Common mistakes in a CIO interview: Tips for job seekers

Interviewing for a new job? CIO recruiter Shawn Banerji says you need to know about "competency-based" interviewing. Also, learn mistakes to avoid.

SearchCIO.com senior news writer Linda Tucci continues her discussion about careers in part two of this podcast series with CIO recruiter Shawn Banerji, managing director of technology and business services at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in New York.

In this installment, Banerji talks about common mistakes CIOs make when interviewing. Jargon, of course, is a no-no, but so is underestimating your interviewer's understanding of technology -- in particular, the value that technology can bring to an organization. Banerji explains the trend toward "competency-based" interviewing and how to make a business case for your talent and skills.

BIOGRAPHY: Based in New York, Banerji recruits CIOs and CTOs across a variety of industries, including banking and insurance, publishing and media, as well as process industries such as energy and distribution. He also has extensive experience in the technology and business process outsourcing marketplace. This includes shared/business services search work for large corporations. Prior to joining Russell Reynolds in 1999, Banerji worked in the advertising industry at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc.. He is fluent in Bengali, English, and Hindi.


Read the full transcript from this podcast below:

Linda Tucci:  Hi, this is Linda Tucci, senior news writer for SearchCIO.com. I'm talking today with Shawn Banerji. Shawn is managing director of technology in the business services practice at the executive search firm Russell Reynolds; Hi Shawn.

Shawn Banerji:  Hi, how are you?

Linda Tucci:  I'm fine, thanks for joining us. Shawn, you're in the market, in the recruitment business. Are there big no-no's that a CIO applicant really should avoid when they want to get past that initial interview.

Shawn Banerji: I think one of the traps that many people fall into and it's an easy one, but I think it's a must avoid, is around jargon. When people start to speak in the language of technology and not in the language of business, that can really cause a very significant disconnect; and I've seen more people come away from interviews that they thought had gone great and doing feedback with the client only to find out that at least half of the conversation might as well have been spoken in a foreign language, because, it again, focused much more on technical competency than it did on business value creation. I mean, no one cares how elegant the architecture is, they want to know "How did it improve your speed to market or takeout cost?"

So that's one no-no. The other area that I think sometimes people don't always take into consideration when interviewing for these types of roles is that there's often an assumption that the person sitting across the table from you does not have any degree of technical knowledge. And it's not that they are again, going to be a programmer or have a systems background. But they are, very often these days people who from a user's standpoint, really understand how technology can work within an organization, again, in order to create value. And you've got to, from that standpoint, really listen and pay attention to what the person is saying because in many cases these people will actually almost frame up the problem and tell you "how to sell them" if you will. But because many technologists, unfortunately, have not been given the opportunity to fully develop their client or communication skills, they tend to over speak and under listen. And that can be a real detriment in the interview process. In fact, we've seen some people who, believe it or not, have because of simply their ability to listen and engender that kind of empathy with the person they're sitting across from, have advanced in processes and gotten a role where in other respects, in respect to the requirements, they weren't as capable as the other folks.

Linda Tucci: Yeah, so their ability to listen and communicate...

Shawn Banerji:And really hear.

Linda Tucci:...And really hear trumped maybe even their qualifications.

Shawn Banerji:  Yeah, that's the great irony of some of these things is that the best person does not always get the job so to speak. And I know best person is a relative term.

Linda Tucci: Yeah, when you said that in an interview sometimes the interviewer will frame a problem and offer that CIO applicant a chance to solve it, do these problems that are being framed mainly have to do with saving money or are they more theoretical?

Shawn Banerji: Ironically, they're usually much more practical than that in that they're often, the reason they're even having the conversation to begin with is because there are some very significant pain points or points of breakage. And when they frame up a scenario for you let's say, nine times out of ten that scenario is born of a present or recent pain point or set of circumstances. And what they're seeking is you know, it's almost like going to a doctor's office, and I joke; I say "You've got to be able to diagnose this ill. You've got to be able to listen, and then provide them with some very practical guidance and feedback on where you've experienced or seen this before."

It's almost like a little bit of a business case study and I think theory is the worst thing you can possibly have happen where you know, you have this wonderful theoretical discussion and you come out of the room and three hours later the person that interviewed them says "Great person, looked good in a suit or a skirt or whatever, good background, pedigree. What did that person really do?" It's about being able to illustrate your point with concrete examples, almost like a mini business case. And many organizations have now moved to, and we use it ourselves, competency based interviewing for how they vet candidates.

And competency based interviewing is specifically developed to strip away theory and veneer and focus on specific contribution. So you need to be able to hear what they're saying, draw a parallel or analogous example of where you experienced something similar, define what the opportunity or challenge was, your role in developing the strategy and subsequently executing in order to solve or take advantage of that problem or opportunity, and then provide them with the specific result, financial or otherwise. And do so in a fairly succinct fashion. Those are the kinds of things that really make an impact and are meaningful. It's better that they come away from the meeting being able to say "That's the person who solved the dilemma that Ann Taylor had because they weren't able to identify who their affluent customers were who were using the AT credit card."

That's the kind of thing that you want someone to come away, you don't want them to come away thinking "This guy really, or this woman really knows how to install an ERP." And don't get me wrong, there are any number of cases where they really need someone who can do the ERP but you've got to kind of move beyond purely what the technical requirement is and understand "How is this hurting you?" and then how have you gone about doing similar things in terms of fixing it.

Linda Tucci:  So bedside manner, being able to listen, and then astute enough to come up with a diagnosis and then bring your skills to bear, on how to solve whatever problem is on the table with examples from your own career.

Shawn Banerji:  Precisely. You have to be able to move beyond the theory.

This was first published in June 2008

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