by Jane Howze

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

May 15, 200716 mins
IT Leadership

Conversations with IT managers on how they hire the best.

Jeff Carlson is senior vice president and CIO of AIG American General—the marketing name for the domestic life insurance companies and affiliates of AIG. In this role, Carlson leads a 400-person IT department and is responsible for business process outsourcing, strategic projects, and AIG American General’s Center for Innovation in addition to IT. He has worked for AIG since 1995 when he was hired as vice president of application development. Carlson was named CIO in 2002 after holding various IT management positions within the company and was made a senior vice president earlier this year. He spoke with executive recruiter Jane Howze about his hiring practices.

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Jane Howze: When you first started hiring employees, did you receive any training?

Jeff Carlson: I was very fortunate to have begun my career with KPMG, which had structured training and placed high importance on the ability to assess candidates and evaluate technical skills and personal characteristics. We also participated in a number of mock interviews that provided great preparation for getting comfortable with the hiring process.

What positions do you specifically hire for at AIG American General?

I spend much of my hiring time interviewing candidates for senior positions throughout the company that are not IT specific. Our chief executive officer, Matt Winter, encourages an atmosphere where we collaborate outside of traditional functions so that we get involved in each other’s businesses, so to speak. I get involved in any kind of officer-level recruiting that we do, particularly in the financial area, which I have some background in—whether it be a planning position or CFO type of job—because of his desire to get different perspectives on candidates across the traditional functional lines.

We [in IT] also try to ensure that we get as many perspectives as possible, so we invite people outside of IT to participate in our recruiting of technical folks. For example, if we were looking for someone to lead the applications group that supports our financial systems, we would want to make sure that a candidate for that position interviews with the controller and perhaps the chief actuary. Similarly, if we are interviewing someone in the area of product development, we would have one of the product managers be a part of the interview process.

I have a pretty experienced IT team, so they only get me involved when there are some differing opinions about a candidate, or when we’re looking to fill a new role that may require different skills or characteristics. As far as the last interview I did for an IT position, I recall two: one for an architectural position; the other for the business analyst function.

Generally speaking, our hires in IT tend to go in two directions. We’re evolving from a very business application-centric organization, where people are aligned with a particular business application, like a general ledger or a claim system, to a more architecture-driven organization. So we’re hiring people with newer programming skills, such as .NET and Java, as well as people who are more architecturally oriented, who are more design types of people. That’s been the biggest move from a technical skills perspective.

The other two areas that I consider very important and very constrained in terms of the quality of the candidates are business analysis and project management. We place high value on the ability of our organization to translate between the customer and the technology, and we find that the skill of analyzing the problems and translating them is where the most value is added. We used to assume that our functional managers who manage their applications and people could equally perform project management. But now I believe that project management has a specific skill set that isn’t always a part of what a good functional manager’s skill set is, so we are continually looking for people with strong project management skills. Ideally, they have knowledge of our industry, but we really look to the project management piece more than the industry knowledge for this role.

What three interview questions do you always ask, and why?

  1. Why are you here?

    I find that question can lead into a number of directions, and it confirms that the candidates understand what the role is that they’re interviewing for. In some cases, it might help to understand why they’re leaving a current position.
  2. I also ask candidates to explain how they would handle a particular challenge that they would have to deal with in the job, whether it be personality issues or a significant shift in business direction.
  3. Based on your past experiences and what you know about this job, what do you expect to be the biggest challenge for you in this role?

    I am a big believer in the notion of self-awareness, and people who have a solid understanding of their own strengths and improvement areas have the best opportunity to adapt to new situations. To the extent that people are willing and able to say that some part of a job they are interviewing for might be a little difficult because they know themselves or because of something that happened to them in the past gives me a sense of how they assess themselves. As they say, recognition is the first step to any improvement.
  4. Actually, I have a fourth question:

    4. As you look at the [job] opportunity, what are the two or three most important things you’re looking for in it?

    A candidate’s answer to that question tells you what is important to him or her, and the answers are hardly ever the same from one candidate to another.

Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people how to make good hires? Do you believe that you’re an instinctive hiring manager or that you’ve gotten better over the years through experience and training?

There is no doubt that people can be taught evaluation techniques and develop better hiring skills. However, given that you typically have a limited amount of time and exposure to a candidate, you have to rely on your gut at the end of the day. Every hiring manager has a different approach to making the hiring decision; some are very analytical and others are more instinctive. I tend to be more instinctive and try to get a sense of how the candidate will interact with her team and her customers. I would also typically try to have someone on my team involved whom I know will be more focused on the technical aspects of the individual’s skills. That approach allows me to cover more territory while getting broader input.

While much of what is learned about effective hiring comes from good old-fashioned common sense and experience, there are three common themes we focus on in our hiring at AIG American General:

  1. Have a solid picture of what the position requires.

  2. Consider how the candidate will fit into the culture.

  3. Spend more time listening than speaking.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made?

One mistake I recall happened at a previous employer—another life insurance company that I worked for prior to moving to Houston. It was at a time when the company was beginning to look at moving more of its applications off the traditional mainframe and into more of an open systems environment. I thought that transition required someone with a different technical skill set, but I also thought it would be a good opportunity to bring in somebody with a different personality who would push the edges and stir things up a bit. What I failed to do was spend enough time up front describing different scenarios the person would be facing with our company. What I learned after he began was that his solution to every problem he encountered was to fire the people and start from scratch, which obviously was not what I had in mind, nor was it going to work in our company. Clearly, this was a situation where I didn’t do enough in terms of learning about the person before I put him in that position.

Making mistakes is a core part of learning what to look for and identifying the skills and characteristics that are most important to the position. The mistakes I remember were typically where there was not a good job match, where the overlay of the person and the position was not well aligned. I think as technical professionals, there is a tendency to gravitate toward the measurable, tangible skills such as coding, when in reality, many of our staff spend the majority of their days interacting with business people. If they cannot effectively converse and engage with their customers, they may never get the chance to demonstrate their programming skills. In today’s environment where we are trying new approaches [such as the shift from an application-centric to an architecture-driven environment] that require new skills, we need to accept that we won’t always get it right the first time. We also need to assess how we define mistakes and recognize that the combination of skills and characteristics we need may be changing.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

You would have to ask the hundreds of candidates I have interviewed over the years (just kidding!). Actually, the most memorable one was on a college campus. The candidate did not have a sterling academic record, nor did he seem to have any activities or interests. I asked him what he considered his most significant accomplishment. He responded, “Getting out of bed this morning.” Well, regardless of whether or not that was, in fact, his greatest accomplishment, he completely misunderstood the process and both of our roles in that process. That was among the longest hours of my life, and probably his. Generally, situations where the candidate is unable to articulate his experiences, skills or interests fall into the worst interview category.

Have you ever brought someone back for a follow-up interview after a bad first interview? Why?

Sure. This is not at all unusual, given that we generally have multiple folks involved in the interview process—particularly for positions with unique needs, or when I or one of my team members has some previous knowledge about the candidate. We always want to ensure ourselves that it wasn’t a one-off situation or that the person just had a bad day. Another key factor is how the candidate felt it went: If they sensed the interview did not go well and address it head on, that shows some real awareness and willingness to get feedback. I’m not certain how frequently this has occurred, but I would not consider it unusual.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn’t like the person? If so, did you hire him or her, and did the individual work out?

I am blessed with a seasoned team with diverse backgrounds at AIG American General. So it is not unusual to have differing opinions on a candidate. We just try to ensure that the factors we use in arriving at our assessment are clear. If they’re not clear or we have wildly different views, we may ask the candidate to make another visit. Generally, if the entire team did not like the candidate, it means my assessment was probably off the mark. Many new hires don’t get a full thumbs-up from everyone involved in the hiring process, yet most work out very successfully.

Can you give me an example of an instance where you liked a candidate, but your staff did not? What was the result?

We see this most often when we’re hiring for a new position or a role that’s not formally defined. For example, the first time we started hiring system architects, we kind of had a view of what we wanted and what the person’s skills should be, but it was still new to us. So as we were sorting through and interviewing candidates, everyone had a slightly different picture of what the job really was and what the priorities were. When people assessed the candidates, it became pretty obvious to me that they were looking for different things from the role than I or some of their peers were. That happened to be a situation where I wasn’t sure that the candidate was experienced enough to deal with that ambiguity we were laying out. The hiring manager—one of my direct reports—was convinced that with the proper support, this person could figure some of that out. As it turned out, the hiring manager was right: The candidate has in fact grown in the position and been very successful because the hiring manager had a view that matched what they thought the person could do, even though in this case, I didn’t think the candidate had some of the skills we needed. That was a success story of a situation where I didn’t like the candidate and the hiring manager did.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

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.

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