While working for a media distribution company in San Francisco, I had the unique opportunity to interview applicants who were hoping to be my new boss. It wasn’t a process I had been a part of before or since, and while at the time I learned a great deal, recently I’ve come to question some of the lessons I took away from the experience.

After upper management had an opportunity to meet with the candidates, but before sitting down with the CEO, our small IT team was given free rein to conduct our own interview as we saw fit. In the end we settled on a round-robin panel discussion, where we would lob out several technical questions, several “how would you handle this” scenarios, and ultimately gauge whether or not they were a good culture fit for our group.

Of the four we initially interviewed none seemed to hit the mark directly. We were able to give management the “if you can’t find anyone else, this person was the best” kind of recommendation, but it was very half-hearted. Either the person had zero technical skills—making it difficult for them to understand the stresses an IT team is often put under—or they were at either extreme of the coworker-boss spectrum; either way too chummy and unable to demonstrate that they can lead or terribly overbearing and prone to micromanagement.

About a week later we met with the individual for whom we all immediately gave our full-hearted recommendation. He came in with an attitude that immediately marked him as a professional. This wasn’t someone trying to get ahead or afraid that they weren’t fit for the job—this was someone who knew exactly what he wanted out of this position and had both the leadership and technical acumen to get it.

One of the questions we asked of all candidates boiled down to “if management hamstrung your attempts to make the changes you want with IT, how would you respond?” A fairly standard interview question at the manager or director level, and one I’ve been asked many times over the years.

The candidate’s response caught me totally off-guard, and cemented that he was the right choice for our company. “If they hire me specifically to make changes to IT, and then prevent me from doing just that, I’d quit. I can find a new job.”

The confidence and straightforward tone with which he answered left a huge impression on me, and I’ve told the story of how his philosophy (functionally “give me ownership of the thing I’m in charge of and let me work”) shaped my approach to maintaining a clear and positive relationship with senior or corporate management.

Recently however I was reading the take of a hiring manager, who was flabbergasted with a candidate who has expressed much the same sentiment as my former boss had, so many years ago, and their frustration gave me pause, and a new way of looking at it.

I’ve said in conversations both at work and with friends that an important role of a department manager is to be an advocate for their team. The world of IT moves so quickly that it is imperative to provide for—and encourage—study and training on emerging technologies, to give just one example. Without a vocal and passionate leader, senior management won’t understand just how valuable it is, and that they shouldn’t expect senior engineers to log 38 billable/labor hours every week; it’s not sustainable and too much falls to the wayside when there isn’t time to take a longer-term view of things.

By saying “if things don’t go my way I’ll just up and quit,” while it may indeed show drive and confidence, it also shows a lack of empathy or concern for the team members and their well-being. Very few people have the luxury to be able to quit their jobs, particularly at the first sign of trouble, and while that may not be what the candidate in question meant, it’s how the hiring manager took it.

Obviously the world has changed since I sat in that conference room with my future boss in 2008, but I think this specific scenario serves as a poignant reminder that it’s important not to look at things just from the side and perspective we remember and from which we’re first introduced. The world grows and changes, people grow and change, and it’s essential that we as leaders, as human beings, revisit our long-held beliefs and see if they still fit or are perhaps due for an adjustment.

A large part of my job is helping companies hire and develop their own internal IT talent. I think in the future I’ll still bring up the story of the meaningful interview, but now with an additional, different take on it, and how that relates to my overall philosophy about being a manager—including being an advocate for the employees serving on my team.

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