Nathan Brown is one of a growing number of CIOs who are experienced in moving from one sector to another, including from commercial to government and from for-profit to nonprofit. He’s currently in an IT leadership position at Care.com after recently leaving the role of senior director of IT for Year Up, an IT workforce development program for young urban adults, and he was previously CIO for Harvard Law School.
Regardless of the sector he’s hiring for, Nathan has six rules he follows when building a new team. 1. Don’t hire out of desperation. 2. Never ignore a red flag. 3. Personality fit matters. 4. Skill sets are sometimes less important. 5. Involve team leaders in the process. 6. Interview all potential internal hires before an offer is made, even if they won’t report directly to you.
What have you learned about the hiring market while on the nonprofit side?
Hiring for many IT positions in a not-for-profit isn’t much different from hiring in a for-profit. However, generally, salary offers are lower and there are no stock options. Because of this, I find I’m focused on looking for people with a passion for the mission or people who are looking to use the position as a launching pad.
I’m also careful not to overemphasize skills. I look for people who will grow into the role. It is a huge negative for me if someone says they applied because they have done everything listed in the posting and know how to do it all well. If they aren’t looking for growth and a challenge then they probably don’t have the motivation I’m looking for.
I interviewed someone several years ago for a startup who was clearly smart, motivated, excited about the company and role, and loved technology. He also had the right personality fit for the team. Unfortunately, since he was looking for a career change, he had extremely limited experience supporting technology. I took a calculated risk and hired him. He become a really strong addition to the team and later went on to be an IT manager at other companies. This strategy clearly does not work for all roles. Application development obviously requires a great deal of experience if you want someone who will hit the ground running. However, the fit is just as important.
What’s more important, technical skills or interpersonal style?
If the best tech fit is a personality clash, that can destroy the team. Walk away from any, even small, red flags. Red flags in an interview are bigger once hired. Don’t make a panic hire. Include the team, let them know you are looking for the right fit, and they will pick up the slack. If you have the right team, they would rather wait for the right hire than for you to hire the wrong person. A team that truly enjoys working together is highly productive and has lower turnover.
CIOs handle interviews differently. What style do you find effective?
I always start with a phone screen. You can sometimes pre-screen people who are just good at interviewing. Here are a few things I look for: 1. Are they ready for the call. If they’re not ready, they’re not excited about my opportunity. 2. How casual will they get? I’ve had people swear and call me “dude” all the way through. 3. Are they good at interacting over the phone? I have had people get so uptight during the interview that they just hung up.
I start each interview similarly but quickly change questions based on what I hear. For instance, if someone seems nervous, I might poke at that to see if it is just the interview or something that might come out in an uncomfortable IT situation. Seeing how people handle an interview gives insight into how they handle stressful situations. However, I do generally tend to be a casual interviewer. I want them to relax so I can get to know who they are.
Phil Schneidermeyer is a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, where he specializes in recruiting CIOs and CTOs for all industries.