Nonprofits are increasingly relying on IT to help manage and run their organizations. Consequently, the boards of nonprofits are hiring IT executives from the for-profit world who have years of experience implementing and managing complex information systems. These IT leaders also bring to the table a wide range of experience hiring IT staff at all levels and across different industries.
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Frank Hoose is one such nonprofit IT leader. Hoose joined the American Diabetes Association (ADA) in 2000 from American Trucking Associations and, previously, from the retail industry. As the ADA’s senior vice president of information technology, he oversees technology strategy, investment operations and support for the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of diabetes research, information and advocacy. He also plays a large role in staffing the ADA’s 42-person IT department. In this Q&A, he succinctly explains how behavioral interviewing techniques help him select the right candidate for a position, why it’s important to listen to staff’s reservations about potential hires and how he knows when a hire is a success.
Jane Howze: What IT challenges are you facing, and how does hiring figure into them?
Frank Hoose: Every year, the ADA adds new systems to support new initiatives. Over the last six years, we have added Oracle financials, Team Approach for fundraising and customer relationship management, BEA Aqualogic for our intranet, GEAC for budgeting and Ceridian’s HRIS, which is outsourced. Because we have accumulated a large amount of equipment, our technical staff is challenged with keeping abreast of the latest technologies to effectively support it. It is imperative that our hires have great skills, possess a desire for continuous learning and maintain a level of flexibility that allows them to change roles to suit our changing business needs.
We’ve been very fortunate to have low turnover in our IT division. I think this speaks to the quality of our work environment. However, when we do have openings, we always look for opportunities to promote internal staff. When we look externally, we often look for very specific skill sets, such as experience with fund-raising applications.
You have been a hiring manager in several different industries, including nonprofit, trade associations and retail. Do you hire differently for different industries?
The hiring itself is the same. Most of the time, I am hiring for the position, not the industry. If a specific skill is needed, I am going to concentrate on finding someone with that skill. Having previous industry experience is always a plus, but if I can hire someone who is results-oriented, has a good work ethic, has the skills needed to do the job, who communicates well and can build and sustain positive relationships with others, I’ll hire them, period.
Having said that, sometimes the nonprofit sector cannot compete on salary with other industries. Although ADA professionals work long hours, many times we attract people because it is not generally an 80-hour week and because of the ADA’s collegial environment and mission-based focus. I don’t know if other nonprofits share this trait, but many of our IT professionals have been with the ADA for a long time, and some who have left have returned after a short period of time.
Are most of the people you hire from other nonprofits, or have they worked in other industries?
In the technology division, our hires have a mix of backgrounds. In a few cases, such as our field systems area, we may look specifically for staff who have technical expertise in a nonprofit setting.
Do you ever interview candidates for executive-level positions in other functions?
The ADA sometimes uses a team-interviewing approach when hiring for senior-level positions. For example, when we hired a new CFO a few years back, I participated in an interview panel. Our panels typically consist of individuals who will be major customers or stakeholders in the position’s success. A diverse group of interviewers ensures that we address different perspectives during the interview and that the final candidate is a good fit for the position as well as for the ADA’s culture.
Do you include ADA employees from other functions in your hiring process?
When hiring IT staff members who interact regularly with or support other divisions, we may invite staff from those divisions to participate in the interview and decision-making process. For example, our director of field systems is responsible for supporting the technology needs of our field offices, so when we hired for that position, we invited several field vice presidents to participate in the interview process. They each interviewed the candidates, and their recommendations were included in the final decision.
Next: Hoose’s behavioral interviewing techniques, the three interview questions Hoose always asks, and more.
How do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills and will be a good cultural fit with the IT group and your organization?
At the ADA, we use a behavioral interviewing process. By asking questions about how candidates have handled various situations in their current and prior jobs, we are often able to determine whether a candidate has the competencies necessary for our position. We ask each candidate similar questions to ensure an equitable process. This approach can reveal a lot about the candidate’s attitudes, values and problem-solving skills. This style of interviewing does not always directly determine the acuity of technical skills, so we supplement the behavioral questions with ones that focus on technical ability. Or we prescreen the candidates for technical skill before we interview them face-to-face.
What three interview questions do you always ask and why?
Who was the first person you ever hired?
Wow, that goes back a ways. My first IT management job was as Dartmouth College’s manager of information systems back around 1976. At the time, I hired a programmer for Project Find—a very early interactive database management system developed at Dartmouth. I was a young and inexperienced manager back then and probably did not do a very good job of hiring. I was a good programmer, so I got promoted to manager, but it took me many years to learn how to hire effectively.
You didn’t get any training back then?
Not that I recall. The legal requirements for hiring were much simpler back when I worked for Dartmouth. I think that it was assumed that if you were a manager, you knew how to hire. At ADA, managers receive training in all facets of hiring, not just the legal aspects. Managers not only learn what questions to ask and how to ask them, but we also have tools and resources to discern present and future candidate behavior as well.
What did you base your hiring decisions on when you first started out in IT management, and do you use the same criteria today?
I’m sure that I was very focused on technical skills and placed little emphasis on interpersonal skills. Now I look first for strong interpersonal skills. Sure, you still need to be strong technically, but to succeed, you need to be able to work effectively in a team.
Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people how to make good hires? Do you believe that you are an instinctive hiring manager, or that you’ve gotten better over the years through experience and training?
I think it’s partly instinctive—or at least requires some ability to judge character—but I believe that a lot of hiring skills can be taught. I definitely think that I’ve gotten better over the years by seeing the outcomes of both good and bad hiring decisions I’ve made. The training that I’ve received has helped, too. One thing I’ve learned: When appropriate, invite two or three staff whose opinions you value to participate in the hiring process. I always consider their input before I make an offer.
What do you consider a successful hire?
Someone who is predictable, knowledgeable and productive, who produces positive results consistently and on time. Someone who gets along well with peers, superiors and subordinates, who is not a whiner or chronic complainer. Someone who has a good work ethic, who is at work during scheduled hours, communicates well and steps up when the workload requires it.
Next: Hoose’s biggest hiring mistake, the worst interview he ever conducted, and his advice for candidates and hiring managers.
What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
Many years ago, I was interviewing for a position for which I had specific technical skills in mind. After interviewing several candidates who clearly were not qualified, I was anxious to get someone on board so that we could meet our project time lines. We interviewed a candidate whose résumé appeared to be a good fit. I thought that the candidate came across well during the interviews. However, my interview team members had some reservations, but I overrode them. I should have listened more carefully to their concerns. They turned out to be right. I’ve learned that if there’s not strong consensus among the interview team, the candidate may not be a good fit.
Do you require unanimity on a hire?
My experience has been that a lack of unanimity among the interview team can be a warning sign. However, a good debate can bring into focus what things are really important in a candidate. When the debate is done, the business needs are clear. We definitely do not require unanimity on a hire.
What was the worst interview you ever conducted?
Together, with two of my directors, I was interviewing a candidate for another director-level position. Using the ADA’s standard interview format, I posed the first question to the candidate. The candidate took off on a 20-minute monologue that spanned a range of topics not related to the question. He never paused, so we couldn’t get the interview back on track. The candidate also spoke about himself in the third person, which was a little strange. He answered our subsequent questions the same way, until I politely ended the interview.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
Certainly, for more senior positions, a business suit is appropriate. For technical roles, crisp business casual attire is acceptable, but a suit demonstrates a serious attitude toward the interview and is always welcome. I would be very unlikely to hire a candidate who is dressed casually, i.e., in jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, etc. or inappropriately. Both suggest a lack of awareness or a misreading of the culture.
What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO or interviewing to be a CIO?
In both situations, do your homework. Find out everything you can about the organization. Know the mission, the org chart, facts, figures, current challenges and successes. Search the Web for current news. If you’re interviewing at that level, your résumé should demonstrate that you have the technical and managerial acumen to succeed. A lack of knowledge about the organization can quickly kill your chances for a job offer.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
I do not like candidates who know nothing about our organization or candidates who misrepresent their skills and/or their work history.
Have you ever interviewed somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call they sent directly to you?
I don’t recall ever having done that, but I would not rule it out if the fit was good.
What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, cover letters, and sending thank-you notes?
The résumé should briefly and clearly—using bullets—summarize key skills and more importantly, accomplishments. To me, a successful end result is what matters. Cover letters should augment the résumé. They’re your best opportunity to highlight what you can bring to the hiring organization. Thank-you notes demonstrate courtesy and follow-through. They are especially important when you’re applying for more senior positions.
Would someone who is a quality candidate have a better chance of getting an interview with you if he or she contacted you directly, or should candidates go through human resources?
That depends on the protocols of the organization. At the ADA, either approach is fine and has an equal chance of leading to an offer.
Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.
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