By now, one might assume that all of you senior IT execs out there know how to conduct a job interview. After all, you had to succeed on some interview, somewhere. You wouldn’t qualify for this magazine if you hadn’t. Yet, every once in a while, after touching base with a candidate I’ve sent in for an interview, I find myself incredulous and asking, “You did what?! You said what?!”
It’s at moments like this when I remind myself that interviewing—like cooking or speaking French—is a skill that gets rusty when you don’t use it. For that reason, we can all use a refresher course once in a while to help tune up our interviewing skills. With the help of some CIOs who recently landed new jobs—and the bosses they impressed in their interviews—I’d like to offer some guidelines for doing an interview right.
Be prepared. Obviously, you want to know everything you possibly can about the company and the people who will be interviewing you. For a public company, you can find a bevy of documents online. For a private company, you have to work harder but you can usually find its core values on its website. Armed with this information, you can prepare for your interview by thinking about the connection you want to draw between those values and your own experiences.
Herbalife CFO Rich Goudis recently hired a new CIO for his company. He says he is sometimes surprised that candidates don’t do more than read the company’s annual report.
“Some people are just not prepared,” says Goudis. “They don’t take the time to find out who our key technology vendors are and then use their own connections with that vendor to learn about our approach to technology. Candidates who do good investigative research are impressive to me.”
But not too prepared. Jonathan Rider, the new CIO of building company Gilbane, agrees that it is critical to be well-prepared, but he cautions against too much of a good thing.
“If you walk in and start giving them five years’ worth of stats on their sales and market value, they will look at you cross-eyed and think, ‘This guy can read an annual report,'” he says. “You should have all of that knowledge, but you want to apply it in a sparing, as-needed way.”
In other words, don’t spew a bunch of facts and figures related to the business. Instead, choose a few choice stats and then bring them up in a context that showcases your understanding of the business and the challenges it faces.
Candidates also frequently ask me if they should bring any documentation of their work to their interviews—PowerPoints of great IT strategies, a set of best practices they developed. My suggestion is to bring it with you—but don’t pull it out and discuss it unless the situation warrants. Some interviewers love to look at documents, some don’t. Just because it is in your briefcase doesn’t mean you need to use it. Feel out the situation first.
Treat the interview like your first 100 days. “I have this trick I use in interviews,” says Gilbane’s Rider. “There are all these articles about what a CIO should do in the first 100 days on the job: what questions to ask, what relationships to build. I conduct the interview like I have the job and am conducting my first set of meetings.”
Rider finds that his questions work as an ice-breaker that puts the hiring manager at ease. The interview becomes more of a consulting session and allows the interviewer to imagine Rider in the role.
But don’t start solving their problems. For John Ruggieri, CFO and Rider’s new boss at Gilbane, Rider struck the right tone between asking questions and providing answers. “I am not impressed with candidates who claim that they can change our world before they even understand our business,” he says. “They do all of their homework and start talking about what kinds of systems they’re going to put in before they even know our industry. That always blows me away. Jon was not like that. He made it clear that he would take his time in understanding our business before acting.”
Prepare success stories. One thing I advise all of my candidates to do is to prepare five success stories with three bullet points each. This tactic gives them a premeditated, clear and structured way to articulate their accomplishments.
Chuck Sperazza, the winning candidate for the CIO role at Herbalife, takes this approach a step further. “Take the major aspects of the job, like leadership, strategy, execution, performance management and risk aversion, and build a brief story from your experiences around each issue,” he says. “Most of the executives who are interviewing you are not IT people, but they understand the major elements of executive leadership. You can use your stories as a way to relate to them.”
Dig for the detail. One piece of negative feedback I often hear from a hiring manager after an interview is, “I had a hard time getting him to give me specific details on a project,” or, “She stayed at a very high level when I asked for specifics.”
When your interviewer asks you to “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a performance problem,” resist the urge to slip into an “advisory mode” that has you answering, “When you have a performance problem, what you should do is A, B and C.”
If you are asked to recount your own experience, stick with the first person and provide granular detail to support your response. CIOs are so often called upon to be advisers or consultants that they often have trouble sticking with their own experiences.
Have a great answer to, “Why are you interested?” If I had asked my husband, after he proposed to me, “Why me?” and he had responded, “Because you’re a girl and you live close,” I might have given him a different answer. Interviewers want to hear that a particular job is extremely attractive to you for some very concrete reasons.
“Sometimes I’ll get these lame answers about why a candidate is here,” says Herbalife’s Goudis. “‘It’s close to home,’ or, ‘I want to make more money.’ That kind of indecisiveness will not get you the job.”
And when the interviewer asks why you would leave your current job—or why you’re currently unemployed—just keep it short and sweet. One or two sentences that are matter-of-fact will do, not a soliloquy on the injustices of the evil corporation that wronged you.
Don’t go for the close. At the end of an interview, should you go for the jugular and try to close the deal? Some recruiters recommend that you do a “soft close” and use some probing questions to learn the status of your candidacy. I strongly disagree, and Goudis backs me up.
“I would rather have someone show self-confidence that they did well on the interview than have to ask me about it,” he says. “If you’ve set a world record, the crowd will cheer.”
Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.