Sarah Palin's CIO on Hunting for Bear and IT Staff

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I think it's both because you have instinct, but you can learn better ways to act on your instinct. You learn to be more fair to the person who's applying for the job. It goes back to not expecting them to have all the answers when they come in. A lot of people tend to put all of the responsibility on the person interviewing for the position. But you as the interviewer have the responsibility to articulate what you're looking for; you can't expect a candidate to articulate that for you.

What do you consider a successful hire?

When the person performs as I envision they would. When you hire someone, you think they have the right skill sets and they are going to be a fit. When that actually happens and they surpass your expectations, that's a successful hire.

What was your biggest hiring mistake?

I hired somebody out of fear that I wouldn't be able to fill the position. I felt like I was already asking everybody in the office to do too much, and I was worried about the impact of work not getting done on everyone else. I felt I needed to fill the position quickly and I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find another person to fill it. I didn't do my normal due diligence.

Do you have any bad interview stories?

I can't think of any interviews that were bad. I have had some tough evaluations where I've had to tell people that they were not getting their merit increase. It's not fun, but it's necessary. As a manager, if you don't help somebody overcome their flaws, if you don't hold the mirror out to show them what their performance has been, they aren't going to get any better. It's incumbent on you as a manager to help them get better and help them know what the steps are to get better. Talking about it is the difficult part.

Have you ever had a situation where you really liked a candidate, but other people on your team didn't? What happened? Did you ever hire the candidate?

We came close to that one time, but in the end I decided not to hire the person. It was absolutely for the best. I had to take a step back and force myself to listen to the team. You don't always want to hear something different from what you're thinking.

Do you think dissention is good?

I don't necessarily think of it as dissention. I think of it as everyone having an opportunity to talk about what they observed. It's a sorting-through process. There are times every week that one of the deputies will say to me, "Do you really want to do that?" And I appreciate that because they are not serving me well and they are not serving the state if they aren't willing to tell me when they think I'm wrong.

What's your advice for climbing the ladder in state government?

My advice to somebody climbing the ladder internally is to be open to being mentored and to mentor others, and to remember it's not all about you. [It's about serving the state].

What advice would you give to someone interviewing with a chief information officer?

You need to have a vision. It could be about technology or about your management style. It's something that's uniquely you. You can't just be quoting from an article in PC Magazine about the latest trends. If you're applying for a manager position, what makes you different from the person in a line position? What unique skills do you bring? I think people are a little afraid to do this sometimes. I think they want to talk about the things they know or the so-called right answer, the safe answers. Remember, I read all those management books, too.

When someone walks into your office to interview with you, what should they expect?

They should expect a conversation. I'll ask questions, but these questions are designed to create a conversation about how you view management and what your experience has been and what goofs you have made in the past and what you've learned from them. I don't want to hear yes, no, since 1987. It's not a test.

Part of my job is to pull out of the candidate the things that are important to me. We have a structured interview process when we are interviewing for director-level positions, but I go off script, and it makes everybody very nervous. If I ask one candidate something, I will ask every candidate, from a skill set standpoint and a management standpoint.

We also go through an ethics scenario. That's important to me. I put people on the hot seat when it comes to ethics and give them scenarios where they might have to confront me about something, to see how they react. I want them to understand how seriously we take it. ETS is one of the divisions that gets hit by vendors. I want them to understand what my standards are and what the governor's standards are. We can't afford to have anyone who doesn't understand that.

None of us is perfect. When you have a candidate who you have probed and probed and they still appear to be without fault, that makes me nervous. It doesn't mean you have to manufacture some fault; I have to figure out a way to see if there's something there that I'm not seeing.

What's appropriate to wear to an interview?

I set a pretty professional standard in my office so I would expect someone to come to an interview dressed professionally. I don't care about their skill sets if they can't come to an interview presenting themselves in the best possible way.

What are your interview pet peeves?

Answering a cell phone. People always do this really quickly. "Oh, I'm sorry, let me shut it off." You're coming to an interview. At what point were you going to think about turning off your cell phone? When I was interviewing somebody for the lieutenant governor's office, I remember somebody answering their cell phone. There were other things that they had done that had already raised red flags and that was the last straw.

Would you ever interview someone who called you directly or who sent on a letter or résumé to you?

If they are applying here within this department and their résumé is interesting, I will probably agree to meet with them. I might not have a position open for them, but I will meet with them.

What advice do you have for job seekers about constructing their résumés or cover letters?

There's this debate over whether a résumé should be one page or two pages. What candidates fail to think about is all the other stuff hiring managers have to read. Make your résumé easy to read. Make it easy to follow, and if it takes two pages to give your pertinent experience, then take two pages.

We have a portal called Workplace Alaska where people input their experience. I'll sometimes get Workplace Alaska information from candidates that says they are applying for a different job in some other part of state government. They don't tailor their application or cover letter to one of my specific openings. If I have enough applicants, I'll set that one aside because obviously they are just looking for a job. They are not really looking to work here. I want somebody to really want to work here.

A cover letter to me says, "I'm really interested in this job. I care enough to try to summarize my experience for you in a cover letter rather than just giving you a mass produced résumé that I may have given to 1,500 other people."

What three interview questions do you always ask candidates?

I start off by asking, "Tell me about your experience." That's your opportunity to sell your experience. I'm not constricting you in any way.

Second, "How do you keep yourself sharp as a manager?" You have to be sharp as a manager, so what is it that you do for yourself that keeps you sharp.

And the last thing I always ask is, "Why should I hire you?" My goal is that you'll understand what my needs are and you'll tell me you can and want to meet those needs.

What impact did the presidential race have on your organization.

The impact on us was the large number of public records requests that hit the state. Because we maintain those servers, we are the ones who had to do the research and we are still searching for e-mails that people have requested. Governor Palin is very visible, and there are lots of people who support her and like her, and there are lots of people who are concerned about her rising in any way, shape or form, so we continue to get a lot of public records requests that we have to respond to.

Is Governor Palin going bear hunting with you?

No. She's a big hunter and a big fisherman. I have never asked her if she'd rather be fishing than hunting. I suspect that perhaps she likes to fish maybe just a tad more, but I think if she has a chance to get away she'd love to go.

Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group.She works out of the executive search firm's Houston office.

This story, "Sarah Palin's CIO on Hunting for Bear and IT Staff" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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