Tech & Work

Showcase business talents in CIO job interviews

To get that coveted CIO position, you must prove in the interview that you have the business savvy and communication know-how to be a perfect fit for the executive role. Here's what you need to know to ace the CIO interview.

You've paid your dues in IT management, a golden opportunity has arisen, and you're preparing to interview for a CIO position. But it's been a while since you've sat for a job interview, and this time the interview is for the ultimate role. What is your prospective employer really looking for, and how best can you maximize your chances of success during this harrowing process?

Here are tips and advice from experts on how to ace that all-important CIO interview. Essentially, interviewing for a CIO role requires two resonant qualities: business savvy and communication skills. Candidates need to identify and articulate good examples of these skills in order to make an impact.

The reason to stress business experience

The CEO or another board-level executive typically interviews all positions for high-level tech leaders (CIO, CTO, VP of IS). From the CEO's perspective, it's the business, and how a CIO candidate can help the business achieve goals, that's most important. The CEO is not likely to be impressed by or interested in the intricacies of programming in .NET, for instance. But the CEO would like to hear how .NET could be used to revolutionize corporate processes.

Stephen Grace, a senior consultant with Hays IT Personnel, has interviewed 30 to 40 candidates for CIO roles during the last six months. Grace said final candidate decisions usually hinge on personality, as CEOs and board members want a good cultural and personality fit. But the most crucial and constant executive requirement today, Grace said, is a candidate who "has come from a business-driven culture, a leader who focuses on competencies rather than roles, and who is able to give examples of strong leadership and its ability to empower people."

Being able to demonstrate experience is imperative. Grace said many managers claim to have held strategic roles, but when questioned in detail about why they chose a particular strategy at their current or former job, they aren't able to articulate why a decision was made.

A candidate who could answer that question properly, with a response such as "it will move the business to this position in four years," would definitely have a leading edge. That, along with experience in quality assurance, change management, business process reengineering (BPR), and an actual knowledge of what's happening in the industry and where things are heading, is also important, Grace noted. A candidate who has experience in dealing with large steering committees is also considered valuable, since corporate decision making often involves committee leadership and involvement.

The interview questions to expect

When it comes to the actual interview questions, be prepared to be specific and detailed. Recruitment consultants say candidates should expect to give examples of projects they've led that have had a real impact on a business, and be able to demonstrate how they acted as a change agent. Here are four questions you can expect to answer in a CIO interview:

* Can you explain how you saw a business problem and implemented technology to solve it?

* What significant contribution did you make at your last company?

* Do you understand ROI, and can you articulate this understanding?

* How did you save money and improve the bottom line, and how did you measure these savings?

Job placement experts advise that candidates forgo the usual textbook responses. Saying "I aligned IT with the business strategy" is cliche and means little unless you can back it up with examples.

For instance, if your current or former employer's strategy was to reduce the head count by automating business processes, then how did you and the IT group contribute to achieving that?

The goal is to focus on what you've accomplished and steer responses away from backroom IT operations. Discuss how you developed relationships with other managers and how you were successful in gaining their respect; illustrate specifically what you did to achieve this.

Promoting specific qualities

Cindy Kraft, a career management coach at Executive Essentials, said management candidates must use required soft skills during a job interview to promote their expertise and leadership abilities.

CIO candidates need to talk about what they did in past roles to streamline processes, reduce head count, increase productivity, and so on, and support it with specific examples, Kraft explained. This part of the interview ties into a very standard interview question: What are you most proud of from a business viewpoint? The answer should be all about improving a company's bottom line, said Kraft.

Candidates should also be able to explain their succession planning strategy, since it's a vital element to today's enterprises and a real opportunity to realize cost savings.

"A CIO must be able to build motivated teams and begin developing leaders to move up the corporate ladder," said Kraft. Recruiting is expensive, and if the company has done a good job recruiting to date, a ready pool of talent already exists for a CIO.

"A candidate's ability to identify employees' strengths, talents, passion, and experience in coaching and promoting talent will all earn a CIO high marks with senior management," she explained.

In preparing for the interview, candidates have to shore up their own personal salesmanship. Not only do you have to be able to sell the value of a concept (a key CIO aspect), but candidates must be evangelists and convey a message clearly. Essentially, the objective is to enhance your profile as a technology leader. Good ways to do so are to be active in a user or industry group, to contribute to journals and magazines, and, for the brave-hearted, to speak at industry seminars and conferences. Not only does such participation raise a tech leader's career profile, but it also could help land job interviews.

Use every chance to showcase talents

When the interview winds down, and you're asked if you have any questions, it's time to draw the CEO's attention to what you can do for the company. This is the time to delve into specific questions about what technology and business issues the company is grappling with and offer potential solutions to those issues. Even if it's not a problem you've encountered on the job, experts recommend that you discuss any appropriate solutions that you're aware of.

This demonstrates two things: that you're up to date with emerging technologies, and that you understand how to apply those technologies to solve business problems. Make the CEO believe you are exactly the right person to lead and drive the changes essential to moving the company forward.

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