The Hiring Manager Interviews: AIG American General CIO Jeff Carlson Advises Candidates to Study Hard and Ask Smart Questions

Conversations with IT managers on how they hire the best.

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I guess this used to be a lot easier, didn't it? You would just read Dress for Success and keep it simple. Today, with our business-casual workplace, answering this question may be a bit more complicated. At AIG American General, we have a business-casual dress environment and don't worry much about a standard dress code. People feel equally comfortable wearing slacks and golf shirts or a suit and tie. I recommend that if a candidate has any doubt, ask the recruiter what would be considered appropriate. I have found that it usually is better to overdress than underdress. I also think it is best to stay relatively conservative. I do not remember the last time we hired anyone because they had a flair with clothes. Wait until after you get the job to demonstrate your fashion sense.

What advice would you give to someone interviewing with a CIO?

Two things. First, prepare. Learn as much as you can about the organization in advance. This demonstrates your commitment and interest, and it will usually serve as the source for good questions. It is pretty easy to determine the candidates who have taken the time to understand the company and have thought about how they may fit into the organization. Second, ask the CIO about his or her top agenda items and priorities. This will help you understand what drives the organization and how IT fits into the overall company. It also gives you a sense of what the CIO feels is most important.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

Candidates who have not taken the time to craft any thoughtful questions and who appear to be going through the motions. It demonstrates a lack of interest on their part and a lack of recognition about the potential for gathering as much information as possible about a prospective employer. Also, anybody looking at their cell phone or BlackBerry during the course of the conversation would be a big pet peeve.

Has a job seeker ever gotten through to you on the phone to inquire about a position?

Yes. I get those kinds of calls most often when a job seeker has started with our chief executive officer. From time to time, either because of a relationship the job seeker may have or uncertainty on the part of an executive's assistant, the job seeker will be directed to me. It doesn't happen too often, and frankly, it doesn't put me off too much. It's pretty easy to handle and to say "the best thing is to send me your résumé and a cover letter." As soon as I get those calls, I very quickly ask them to send me something, rather than having a conversation. I usually try to acknowledge those résumés, even if there are no opportunities or the person is not a good fit.

Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter or résumé they sent directly to you?

Yes, particularly in an industry such as ours where relevant experience about the product and services we deliver is important. Even when we do not have specific positions available, we are always interested in talking with quality candidates. Oftentimes the direct letter and résumé are the best way to make the initial introduction to an organization. The letter should be crisp and highlight what you believe are the key skills or experiences that would be of value to the hiring manager. Even when it does not appear that we have a current opportunity, I do maintain a file of candidates who have reached out in this manner. As opportunities develop, it is one of the sources I often refer to.

If they're quality candidates, would they have a better shot contacting you directly, or should they go through human resources?

With a posted position, it is best to follow the established protocol and go through human resources. For more senior-level positions (people who may be interested in us and don't even know if there's a real opportunity), a call to me might be appropriate. In that regard, what I get most of are people who know other people and were referred to me or the company.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?

Be relevant to the position. Ensure that your communications accurately reflect your experiences and their relation to the role.

Be crisp. Focus on quality, not quantity. I would rather see bullet points, highlighting the top three results achieved in a position, rather than rambling prose with obvious jargon and buzzwords.

I always think thank-you notes are a good idea. From my perspective, doing so in an e-mail is very acceptable, and it makes it easier for me to save in my files for future reference.

If somebody doesn't get a position and they write you a thank-you note, do you ever decide to keep their résumé in the event something in the future comes up?

Most definitely. I have a file of four to five people that we've talked to for various positions over the last couple of years that, if we ever did get an opportunity that was a fit, I'd certainly reach out and ask them if they were still in the market. A thank-you letter is a classy thing to do, and it makes it easy to retain a file. I've noticed that most senior-level candidates do it. Plus, you learn that there's nothing wrong with maintaining a network and keeping your options open.

Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.

Did you enjoy this interview? Do you have questions you'd like Jane Howze to ask hiring managers in future interviews? Share your feedback below.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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