Virtual Manager: Mastering Business in a Networked World

How five people who never saw one another hired a key executive they'd never met

In December 1995, after 13 years on the entrepreneurial front lines, I left day-to-day operations at VeriFone Inc., the company I cofounded and where I had served most recently as senior vice-president and chief information officer. My wife had been critically injured and needed my help at home.

Even before my departure was announced, I began searching for someone to replace me. That wasn't going to be an easy task on two counts. First, we didn't have an internal candidate, so all applicants were unknowns. Second, my successor had to be able to manage a global virtual operation whose members live and die by their information systems--fewer than 7% of VeriFone's employees are based at corporate headquarters. The position was critical: I knew I needed the buy in of both information systems staff and the department's internal customers.

Few employers give hiring the attention it deserves or involve the people it affects, even when those people work in the same building. The process is that much harder for a virtual corporation, where interviews must be conducted and skills tested remotely. And making the right decision is much more important when managers and employees who are located thousands of miles apart have to work together as well as if they were laboring in adjacent offices.

During my years at VeriFone, I had developed a process that turns some of the drawbacks of virtual hiring into advantages. That process is built around a committee. Now, I'm generally not a big fan of committees, but when you're trying to draw on a variety of expertise and perspectives, sometimes they're the only way.

Hiring committees in my organization are composed of the people who become a new employee's subordinates, peers, and managers. Subordinates' participation is especially important in a virtual company: when you're reporting to someone you scarcely ever see, helping choose that person can instill much-needed comfort and confidence. Peers contribute a sense of what a job entails and what makes for a successful candidate. Managers, of course, bring all their varied experience to the process.

The search committee for the new IS director included three IS staffers, a manager from another department, and myself. The committee had its hand in everything: updating the job description, choosing a recruiting firm, reviewing rÉsumÉs, conducting interviews, polling others who had interviewed the candidates, and, finally, helping me make the decision. Although none of my fellow vice-presidents were full-time members of the committee, 10 agreed to conduct in-depth interviews with the three finalists.

Because none of us worked in the same place, we communicated via telephone, E-mail, and videoconference. The last was especially useful in early meetings; visual introductions (some committee members had never met) made us more effective collaborators later. Initially we relegated E-mail--which is more likely to cause misunderstandings than voice or video--to logistics management. As we got to know and understand one another better, however, our E-mail increasingly carried more substantive communications.

Managing a virtual hiring committee is like moderating a globally dispersed McLaughlin Group. Each panel member has a viewpoint (often passionately expressed) that has been informed by geography, culture, and work environment. And because most members interact with the candidates--and one another--remotely, they are likely to emerge from meetings and interviews with very different impressions.

To move that diverse group toward consensus, I asked the committee members to rank the candidates every time we added new information to the mix. Every time we received a new rÉsumÉ, we'd rank. After every interview, we'd rank. Then we'd share our rankings and the rationales behind them. (At the very beginning, while we were still feeling one another out, some people felt uncomfortable expressing frank opinions about the candidates. When anonymity was required, we used a feature of our E-mail system that disguises identity.)

Although consensus was important, I also wanted to learn as much as possible from these very different people. Each committee member--particularly the junior ones--had opinions on everything from where the new hire ought to be located to what characteristics he or she would need to be successful. To draw them out, I ran a number of brainstorming sessions via conference call.

In one I asked all the members to jot down those characteristics they considered most important to a candidate's success and then went "round the circle," soliciting an item from each person's list until we ran out of ideas. I remember being surprised that one of the most frequently mentioned success factors was acceptance by a particular vice-president. Although I knew that person was interested in IS, I had never realized how important the staff considered him.

Communication among committee members was one half of the problem; communication with job candidates was the other. We generally conducted initial interviews via conference call so that each candidate could address the entire committee at one time. The role of lead interviewer rotated among us; everyone else would pitch follow-up questions. Sometimes we were able to get a committee member on-site with the candidate, and that person would lead the interview. For the next-to-last round of interviews, we tried to have at least one committee member physically present with the candidate and everyone else patched in via telephone or videoconference. That often meant flying the candidate to a VeriFone location with a videoconference link.

The interviews were in their own way a kind of trial by fire. Ask job candidates whether they're comfortable operating virtually, and they'll swear up and down that it comes as naturally as breathing. But operating virtually is a skill that has to be developed. It's not just a matter of communicating information; it's also about projecting personality and arguing persuasively over phone, E-mail, and videoconference links.

Over the years, I've encountered many people who assumed they'd be good at virtual management but then--after being hired and put to the test--simply weren't. I remember one very senior employee, brought on through a traditional and expensive hiring process, who lasted only a few months; he simply hadn't realized how important face-to-face communications were to his way of doing business. Conducting virtual interviews has became a kind of remote skills testing for VeriFone. If candidates perform well in what is an inherently stressful situation, we're reasonably confident that they're up to the challenge of virtual work.

Well, we did it. Some four months and 30 candidates later, we had hired a new IS director. But the committee wasn't done yet. Ahead lay the task of helping her assimilate.

Formal orientation programs can teach a new employee about rules and benefits, but they do very little to build a sense of loyalty or an understanding of the real workings of an organization. Orientation at a distance is even worse. Some remote programs actually use self-study in the mistaken belief that you can help people feel like part of something by sending them off to read about it alone. As everyone knows, most really useful knowledge comes from informal conversations with veteran workers and simple observation of how people do things.

The trick to assimilating a virtual employee is to duplicate those informal mentoring, tutoring, and nurturing systems. So I asked my committee members to be the new hire's "buddies," to help bring her up to speed as quickly as possible. And because of their involvement in her hiring and what they felt was their stake in her success, they were very effective. One man spent hours talking with the new director about the subtleties--both operational and personal--of more than 60 on-line systems, and for three months made sure she was thoroughly briefed before she met the customers for each system.

Over time VeriFone's hiring process has continued to return superb results, improving the caliber of new hires and helping build relationships between new employees and their colleagues and subordinates. For any company that operates virtually and cares deeply about employing good people, this is by far the best method I've found for bringing outsiders into the fold.

William R. Pape is a cofounder of VeriFone Inc., which has headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. He has been operating virtually since 1978.

Published on: Dec 15, 1997