It’s a standard question I ask at the end of all reference checks.
“Is there anything else you’d like to add?” The responses are usually quite mundane, often just a recap of the person’s experience or a summary statement that the person is worth hiring. So when one of Joe St. Arney’s references replied, “He’s really good to his mother,” my ears pricked up. I was already sold on the guy, especially after a reference said Joe was great at writing headlines, but the mom line had to seal the deal. I mean, how could I rebuff a dude whose devotion to mom was so noteworthy that a professional colleague volunteered it during a reference check?
It was my best hire ever.
In his cover letter, Joe introduced himself as “a fearless, dedicated self-starter who will be a dynamic force for your publication.” He ended up being that, and much more. The risk in hiring Joe to be a deputy editor was that he hadn’t really managed people in his previous jobs, and at NJBIZ he’d be supervising several reporters along with handling a ton of other tasks. I could tell from the interviews and tryout test that Joe was super smart, had a sharp news judgment, edited well, offered many creative ideas, demonstrated a great eye for design, and would be a fit with the newsroom staff. But it didn’t matter how good he was at everything else if he couldn’t manage people well. So I asked Joe’s references how he’d be at supervising people, and then asked that question in seven more indirect ways until I was comfortable that my instincts were right. (It was years later that I learned one of the references said something to Joe like, “Are you sure you want to work for this lady? She asked so many questions during her reference call.”)
Joe is strong at many aspects of being an editor, and is the most all-around talented journalist I’ve met. But he truly excels at supervising staff; he’s not just a manager, but a coach and mentor. At NJBIZ, Joe was a master at taking reporters with no business experience and molding them into aces who could cover complicated industry beats. He was a motivating mentor who stayed late to rework their stories and give them ledes so someone would actually read the copy, took early morning runs to think of the perfect headline for their stories, stayed current on their beats so no news slipped through the cracks, pushed them—hard—to be better reporters all while watching for burnout. And doing it all while keeping everyone laughing.
Joe played the role of newsroom curmudgeon because he didn’t want the staff to think he cared too much. But it was a poor ruse because his dedicated, workaholic actions, day in and day out, spoke louder than any snarky comment he ever made.
Today is Joe’s last day at NJBIZ, before he starts a new job at The Real Deal on Monday. In the whirlwind of vacations and wrapping things up, I haven’t had a chance to ask Joe whether he used that same reference for his new job, and whether the reference again volunteered how good he is to his mother.
Usually people serving as references are primed to pump up the job candidate, listing every glowing attribute they can think of. But the “he’s really good to his mother” reference left out one important fact about Joe during that phone call on Aug. 19, 2008. Joe is also good to his staff, and his boss. Very good. The NJBIZ newsroom staff had the pleasure of discovering that for ourselves the past four years.