in a highly customized fashion. This lets us meet the unique needs of the business school. The challenge is that we have to commit to having a very sophisticated development staff to keep pace with all of those custom-made applications. We need very adaptable, engaged engineers who can work both as applications developers as well as system integrators and system extenders. We are a midsize shop and people have to wear many hats, so being adaptable is key.
The same holds true in our support organization, which is fairly large. We’re about 35 or so folks in support, and we pride ourselves on really giving a high level of support. As IT is everywhere on campus, one could easily outstrip one’s support capability if you don’t get creative in terms of how you deliver support.
Boston is a really competitive market. I think we offer a competitive compensation package, and one advantage we have is that we are never going to go out of business. We also have the advantage that we are doing a lot of creative work with new technology. We’ve been fortunate that we have been able to fill our open positions, but in some cases it takes three, four or five months to find the right candidate.
What criteria do you use to hire IT staff?
The first thing is, are you nice? The reason that’s important is because there are very smart people who are not pleasant to work with. We don’t have room for those people on our team. We want MVP’s, not all-stars. We want people who can bring the team together.
The second criteria is, are you smart? Do you have a thirst for learning? Do you have an ability to learn? Are you adaptable? Are you willing to go out of your comfort zone and embrace something new?
Finally, Are you skilled for the job you are interviewing for? The reason that’s last is because if you are smart, have a thirst for learning and you’re adaptable, but you don’t have all the skills I’m looking for, I still might hire you because you’ll pick them up quickly.
What does a candidate need to do to impress you?
Doing background research is a really good idea. I was interviewing someone at HBS about a year ago, and it was evident that the person had done a lot of research on the school and a lot of research on IT at the school. They were interviewing to work directly for me, so they had done a lot of research on me, as well. What did that show?
- That the candidate really cared about the job.
- That he was inquisitive.
- That he realized it was important to understand HBS so that he could maximize the interview time for himself and for me.
- That he had really good questions.
He asked, What was the strategy? What was I looking for in the role? How would I measure success? Those kinds of things. I was pleasantly surprised—almost blown away. I thought, “Here’s someone who really gets it. How do I clone him?”
Next: Laster explains how he determines cultural fit.
How do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills for a job?
Skills are pretty easy to determine. One of the things I pride myself on, for better or for worse, is that I am an extremely technologically literate chief information officer. I’ll ask candidates about a pretty complex problem having to do with their domain. I’ll see in conversation how they take it apart and analyze it. That will tell me their skill level.
What about cultural fit? How do you assess that?
Cultural fit is an unscientific gut feel. I determine a candidate’s cultural fit by spending some quality time with the person—ideally at lunch and out of the office. Hearing them talk about how they view the world, what excites them, what their hopes and aspirations are. How comfortable are they with themselves? How honestly can they have that conversation with me?
How do you go about interviewing candidates for IT positions? What is your typical process?
We include a lot of people in the process, so a candidate may go through anywhere from 12 to 20 interviews. Everybody in the work group that the person will be working with has a chance to interview the candidate. For some roles, like the liaison roles within our project teams and project management office, candidates will also interview with HBS employees outside of IT. There will be some panels, some one-on-ones. There will be people who are interviewing with more of a focus on culture fit and others who will be interviewing with more of a focus on whether the candidates really have the skills their résumés say they have. There will be interviews that focus on a candidate’s problem-solving abilities. All of the interviews are pretty casual so they will be conversationally based. Feedback is then given to the hiring manager.
This is a lot of interviews. How long does this take?
We try and keep this to no more than three visits over a two to three week period. But a single day can include eight to 10 interviews. Some one-on-one and some with two people.
Do the members of your staff have a significant say in who their new boss or manager might be, or do you include them in the process just so they get to know who that person is?
Their input matters. I’m not a big fan of “gratuitous inclusion.” Everyone’s input has weight, and that helps build trust among the team. That doesn’t mean we always have 100 percent consensus on candidates, because we don’t. We are not looking for 100 percent consensus. When we do have consensus, those are wonderful moments, but if you have a team where everyone is saying no for whatever reason, as the chief information officer, you have to respect that.
What do you consider a successful hire?
A successful hire is someone who comes onboard, and after being here three to four months, you think the person’s been here for five years. You just believe they have always been here and they are a natural part of the team. They are happy, productive and one of the team doing a great job.
Looking back on all the interviews you have conducted, do any make you say “What was I thinking?”
One where I was the interviewee stands out. Shortly after I joined a company, my boss was dismissed. I went out for a run at lunch and bumped into the chairman of the board, who asked to go running with me. At about mile one he said, “So, why do I pay you?” So from mile one to mile five, we had an interview and by mile five I still had a job. It was the most stressful interview of my life.
The oddest interview I conducted was when I interviewed someone who really thought he should be doing my job. He made that extremely clear in the interview. During the interview, he was talking about “our partnership” and he was expressing his goals and objectives as a partner without having the presence of mind to understand what my objectives were for the team. I should have seen that he was more interested in my job by looking at his résumé more carefully. Actually, if I recall, I think I did see it, and I shouldn’t have gone forward with the interview. But, again, his résumé was very tempting.
Hiring managers often want ambitious candidates. Why did that particular candidate not work out?
The individual did not want the job for which they were interviewing; they wanted my job that day. I actually want people who have the ambition to go as far as their interests and talents take them. I’m suspect of someone who comes in and says, “I want to do this job and in six years I want to be chief information officer of the Harvard Business School.” On the other hand, I’m really supportive of somebody who says, “I want to come in, I want to learn and I want to grow. Certainly I want to manage people and technology and I want to see where that takes me.”
Next: Laster’s biggest hiring mistake and how he builds trust among his team.
What is the greatest hiring mistake you have made and what did you learn from it?
The greatest hiring mistake was simply hiring for skills and hiring an individual I knew was a bad fit and was just going to be disruptive to the group. They had on paper what I needed, but in the interview my gut feeling was, This isn’t going to work, but I was desperate to fill the role. If my memory serves me correctly, I think there were weekly issues with the person. And it built a little toxicity into the team. It’s so damaging to have people on teams who just don’t want to be there for whatever reason. It’s damaging for the individual and damaging for the team. Nobody wins.
Did you have to fire this person?
I believe in lots of feedback. I was able to provide a stream of feedback so that the person realized that they were not a good cultural fit and they took the initiative to find a new job. If that had not happened, I would have let them go. Team cohesiveness is paramount.
How do you deal with situations like that, where you like someone or need someone, but the team does not like the person?
A couple of years ago I wanted to hire someone because I knew this person was exactly what the team needed. The individual was an outstanding person in every dimension who I was confident would help the team move to the next level. The team, however, was just not comfortable with this person, and I did not hire him because he would not have succeeded on the team. It was a heartbreaking decision.
Why do you think the team was not comfortable with this person?
I think they were threatened by the individual. I think perhaps I had not done a good enough job preparing them for why this was okay. I had not given them enough time to internalize it. Eventually, we got through it. It took another six months, but the team was very strong and healthy in response to that. I’m sure they recognized their input in the decision making, but I don’t know if they recognized the rest of the subtleties. The other problem is that with pushing people onto a team, if you have an inclusive interview process and you disregard the consensus of the team, you are undermining trust. The team is then thinking, “What else is the chief information officer going to do that he’s not really being up front about?”
You’ve served as a manager in a number of different industries. Prior to higher education, you worked for Art Technology Group, Sapient, CrossCom and shoemaker Stride Rite. Do you hire differently for those industries?
In some industries, domain experience is more important than others. I think where domain experience becomes most important is when you look at people who want to work in higher education. For people who work in law firms or consulting firms, the transition into higher education is pretty easy, but for people who work in the financial services industry, where there’s much more rigor and control, I think they have a harder time migrating. Anybody can do it, obviously, but I just think the stretch is larger.
I’d say the majority of the people we’ve hired have no previous higher-ed IT background. Some have come out of higher ed, but by no means the majority. We’ve had people out of the financial industry and service organizations. We’ve had people out of technology product companies. We get people with diverse backgrounds, which is wonderful.
Is it hard to manage so many people with different backgrounds?
For me it’s not, because I’ve been in those different industries. Certainly if you had people who were all from the same background managerially it would probably be easier, but I think you lose a lot of the creative tension that makes a team powerful. I think different perspectives and backgrounds are a wonderful thing on a team as long as the team is built based on trust.
How do you develop trust?
I think part of it is setting a culture where the bar for success is high and where there is no penalty for failure as long as you gave it a good, honest effort. Building trust is also about empowering people to make decisions when appropriate. There has to be management structure, and you want to push decision making down, but you want to approach information sharing across. You want to keep people informed. I think dialogue supports trust. I think other ways teams build trust is by just working on projects together and delivering great results. Success builds trust.
And what is the bar for success?
That means always delivering on our promises. We [in IT] are ambassadors across the entire campus. I told my team that their job is to each make 10 friends on campus. If we do that, since we’re 110 people, we would have 1,100 friends on campus. The importance of each of us making 10 friends is to communicate our message, to make sure they understand the opportunity and challenges of IT on campus. In return, my team hears the needs of the campus very clearly in a trusted way.
Next: Laster’s interview questions and advice to candidates.
Did you ever receive training on interviewing?
I never received training on hiring. I got great advice when I was in graduate school for my MBA. My organizational behavior professor pulled me aside at one point and said, “Stephen, I know you love accounting. I know you love economics. I know you love technology. But you really need to listen in my OD (organizational development) course because what I’m teaching you will be the most important stuff you’ll ever learn.” She was right. IT is a people business. Some people think it’s a technology business, but it’s not. It’s absolutely a people business.
Do you think hiring is instinctive, or can you teach people how to hire?
I think you can help people be more aware of how they are approaching the hiring process. By coaching them and asking them to reflect on how they hire, they can grow in their ability to hire. People can adapt and grow. There are probably some people who are just innately not very good at hiring. In that case, it’s probably a hard thing to teach. But I certainly think that everybody, through introspection and coaching, can get better at hiring. I certainly have.
Other than the coaching you have received and the guidance you received in your MBA program, have you been mentored in hiring by some of your managers?
Absolutely. It happened pretty informally. I had a wonderful manager when I was working in the sourcing division of Stride Rite, and I learned a lot from watching how he hired—in particular, how he hired me because I didn’t have the exact skills for the job. He had sought me out and he knew because of my ability to form teams and my willingness to take risks in an inclusive way, that I would be a good member of his team.
Do you think that’s where your concept of team and trust comes from?
I think that’s a part of it. Not to sound too corny, but the other part of it comes from sail boat racing, which is a team sport. I used to race very actively. I raced for skippers who yelled and screamed. I raced and sailed with captains who exerted this quiet confidence and who would encourage risk taking among the crew in an appropriate way. They knew when to step back and when to step in. I think I learned a lot [about building teams] from that.
What should someone interviewing for a job in your IT department wear to the interview?
Please do not wear jeans. The year 2000 has come and gone. Call and ask what to wear, or if you don’t want to do that, wear what you think is appropriate. Jeans are not appropriate for an interview. When in doubt, overdress.
Other than a candidate wearing jeans to an interview, what are your pet peeves?
Gum chewing. Aggressive conversation that’s sort of about, “What is in it for me?
Enough about your organization. Let me tell you what you have to give me to get me to join HBS.”
What are some questions you pose in interviews? Do you have some that you always ask?
I am not that structured, but I think in general what I want to understand is, Why do you want to come here? What is your view of this organization and the opportunity? I want to see if their picture of the organization matches up to what I think our reality is. I also want to understand how candidates see their professional lives evolving. What are their professional passions? What do they enjoy doing? That question actually throws people off when I ask them. First they’ll say, “Outside of work or inside of work?” I’ll say, “At work, what’s fun for you?” And I think many people have not thought about that.
Does that concern you when a candidate can’t think of something they enjoy about work?
Sure, because we spend so much of our life either at work or thinking about work. If they can’t come up with an answer to that question, it’s not necessarily a show-stopper. We’ll continue with the interview and see what happens. But as technologists, we have committed ourselves to life-long learning and change. And if we put that kind of energy into it, gosh, I hope part of it is fun.
Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group. She works out of the executive search firm’s Houston office.