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How the Agile Business Consortium Leveraged Agility to Hire Their New Chief Executive

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At the Business Agility Conference, held in March 2019 in NYC, Geof Ellingham, chair of the Agile Business Consortium (ABC), presented why and how they hired their new chief executive, John Mark Williams, leveraging Agile principles and practices. Ellingham reviewed why he believes old ways of hiring are inefficient for the way companies need to operate today, and proposed techniques aligned on Agile thinking and collaborating that will set up candidates and organizations for greater success.

InfoQ interviewed Geof Ellingham about this experiment and the end-to-end process that led to hiring their new chief executive.

InfoQ: What prompt you to leverage agile techniques for hiring your new chief executive?

Geof Ellingham: Mary Hanson has been chief executive (CE) of the Agile Business Consortium for 22 of its 25 years. We knew it wouldn't be an easy task to find our new CE. Competency-based interviews no longer support business agility. First off, they are based on the idea that organisations are like machines: if you can specify and recruit the right cogs, everything will be fine. But static job titles, roles and competencies don't make sense in complex, adaptive organisations where we want people to be flexible and collaborative. Then, the formula of competency-based interviews leaves no space for relationship. I don't want to hire bundles of skills, I want to hire complete human beings who are going to develop complex, dynamic relationships with other human beings. What I want and need to see with me in the interview room is a whole person, not a collection of anecdotes.

I then remembered a presentation by Jason Tice on "Job Interview Techniques for Agile Teams". Tice shared an observation that was both completely obvious, and intensely profound: while we have changed the way that we ask people to work, with more collaboration, more trust, more transparency, less concerned with role boundaries, and more concerned with each other for the most part, we haven't yet changed the way that we recruit for these teams. Tice brought into the interview room two things, the entire team, the people who are going to be working with the candidate, and collaborative tools and techniques we use in Agile ceremonies as a way of supporting safe conversations.

That was a light bulb moment for me. If the ways we recruit at team level are no longer fit for purpose, neither is the way we recruit our chief executives.

InfoQ: What are the Agile Principles and Practices you leveraged?

Ellingham: How can we apply Agile principles to interviews in a way that doesn't bin the baby?  For me, there are two imperatives.

  • First – make space for collaboration.  I wanted the staff team, my colleagues on the board and our business partner community to be able to take part, in both, the interview process and the decision making.  And I wanted the interview process to be collaborative, a work of mutual discovery where we find out what happens when we work together.
  • Second – make it real. If the premise of competency-based interviews is that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, then my question is: what about present behaviour? In the Agile community, we talk about show, don't tell. So how about we create a set up scenarios where candidates bring their skills, experience and values to real situations – with real significance and real consequence? Let's go further: what if we can create connections sufficiently real that we invite our candidates to remove the interview mask and genuinely be themselves, while exposing our own vulnerability as an organization?

InfoQ: Armed with those Agile Principles, what did you do?

Ellingham: We deployed three different interview activities:

  • Doing Strategy Together: Like many organisations, we have an awayday every year, where we bring together our staff team, our board and our key external partners to workshop something strategically important to us. Last summer, we invited our five shortlisted candidates for the CE role to join us for the whole day, as full participants. We split the room into five tables, put one candidate on each table, and rotated them round during the day so that everyone got to experience working with each of the candidates. Everyone filled in a survey at the end of the day, and based on that feedback, we were able to reduce the field from five to three, as it was clear that two of the candidates had no realistic prospect of being appointed.
  • The Journalist: We set up a fake interview from the BBC, which was about business agility and a paper we just published. The journalist started interviewing the candidates with easy questions, such as: I thought Agile was just about software. Explain to me what business agility is and why I should care?” And ended with the tough ones: most of the chief executives I talk about are worried about Brexit. How could business agility help with Brexit?”
  • Dinner: We ate together. We invited each candidate out for a meal with me and another director, where we asked them to tell us their story, and how that story brought them to this moment, to applying for this job, for this organization, at this time in their career.

InfoQ: What did you learn from this experience?

Ellingham: We learned that it’s much harder to make sense of all that information from all those different sources than it is to fill-in a scoring matrix.  And that doing so requires trust and constructive disagreement amongst the people making the final decision. We learned that candidates find this approach both hard and rewarding.  One of the unsuccessful candidates told me she'd learned as much about herself as she had about us. We learned that people behave in a way that is more real when the context you place them in is more real. We learned that it is possible to build a big enough base of trust and respect in a short interview process to allow people to take off a little of their armour. Above all, we learned about the people in front of us, way more than in traditional interview processes.

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