Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
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6/29/2011
12:57 PM
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.

Having a plan for what you will do during the first six months is a critical differentiator. Don't talk about goals without an accompanying plan. Don't be concerned that the plan isn't perfect.

I was on a panel to select a VP for another new organization within our company. I didn't think the organization should be formed and so was hostile to selecting a VP to run it. But one candidate came in with a plan for how to stand up the organization, prove its value, and partner with application development (which was my biggest concern). Now, I thought the plan was awful, but the candidate had taken the time to know my objections and came into the interview addressing them. That's how a VP works!

Other follow-up questions include: "Why do you want to be a VP?" "What do you see as the differences between being a director and a VP?" It's surprising how few directors have good answers to these predicable questions.

I also need to understand the candidate's weaknesses, so I next ask questions such as: "Tell me about the misconceptions people at work have about you." "I hear from other directors you are hard to work with--is there any truth to that?"

Moving Beyond Qualifications

Once I've established that a candidate is qualified, I ask my first level of "unusual" questions. One of my favorites: "How many points are there on the globe where by walking one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north you reach the place where you started?"

My intention is to see how the candidate thinks when pressed, similar to the situation where you're making a presentation and get asked a question you need to reason out. ("I'll have to get back to you" isn't always an option.)

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If the candidate gets unnerved by the question, I don't push it further. But if the candidate has the answer or part of the answer, I dig deeper to understand the reasoning.

Question Assumptions

Next, I ask questions with a teaching opportunity. For example: "When you look into a mirror, it reverses left and right. Why doesn't it reverse up and down?" Of course, the answer is that a mirror doesn't reverse left and right. The teaching point is that sometimes you're given a false assumption or fact as a starting point. Make sure the facts are correct.

Finally, I take the candidate down a rabbit hole with a situational question such as: "You get a call late Friday from the CIO who says, 'I am making a presentation to the corporate board Sunday on project X. If I have time, I want to give them an update on project Y. Can you get me a few slides to bring them up to date?'" The dilemma is that only one analyst, who I play in this scenario, knows the status of project Y, and when you reach him he's preparing to leave on a weekend getaway with his wife. No amount of persuading will get him to stay and give you the status.

Every candidate I have interviewed tries to find a way to get that information. Some get to the point of threatening the analyst with termination. Others have gone so far as to volunteer to travel with the analyst and his wife to get the information! They all jump down the rabbit hole in their eagerness to problem solve. The teaching point: Make sure you understand the need; analyze the problem before trying to solve it.

I want this new VP to know that I expect him or her to use good judgment, and when in doubt, ask. The correct answer is to call the CIO, explain the situation, and ask how important that status report is. Sometimes we have to do heroic work, but not every time.

There are many experts on interviewing and books with answers to typical interview questions. I expect some of their advice is different from mine. My thoughts are based on years of interviewing and observing the success and failures of those promoted, and asking myself what I should have asked.

The one true legacy a senior officer leaves behind is the strength of the management team he or she has developed.

Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at Larry@LarryTieman.com.

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