Three questions you should ask every job applicant and why

Theresa Wilson knows a thing or two about staying power. During the course of her 33 year career with Wachovia (now part of Wells-Fargo), Wilson has steadily climbed the corporate ladder while surviving countless layoffs (or “efficiencies,” as she calls them), mergers and acquisitions.

She began her career with Wachovia as a programmer in 1976 and was promoted to senior programmer, senior analyst, project manager and division manager. In 2002, she was named a CIO.

Wilson attributes her longevity to her love for change, her tenacity and her ability to execute. Still, her career path inside Wachovia hasn’t always been smooth. An African-American woman in IT, Wilson has battled perceptions that she wasn’t smart or capable enough by disproving her naysayers and by taking her career into her own hands, she says.

For example, early in her career at Wachovia, a manager had promised Wilson that she could lead a project after a year. When 12 months had passed and Wilson’s manager backtracked on his promise, she set out to prove that she was ready for a new position despite what he thought.

“I decided then that I had to take my career in my own hands and do things that would prove what I could do to others. I made sure I was visible to all the appropriate folks, to make sure they knew what I was doing and to let them know the things I liked to do.”

The one time Wilson ever doubted her job security with Wachovia was between 2001 and 2004, she says, during Wachovia’s merger with First Union, when she had to apply for a position for the first time in years. She had been used to getting tapped for assignments, whether it was to install the first ATM or a new deposit system. Wilson needn’t have worried: She got the job as the division information officer for the commercial/treasury services area.

Today, Wilson serves as CIO of operations at Wells Fargo, which acquired Wachovia in 2008. She leads a 500-person IT organization responsible for technology strategy, new software development and maintenance, and desktop and server implementations. She spoke with The Alexander Group’s John Mann about her hiring practices.

John Mann: Who was the first person you ever hired?

Theresa Wilson: I hired someone early in my career when I was a project manager with Wells Fargo. I was looking for a technical lead. The person I hired still works here. He loves to tell everyone that I hired him.

Did you receive training on how to hire?

Not formal training. However, I have been conducting interviews since the beginning of my career, which has helped me become a better interviewer. Years ago, when we moved to behavioral interviews, we received instructions on how to conduct those kinds of interviews.

Do you think hiring is instinctive or can you teach people how to make good hires?

I always like to track “lessons learned” as a project or process moves forward. I have come to the conclusion that it is difficult to teach what to look for in an interview because people have specific attributes that they look for in someone. I think the best interviewers have it instinctively as opposed to someone who has been taught, but that is not to say that you should not try. I find that most people who are good interviewers have good instincts about candidates and that is why they do it well.

How do you go about interviewing candidates for positions inside your organization?

Our interviews are typically formal but once in a while we do an informal interview. I love panel interviews, but they don’t always happen because we are geographically dispersed. Our job interviews are highly structured, behaviorally-based, and we usually have pre-defined questions.

We get together and make sure we know who is going to ask which question, so that we can collectively work together after the interview and talk through what each person understood or heard in that session. What I like about panel interviews is that everyone involved hears the answers at the same time. If you do it individually, you may get different points of view from each interviewer.

What do you base your hiring decisions on today, and how does that compare to when you first started hiring?

Part of it has to do with the positions I hired for in the past versus the positions I have today. Earlier in my career, I would closely evaluate a person’s technical skills and experience because that is usually how I participated in the hiring process.

Now, I usually conduct interviews for executive leadership positions, so I am not focusing solely on technical aptitude. I look for people who are well-rounded, have good verbal and written communication skills, are able to lead and manage a team, are innovative, have interpersonal skills, and are able to partner with their lines of business effectively.

How do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills and will be a good cultural fit with your organization?

There are some easy ways to determine whether a person has the skill set. I know with other companies, candidates often take competency tests. We do not do that at Wells Fargo. If necessary for the position, we will have the right technical person participate in an interview to evaluate the candidate’s technical skill set and experience.

For cultural fit, I probe to find out what kind of culture they are looking for when they come into a company and what it is going to make them feel comfortable. If, through that process, I determine that the fit is not a right, I will go so far as to challenge my assumption by describing Wells Fargo’s culture to make sure that they understand our environment and ask them whether they feel it is a fit for them.

What three interview questions do you always ask and why?

1. What are you looking for in this new opportunity? I ask this question for their interpretation of the position.

2. How do you interact with others? I believe that, within financial institutions and Wells Fargo, building relationships goes a long way. I like to determine if the candidate is team-oriented or if they are more of an individual contributor.

3. Are you prepared to work in a financial institution’s/Wells Fargo’s culture? I need to determine if the candidate is a good fit.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

The biggest mistake made, and I took it personally, I hired an individual who relocated to Charlotte, only to find out that the person did not want to leave their hometown. That person only stayed a short time and resigned to return home.

Did that experience make you more sensitive to hiring somebody who has to relocate?

When interviewing a candidate who will be required to relocate, I spend more time making sure that they are the right fit for the position and for Wells Fargo, and that the position is the right fit for them. Since that experience, we have a process in place now where the employee is required to sign an agreement that they are here for a certain period of time, so we can manage that cost.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

The worst was when I interviewed a male candidate who felt that he knew more than I did. He was always trying to turn the interview around on me and trying to tell me what to do.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked a candidate you interviewed but your team didn’t?

I actually had the opposite situation happen, where I felt strongly about an individual who I thought we should not hire and had to go through the process of presenting facts to back up my decision to others.

Do you think it’s good to have some dissention? Do you require unanimity on a hire?

I do not require a unanimous decision on hires. I actually like it when there is some dissention because I think it is healthy to have different opinions, although not too many. I think it is good to have that dialogue so you can probe and make sure you did not miss anything. I may think a candidate did an excellent job in an interview, but missed something that someone else caught.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

First impressions go a long way. A candidate interviewing should look professional and dress in a suit and not look tacky. If you come in without having a presence, the interviewer is not going to be as interested. After you have established credibility within an organization, you can get more casual in your dress.

What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO?

Be attentive, professional, take your time, make sure you understand the questions, and ask or repeat the question if you do not. During job interviews, I offer the candidate an opportunity to ask questions of the panel or of me. I strongly believe in that because sometimes you get more out of the questions the candidate asks than their answers to the structured questions.

What advice would you give to internal candidates for positions?

In that case, the individual already understands a lot about the organization, the panel and/or interviewer. So the advice I would give to them is to not come across as arrogant, to be succinct in their accomplishments, and to make sure they understand the questions thoroughly.

Because they are going to talk about their experiences within Wells Fargo, the interviewer is going to have some knowledge about what they are talking about. So they should be prepared to discuss specific projects or examples of accomplishments that were beneficial to the company.

Do you have any job interview pet peeves?

When someone cannot maintain eye contact.

John Mann is associate director of The Alexander Group. He is based in the executive search firm’s Houston office.


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