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Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) provides large groups of IT staff the opportunity to help select their next boss.

As one of four finalist candidates for the Director of IT Infrastructure and Operations position at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, Alex Scortzaru was invited to an all-day series of interviews at the Richland, Washington campus. While much of the day would involve sitting down with senior managers and executives in traditional panel interviews, Scortzaru and the other candidates were told in advance to expect something different – namely an interactive meeting with members of the IT team fashioned after a town hall meeting.

Alex Scortzaru, VP Infrastructure, PNNLIn Scortzaru's case, about 50 PNNL IT employees met with him for about an hour, during which time he talked through a slide presentation and asked and fielded questions. Scortzaru – who ended up getting the job – relished the town hall idea, and prepared accordingly. "I found it to be an interesting way to meet the team and get the pulse of the team," he recalls. "It gave me a sense of who they are and what they are looking for."

The same can be said from the perspective of the PNNL hiring managers. Brian Abrahamson, CIO of PNNL, says that the IT department has been holding town halls for prospective executive hires for about two years – a concept that was borrowed from other areas of the organization.

Typically, candidates are asked to prepare a presentation on a broad topic, and are encouraged to speak for approximately 30 minutes, leaving ample time for questions. Audience members are comprised of those team members that will be managed by the new hire, as well as other IT leaders and staff.

Buy-In Through Engagement

For PNNL IT, the town hall offers three key takeaways:

  • Team Engagement: First, the town hall gives a large group of IT staff the opportunity to have some say in the process of assessing candidates. As part of the process, attendees are surveyed after each session and provide feedback as to their impressions. "This contributes to buy-in," says Abrahamson, who believes that the process of hiring director- or senior-level IT staff is too often shrouded in secrecy until the new hire is essentially parachuted in after selection. "More transparency in the process and engagement from staff drives a lot of benefits," he adds. Chief among the benefits: great insights from the staff gleaned from their feedback.

  • See the Soft Skills in Action: By observing a candidate interacting in front of the team, PNNL also gets a better understanding of executive presence. Specifically, says Abrahamson, the town hall is a forum where a candidate's ability to communicate with a large audience with diverse backgrounds and handle unplanned questions are on full display. By providing candidates with a general topic of discussion that is open-ended, their ability to engage the audience clearly shines through, as does leadership style. "You can learn a lot about whether they are tactically-oriented or more strategically-oriented," he says.

  • Hires Hit the Ground Running: Finally, once the candidate is hired, the feedback collected from the town hall can inform and accelerate the onboarding process. Successful candidates receive the feedback soon after starting, so they know how their team perceives them. The hour spent in the town hall gives the new hires an opportunity to engage with a much broader group "and build the buy-in with the team that they will be leading," says Kirby Amacker, change consultant at PNNL and de facto CIO chief of staff. The IT teams are "already leaning forward, they are excited—they are ready to support the leader on day one," she adds.

A Way to Evaluate Cultural Fit and Communication Style

Brian Abrahamson, CIO, PNNLFrom Abrahamson's perspective, the town hall format is not so much an interview as a dialogue, one which affords both the candidates and audience an opportunity to learn from each other. While a poor showing in the town hall may lead to additional probing from the hiring committee, Abrahamson sees the town hall as one of many inputs that PNNL takes into consideration when making an offer. That said, however, there is a strong correlation between top performers at the town hall and successful candidates. "Most of the people we end up hiring have performed at or near the top," he says.

Abrahamson posits that the town hall format – interactive questions and answers, and a dialogue driven by the candidates – reinforces PNNL's organizational culture. "We are very much an influence- and relationship-based organization," he says, one in which the ability to communicate effectively and engage others are key attributes for success.

And Amacker sees the town hall as a differentiator. "While you can have two candidates who are fairly well-matched on paper and do well in panel interviews, it's really in the town hall where you can see differentiation of their leadership and executive presence," she says.

Kirby_Amacker, PNNLFor his part, Scortzaru impressed the town hall audience with his ability to engage the staff and understand where they were coming from. He used a short slide presentation to show highlights of his career, technology trends, and his vision of how IT can become a business partner. The many questions Scortzaru asked of the group were seen by Abrahamson as evidence that he was truly interested in staff perception. Scortzaru's experience using best practices, frameworks and models to effectively manage infrastructure and operations was something that emerged in the town hall meeting.

While never having encountered a similar exercise before in his career, Scortzaru made the most of the town hall opportunity. "I took care to present myself professionally," he recalls. "And I took a risk by telling my management philosophy – how I would manage the department if I had the opportunity to get the job."

Scortzaru, who was placed by Heller Search, started at PNNL in June 2017, and the fact that his message resonated with the audience certainly bodes well for his tenure. Yet Amacker concedes that one risk inherent in the town hall process is that an organization can hire a candidate who was not as well-received as another candidate. Another potential pitfall is maintaining confidentiality for those candidates who may not want their job search known.

Even with those caveats, PNNL finds the town hall process well worth it. In one hour, the town hall provides a valuable forum for candidates and the IT team to engage in a meaningful dialogue, and to size each other up in terms of cultural and organizational fit.

Town hall job interview

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