Tech & Work

No-nonsense interviewing strategies that work

Interviewing job candidates can prove difficult, even with practice. Columnist Bob Weinstein shares some key strategies and techniques that can help ensure that interviews for tough spots, such as the CIO's right hand, go smoothly.


Interviews can be tough for everyone—for the job seeker and for the tech manager seeking the perfect candidate. The process can be particularly nerve-wracking if the person you are looking to hire will be a high-level direct report. In that particular scenario, there is much more involved in conducting an interview and evaluating job candidates. It’s a complex process that must be done correctly to be successful.

Prepare, prepare, prepare
Before you meet with any candidate, get prepared well before the interview—perhaps even by calling candidates in for low-key discussions. Make sure you know the skills, both technical and personal, that are needed to do the job well and that you’re clear on the job’s objectives and your expectations for the position.

Randy Nelson, former CIO and managing director of the Wendover Group, Inc., an executive search firm in Houston, advises tech leaders to prepare written interview questions.

“It’s a big mistake winging it, because you inevitably fail to ask important questions,” he said. “Yet be flexible and veer from the prepared questions and ask other ones triggered by an applicant’s answers.”

Many CIOs and top executives opt to have HR or an outside executive recruiter do a cursory first screening for time's and efficiency's sake. If candidates pass muster, they’re recommended for an interview with the CIO.

Setting the tone
Once a promising candidate crosses the threshold into the CIO office, the hiring effort is in his or her hands. Millions of words have been expended on the importance of first impressions, but CIOs would be smart to take a holistic approach to assessing a candidate and not put so much emphasis on behavioral patterns. Many candidates may find it difficult to control their nervousness and might be prone to hyperactivity or chattiness. You can risk losing incredible candidates because they displayed human failings during a formal interview process.

The burden is on an interviewer to make sure candidates feel comfortable so that an easygoing rapport is established. Ask questions in a conversational tone so that candidates feel comfortable enough to deliver good answers. Encourage candidates to be themselves and demonstrate their qualifications for the job.

Along with technical and personal skills, Nelson says that a cultural fit is equally important.

“Don’t assume the candidate will fit into the corporate culture,” he explained. “All corporate cultures are different. Yours might be laid back, but the candidate may be more suitable for a high-tension, superaggressive culture or a traditional, bureaucratic one.”

Why behavioral techniques are catching on
A growing number of interviewers are using behavioral interview techniques to get candidates to demonstrate skills by citing concrete examples. Consider this behavioral question: "Tell me about a time when you had to work on a team and the others didn’t seem to be pulling their fair share?" The goal for questions such as these is that the candidate's answer will reveal his or her team-building or management skills.

“If good questions are posed well, the behavioral interview will tell you about candidates’ attitudes, work habits, and skills by describing real actions taken in real circumstances,” said Allen Salikof, president and CEO of MRI, Inc., a Cleveland-based executive search firm. “This is more effective than asking them to speak in the abstract about themselves.”

By the same token, behavioral interviews can be particularly harrowing for candidates who lack sophisticated communication skills, Salikof said. "It forces them to be razor-sharp."

The behavioral interview is also a chance for interviewees to be original. “If the candidate delivers programmed responses, chances are you have heard the answer before, and it will sound canned.”

Some helpful tips on conducting effective interviews
Nelson offers the following tips for ensuring that each candidate interview provides valuable insight to help you hire the right staffer:
  • Find out about the candidate’s education (general and specific), experience, and knowledge before he or she arrives for an interview.
  • Consider the behavioral competencies important for success in the job. Think about and document these before you begin looking for candidates. They can be grouped into three general performance factors: intellectual qualities, interpersonal characteristics, motivational factors.
  • Spend more time focusing on interpersonal skills than intellectual qualifications.
  • Maintain control of the interview without being overbearing. Having a plan for the interview should aid you in this endeavor.
  • Determine the difference between overall success and the candidate's input or contribution to that success. A good question to ask about a project noted on a resume or mentioned by the candidate is, "What was accomplished?" Then follow that with, “How was that accomplished and why?” Drive down to the specific behavioral competencies (qualities) that enabled the candidate to contribute to the overall success of the project.
  • Take notes during the interview. Make sure you record both positives and negatives, starting at the outset of the interview, to help you remember important points when culling down the final candidate list.
  • Allow time for the candidate to ask you questions, and answer them as appropriate. If you see the candidate as a viable possibility, now’s the time to start selling the job and the company during the interview. The interview process is when you begin building rapport and a relationship with the successful candidate, who may become important to accomplishing your own goals as CIO.
  • Always end the meeting on a positive note, even if you think the candidate is not a good fit for the position or will not be your choice.

How to proceed following the interview
When and if a candidate makes a great impression, and you are clearly interested in pursuing hiring him or her, the candidate should be interviewed by some of the company’s principals, such as the CEO and top managers. This can sometimes be a costly investment in travel and time.

“If all of the top brass is located in one building, it’s just one day of back-to-back interviews,” explained Nelson. “But, if they’re spread out geographically, it might mean flying the candidate around the country. This is important and shouldn’t be given short shrift. Your colleagues’ input is critical. After all, they’re also going to be working with this person.”

Finally, Nelson recommends having two backup candidates waiting in the wings, just in case the first preference backs out. After all, the hiring process isn’t complete until a job is accepted and the hiring date is set.

Editor's Picks