Tech & Work

Strategies for handling the in-your-face CIO job interview

In this second installment of our two-part series on interviewing for a CIO position, we examine some tactics for handling today's tougher, more demanding interviews.

If you haven't had an interview in a while, the aggressiveness of some of today's interviewers may surprise you. While it's not standard, you should expect to run into some intense, in-your-face interviews designed to weed out candidates, or at least designed to learn more about you than the benign interview can glean.
This is the second article in a two-part series on interviewing for the CIO position. Part 1 deals with four areas: knowing yourself, knowing about the job, practicing for case questions, and knowing more about the company than the interviewer does. Clickhere to see that article.
Think fast!
Thinking on your feet is the rule of the day, because these interviews can include the following kinds of questions, according to Dana Curtis of the Office of Career Services at Harvard University :
  • Behavioral or situational questions
  • Role-play questions
  • Industry-specific questions
  • Current events questions
  • Illegal questions
  • Case questions

While these are not always difficult questions to answer, they do require a creative and insightful response. When put on the spot, take the best information you have and give the best possible answer quickly to show that you can process any question thoughtfully. Think outside the box. Try not to sound rehearsed.

Expect a gauntlet
On the return interviews—when you meet with several executives either together or one-on-one—expect that you will be running an interviewer's gauntlet at least part of the time. This can mean adversarial approaches, deliberate disinterest, embarrassing questions, rudeness, and other challenges that interviewers might throw your way. It might even include direct criticism. If any of this happens, remain calm and polite. Show that you're not too sensitive, not too easily flustered. Show also that you have a sense of humor and that you are confident.

For instance, someone may boldly state that he's not impressed with your resume. He may not mean it. He may be deliberately adversarial to see how much you believe in yourself. Persuade him that he's wrong about you, and that your job experience and interpersonal skills are impressive.

Examples of tough questions
  • Tell me about negative past experiences and what you did about them. Have several stories prepared for discussion. End this discussion on an upbeat note, Curtis says.
  • Tell me about your best accomplishments, chapter and verse (in other words, all the gory details). Curtis says, prepare specific examples and stories from your past.
  • What can you do for our company that these 25 other applicants can't do? There may be some strong skill that you might want to mention, but this interviewer wants to know that you have enthusiasm, strategic thinking ability, leadership, responsibility, a good sense of humor, creativity, and flexibility. Do you have a story or two to illustrate this?
  • If you were our competitor, what would you do to run us out of business?
  • Tell me about your most recent calculated risk. Have three or four risk-taking events ready to share, and be able to say why it was a risk and how it turned out. What would you have done if it had turned out badly?
  • If you could invite anyone you would like to a dinner party (dead or alive), which ten people would you invite? What would you talk about? You're on your own here. Just think it out beforehand. Who do you admire? Who would be the "devil's advocate" at the table? What would they have in common?
  • If you could trade places with anyone for a week, who would it be? Ditto the dinner party comments above.
  • If you could make a major policy change at this company, what would it be?

Talking about negative things in your past
What do you do if they ask you to describe some negative experience in your past, and they seem like they want to catch you in something? Preparation beforehand is important, according to David G. Jensen, managing director of Search Masters International in Sedona, AZ: "First, do your SWOT analysis. [This is an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses. See Search Masters International's Website .] Then, you will be better able to help the interviewer understand how you got out of that negative situation."

Jensen provides this example: "If I were asked to discuss a negative situation in my past, I might reply, 'I was fired from a job, which is a pretty negative situation.' And they might ask me to tell them more about it. I would give them some of the circumstances involved and then discuss the personal chemistry issue. I would talk about how, for example, I had made this move to that company totally in love with the job title and pay, but not considering any of the personal chemistry issues that were going to be so important. I'd tell them that, 'When I got fired, I knew the moment it happened that it went back to my acceptance of the job. It was a basic problem of my not doing due diligence on the people I would be working for, and my ability—as a certain kind of personality style—to mesh with their style. And, I'll never let that happen again, which is why I want to ask you about blah, blah, blah.' Then turn it around to a question you might ask of that person."

Tempted to lie?
When forced to think on your feet, you're often uncomfortable because you don't know how to answer the questions. In fact, "You are always tempted to lie," Jensen says. "It's always there. It's so easy. It's just that in the interviewing process, any kind of fabrication whatsoever—whether it's putting a little more negative spin on a past supervisor than there was or shouldering the blame a little less than you could—those are all a bit of a lie, and it's so easy to do that. But if you get into this fabrication and this web of things you have said that are wrong, you will get caught on it. It will come back and bite you where it counts. Easy-sounding lies do come back and get you. So avoid saying something as opposed to saying it with a wrong intent."

Jensen gives this example: "It's so easy to lie about income. It's easy to say, 'I am currently at $92,000’ (and you're really at $86,000—which doesn't seem like a problem because it's still in the pay range of that position). More and more companies take the information you give them about salaries, and they don't check it then with your current employer, because they can't. But as soon as you begin the job, the HR manager calls his buddy at your old company and says, 'I need to verify income for Phil. He says his last income was $92,000—is that correct?' 'No, it is not correct,' the buddy says. 'He was at $86,000.'”

Jensen says, "I know some people who got into significant difficulty doing this—including someone who lost his job six to eight weeks into it. So you really cannot fabricate something because it will come back." Jensen adds that, while it is not recommended, it is easier to hide things rather than lie about them.

Differing points of view vs. lying
How do you answer questions about being fired or about problems in your last job when your interpretation about why you left doesn’t mesh with your employer’s interpretation? Jensen says, "That happens all the time. Someone will say, ‘It was a mutual understanding that I should leave’—which is usually the way someone might word it—when in actuality he got fired and didn't know he was losing his job until he was called into the boss’ office on a Friday afternoon. There are certain common ways people will defend big screwups on their part. That's one of them. I think HR mangers do not look at it in the same negative way as lying about a salary or lying on your resume. I think that in most cases they let that slide. However, they do very diligent references in the case of layoffs."

Jensen adds, "Hiring managers or HR departments really do check references. Not only do they call your three references, but they call three more references that they get from those people, and in about an hour, they know what really happened to you at your last job."

Don't over-prepare your answers
Jensen suggests that you can read too many books and over-prepare your answers to tough questions, so you wind up sounding like you're reading answers off a 3x5 card. He says, "The right answer relates to an individual's personal experience, unique to that person's situation. Be fresh and natural. Remember, there are no right answers to interviewing questions ."

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