CIO Seeks Pros Who Remain Positive Amid Adversity

By Amanda K. Brady, CIO.com |  IT Management, interviewing

You've probably heard of Joe Eckroth. He's held some high-profile CIO positions over the past 15 years. Known as a turnaround CIO, Eckroth came of age as leader inside Jack Welch's GE, having served as CIO of GE Medical Systems and GE Industrial Systems.

When Mattel's business was tanking in 1999 and 2000, from GE to tighten up its IT department and infrastructure. From Mattel, Eckroth moved to New Century Financial Corp. in July 2005, where he was tasked with shoring up the company's systems. But no amount of IT management savvy could have pulled the subprime mortgage lender out of its mess; New Century declared bankruptcy in April 2007. Three months later, Eckroth skipped off to his next assignment, Hertz.

Like the previous companies Eckroth worked for, Hertz hired him to restructure its IT department to make it more efficient and customer-focused. And restructure he has. Since Eckroth joined the car rental company in June 2007 as its CIO (and now also senior vice president of global customer care), the IT department has gone from 1,100 employees to 500. He outsourced infrastructure management and application development maintenance to focus the core IT team on technology innovation.

Needless to say, Eckroth has introduced a tremendous amount of change inside Hertz, so it's no surprise that when he's looking to fill positions in his IT department, he, like many CIOs, looks for candidates who can adapt. He also seeks IT professionals with global experience, who are effective communicators, who know how to build support for global technology initiatives, and who remain positive in the face of adversity. In short, Eckroth looks for people who are a lot like himself.

Eckroth credits his management style to the mentoring he received earlier in his career, when he was in mid-management.

"My mentors took the time late at night, in the office to talk to me casually about fun stuff, private stuff, business stuff," says Eckroth. "They got to know me, and they gave me great advice about work, work-life balance and career change. What they did for me was powerful. That mentoring that has been instrumental in forming my leadership style."

The mentoring also influenced his hiring decisions. In this latest Hiring Manager interview, Eckroth discusses the changes he's made to Hertz's IT department and offers IT professionals on both sides of the interview table his advice for improving one's interviewing skills.

Amanda K. Brady: What did Hertz's IT department look like in 2007 when you joined, and how is it structured now?

Joe Eckroth: It was decentralized and fragmented. Since then, we've gotten a whole lot more organized, a whole lot more aligned, and a whole lot more focused. The team is composed of two groups. One is delivery focused. These are the guys who run the outsourcing, internal development, some of the remaining infrastructure like telecom, and the project management office. These are the people responsible for delivering the services and products to the business, whether it's through a partner or internally.

The other side is business-focused. These are the senior IT leaders who have responsibility for working with the business on strategy, IT requirements, and making sure IT delivers what it's supposed to deliver.

Probably the biggest change is that we did a major outsourcing [deal] last year. We outsourced a significant part of the infrastructure and application development maintenance.

What was your reasoning for outsourcing?

One is cost advantage; it was very attractive economically. And two, it was to allow us to focus more strategically on technology innovation, which is absolutely essential to Hertz's business. If we are not evolving our technology, we will lose in the marketplace. We needed to get much more focused on technology innovation, speed to market, and working on things that help the business move forward.

What type of person fits in Hertz's culture?

Somebody who adapts to change. Somebody who is open to new ideas and who looks for a new way to do things. Someone who's action-oriented and tenacious because it [change] doesn't always happen on the first try. We want some risk taking. We don't want foolishness. We want people who are attempting new things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they won't. When it doesn't work you have to have the tenacity to move on. In our culture, complacency is the killer.

Our culture also demands that you stay engaged and positive. We call it "the shadow of the leader." What the leader does, people will follow. If you get pessimistic, the organization goes into a spiral. You've got to stay positive and continue to communicate and espouse the vision and get people motivated to aspire to that vision even when it doesn't feel good.

What do you focus on when you are hiring?

I don't focus on résumés. Résumés get you through the filter, but once you've met the fundamental résumé requirements to get in the door, I focus on chemistry and the individual. At the end of the day, you're hiring a person, not a résumé.

When I'm interviewing somebody, I'm trying to figure out who they are-not just in terms of what they have accomplished-but as a leader. What are their core values? How do they lead? How do they fit into my team? How do they work with others? How do they get things done? Are they collaborative?

Typically, I'm looking at more senior people. I am most impressed when I don't have to cue people to answer questions about their accomplishments. I like to get a feel for their leadership or work style as they tell you their work story.

Does the fact that Hertz is a global company affect how you choose candidates?

Absolutely. One of the competencies I look for is global experience. I don't mean you have to have lived somewhere else, just that you have had a job where you managed beyond the borders of the United States. That's becoming more of a required competency in today's global economy. I'm always thinking about people who can transcend time zones, cultures, the difficulties of communication, who can go the extra mile and walk in the shoes of their global peers and partners. That's not easy, but it's critical.

As we roll out massive global initiatives, it's not always so great to the guy sitting in France, Sweden or Tokyo. A true global player makes sure he's got the rapport and relationships and the open communication lines with team members and business members in the locations where he has to be effective, where he has to influence. He takes the time to know their business and their issues the same way he would if they sat in the cubical next to him.

Being a global player is hard for every one of us. It's a matter of taking the time and making the effort to do it. Opening the communications, picking up the phone, writing an e-mail, making them feel like you care&mdashit goes a long way to getting them on board.

What's your process for interviewing candidates?

I always segregate this a little bit by position. A more junior person will probably be interviewed by the hiring manager, maybe the hiring manager's manager, and maybe a couple of technical people who can make sure that the candidate has the technical competencies we are looking for.

For higher-level professionals, like managers, program managers, directors or vice presidents, a rigorous slate of people is put in place to interview the candidate. Then we bring in assessment tools to help us predict cultural fit. We collect all the input to make sure we make the best possible hiring decision.

What should a candidate expect when they walk into your office for an interview?

They should expect a fairly warm reception and hopefully a genuine feeling that I appreciate them taking the time to come in and interview -- because if I have invited them to interview, they have done something right in their career that has gotten them to the interview.

I never try to act as though I have the upper hand. I think that is a lose-lose situation. I try to make people comfortable so they become natural with me. That is the way I begin to know who they really are.

Generally, I take them through a series of random questions about leadership, people they have hired & questions that give me a sense of who they are as a leader, manager, professional and team player. After that, I usually talk about business-focused stuff. About two-thirds into the interview, I will throw out the question, "So, what do you do for fun?" to kind of throw them off. I am genuinely interested in what they do for fun, but I am also interested in how they react to the question. Some people will respond by saying they work for fun and think that is the right answer. I worked for a guy like that.

I take it that's not the right answer?

No.

What interview questions do you always ask?

What do you do for fun? What do you consider the qualities of a good employee? And I always ask about leadership style.

I will also insert a question or two about the company, something that tells me that the candidate did his homework and has enough interest to become familiar with current events at the company. That shows me that they took the time to learn about the company where they are trying to get a job.

I never hold it against a person if they need to stop for a minute to think about how to respond because I do that sometimes. The worst thing is for someone to rattle off some prerecorded, mechanical answer.

Do you include executives from other functions outside of IT in your interview process?

I always do. I want the business to meet anyone I'm hiring at a senior level in IT. I want their input because this is the person who's going to support them.

Do you interview candidates for executive-level positions in other functions outside of IT?

I do. When senior people are being hired, I get called on to participate in those interviews a lot.

When you participate in those interviews, what do you look for?

I focus on a couple of things, such as how they will fit into the Hertz culture and senior team, and what I think they will add to the team beyond their competencies.

I also spend a little bit of time determining their IT IQ: How do they view technology? Do they look at it as an important part of the business? Do they have a vision of how they want to use technology, and can they be a collaborative partner? Maybe I'm biased, but I think every executive today needs to understand and have the ability to envision how they'll use technology to differentiate themselves and drive competitiveness in their business. I look for that. If I don't see that, it's not a show stopper, but it's a flag.

Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people to make good hires?

I've been though all kinds of training, so I think it's a combination of training, assessment tools and instinct. If you drown the instinct with too much structure, you're doing yourself a disservice. If everything is adding up from the interview questions, the candidate's résumé and all that other stuff, but my gut is telling me that this person is just not going to be right, I do not make that mistake.

Have you ever made that mistake-hired someone despite what your gut was telling you?

I have, and it didn't end well. When you hire somebody, they are usually leaving one job and believe they are moving on to a better place. They come here and something doesn't work out because one or both of you made a bad decision. That's costly. I feel great about making great hires, and I feel just as bad about making a bad hire.

What did you learn from that experience?

In that situation, there was something that bugged me about the hire yet I allowed other, more tangible things to cloud my instinct. I was partly driven by the need to fill a position. That was a mistake.

What's your advice for people climbing the ladder internally?

Be very aware of what is going on in the company. You have to be able to read the politics and work within them. Take care of people on the way up, including the people you manage and the ones who have helped you along the way. Also, as you go up, you want to continuously grow and nurture your network so that you have a wide range of people who are stakeholders in your career, whom you can go to for advice and support as you move higher. That is key. If you are a loner climbing the ladder based on brute force results, you might reach a point where you are standing out there alone, and it could come back to bite you.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

Dress to impress. If you are male, wear a suit and tie, or a sharp sports coat, slacks and tie that match, shiny shoes and everything else trimmed up. It doesn't have to be Ralph Lauren, but it has to be crisp and fit well. An impression is made within the first three nanoseconds, based on what you are wearing, the way you carry yourself, shake hands, the manners you use to accept water or coffee, etc. If you are a female, "bling" or big jewelry does not necessarily do you any good. You want to dress for the position you aspire to someday, like the person who is interviewing you.

What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO?

Be passionate about who you are and what it is you do. I always look for passion.

Since no two chief information officers are alike, and no two are looking for the same things, you need to be perceptive. Try to read what the hiring manager seems to be zoning in on so that you do not give him information that he does not care about.

Finally, don't be techie; be a business leader who is technology-savvy and technology-competent. Bring the full you to the picture, not just the techie piece or management piece.

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

The same goes for someone interviewing to be a chief information officer. One of the biggest compliments that I have gotten in multiple chief information officer positions is that I am a business person first and a chief information officer second. I talk in business terms, and the first thing I always do is learn the business. You want to be talking to the chief executive officer and chief financial officer in business terminology to give them confidence that you understand business and know how to apply technology and manage technology in whatever business they are in.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

When people get overly chatty. When I ask a question and ten minutes later they are still talking about something that is totally irrelevant, and they're not getting to the point.

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

Yes. A résumé came in the mail, and something about the person's background sparked my interest, so I had our human resources person contact him. I interviewed him and hired him. I would rarely pick up a résumé and call the person directly. I do not typically get phone calls directly from people looking for a job; if I do, my assistant will route them to human resources.

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

Cover letters all sound the same to me. I do not find them particularly useful unless there is something that catches my eye, which is rare.

The résumé is obviously useful and allows me to make sure my thinking is grounded in the candidate's experience. It gives me ideas for some of the questions I will ask, but I am not a huge résumé guy. I do not go down the list of positions and ask why someone went from one job to the next. I prefer to be more spontaneous than that. However, something in the résumé might spark a question about a job change if it does not make sense on their résumé.

Thank you notes are absolutely appropriate, whether it is an e-mail or [hand-written] note. It's proper manners. I prefer an e-mail over a hand-written note because it is one less piece of paper I have to handle. Sending an e-mail also makes it easier for the hiring person to respond if they want to. If I get a note, I am not responding.

How do you get better at interviewing, on either side of the table?

As an interviewer, take a training course online&mdashmost companies have them-or read a book. There are a lot of good tips, and you have to decide which ones you're comfortable with and which ones fit with your style. You also have to be comfortable in your skin when you interview people. It cannot be mechanical because then the person you are interviewing will become mechanical. If you could sit in on an interview with somebody who is a seasoned interviewer and watch, that would be good, too. And then you have to practice, practice, practice.

As an interviewee, again, practice, practice, practice, and learn from your mistakes. There are usually several things that you will wish you had done differently and you will learn from those things. You could do mock interviews with a camcorder, because there are so many things you may not be aware of such as rubbing your nose, blinking too much, stuttering, using the word "uh" too much, etc.

Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group.She works out of the executive search firm's Houston office.

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