Mike Burgett, Founder and Executive Advisor for CIO Partners, has built a reputation of hiring success over his 17 years in executive search, a chapter of his career that builds on his prior history as a Chief Information Officer. His experience in both technology leadership and executive hiring strategy has built the brand into a nationally-recognized executive search firm that partners with industry leaders to find and retain talent for critical technology leadership positions.
Technology positions are traditionally difficult to fill, and low unemployment levels make process-driven hiring strategies even more essential. From talent identification to final employment offers, Mike has fine-tuned every step of operations for CIO Partners.
We had the chance to ask Mike about his career and the state of hiring for this edition of the National CIO Review. From his past as a CIO to his current approach to identifying and placing technology executives, we went over a wealth of advice and information. We also spoke about some of the best interview questions for candidates, words of advice and some of Mike’s favorite books.
What would you offer as the biggest challenges for hiring IT leadership roles in the current market?
Prior to starting CIO Partners – I served as a CIO who had come up through traditional technology ranks. I am fortunate to have experienced the challenges of IT leadership hiring on the corporate side and also as a service provider in the industry, observing multiple cycles in the market place for talent.
I would say right now; any hiring endeavor will be affected by the historical low unemployment rate. Hiring organizations are challenged by a lack of available talent, as most people are in a role and aren’t proactively engaging with traditional postings on job boards. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to find candidates, rather it is crucial to develop a passive talent acquisition strategy. To attract talent, one must step outside of a traditional hiring approach and directly recruit candidates where they sit.
What are the most important qualities when evaluating candidates for top technology leadership roles?
As we evaluate candidates, we assess fit first and skill second. The most important evaluation of a candidate is whether they possess the mindset to directly align with the needs of the business.
In my younger days, I was the head of IT for a restaurant company. I quickly learned that technology wasn’t the driving force in that organization. While it was an important enabler for success, business operations always took precedence. With that, the most important quality for a technology leader is to understand his or her company’s number one goal and quickly align the technology function toward that success.
I would also offer that the top 5% of technology leaders exhibit a process-based mentality and are detail-oriented. People who can quickly assess the business process and determine how technology can support or further innovate are quite valuable in their respective organization. An architect mindset is important, but only if that technology leader can effectively integrate that perspective within the business. We want to see concrete examples of their previous success.
Finally, I want to understand a candidate’s passion for the company and the role for which they are interviewing. A commitment to the cause of an organization can be an early indicator of a great hire.
Are most leadership qualities universal, or are there meaningful differences that separate technology leaders from business leaders?
I would offer that most leadership qualities are universal. Many technology leaders may think that their role requires a completely unique approach given their domain, but we have found that the ability to lead in the CIO suite is no different than other executive level roles.
As a CIO, it is very important to have a service mindset, as being able to listen closely and craft solutions is invaluable in any context. Given that the rate of change for technology is high, leaders must recognize that they are charged with the role of a teacher and must approach all of their relationships with that mindset. By all means, to garner influence one can’t be condescending or rely on trendy buzzwords to communicate their craft.
It is true that there can be different types of leadership styles based on specific organization or business needs, but most key leadership qualities are definitely universal.
What are some red flags in candidates that act as warning sights to hiring managers?
Candidates’ job histories are always important, as we want to see a consistent tenure and track record of success. There are caveats to every rule, of course, but a consistent job history with demonstrated business results is important for every candidate. It is a red flag if a candidate cannot articulate how their function led to success for the business.
Additionally, it is important that a candidate can share specific examples of where they acquired, transformed, or transitioned talent to build an organization of success. Talent acquisition is a top three KPI for top technology leaders, especially in this market.
And while identifying these and other red flags are important, we always recommend that hiring managers expand their search and speak to as many candidates as possible. The hiring process can be utilized to educate internal stakeholders on the market and may very well change the final perspective that leads to a great hire.
Has it become more difficult in recent years to find the best candidates for companies?
Hiring is particularly difficult right now because most candidates aren’t actively looking for jobs. A hiring manager can share an opportunity across various outlets, but in this market that doesn’t mean candidates are necessarily going to find the opportunity. Candidates these days are more passive, which means that – while they may be willing to listen to an opportunity – they aren’t active in the traditional channels on which most hiring leaders rely. Instead, hiring managers must employ strategies to network directly with these elusive candidates and nurture those relationships over time.
The good news however is that the overall quality of the candidate pool has greatly improved. CIOs and the like have evolved beyond an IT back-office mindset and companies that are ready to elevate their IT function can benefit from acquiring these types of leaders.
What are some of the most important parts of your hiring process?
One of our primary objectives in any search is timeliness. A lot of firms will start a search and take six to nine months before finding a hire, but my concern with that process is that it’s a little archaic and not in alignment with the speed of market. At CIO Partners, we have cultivated a network of over 1,500 CIO relationships in multiple industries and regions. We know that if we build and nurture these relationships, we can take an opportunity to this private network and find immediate interest or relevant referrals.
However, it is the case that most companies aren’t nurturing talent channels for an eventual hire, rather they are hiring based on immediate need. That strategy may be viable once or twice, but to really find success on must think further down the road. Identifying talent beforehand will always position a hiring process to move more quickly. Given the cost of an empty seat – we know that speed matters.
If you had to fill a CIO or similar role without the benefits of using CIO Partners, how would you start this process?
Many of the principles that I would recommend would mirror the internal process of our firm. The most important element is to make sure that you have the resources, the time, and the fortitude to carry the search forward. It’s also important to make sure that everyone involved in the process is aligned in their expectations of a successful hire. When a CIO makes a hire, there are other stakeholders who need to be involved. I have seldom seen a CIO make a successful hire that only he or she met with, which is a risk since technology influences so much of what companies do.
Additionally, there is a fallacy that the first thing one may think they need for a search is a job description. Job descriptions have a role, but I know that a description alone will never lead to a perfect hire. A good hire is more dependent on alignment between the stakeholders, what the hiring criteria are, and a map to the skills and leadership qualities of each candidate.
What are some of the most important interview questions to ask a potential technology leader?
A candidate can tell that hiring managers aren’t prepared when they have candidates walk them through their resumes. If you can get away from that tactic, you will gain a great deal of credibility with the people you are speaking to. And in this job market, you need to earn that credibility.
I also believe that it is important as an interviewer to really get to know the candidates you’re speaking with. It’s also crucial to ask how they specifically overcome challenges. I want to hear stories about how candidates have innovated or implemented solutions to business challenges. These stories are the most important to me. I also want to know their thoughts on the future evolution of technology and potential impact in their industry of experience.
What is some of the best advice you have ever been given, either as an IT leader or a recruiter?
One of the best pieces of advice that I was given early on was to think outside your current mindset. The leaders who challenged me to think outside of my own box also affirmed for me that I had a role to play and provided the support to get there. They also consistently challenged me to be at the top of my game and pursue a path as a lifelong learner.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a CIO in the future?
The key measure of a technology leader is the ability to deliver. A CIO who wants to elevate his or her role and influence always needs to meet and exceed expectations for their function. If you are known as someone who gets the job done, you will obtain influence in your organization. By that same token, if you try to influence without delivering, you will experience a high failure rate and we often see it represented in a resume.
It’s also important to find mentors and to find people with whom you can share your story and who will share their story with you. It’s also important to be patient. Everything you’re doing in the here and now is preparing you for a greater future, even if you don’t know what that that future may ultimately be.
What books have you gifted the most over your career?
“A Message to Garcia” is one of my favorites. We give that book to every employee who joins our company and it is probably the book I have gifted most. There’s also a great book called “The Red Sea Rules.” It’s a story, a parable based upon Moses and his parting of the Red Sea. This book is a nice reminder that God shows up in difficult situations. I have gifted this book to those dealing with life challenges including navigating a career transition.
We can get so caught up in our day-to-day trials and it’s important to remember that there is always someone that stands with us during our journey.