Executive interviews are unlike other positions you may have interviewed for in the past. There are normally several people or groups to interview with and the process can be much longer than for a typical IT management role. How you prepare and conduct yourself is the key, as in any interview, but at this level your presentation has to be perfect.
What's Important to Employers
Interviewing can make you feel powerless, but what's important to remember is that both parties are there to find out if this match will work out, much like a first date. Underneath all the resumes and interview questions, employers are essentially after three critical pieces of data.
- Are you capable of doing the job?
- Will you fit in with our culture?
- Are you passionate about what you do?
When you get to this level in IT, it becomes less about technical skills and more about your leadership and ability to influence people. If you've prepared yourself correctly, the career achievements you highlight will showcase the answers to these questions.
What You Should Expect in an IT Executive Interview
"Executives are often contacted initially by recruiters who screen interview candidates and review qualifications. This is often followed by a more formal interview with the recruiter or an HR manager in the client company," says Cheryl Lynch Simpson, career coach, resume writer and founder of Executive Resume Rescue.
"Depending on the employer's size and organizational structure, the candidate is interviewed next by other executive team members, a board committee, and/or their prospective manager. One or more of the interviews may be a group session with multiple interviewers present," says Simpson.
Arm Yourself With Information
Be prepared and know about the business and company. "One of IT recruiters' biggest complaints is candidates showing up to the interview having done no research. They have no clue what the company does, who their competitors are and how they are organized," says executive career coach Donald Burns. In order to be the most effective in your interview you need to arm yourself with as much data as you possibly can. Here is an article that will help you research your next employer.
This preparation should include knowing what products and services a company offers; reading through press releases and company's websites to see what they are putting out; and visiting there social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ to see what type of presence they have. "Research into the company's performance, and any news one can get through one's CIO network as to the performance of the preceding CIO will be an aid in developing hypotheses about what one should accentuate when talking about past experiences," says Peter High, author of World Class IT.
At the executive level you also need to have a keen understanding of what is going on within the business/industry that the company is a part of. You should be able to discuss industry trends and major events and unique challenges that the company has faced.
"You need to really understand the company, where it's going, where it's been and who's working there. When you're in the interview and you've done your homework, you sound smart. You already know what they are doing and you can focus on how you best fit in. Once you have all this data at your fingertips and you can begin to analyze and start to see how you fit into the company and how you can be the most impactful," says Dan Schawbel author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success.
The bottom-line is that regardless of the level of job you are interviewing for, this type of preparation is necessary, but at the IT executive level you've got to demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of the company you're interviewing with and the industry in which they reside.
If possible you should also find out about the people you're interviewing with. The more you know about the person sitting across from you, the more comfortable you will feel having a conversation with them. The deeper the insight into the company you are targeting the easier it becomes to be the solution to their problems.
Know Which of Your Achievements Matter
"Optimally, the characteristics that the company seeks in a CIO will be conveyed in the job spec. If those have been made available, lining up one's past experiences to those specs and addressing the points one-by-one will be important," says High.
You have to know what differentiates you from the other IT executives and be able to incorporate that information into your career achievements. Simpsons recommends knowing five to eight success stories from your career that are applicable to the job you're applying for.
She also advises clients to create a list of three to four key points that they want to make, "those things they most want their interviewer to know about them, then concentrate on slipping these into the interview whenever appropriate," says Simpson.
Common Interview Questions
"Candidates are normally also asked to describe themselves, their personality, their leadership style and their career goals. Lastly, they should expect their resume to be used as an interview agenda, which means they must be prepared to answer any and all questions raised by the document," says Simpson.
Going through the mock interview which, we'll discuss later, will help you develop authentic and natural-sounding answers to these questions that cause many candidates to stammer or hesitate.
What's your management style? At the executive level you need to know your style, why it works and be able to articulate that well.
What are your biggest strengths? You should try to align your strengths with the company's needs. Be able to articulate career stories that highlight some of these.
What are your biggest weaknesses? Experts warn about this trick question. Simpson suggests selecting a weakness that you have worked to improve. "Ideally it is one that they have essentially turned into a strength through their self-improvement efforts. For example, if a perfectionist has learned to balance the excesses of demanding too much of themselves or others, then the result is a strong quality focus that can be sustained over time. This is a good thing," says Simpson.
While some say the right answer should be a strength disguised as weakness, other says it's OK to have a more realistic weakness as long as you can demonstrate what steps you've taken to improve it and how it's made a positive effect on your performance.
"An honest answer should be provided, though clearly not one that will leave the interviewer wondering if the candidate is competent. Answers like 'I work too hard' are too obvious and disingenuous," says High.
Can you describe an unsuccessful project you were involved in? This is another tricky question that requires some finesse. You don't want to shift blame, but simply outline what went wrong, what you learned and the steps you took to ensure it didn't happen again.
What salary are you looking for? Don't talk about salary unless you have to, according to Schawbel. "This can be the worst question; the reality is if you mention how much you're being paid, it will be harder to negotiate your salary," says Schawbel.
However, sometimes you don't have a choice. In that case, Simpson suggests what she refers to as the "peel the onion" approach. That is, answer tough questions with short, well-thought-out replies that give the interviewer one layer of information at a time without volunteering too much.
"With the salary question, assuming the candidate has completed compensation research in advance, I would start by replying with, 'I appreciate that XYZ Company, like me, doesn't want to waste time on an interview unless we're in the same salary ballpark. If you can share the salary range you typically offer for this position, I would be happy to confirm that I am in that same ballpark.' When the interviewer pushes for details, push gently back with another open question such as, 'My research suggests that your salary range for this position stretches from X to Y. Can you confirm how accurate this is?' If the interviewer intensifies their queries and insists on a firm reply, offer a $10K to $20K range that is 10% to 30% higher than your salary goal. This will give you negotiations room," says Simpson.
There are plenty of places for you to research career salaries that will give you a range to work with, like Salary.com, Indeed.com and PayScale.com.
What would you do in the first three months?"The bottom line throughout the interview is to be sure that a plan is conveyed so that the interlocutors have an understanding that the candidate knows what he or she will do, and the road toward improved performance of the department," says High.
Make sure your answers are concise and to the point. A person at the executive level likely has a wealth of experience and knowledge that they would like to highlight. Experts warn, however, that answers that drone on aren't good and can cause the interviewer to zone out.
"You want to answer questions as quickly as possible and then shut up," says Burns. The interview process is a two-way conversation.
They may also ask questions about previous employers, such as what was the biggest accomplishment you achieved for your previous employer? "The basic root questions comes down to what did you accomplish in the last X years. That's what the recruiter or employer wants to know, what was the biggest thing you did for them? What did you do over and above your job description that made a lasting impact on their business?" says Burns.
Another tip is to follow up your questions to get more feedback. For example, after answering a question about your last position you could ask the interviewer, "Is that the information you were looking for?"
Even with all your preparation a question might still catch you off-guard. Don't panic, simply take a moment to think of your answer or ask the interviewer for clarification if appropriate.
Get Feedback Before the Interview
"If you don't invest in a resume writer or coach then I would suggest that you get someone who knows your business, a coworker or colleague. Have that person do a mock interview. Have them ask questions. What you'll find is that people hesitate and have to think because they don't have an answer ready. That kind of role playing can make a huge difference in the interview," says Burns.
Have your friend or colleague go through your resume's list of employers and ask you typical interview questions. Some key things to cover are your specific achievements at your last few places of employment that were impactful to the business and why you left your last position? Have a reasonable answer to any obvious items on your resume like being affected by a downsizing or gaps in your career history.
"If you don't get feedback you can't improve so get feedback before you even get to the interview," says Schawbel.
Master Your Body Language
"Body language is 80% of communication and is extremely important. You can show your that you're interested or not interested based on your posture and eye contact. They want to hire someone who is really excited about the job," says Schawbel. You can't afford any negative body language shutting down your chances.
"Body language and personality expression in an interview are critically important, considering that employers generally hire not the most skilled or best educated candidate, but the one with the best personality and team 'fit.' Hence, a firm handshake, exceptional eye contact -- which does not mean constant eye contact -- a genuine smile, appropriate laughter, and a relaxed, engaged posture are all key. I recommend limiting (or hiding) nervous gestures, taking notes without breaking eye contact too frequently, and matching one's communication style to that of the interviewer," says Simpson.
Another tip Burns offers is to record a video of yourself during the mock interview. Doing so will help you more easily identify behavior like crossing your arms, slumping your shoulders or glancing at your mobile device. Seeing those tendencies for yourself makes it easier to accept and modify.
One item that Burns sees regularly, specifically with clients under the age of 30, is that even during an interview they are checking their mobile device. Don't do this in an interview, be in the moment. "Put your device somewhere where you can't get it in your hands. Looking at your device and not paying attention will hurt you in the interview," says Burns.
Make a Great First Impression
Again, body language is critical and, according to research from Psychology Today, how you perform in the first moments of your interview will leave a lasting impression on the interviewer or interviewers. Maintain eye contact, good posture and offer a firm handshake.
Dress appropriately. Experts agree that unless you're told otherwise, a suit, and if you're a man, a tie are likely necessary. If you've got an inside contact you can ask them the dress code; whatever it is, dress up one level higher.
"A suit and a tie should always be the default, as it conveys respect. The last thing you want to be is under-dressed for the occasion, as it makes the candidate look less than serious or at worst disrespectful or clueless," says High.
Ask the Right Questions
The questions you ask can be the difference between having the job you always dreamed of and being shown the door.
"Ask questions that help you to delve into the corporate culture and/or the strengths of the people you're talking to. Ask open-ended questions that explore company the company mission, corporate values, the executive's leadership strengths and the department's performance targets for the position the candidate is being interviewed for," says Simpson.
"What is the one key priority that you want me to accomplish coming in here?" You're essentially asking why are you hiring me? If you found out you were a replacement, says Burns, you could then follow up and ask, what was the problem with the other person or what was the challenge they had? It shows you're in tune and not reading from a script," says Burns.
"Offer a brief, two-minute, achievement-rich summary of your candidacy. Restate your interest in the job and ask when you may contact the hiring executive to learn their decision or next steps. Make an appointment for this call and don't let anything prevent you from making the call on time," says Simpson.
You need to come off as excited about the position and the opportunity without seeming desperate. "You want to make sure that they know that you really want the job. You need to leave a lasting impression that you'll do whatever it takes," says Burns. Continue to follow-up, a successful job search requires persistence.
Follow-up (and Send a Thank You Note)
Directly after the meeting, while your memory is fresh, write down any notes you have or any areas that you would like to follow-up on. Incorporate this information into your thank you note.
"Always send a thank you note and raise points that were discussed in the interview as a means of reconnecting. If there were any loose ends from the interview, address those in the follow up email," says High.
The experts agree that following up with a handwritten note as well as an email will leave a lasting impression on the hiring manager.
"Always send a hand-written or signed note within 48 hours. I strongly advise my clients to supplement email thank you cards with cards or personal notes since you can never be certain your email will be delivered," says Simpson.
Read more about careers in CIO's Careers Drilldown.
This story, "9 ways to ace the IT executive interview" was originally published by CIO.