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How to Hire Influential Finance Staffers: A Case Study

Big railroad company CSX wins points for a unique hiring process that heavily uses a case study to find staffers with strong persuasion skills.

Says Eliasson, “We had to go to those people and say, ‘I know you’ve been doing it this way for a long time, but if you think through this problem a bit differently with the economics in mind, you will see that perhaps we should do something different.’ That is not an easy thing to do for an operations-based company like CSX.”

“But,” he continues, “while you might have the best analysis in the world, if you can’t make people feel good as you try to influence them to do something different, you have accomplished nothing.”

Perpetual Pipeline
The CSX finance function devotes an enormous amount of time and energy toward hiring its staff. About 50 finance professionals have been hired since 2007. But to find them, the department has evaluated about 1,000 candidates in a “multiple-touchpoint” hiring process, estimates Sean Pelkey, CSX’s director of performance analysis, finance, ­­and an overseer of the hiring program for the past several years.

There are about 80 people on the team and, with a few moving out into the business each year and a few leaving the company, there is room to hire about 10 new ones annually.

“We want to have a constant pool of people coming through so that when we find one who passes through all the touch points and succeeds, we can bring them on the team,” says Pelkey. “Sometimes that happens when we don’t have a specific need. That means we’re finding the right people and not rushing to hire someone because we need to fill a spot.”

At least a third and maybe up to half of the hiring decision is based on the candidate’s performance on the case study, says Pelkey. The case has nothing to do with the railroad industry, which is an important trait of good case studies, according to CEB. In its report on CSX’s finance hiring program, the research firm writes that “cases on topics unrelated to your industry or function can reduce the influence of the candidate’s expertise and experience, ensuring you are evaluating behavior strength, not knowledge.”

In the case, a fictional company is debating whether to open a new plant in Florida, rebuild one in Southern California that was recently destroyed by a brush fire or move the Western operation south of the Mexican border.

Candidates are provided with background information on the fictional company and its present circumstances as well as a set of recent financial statements. They are given a few days to prepare a two-page memo outlining their recommendations and a 10-page PowerPoint presentation to be given live before a group of CSX finance executives, where they defend their analysis as the panel fires questions challenging their assumptions and analyses.

“People who do very well in the traditional interview may simply not be able to support the analysis they’ve done when put in front of a group,” says Pelkey. “It’s a real-world situation. We’ve even modified some of our traditional-interview questions to get at that.” For example, a few years back candidates were asked how they thought it would impact Apple, AT&T and Verizon if the iPhone were offered on the Verizon platform, as of course eventually happened.

One thought on “How to Hire Influential Finance Staffers: A Case Study

  1. This is really an eye opener. Good way to find the right finance guy especially for accounting purpose.


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