12:57 PM
Larry Tieman
Larry Tieman

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 (

"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.

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 [email protected].

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