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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.

Objective Subjectivity?
It would seem that evaluating someone’s ability to communicate and influence is inherently subjective. Might not quantifying those abilities numerically mislead you into thinking the evaluation is actually objective?

In addition to the experience CSX has acquired on how to rate candidates that Pelkey mentioned, the company “offers a lot of guidance on how to use the scorecard and how to rate people,” says CEB’s Bharucha. What often happens at other companies that use case studies, she says, is that the people who evaluate the case presentation will simply get together afterward, or after seeing a few more candidates, and trade notes about their impressions.

“But they’re not using a specific template and saying OK, on this and that particular trait, did they do X, Y and Z? That’s what CSX does,” Bharucha says. “An immediate, specific assessment is more valuable.  If you see five candidates in a day and do a subjective, informal evaluation at the end of the day, they tend to blur together.”

An important benefit of CSX’s case-study approach is that the presentation tests candidates’ ability to handle themselves under pressure. “It can be stressful, because the panel is firing off questions,” says Bharucha. “So it doesn’t just test communication skill, succinctness, synthesis and analysis, but also the ability to respond in the moment in a high-pressure environment.”

It may be difficult to quantify the results of CSX’s finance-hiring process. One yardstick that’s important to the company is the future paths of those who are hired. Among the 50 or so candidates hired through the process, about 20 percent have been promoted to at least director-level positions within finance, and about the same number have management roles in other areas of the company.

That pipeline of talent feeding the rest of the organization is highly valued, says CFO Eliasson: “I think the people we’ve pushed out into the businesses are making their senior teams better economic thinkers. Our business partners are better at making difficult decisions because they are thinking about problems differently and using financial theories and facts as the foundation for their business thinking.”

Equally important is the reduced “error rate” in the hiring of finance professionals. Taking a world view, rather than a completely CSX-centric view, Eliasson observes that “bringing somebody into the company who is not going to succeed is a very costly proposition, not only for CSX but also for the individual. Having to redirect a career so early on could leave some pretty significant scars for that person going forward.”

The fact that 80 percent of the finance professionals hired through this process are still with the company is a strong indicator of its success, according to the CSX executives. “It shows that we’re able to pick the right candidates,” says Eliasson.

Having confidence in the quality of candidate being hired enables CSX to provide satisfying work right away, says Pelkey. “You’re working on meaningful projects from Day One, not just running budgets. That has an impact on good, talented people.”


Photo: Donald Lee Pardue

2 thoughts 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.

  2. Mr. McCann:

    I am impressed with your article dated March 2014 “Working on the railroad”. CSX is creating “original thinkers” the process of hiring new accountants for their company. Every speaker in this country should be looking at this example. Most Fortune 500 Co’s today sponsor a “Toastmasters International” speakers club and this reinforces two things. Speaking is a necessary tool for anyone that need to communicate their gifts to employers and it teaches leadership as well. We underestimate the value of speaking and communicating in this country. Great article.

    Carl Slicer, President
    BestHire, LLC
    Vernon, CT.


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