The CIO of Ameristar Casinos Likes to Gamble, But Not When It Comes to Hiring

Sheleen Quish has hired her share of risky candidates. Sometimes they've worked. Other times they haven't. Overall, her approach to hiring is methodical and pragmatic, and the risks she takes are always calculated.

Sheleen Quish has a keen eye for hiring talented people. In fact, she once hired an assistant who later made a name for himself on TV. True story.

Another time, she took a risk on a woman who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Where other, less-enlightened hiring managers would have dismissed the woman as a job seeker who just needed health insurance, Quish saw an individual with unique talents, and she hired the woman on the spot. Quish says this woman has since gone on to become CEO of several companies.

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Quish has perfected her hiring practices and interviewing techniques over the years. After making a few hiring mistakes early on in her career, Quish began to give serious thought to hiring and interviewing. "I became a conscious student of what I wanted to accomplish with each hire I made," she says.

Today, Quish's approach to hiring is organized, methodical, sensible and pragmatic—much like she is. It's also fun. Wining and dining candidates is a good way to figure out who they really are and to assess their cultural fit.

Quish's approach to hiring is informed by the fact that she's recently been on both sides of the interview table. After leaving U.S. Can in 2005, she struggled to find a new CIO job in spite of her leadership abilities and experience. When she landed at Ameristar Casinos, where she currently serves as CIO, her first order of business was staffing the IT department with the right skills. Today, her IT organization consists of 85 full-time employees, consultants and vendors.

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Quish's realistic attitude toward staffing and hiring is also informed by her professional experience. Prior to Ameristar Casinos, she was CIO of manufacturer U.S. Can Corp. She has held executive-level marketing and operations positions in the insurance industry. She's consulted with established firms and on her own. She's seen and done it all. Nothing fazes Sheleen Quish.

Which is why you should heed the advice she dishes to job seekers and hiring managers in this Q&A. You'll learn how to effectively interview with CIOs and other high-ranking executives, how Quish sizes up candidates' fitness for a job in her organization, and her perspective on when to be a leader and when to seek consensus on hiring decisions.

John Lamar: What staffing challenges does your IT organization face?

Sheleen Quish: When I joined about a year ago, I inherited a team of people at corporate and a loose affiliation of IT professionals within the properties. They all kind of did their own thing from an IT perspective, primarily because they were a product of multiple acquisitions over the years. Standardizing processes had not been a priority for them. My first goal was to get the corporate team right-sized with the appropriate skill-base and then to start focusing on re-engaging the properties. We have accomplished this, and it is really working well. We are now viewed as one large global resource and are able to leverage people, skills and capabilities from anywhere within the department, which has created exciting opportunities for the team. There is truly a sense of enthusiasm and energy within the department, and it has allowed us to be a lot more productive.

Recently the company went through a significant downsizing. The casino industry is not recession-proof. The downsizing has not affected my department as much because I have not been filling open positions. I have been around the block a few times, and I saw what was coming with the economy.

What the downsizing has done is make every single hire and every single person that we retain mission critical. There is no room for fluff. There is no room for someone who does not give 100 percent, and there is no room for someone who is not a team player.

How do you determine whether a candidate has the right skill set and would be a good cultural fit with your group?

I have no IT training. I have an operations and business background. I usually rely on my team to help me evaluate candidates. Personally, if I am hiring for a highly technical position, even though I have gotten smarter over the years, I am not going to be the one administering a technical test or giving the candidate the third degree on Microsoft. I will rely on my team to help me with that.

Cultural fit is extremely important at Ameristar. The two key issues for us are 1) Do you fit the culture? and 2) Can you do the work? I spend a good portion of my assessment time trying to evaluate these two issues. What is the candidate's communication style? What are their values? What is their concept of how IT fits into the business?

I also want to understand their view of the entertainment and casino business. If someone is anti-gambling, they are not going to feel good about working here. So we probe. We ask questions. We take them out to eat. We spend time with them. Our hiring process usually requires multiple visits. Over a period of time, you get to know people better. We try to educate them on how we operate. We conduct situational interviews. We are constantly striving to get a read as to how they would fare in our environment. I do not think in every case we have been spot on, but for the most part, our approach works.

We just went through a process where we spent four months recruiting a person from a much larger casino company. She had been with them for 20 years. We discussed with her why this would be a great opportunity and the kinds of questions she needed to ask herself. We planted seeds of excitement—that she would be creating projects at inception as opposed to strictly implementing them. Last week was her first week on the job, and this week she is already at one of our properties. I am getting updates from the team that she is rocking and rolling.

Do you need to have 100 percent consensus from your team about a candidate?

Not at all. If we have wildly divergent points of view, then we obviously have a problem. I will not hire somebody under that scenario because it is only going to get worse. Generally the team is on the same page, but they pick up on different cues from candidates. I attribute that to the fact that everybody is wired a little differently, and they are all looking for different things. In most cases I do not seek a consensus, but rather input on specifics. In the end it is my decision.

For example, I wanted to move one of my directors from a property to corporate. I knew this individual would be a tremendous addition to the corporate office, but I also knew that their style would be a threat to some people. If there had been a vote, the team probably would have voiced concern regarding this person's aggressive style. I felt that the risk was worth it and made the decision to move her anyway. You have to know when to be a leader and when to be a facilitator.

You have worked for many different industries: insurance, manufacturing and now entertainment. Do you hire differently for different industries?

A manufacturing IT person is no different from an entertainment IT person. At the end of the day it is all about the right cultural fit. IT people are very smart and most of them enjoy learning new things. Learning a new industry is no different than learning new technology.

How do you know when you've made a successful hire?

Someone who is well-matched to a position is a successful hire. Providing what is expected in a work product is important but so is job satisfaction. When a person feels good about what they are doing, they feel productive, they have impact on our success. Sometimes it is for a short period of time and sometimes it is for a long period of time. I think some hiring managers regard a successful hire as someone who joins an organization and then stays there forever. That is not reality. Many individuals join organizations and become quickly satisfied at a professional level. But over time their growth and sense of passion for the job may dwindle or a project may come to a close. Part of my role as a team leader is to constantly seek out ways in which my employees will always feel stimulated and challenged. Sometimes it is not always possible, and other opportunities from the outside may present themselves to my staff and that is okay. You can't take it personally.

Do you think the hiring is instinctive, or can you teach people how to make good hires?

Yes to both. I think you need to have developed some trained skills to effectively develop a hiring process. However, I think that there is a certain instinctive quality that you cannot teach when it comes to judging individual character.

Do you remember the first person you ever hired?

Oh gosh, yes I do. It was a disaster! I was at Humana in the 1980s. I was working in the marketing department, and we were promoting this new healthcare product in markets all over the country. We flew everywhere on corporate jets. We were very spoiled. I was given the opportunity to hire my own associate. So I hired this young guy, who was very personable and quite charming. He convinced me he could do the job, which required extensive travel.

Well, I later found out that he traveled with his own personal iron and ironing board with him everywhere we went. His vanity was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was all about him. He was like a rock star making appearances in cities across the country.

Ultimately, I had to fire him. It didnt take long. The funny thing is, five years later, I was home sick one day flipping through the TV channels, and there he was on television! He was one of the pitch guys on the Home Shopping Network. I still remember his name.

Did you ever receive training on how to hire?

Not in time for that hiring disaster! I did later, as I moved along in my career, and I worked with companies that were much more evolved. Humana was like being in the Wild West—everything we did was for the first time. I would say my time at Blue Cross Blue Shield allowed me to form a much more organized and methodical approach to hiring. We worked very hard at improving our hiring best practices. I became a conscious student of what I wanted to accomplish with each hire I made. I took it more seriously.

Do you ever interview job seekers who either call you directly or who send a resume directly to you?

No, it is extremely rare. Unless something really jumps out at me on paper, I will pass it on to human resources and have them handle it.

I will tell you about my most rare and risky hire. A woman sent me her résumé cold. I looked at it and thought, 'This is a phenomenal résumé. I have to meet her.' I called her and told her that I didn't have an open position, but that I wanted to meet her and see where we might go from there.

She walked into my office the following week and my mouth dropped to the floor. She was eight and a half months pregnant. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I could hire her today and she could go into labor tomorrow!' She was such a compelling person. Her story and her experience, just everything about her was incredible. I made the decision to have this person become a part of our team. I just knew she would be back after the birth of her child. And she did return. She has since become a true inspiration and friend to me. She has also gone on to become CEO of multiple companies.

What advice would you give to job seekers about their résumés?

It is amazing how choppy and disorganized résumés can be. Especially in IT, they throw all this technical jargon at you. I really do not care about what kind of programs they know how to run. What I look for is their overall professional objective. What is it they are trying to accomplish? What value can they bring to my organization? The positioning statement is very important. It is like your elevator speech on paper. I like to see it as the first thing on their résumé. I also like to see the work history starting from current position followed by education, etc. Each job listed should clearly communicate the scope of the business, what they were responsible for and what they accomplished. Their accomplishments need to be measurable and need to speak to where they added value in a definitive way.

What about thank you notes? Is e-mail acceptable?

I think the timeliness of thank you notes is crucial. After the interview, get the thank you note out immediately because you don't want the hiring manager to forget who you are. E-mail is fine. You want to acknowledge that you appreciate the time that they spent with you. I would also highlight something that was discussed in the interview.

Let's say a candidate's résumé looks good. They've made it through human resources and they now have a chance to interview with you. Do you have any advice for candidates about how to interview with a chief information officer?

Do not be intimidated by the title. In IT, we tend to all get hung up on titles, but the reality is that the chief information officer is just the leader of a very broad team. Do not be intimidated. Do not be in awe. You should interview the chief information officer as much as you're being interviewed. You need to know whether or not you are going to be a good fit. Ask questions. I routinely have to ask people to ask me questions. Many candidates just talk about themselves and not ask key questions about the culture or about my expectations. So, I will say, "Well, do you have questions for me?" Then they will kind of sit there with no idea what to say or ask.

What are your pet peeves during interviews?

Individuals who do not look me in the eye. People who are not professionally groomed. The other pet peeve is when people ask me how long it will take them to achieve the next promotion and salary increase. They need to tell me what value they are going to bring to me and the organization before we start talking about how they are going to make their fortune here.

What should individuals wear to an interview?

It's interesting: so many corporations are now business casual that I think individuals do not know what to wear to an interview. My advice is always err on the side of caution: wear a business suit. No pinky rings, even in Vegas. You want to make a favorable first impression. If they invite you back for a second round they will let you know if you need to continue to wear a suit.

What advice do you have for someone interviewing to become a chief information officer?

They need to be prepared for a lengthy process. You will meet with not only the chief executive officer and/or chief operating officer but with the entire executive team. More than likely they will have you go through psychological testing with a third party, which is very common at the executive level. You are going to have to tell your story numerous times to many different people.

At the same time, you need to watch and listen for clues that will help you determine if you can really be successful there. I have gone for interviews where I was so excited about the opportunity that I did not let myself pick up on the political or cultural clues that later proved to be major challenges for me. We are so intent on selling ourselves to get the job that we often forget that we should be evaluating the opportunity. If it is not a good cultural fit, I don't care how talented you are, you will not be successful. It is really all about relationships at that level.

What four interview questions do you always ask?

First, tell me the story of you in about five to ten minutes. What I find interesting is how people respond. Some will jump right in and start talking about a project or a specific skill set. Others will understand that what I am looking for is a holistic view of them. Where they were raised, where they went to school, why they chose the career path they are on. It tells me a lot about what they are willing to share about themselves.

The other question I always ask is what are you passionate about? What excites you on both a professional and personal level? It adds color to an individual, and it is wonderful to watch people talk about things that excite them. Some people have no interest outside of their job; their job is their interest. That is not a bad thing, but I like to understand what that means for them.

The third question I generally ask, usually towards the end of the conversation, is tell me why you think you would be the absolute best person for this job? If they have been listening during the interview, they will highlight some of my stated needs and tie it together with their individual skill set. This is an opportunity to summarize why you would be an asset to the organization.

The last question I ask is one I mentioned earlier: What question do you have for me? I want to see what it is that they have on their mind. I am amazed that many people will ask, When are you going to make a decision, rather than ask me more about the culture or expectations.

Do you like to gamble?

I love slot machines, penny slot machines. My rule is that I cannot lose more than $20 at a time. I have worked too hard to let it all go down the drain. I really just enjoy the experience. I do not care and think about winning, I am just having fun. I won $180 the other day just goofing around. This is embarrassing, but I really have no clue how many of the games are played. I just watch and try to figure it out as I play. For me that is fun. I think I had been to a casino three times in my life prior to joining Ameristar. Initially, I visited our casinos to better understand how things work, what people do. Now I visit just for fun. My husband thinks I am like a walking ATM because I am always walking around with cash. You never know when lady luck will smile on you.

John Lamar is a managing director with The Alexander Group. He works in the executive search firm's New York and Houston offices.

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