by Sarah Mitchell

The Hiring Manager Interviews: PG&E CIO Shares Her Unique Method for Engaging Candidates During Interviews

Apr 15, 200814 mins
IT Leadership

Pat Lawicki asks candidates the kinds of questions they'd have to answer on a day-to-day basis about projects if they got the job.

Pat Lawicki joined Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in early 2005. Her mission? To modernize the IT department.


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By June, Lawicki, PG&E’s senior vice president and CIO, had developed a three-year strategic plan for IT as well as a more tactical 12- to 18-month plan. Both ultimately called for the centralization of IT, which then was distributed throughout the $13.2 billion energy company’s 19 lines of business. Servers were moved into a secure data center. Hardware, software and process standards were established. And hundreds of legacy systems are being replaced with three major platforms.

“We’re pushing out a lot of standard processes, standard equipment, and bringing in some new and advanced technology,” says Lawicki. “We are leapfrogging what was a very minimal investment in technology and adding human capital to make it happen.”

Indeed, Lawicki says that in the course of “just a couple of months,” the IT organization has grown from 1,200 employees to more than 1,400. In addition to the new positions the restructured IT organization has created, she also has to fill positions vacated by retiring Baby Boomers and by IT staff who, she’s happy to say, are being accepted for non-IT jobs within the lines of business.

With all those open positions, it’s a good thing she has a reliable methodology in place for interviewing job applicants. In this interview with Sarah Mitchell, who runs The Alexander Group‘s San Francisco office (and works with founder Jane Howze, who usually conducts these Hiring Manager Interviews), Lawicki discusses her unique method for engaging candidates during interviews and describes the red flags that tell her a candidate is a no-no. Lawicki also explains why she no longer succumbs to pressure to fill open positions with candidates who aren’t quite right.

Sarah Mitchell: What did you base your hiring decisions on when you first began hiring? How does that compare to how you make hiring decisions today?

Pat Lawicki: My first hire was when I was a consultant and needed a developer. How I hired back then was very different from how I hire today. Then my decisions were based purely on technical skills. I’m one of those CIOs who came up through the ranks, and at the time I was asking very technical questions, such as, “How would you do a reconfiguration of this database with these given factors?” Given my technical background, I was very happy to talk tech talk with them if they could talk tech talk. I liked putting them through the wringer to make sure that they were technically able to do their job. Of course, as you move up in an organization, especially in IT, presentation becomes much more important. Today, I’m looking for those core technology skills but also the ability to communicate technical concepts to a lay audience. A candidate needs to be able to put strategic plans together just as much as he or she needs to understand the technology.

Did you receive training on how to hire?

I’ve had some formal training off and on, but that’s mostly been human resources–driven: the dos and don’ts of an interview from a legal perspective. I have been in organizations where there has been a template with recommended questions, but I have not been with organizations that provide training on behavioral interviewing—what to look for or how to ask probing questions. To be honest, I learned more from on-the-job training. Early on in my career, I sat in on interviews other managers were conducting. From that I learned what questions to ask to determine whether a candidate was right for a job. And of course, over the years you go through good hires and bad hires and you get a feel for what to ask and how to ask it—and how to make those judgment calls.

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

I think you can teach people a lot, but I still think you get to a point of having a gut feel: You either have that feeling or you don’t. What I do think is important in making good hires is to get a lot of different perspectives, especially if it is a hire at a more senior level. I need to have candidates interview with various people who represent not only a range of disciplines and levels in the organization, but who also represent a diversity of thought and personality types. If someone is analytical, they’re going to want to work with someone else who is analytical, right? If you’ve got someone who likes to control, they will respond to another controller. I think it’s important to get the perspectives from every single viewpoint that you can.

To that end, do you pull people from outside of the IT function into the interview process?

Yes, especially if it’s for a position that will report directly to me. I will have them interview with the lead of the line of business that they will support and/or my boss because I want them to be able to fill in for me if I’m traveling. I need my partners to feel comfortable and confident with that person in my absence. Of course, all of their peers would interview them, but I definitely reach out far beyond the IT organization when I bring in candidates who will be my direct reports or who will report to my direct reports.

On the flip side, do you interview candidates for positions in other functions?

I had an interview this past week with a candidate for a human resources executive position. I frequently meet with candidates for the financial organization and the energy distribution organization. Those candidates come by my office all the time.

Do you tend to hire from within the energy industry?

I hire employees from within the utility industry and from other industries as well. Recently, most new hires have come from outside the utility industry. PG&E is implementing leading edge technology that attracts new hires from across industries. We have had very good results from hiring seasoned IT professionals with diverse industry backgrounds because they add a unique perspective to most projects. They have seen technology solutions implemented in ways that enable us to, at times, rethink our approach to solving a business problem or implementing new technology.

Can you describe in detail how you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills or whether he or she will be a good fit with the IT group and your organization?

I go into the interview with an idea of how I would expect this person to interact in a given situation. When they come in, I try to draw them into the type of conversation that I would be having with them if they were either working in that role or delivering a presentation in that role. To give an example, I was just looking for a solutions architect for PG&E’s human resources organization. I basically played the role of the line of business, in this case the HR department. I said, “We’re trying to decide how to move this learning management system forward. How would you start? What challenges have you observed in similar projects? How did you find you were able to work around those challenges?” I ask questions that they would actually hear and need to answer if they were to step into the position. During the discussion, I observe how they respond and where they take the conversation. In my experience, it is really the best way to approach these types of interviews, to drill down and find out what a candidate is really going to do in an actual situation.

What do you consider a successful hire?

A new hire is successful if he/she is able to hit the ground running and learn the organization and their business partners by spending time with them.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Compromising. It happens when the market is really tight for a particular skill set that we need, and we’ve gone through candidate after candidate without any of them being a perfect fit. At a certain point I am tempted to say, “Gosh, we’ve just got to get somebody in to do this work,” and then I decide to just pick the lesser of the evils in the candidate pool. I’ve always regretted that. This happened to me the most when I was doing a lot of consulting work and was feeling the pressure of a lot of tight deadlines and demanding clients. I’ve learned over the years to find ways to solve the problem temporarily while we hold out for the best candidate for the position. It is so important to have a long-term fit.

Tell me about the worst interview you ever conducted.

The worst ones were earlier in my career with more technical candidates. I had some who just froze. I felt so badly for them because they literally couldn’t answer a question in an interview and I knew that if I got them working they’d be fine. But you can’t hire on that assumption. Fortunately, as I’ve moved up in the organization, the direct reports I’m interviewing seem to be a little more polished—though I have had some more senior candidates answer cell phone calls in the middle of the meeting or get up and say, “I’ll right back,” to take the call.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked a candidate you interviewed but your team didn’t? If so, did you hire the person, and did it work out?

I did have a situation like that recently, and ultimately we did not hire the individual. The group would have tried to make it work, and they were clear about that, but they did point out a couple of important issues, and I saw that their feedback was consistent across the group. So I decided to continue the search. In this case, it was really important that this person hit the ground running with their peer group. If we had hired this candidate that I liked, they would have started out in a hole, so to speak, and would have had to dig their way out. I decided to keep looking for the candidate that we all agreed upon and ultimately we did find somebody.

Do you require unanimity on a hire?

No. We all give input. I don’t believe that anybody is perfect. So we get input, we talk about the pros and cons, and then we weigh our options. Ultimately, I’ll make the decision. When we hire someone, the team is very good about working together and making sure that that person is accepted in the group and functioning effectively.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

It doesn’t matter to me whether they are in a suit or just a jacket with an open collar as long as a candidate looks crisp or polished. I get concerned if someone is in disarray, with their shirt undone or stuff falling out of their portfolio or briefcase.

What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO?

Come in prepared, understand the position that you are interviewing for, and understand the company. Those would be the primary things.

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

Understand the business. Understand the challenges. Understand what kind of organization they have today. Read as much as you can about the leadership you are going to be working with and see if it is a fit for you first before you go in there.

How important is industry experience to an IT leadership role?

Industry experience is very helpful but not necessary. What’s important for new hires in an IT leadership role is the ability to apply leading technology from other industries to PG&E and the ability to quickly learn and understand the utility business. The technical skill set is just as important as the business skill set. Overall the ability to communicate with business leaders in their language becomes very critical as professionals move up the IT career ladder.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

Rambling on too much. I might have 15 questions to ask, but some candidates will spend 20 minutes on the first question. They either go into way, way too much detail or go off on a tangent, and for some reason it is very hard to politely cut them off. I’ll let them know they’ve answered the question, that they don’t need to extrapolate any more, but they keep going. I think to myself, “If my internal clients were going to ask me a question, they would want a crisp, articulate answer, right? They want someone who can summarize and articulate without having to dive down into the minutiae.” Rambling is definitely a red flag.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés and cover letters?

Their résumés have to be as crisp and concise as their answers to questions during an interview. It is important to list and summarize key accomplishments without going on and on. I’ve seen detailed résumés that are five pages long and that, after reading through them, I still can’t figure out exactly what their job was and what they were doing.

I read a Wall Street Journal article this week on the topic of thank-you notes. In it, Google’s director of recruiting said that a candidate made a good impression by sending cupcakes that spelled Google to him after the interview. How would you respond to something like that?

I don’t know that I would respond well. I might laugh initially. That might be kind of cool at Google, but here probably not. It’s a matter of reading the culture.

Would quality candidates have a better shot contacting you directly, or should they go through human resources?

It depends on whether I’m looking for a particular position. I have had people send me résumés. I do pick them up, especially if I am interested or looking for a candidate in that particular area, but many of the résumés I get don’t match whatever position I’m looking to fill at the moment, and I don’t keep unsolicited résumés that people send to me on file.

What three interview questions do you always ask and why?

1. What is it about your current role or job or assignment that makes you want to be here today talking to me?

That is different from asking, Why are you coming here today? I want to understand what is going on right now with their current assignment. Are they not challenged? Are they looking for a better opportunity? You’d be amazed at how people might answer that question. They could tell you that they just had a fight with their boss. It’s interesting to see how much people will share with you with very little prompting. It’s like when you have a conversation with somebody on an airplane and you’re shocked at how much they are willing to tell you about themselves. Too much information can be a red flag.

2. Describe what you do best or what is your ideal job.

I want to know how they work best and if that matches our team environment. In their answers, are they talking about working with their peers or being more of an individual contributor? Who are they mentioning as they talk about their environment and who they are working with? Are they talking about the equipment and machines? Or are they talking about the people?

3. Why you would pick this industry, or more specifically, PG&E? What attracted you to the job?

I want to know if they did any research and if they understand what we do. Also, their answers give me a lot of insight into our reputation externally. It’s a helpful question for me because I can find out whether our message and what our CEO is talking about is clear, and whether our stand on environmental efficiency, which is a huge priority for us, is being discussed.

Sarah Mitchell is an executive recruiter with The Alexander Group. She directs the firm’s San Francisco office.