Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
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6/29/2011
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Larry Tieman
Larry Tieman
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How To Interview For VP: Expert Advice

Increase your chances of landing a VP role using these interview tips and tactics, culled from years of vetting senior IT managers.

Interviewing for a VP position within the IT organization is high stakes for all parties. The candidate is under the most pressure, of course, but the hiring officer has his or her reputation on the line as well. A bad decision can hurt organizational morale, productivity, and work relationships, and it can take years to correct.

In the last 10 years, I have interviewed more than 50 VP candidates, personally promoted about 10, and coached many others. These were in-house promotions amid strong competition, and the interviewers and interviewees knew each other well. It has been a long time since I made a bad promotion decision. But I have made them. I learned from my mistakes and developed an approach--a set of questions and expectations of each candidate--that has proved successful.

All parties must prepare for the interview. Hiring officers should set their expectations of the candidates in advance and have a documented process for determining the successful one. The candidates need to have researched the organization, job, and interviewers; know what they plan to say; and recognize that they're in a competition.

Candidates often think their accomplishments are proof enough that they should be promoted. I once interviewed a 25-year veteran for a VP position. The interview didn't go well from the start. She lacked energy and excitement. She answered my questions reluctantly and shallowly. After 30 minutes of half-hearted responses, I asked her why she seemed so unenthusiastic. She replied: "I think my record speaks for itself. I don't see why I need to interview for the promotion."

Next candidate.

Candidates Begin As Equals

Past achievements are just the ante to get the interview. Everyone goes into the interview as equals.

A promotion to VP is based on the candidate's demonstrated ability to work at that level. It's not based on the potential to work at that level. The interview is to confirm the candidate's qualifications and select among those determined to be qualified.

Candidates must sell themselves. I look for energy, structure in the answers, subtle efforts to influence, and the ability to lead. If a candidate can't sell me, then how could he or she ever sell a new program to the business or a change in technical direction to the technical staff? Convincing people, often with incomplete information or unknown motives, is a fundamental role of an IT VP.

I go into these interviews predisposed to believe all the candidates are qualified because of the screening done by the CIO, HR department, and senior staff. But most directors do a poor job in the interview, and it generally starts with a lack of preparation.

Open-Ended Questions Equal Opportunity

Even open-ended questions like "Tell me about yourself" are an opportunity for candidates to be inventive and reveal more than is on their resumes. This is an invitation for them to talk about their rich experiences, set the tone, and address any negative perceptions.

When I was asked this question as a director, I went to a white board to discuss how I introduced data modeling, data engineering, and knowledge systems at American Airlines. I discussed the political challenges I encountered and technical breakthroughs we made. I stood at that white board for 90 minutes while the panel fired questions at me, and I used every opportunity to bridge to my experiences as a CFO, researcher, and combat pilot in order to offset the fact that I had been a director for only 14 months.

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If a candidate has a reputation for being arrogant, then he should weave into the narrative how he partnered with the business and/or forged teams to resolve design issues. If a candidate is perceived to have been too aggressive or uncooperative with peers, then she must discuss the pattern of actions that prove she has grown and changed. Address these perceptions up front and turn them to your advantage; don't let the interviewer ask you about them.

After this open-ended question, I want to know more about the candidate's understanding of and qualifications for the job. This version of the question is from Jack Cage (CageTalent.com).

"I'm very interested in your thoughts about this job. As you think about your background, how specifically does it line up with the job's requirements? Tell me about similar situations that you've faced, tasks you've been asked to take on, the specific actions you carried out, and results that you've achieved."

I am looking for some understanding of what the organization does and its challenges. Has the candidate done any research? Can he show me how his experience prepares him for this job?

When I was at FedEx, I started a software testing organization to be headed by a VP. I sent the five candidates a letter telling them I was looking for innovative thinking. None of them came to the interview with an original thought. After expanding my search, the seventh candidate came in with realistic and fresh ideas--and a plan.

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