Hank Leingang was interviewing for the CIO post at a major company when his internal alarm bell went off.
He realised that the other executives were engaged in an ongoing debate over what the CIO role should be.
"They couldn't articulate what they expected from the CIO, and they were also clearly not interested in having an 'impact CIO' in the organisation," says Leingang.
Discerning what a prospective boss wants is a survival skill everyone should have, particularly in IT, where duties, responsibilities and expectations are frequently underdefined or unarticulated.
You can get the information you need by asking the right questions of the right people, seeking out insiders for unfiltered perspectives and using the whole interview experience to get an accurate view of what the position really entails.
The stakes are high. Jerry Luftman, associate dean at Stevens Institute of Technology's School of Technology Management, recalls a colleague and proven IT leader who took a CIO job without conducting due diligence. He soon found that the company's culture was too formal and that the scope of work was too broad for him to succeed. He left within a year.
John Chambers, president of JCC Executive Partners, an executive consulting firm, tells of a colleague who was recruited by a friend to join a company as head of engineering. But he left after six months because he was turned off by the abrasive culture and an impending downsizing.
"Even though you might be recruited by someone you trust, it's still incumbent on you to talk to everybody and understand the vision at that organisation," Chambers says. "It's to ensure that this is the right fit."
Recruitment firms often get descriptions of IT jobs that are only three sentences long, so it's essential for candidates to push for more details, says Al Guibord, chairman and founder of IT consultancy The Advisory Council.
For insight into what the company really thinks of a position, find out to whom it reports, he says. For instance, a CIO who reports to the facilities department isn't in the same universe as one who reports to the CEO.
Executive coach Suzanne Bates worked with one CIO who had learned his lesson the hard way. He took the job with the understanding that the CEO wanted him to drive change. But he soon learned that in his position, he didn't have the same status as other executives, making change impossible.
Dean Drougas, CIO at networking equipment vendor Extreme Networks, says that when he considers a new job, he focuses on how the leadership views IT. Is IT considered a differentiator? A strategic asset? Or is it there just to keep the lights on?
He likes to hear answers not just from the management but from IT staffers, too, so he can see if the views are consistent.
Harish Ramani, CIO at Constellation Brands, an liquor producer and marketer, says that when he is considering a position, he insists on meeting with a diverse group of people, including those from IT, executives in other areas, and workers two or three layers down.
Moreover, Ramani says, it's important to understand the company's business dynamics, the key business drivers, business needs and how IT relates to each of those. He also likes to ask prospective bosses to define business problems — to talk about what's broken and needs to be fixed.
By asking these kinds of questions, you may discover that those interviewing you lack a clear vision of the position.
To prepare for the interview, talk to people who previously held the job and personal contacts at the company as well as vendors and consultants to find out what's really going on, says the Stevens Institute's Luftman. He notes that membership in professional organisations, such as the Society for Information Management, where he is an officer, helps in building contacts who can give you the inside scoop.
"It's an interesting dance," says Drougas of the job search experience. "You're interested in being there and they want you there because they have a need to fill. There's this courtship dance, and you don't want to show all your warts — as a candidate and as a company."