by John Mann

Starbucks’ CIO Stephen Gillett Seeks “Pillars of Strength” During Economic Storm

Jan 13, 200913 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Starbucks is in the middle of a high-stakes turnaround, and it's young new CIO is in charge of recruiting the IT leaders who will help the coffee company regain its steam. In this latest Hiring Manager Interview, Gillett discusses his recruiting strategy.

Most IT managers’ first hires are programmers or tech support specialists. But not Stephen Gillett, the new CIO at Starbucks. The first person he ever hired as an IT leader was a CFO who became his boss. Talk about trial by fire.


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Gillett, who joined Starbucks in May 2008, has been through all manner of job interviews with candidates during his short career (he’s only 32.) He once had a job seeker show up drunk for an interview. Another candidate had the gall to tell Gillett quite clearly that the candidate wasn’t interested in the job so much as he wanted to move up inside the company.

Those candidates have distinguished themselves, which is what Gillett looks for in job seekers, but not the right way. Starbucks is in the middle of a high-stakes, high-profile turnaround during what is the worst economy since the Great Depression, and Gillett needs employees who are dedicated to Starbucks’ revitalization, who can wow him with new ideas and who’ve helped other companies successfully emerge from financial downturns. Traditional job seekers who send traditional résumés and follow-up notes, who follow traditional job search protocols seem to bore him. But unorthodox job seekers who “think differentiation with a capital D” demonstrate the qualities Gillett is looking to add to his 1,000-person IT organization at Starbucks.

“I received a professional résumé for a highly qualified candidate, and when I got down to the hobby section, it said, “I can juggle four things at once and I lost Jeopardy,” says Gillett. “That differentiated the candidate for me and actually got the candidate to the top of my stack.”

Here, Gillett discusses his process for interviewing those outstanding candidates, his effort to make Starbucks a “destination employer” for sought-after IT professionals, and the biggest hiring mistake he ever made.

John Mann: What are your hiring challenges?

Stephen Gillett: One of my challenges is really an opportunity: to put Starbucks technology activities on the map and to recruit from strong technology companies. I want Starbucks’ information technology organization in the Seattle community to be what I call a “destination employer.” We are a big player in the retail space, but much of the technology talent that I am trying to recruit is going to come from the technology sector.

So how do I make the best and brightest think of Starbucks when they think of a career change or want to get into a highly innovative, modern technology company? The challenge I have is messaging. One advantage that Starbucks has is its brand presence and affinity with people on a personal note. Odds are that the individuals I’m trying to recruit are consumers of our product.

How has the economic situation affected your talent acquisition strategy?

The pressure of the economic situation has done two things: One, it has reordered sequence. Before I had two or three key positions open in parallel. Now I have them sequenced in order of most to least business impact.

Second, it has allowed me to tune the job descriptions, talent pool and experience we are looking for. It is much better now to look for someone who has been through an economic downturn. For example, someone who worked at IBM in 1992 when Lou Gerstner came back is a good person to have right now. I do not want to see someone who has never had faced economic adversity in their career. I want someone who is going to be a pillar of strength at a time of uncertainty.

What types of positions are currently looking to fill?

Right now we are recruiting for various disciplines. The one that is first and foremost on my calendar is in the business intelligence category—to help Starbucks better utilize customer analytics. In times of economic distress, understanding our customers is a way to unlock future value.

What is the process for interviewing candidates for IT jobs at Starbucks?

I like to do a phone screen before I bring a candidate in for more extensive interviews because the last thing I want to do is have a candidate go through a one- or two-day, eight hour session only to get to me and not be a fit. The talent acquisition team at Starbucks does a first pass, then I spend an hour with the candidate on the phone or in person. If that works, I bring them in for the full interview cycle.

When I build the interview cycle for vice presidents and above, I have the candidate interview with their potential direct reports to show the directors and their staff that I value their opinion when it comes to hiring their future leadership. I typically conduct those interviews in a group setting of two or three directors so that it is not one-on-one—a director with their potential boss, which could be uncomfortable for the director. A group environment gives the directors more confidence.

I also bring peers or potential business partners outside of IT, with whom I have a strong relationship, to interview candidates for VP-level positions. My peers and I have a pretty good ability to take off our “discipline hat” and put on our “fiduciary hat” to interview through that lens.

How do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills and will be a good cultural fit with your IT group and with Starbucks as a whole?

It is different for each position. Some roles require deep experience in a particular discipline, a proven track record of accomplishing difficult tasks and leading large teams. If you are interviewing for a director or vice president of the data warehouse, for example, you have to have a pretty good background in understanding the terminology of data warehousing.

There are also roles that are broader in nature. For example, we recently hired a vice president of emerging platforms and strategy. In that case, I am not seeking a particular discipline. I am looking for a broad leadership skillset and for how fluent the candidate is with emerging trends in the market. I’ll want to know how well the candidate can introduce new concepts and technologies into a large IT organization.

Do you ever interview candidates for executive-level positions outside of IT?

Yes, I interview candidates from marketing to supply chain operations and from finance to food. I do not typically interview from a discipline perspective, so I am not going to sit down with a prospective vice president of marketing and talk about the Big 5. I interview to assess general leadership and cultural issues, not to assess whether they know their discipline. I am going to talk to that person to evaluate how he or she will fit culturally, whether I will be able to work with him or her, whether this person will work with vice presidents in IT, how I see him or her acclimating to the culture, and whether they’re geared for a turnaround and transformation.

What the three interview questions do you always ask?

  1. Why are you interested in the job? What do you bring to the role?
  2. If I was to talk to your current direct reports, what would they tell me about you, including what areas you need to improve on?
  3. Tell me one of the most difficult things you have had to do in your career—e.g., have you inherited a failed project? Have you inherited a dysfunctional team? Have you had to terminate or reduce a significant size of a department? Have you had to hire quickly? Tell me how you have faced adversity in your career and overcome it.

What do you consider a successful hire?

A successful hire is somebody that you had a really strong consensus to hire from the beginning. You do not want to start someone off after 50 percent of the people interviewing that person have said they do not believe he or she will be a fit and the 50 percent who do want that person happen to be higher on the pay scale.

During the first 120 days, a successful hire is contingent upon how well he or she acclimates to the culture, how well he or she understands the nuances of the organization, how well he or she applies their experience to Starbucks and does so in a way that is not cookie-cutter but is refreshing and new.

In the longer term, a successful hire is determined by the kind of projects the individual has accomplished, the problems they have fixed, and the relationships they have built with other parts of the business that will give them longevity and the ability to effect the change we hired them for.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made?

I hired a professor/lecture speaker for a highly critical role. It was not a mistake in the short term because we had the attention span and bandwidth for that person to contribute, but longer term, their inclination to accept every invite to speak at a conference, to write every forward to every friend’s book really started to diminish their effectiveness in the enterprise.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted and why?

I did an interview with a person who was highly intoxicated once. Also, I interviewed a candidate at a previous company who, during the interview process, was very clear that he was not interested in that particular job but was interested in upward mobility.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

Do not chew gum. Do not recite your résumé. Your résumé gets you in the door and your personality, experience, style and character gets you the job. I’ve already looked at your résumé, now I want to look at you. I have already looked at your experience and education, now I want to hear about your tone, style, personality and leadership ability.

Who was the first person you ever hired?

My boss actually. In 1997, I was working in a leadership position in IT at a hospital. We had a contractor on board who was acting as both the chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. When his contract expired, we opened up a permanent chief financial officer position, which the contractor applied for, and they put me on the board that was hiring. I met and interviewed the contractor and gave the chief executive officer my vote to hire him as my boss, and he became the chief financial officer of the hospital.

Did you receive training on how to hire?

I have never taken a course on hiring practices per se, but I have taken courses and on how to interview, negotiate and read body language.

How have your interviewing skills evolved over the years?

I think there’s been a continual refinement of both my structured and learned skills and of my gut and intuition. I tend to be more direct and probing in my questions now than I was ten years ago. I think that comes from confidence and experience that I frankly did not have ten years ago.

My style is very open. I will lay out the objectives in the interview, engage in an unstructured discussion, use some scenarios, talk about experience and ask the candidate one or two odd questions about how they handle adversity.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team did not? If so, what did you do?

I had a situation like that at a previous company, but it was much more complicated. When you have a culture where mid-level management does not have the authority to say yes, they exercise their authority by saying no to everything. So if you get a candidate whom everyone is saying yes to, some of the disrupters in the group would say no just to focus the discussion on why they said no. There were disrupters who would continually vote no, not because of any principal, but because they liked the organizational attention they received when they said no to a candidate that everyone else liked.

Do you think it’s good to have some dissention? Do you require unanimity on a hire?

I think it is absolutely positive to have dissention, and more importantly, to have a culture of trust and transparency that allows dissention to surface. The most powerful thing I can have as a chief information officer is a director or manager in the organization walk into my office or send me an e-mail that is not sanitized by organizational chart ranking telling me what they think about a particular issue. I encourage that throughout the department.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

I look for someone who has an overall presence. It is not particularly tied to any fashion line or type of shoe. For example, for a vice president position, I look for someone who can present to the leadership team or to the Board, someone whom I’d feel comfortable taking on a critical function that is highly visible and giving a talk in my absence.

What advice would you give someone interviewing to be a CIO?

The chief executive officers that I know are looking for chief information officers to be new innovation and new integration leaders. In fact, an article just came out in HBR [Harvard Business Review] about this very issue, where chief executive officers are increasingly looking to chief information officers to help integrate and to help drive innovation in organizations. The more you can talk about those dimensions of your skill set, personality and experience, the better you will be able to lead a company that is looking for that type of chief information officer. The more you talk pure tech speak or talk about yourself as a cost center, the more traditional you are going to look and the less innovative you are going to look.

Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call sent directly to you?

No. While I get a lot of people sending me their résumés, my hires have either come from my network or through a talent acquisition department. I do not think I have ever accepted a cold call where that person ended up getting hired.

What advice can you offer to candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?

Think differentiation with a capital “D.” A lot of people are very traditional. They send traditional follow-up or thank-you notes and then they ping the hiring manager or the human resources professional within a certain amount of days.

I would look for ways to differentiate your résumé, perhaps in ways that may look a little untraditional at first. I received a professional résumé for a highly qualified candidate, and when I got down to the hobby section, it said, “I can juggle four things at once and I lost Jeopardy.” That differentiated the candidate for me and actually got the candidate’s résumé to the top of my stack. I am looking for innovative, risk-taking and differentiated backgrounds for our roles here.

John Mann is associate director of The Alexander Group. He is based in the executive search firm’s Houston office.