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.

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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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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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