Culling Candidates to Cultivate Chemistry

Aine Cryts Human Resources, Issue 15 - Jan/Feb 2015 Leave a Comment

Cetera CHRO Jason Mullens built an HR Department from scratch. Here’s how

When Jason Mullens came on board at Cetera Financial Group, one of his first priorities was to build a 12-person Human Resources (HR) Department from the ground up. It took him six months and required interviewing about 180 candidates.

Mullens, Chief HR Officer at Cetera, described it as a high-growth firm where he had an opportunity to take a fresh approach and bring in new talent. Located in El Segundo, California, Cetera is one of the nation’s largest families of independently managed firms, and it is the cornerstone of the Retail Advice Division of RCS Capital.


Small Team, Big Goals

Mullens understood at the start that he couldn’t hire as many people as he wanted. He had to pursue candidates who understood that analytical skills, versatility and teamwork were non-negotiable qualities of the successful hire.

“With a smaller team, you can make fewer mistakes in talent decisions,” Mullens said. “You need team members who are versatile because there are more roles than there are people to deliver on full-service human resources.”


‘One Team, One Dream’

He spent a lot of time with candidates, making sure he got the team’s chemistry right. Mullens uses the phrase “one team, one dream” to illustrate the need for both the right skill sets and the right personalities.

“When you get the chemistry right, the team is able to move rapidly in sync through ambiguous as well as fast-growth environments,” Mullens said. “You have to spend the time to make sure the team gels because if one or two people don’t get along with everyone else, the structure falls apart. If everyone has the same skill set, we don’t have enough diversity on the team or the right set of experiences.”

Mullens_Jason_sidebar1Another consideration is Cetera’s location in southern California, where a majority of the talent is in the entertainment or defense industries. Mullens needed a team who was comfortable working at a high-growth financial services company, which requires “an ability to run faster than many other industries.”

Driving Team Success

Mullens strives to manage each member of his team as an individual. With some, he may have a three-hour lunch off campus to brainstorm new ideas. For others, it could be a series of five-minute meetings—as many as five to 10 in a day—to engage in what he describes as “Pavlovian-type conversations,” where quick items are discussed. Still other team members do best with more formal sit-down meetings where the focus is on project planning and running through their “to-do” lists.

Mullens_Jason_image3Communicating Clearly

There are three things, according to Mullens, that people want to know: their role, their goals for being successful in their role and what success and rewards look like.

“I create the capacity to spend time on making sure role clarity and what I call process clarity are really well aligned for people,” Mullens said. “In a world of constant change and reprioritization, they have the ability to adjust more effectively, versus if the job is already a bit ambiguous. If everybody’s functioning clearly within their role and aligned, we’ll really get rolling.”

Small vs. Large Companies

Mullen’s understanding of the dynamics of large and small companies is hard won. He’s a veteran of such well-known financial organizations as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. He also has diversified experience in energy and insurance.

Mullens_Jason_forefun_sidebarWhat holds true is that whether he’s supporting 35,000 or 1,500 employees, Mullens sees no difference in how he operates. He is, however, very aware of having access to different levels of resources and ways of communicating through an organization to get things done. A team of 12 still needs to deliver like a team of 200.

“In a really big company that’s well scaled, things happen a little bit more effectively, or more clearly defined, because people expect them to happen a certain way,” Mullens said. “At a smaller firm, you may have different ways of getting things done.”

His advice for a senior executive making a transition to a smaller company is to visit as many of the major offices as possible and create an open dialogue. What’s important is finding out how things are done before jumping in to “fix” things and focusing more on building relationships rather than processes. Process matters, but adoption accelerates when relationships are built.

“Get a better lay of the land on the informal way that things happen versus just the formal ways,” Mullens advised. “At Cetera, we’re growing and we have to put more scale, governance and process in place. But we’re still a firm where we know each other’s names and we recognize each other.”

Aine Cryts is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Photos by David Weathers.




Jason's Key Partners:
Korn Ferry International (Executive Search Firm) | McLagan (Performance & Reward Consulting)

Aine Cryts

Writer at Forefront Magazine
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is a freelance writer for Forefront Magazine. A political scientist by education, she’s a marketing consultant and freelance writer/editor by trade. Aine has served as a marketing director at a number of software companies in the Greater Boston area. A former volunteer tour guide and a current long-distance runner, she loves Boston and is an enduring fan of all of its sports teams.

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