Hiring good people is perhaps the most critical management decisions you will ever make as a CIO and the key to building great teams. This is an absolute truth in information technology. The team you build is foundational to everything. Your people and teams are truly your enablers and as well as your limiters to achieving your strategy. And of course, the team you build also becomes your legacy as the people you hire and the core competencies they represent will outlast every technology decision you have ever made.
Hiring Good People for Good Teams
As a jumping off point and to help set the stage, let me begin by reminding us all that throughout the states we are experiencing record retirements as collective bargaining laws are changing and as states look for ways to balance budgets. With so many retirements, and others leaving higher education for other sectors, the vacancy rate promises to climb in the coming months. Undoubtedly there will come a cascading of transfers, vacancies, internal promotions and so on, until it all settles out in a year or more.
This is such an important aspect of the CIO job which I have been hesitant to write about until now. I have broken the seal here today and have settled on the reasoning that decisions on hiring good people are the most important decision of every CIO’s career which requires careful consideration. So consider this mash-up of tips from various sources as you organize for the process:
6 Tips for Hiring Good People
- Hire better than yourself: I prefer Guy Kawasaki’s explanation on the old saying that an “A players hire A players; B players hire C players”–meaning that good people are hiring good people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them. This takes self-confidence if you are trying to build a great team. So be honest with yourself so you don’t hire a thoroughbred for a draft horse job.
- Culture matters: Often thought of as simply “fit”, institutional culture matters. This isn’t the platitudes of mission, visions and values, it’s about the reality of who you are as an organization. Relating to #1, don’t hire “A” players if institutionally everyone is working for a gentleman’s “C”. So consider if you really want a change agent or a natural born innovator? The culture and the person have to fit each other for mutual benefit.
- Attitude over Aptitude: Don’t misunderstand this idea by neglecting to acknowledge that everyone you hire needs to be seriously smart / talented in their field to make the minimum grade. From there, when all other things are essentially equal, always hire for attitude over additional aptitude. IT is almost 100% about service to customers and you can’t afford people with crappy attitudes no matter how talented they are. And if you already have difficulty dealing with the bad apples you already have, you don’t need to add to the problem.
- Hire infected people: It is all too easy in higher education to allow the “right” educational and professional backgrounds to dominate the selection process. So be sure you are giving serious consideration for identifying those candidates infected with a love of your product – education and your customers – students. Remember in a service culture those are the characteristics that carry the day and motivate people towards excellence even when no one is looking.
- Ignore the irrelevant: This is somewhat redundant with the prior point, but a candidate’s educational and work experience is often only relevant on paper and not in the real world of IT. Service mindset, attention to detail, commitment to quality, and an instinct for continuous improvement are almost impossible to learn in a classroom and success at another place isn’t a guarantee in your culture where expectations and demands are likely different.
- Find people to “punch above their weight class”: This is an idea about hiring good people on their way up who are motivated and a little scrappy. You want people who want more for themselves and for their customers and will adapt in order to deliver. Mark Suster has entire post about hiring people who “punch above their weight class that is worth the read. Some caution is needed here as this can go wrong if you are not prepared or are slightly off in your judgement. So if you make a mistake fix it fast.
So how do you end up on the winning side of the challenges in hiring good people? First, I suggest you must ensure your situation doesn’t worsen. So you must develop a retention plan for existing staff so they are not poached by other institutions. Second, you need a clear plan for attracting top candidates and making good hiring decisions. This begins by understanding what is needed to be successful down the road in order to understand what to look for in hiring good people.
IT in general is in for some real challenges in the coming years from all of the competing pressures CIO face. That might not be so bad if higher education wasn’t also entering a new era of its own challenges and transformational changes. This degree of change and demands makes your hiring decisions even more critical.
Finally, let’s be honest enough with ourselves that not all hiring decisions are good ones for a host of reasons. You need to be prepared for that possibility every time you hire someone. Which means you also need to be ready to fire them fast at the first sign you made a mistake.
You know what I mean. You know when you made a mistake and you know you need to fix it before it is too late and you and the institution are stuck with it forever.