Solstice Consulting: Agility as a Hiring Model
BackBy Ben Bradley — January 2008
An agile organization is different. An employee who flourishes in an agile organization is different. The techniques for finding and retaining agile employees are different.
But what is agility?
It, as a software development methodology, is based on a belief that it is impossible to demand certainty in the face of uncertainty.
There are many forms of agile development. Scrum, extreme programming and other agile methodologies are characterized by continuous adaptation to changing market realities and solutions that become clearer over time.
Agile software development teams typically are small and empowered to create high-quality work without command and control oversight. An agile team cycles rapidly, adapts to new realities and acts quickly to exploit a given situation.
Companies that embrace agility as a software development methodology find that agile philosophies often trickle into other areas of the business.
“You attract a different type of employee when you macromanage instead of micromanage,” said Kelly Manthey, partner in Solstice Consulting, a Chicago-based technology and management consulting firm. “Agile leadership sets clear direction and trusts people to figure out the best way to meet organizational goals. Agility is built on the idea that goals encourage innovation — micromanagement does not. So, we need people who can handle that level of responsibility.”
Because many of Solstice’s areas of expertise, such as change management, are both technology- and client-focused, consultants are expected to have honed soft skills, as well as technical expertise.
“Soft skills and project management skills are both extremely important,” Manthey said. “To deliver positive change, our consultants need to have the people skills required to influence others. No two clients are the same, so it is imperative that our consultants have the know-how to take what they know and develop a solution that considers a client’s environment. Our solutions are not one-size-fits-all.”
An IT professional’s level of success at other companies won’t necessarily guarantee he or she will perform well at Solstice — it’s more important that the individual is a good fit for the corporate culture.
“No matter how good a person was in a previous experience, they may not fit the mold here,” Manthey said. “Superstars in one company do not always translate to superstars in another atmosphere. How they fit into the new environment seems to outweigh their skill set, even if it’s perfect. If they don’t play nice, it’s a deal breaker every time.”
Although many companies seek technical ability, Solstice emphasizes talent and technical agility. Rather than hiring to fill specific positions, Solstice employs people who have the aptitude to grow and learn in many different positions and across domains.
“It’s really the entire package that matters, not one specific characteristic about a person,” Manthey said. “We have found that the right skill set, training and professional experience carry as much weight as a person having the right soft skills to fit within the culture and environment of a particular client.”
Even Solstice’s internal team members are hired for their ability to manage change.
“For example, our director of operations is really wearing a lot of hats right now,” Manthey said. “She’s doing accounting, invoicing and filling in to support the partners. As we evolve, more things are being passed on to her. But we’re involved in where she wants her career to go, and we listen to the recommendations she has for us.”
Every Solstice consultant is responsible for recruiting, as well. This unconventional method of bringing in new talent ensures everyone has a stake in the company’s well-being.
This tactic brings both positive and negative results. The latter stem from the fact that standards for compensating recruiting efforts need constant evaluation based on the situation.
“What motivates one person to reach into their network and refer a top performer to serve one of our clients does not motivate everyone,” Manthey said.
To make sure its consultants have the ability and agility to move fluidly between different positions and respond positively to change, Solstice provides rigorous and realistic training.
“The extensiveness of the training may depend on an individual’s background and the role they are in or targeted to fill,” Manthey said. “Many of our on-the-job programs ensure there is a support system in place to mentor and manage the individual. Our consultants are self-starters and are often required to drive their own work effort.
“In this training model, we are able to assess the coaching that may be necessary to get an individual to where they need to be to represent Solstice Consulting in client delivery.”
On-the-job learning has been a model that has worked well for Solstice in managing its IT pros.
“Our staff learns by doing,” Manthey said. “In addition to formal training on a specific topic, our people learn through hands-on mentoring programs. We provide junior staff the opportunity to gain on-the-job experience as interns — our internship program grooms the next generation through hands-on experience and real project responsibilities and accountabilities.”
In addition to on-the-job training, Solstice strongly encourages personal development via other routes. This is to ensure its IT professionals are well-rounded and capable in every facet of the business.
“Solstice places a large emphasis on continuing education and certification across all four of our domains: business analysis, technology architecture, project delivery and change management,” Manthey said. “In addition, our consultants demonstrate their expertise in various fields through publications and speaking engagements.”
Although Solstice does provide direction for its employees in their careers, it also provides an environment of continuous learning that allows for flexibility in the long term and provides the option of moving across domains.
In an industry that is in a continuous state of change, Solstice makes sure its employees are just as progressive.
“We don’t have multiple layers of management,” Manthey said. “To keep work interesting, we can’t pigeonhole a person. We provide the flexibility for our people to decide how they want to progress in their career. There are paths for subject-matter experts to increase their responsibility by running and owning projects.”
But even the lines down these paths are a little blurred as people maneuver between paths and pursue different tracks at the same time.
“For example, we have project managers with PMI certifications who want to continue to utilize their knowledge in a project manager role for our clients,” Manthey said. “On the other hand, we have project managers who have a desire to translate their capabilities to growing our business, focusing less on project-specific work and more on Solstice Consulting as a whole.
“As these people progress, their day-to-day activities shift from managing the details of one project to managing several clients and project managers at the account level. At that level, our consultants are able see new opportunities and become part of the sales cycle for securing the new business.”
Embracing agility as a hiring model has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in an organization.
“When you help your clients become more agile, everything about your own culture must scream agility, as well,” Manthey said. “Our ability to be agile is about how quickly we embrace change. Every IT project, at some level, is about change management. The work we do forces people to abandon things that are less efficient and move to things that are more efficient.”
Yet, Manthey said she also thinks many organizations try to change too quickly.
“Rapid change is threatening because people tie their identities to their jobs,” she said. “Iterative development is one of the ways we help organizations change slowly. Each iteration is generally small. We try to make each iteration easily digestible, so it doesn’t threaten the people who are most affected by the change.”
Getting people to change is also about helping change opinions and viewpoints, because if people can see a change’s importance, it is easier to change behavior.
“In projects for clients, change management is a critical yet often overlooked piece of project delivery,” Manthey said. “Our employees must all understand how to think about change and have the empathy to understand how change will affect the end user or stakeholder right from the start.”
This means emphasizing the importance of the organic, interdependent relationship between the whole and its parts in looking at a given organization.
“Our architects take a holistic view of a client’s enterprise architecture when developing a project recommendation,” Manthey said. “We aren’t in the business of thinking inside a silo to develop a solution. Our solutions are scalable and adaptable so that as a client’s technology environment changes, they can add to existing infrastructure without rework. Our approach is simple: Analyze the existing environment, understand the requirements of the project and develop an architecture recommendation that allows scalable growth within the existing environment.”
Ben Bradley is a journalist who writes about the intersection of technology and business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Solstice’s hiring model, enter ‘agility’ into CertScope, which lists a dozen CertMag articles on the term.