If you want to land the right position, ask the right questions

And if your questions elicit "the look," run away from that job as politely as possible.

My first clue that the job I was interviewing for could be something special was the absence of "the look."

"The look" is my term for the facial expression we've all seen when we've asked someone something they just weren't prepared to answer. I call it the look. They don't want to seem surprised, dumbfounded or impolite, but they do want to buy a little time. They seem to make direct eye contact with you, but you can tell that their mental focus is somewhere else. Usually what has their full attention is an urgent internal search for some cogent words that will seem responsive to this question that they never thought they would receive. The look is not accompanied by words, though you may hear some "hmmm's" and "uh's." There is also no nodding that would indicate "yes," and no head-shaking to indicate "no." Some variations include letting the mouth hang open slightly or tilting the head a few degrees. Even with these variables, however, the look is unmistakable.

I first noticed the look when I was a university instructor asking a question that a student wasn't prepared for. Later, as a manager, I'd see the look from time to time on the faces of my employees. One time, I even saw it briefly when I asked my wife's parents for their daughter's hand in marriage. That last example demonstrates that seeing the look isn't a bad thing in itself, since that turned out wonderfully for me. But my advice to anyone who sees it when they are interviewing for a job is to run.

Before I tell you about that job interview where my questions didn't elicit the look, I should tell you something about my earlier experiences in job interviews. Early on in my career, I had, "the disease to please," and wasn't too critical about the conditions surrounding the prospective position. I saw job interviews as my chance to find out how I could help the prospective employer and to communicate my eagerness to do that. If I got the job I interviewed for, I had the nice feeling that the company wanted me, and I was happy -- for a while.

A few early positions turned out to be very different than the impression I'd received during the interview. Sure, some of those differences were positive, but most were negative, and in big ways. Clearly, my expectations weren't lined up properly with the day in and day out reality of the job. I can see now that this was mostly my fault. During the interview, I didn't particularly want to uncover things that didn't fit my idealized version of what I would be doing for the prospective employer.

It was slow in coming, but it finally dawned on me that it wasn't enough that a prospective company wanted me. Not even close, actually, if I wanted a better match to my expectations. I had to ask some probing questions during the interview. And if any of those questions prompted the look, I'd run, or at least get out as quickly as possible without sacrificing politeness and professionalism.

Eventually, my career had progressed to the point that I was interviewing with CEOs, chairmen and general managers of large enterprises for senior IT management positions. By then, I had learned to focus on the things that were most important to me, and so I would set out to determine the general management's view of IT's contribution to the enterprise. When it was my turn to ask questions, I might come at my issue by asking, "How does IT fit into your business strategy?" or "How does IT help the firm avoid cost, improve service and increase revenue?" or "Do you have a strategic goal in mind for IT and its value proposition to the enterprise?"

As if getting the look in response to any of these questions weren't bad enough, I would sometimes even hear things like, "We don't look at IT that way" or "IT is a necessary evil. It's techies with their toys talking jargon and not understanding the business that pays their salaries" or "They don't know their place. We need someone who will whip them into shape."

Of course, I didn't always feel like running out of an interview. After all, if I was going to insist that my questions not be met by the look, that insistence had to be reasonable, or I would never work in IT again.

One time in an interview, I asked a board chairman, "How do you see the distributed systems environment fitting into your business strategy?"

This gentleman didn't give me the look at all. He didn't even miss a beat before responding that distributed systems were very important to his strategy because he wanted his employees to have better access to critical information so that they could make the most effective business decisions possible and therefore simplify customer interactions.

To which I probably smiled and nodded. But inside, I was shouting, "Wow!"

He wasn't done. "Think about it," he said. "Our employees get defensive in front of our customers if they can't responsively get access to the information they need to properly serve them. If that happens, our customers start to roll their eyes. That's the exact opposite of the situation we need to establish with our distributed systems function."

Then he hooked me. He said, "Distributed systems are a critical link in allowing our employees to respond quickly and creatively to our client needs. Why? Simply because an effective distributed systems environment integrates local data with a pull-down of centralized information from many sources. If we want to move fast as a business, we must allow as many decisions as possible to be made at the edge of the enterprise. "Empowerment" is an overused word these days, but the last thing we need is to have every decision go up to some central point and back down just so everyone's backside is covered. That's bureaucratic and glacially slow. Our folks can only be creative and responsive if they have an environment that allows them to be, and our customers will sense this and our business will grow."

I was hooked because he used the word "creative" to describe what he wanted employees at the edge of the business do. I already knew that this is one of the most powerful energy releasers there is.

I was on board within 60 days. Over several years, I was able to assist the chairman and his general management team achieve the decentralized decision-making environment they had jointly committed to. While it took some time and their continued support, their goal was eventually realized for each business in the enterprise.

My expectations? Exceeded. My sense of accomplishment and reward in that position was the highest in my career.

But, it took me a while to find, and it and didn't exactly happen by accident.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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