5 Topics to Ask About in an Executive Interview

When interviewing someone for an executive position, the goal is not to determine if the candidate is competent. The applicant’s qualifications should be well-established before you initiate the interview process. Rather, you should use the interview to determine how well they can perform in the position and whether or not they will fit well in the organization.

For the purposes of these interviews, the standard list of questions may not be relevant. Interview questions should be creative, requiring the candidate to compose thoughtful responses on the spot. Questions such as, “Tell me about yourself?” may be replaced with open-ended, thought-provoking ones such as, “What is the most interesting thing about you that is not on your resumé?” Candidates who can think on their feet and effectively solve problems shouldn’t struggle to respond confidently while avoiding cliché answers. Although there is no list of perfect questions, you should strive to focus on questions that will inform you about your candidate in five distinct categories.

1. Knowledge

It is a give-in that any applicant should possess the skills necessary for the position they have applied for. However, successfully filling a high-level executive position requires a more expansive knowledge base. Questions in this category probe the candidate’s understanding of your company’s unique challenges and your clients’ needs. Their answers are indicative of whether or not they sufficiently grasp your business operations so that they can make effective and relevant contributions.

Ask them to tell you about your clients as well as their needs and what it is your organization does. Delve deeper with follow-up questions to determine the level of their understanding. Have they done their research to learn about everything pertaining to your business?

2. Motivation

Most C-suite executive interviews are not with individuals who have applied for the position. In the majority of cases, the person being interviewed was contacted by a C-level executive recruiter and encouraged to apply. Because they did not initiate this interaction, asking about their motivations is vital. If they are currently gainfully employed, why have they consented to meet with you to discuss making a move? Stereotypical responses about wanting to advance their career or climb the corporate ladder rarely shed light on the fundamental driving influence behind their decision.

Open-ended questions require the candidate to dig deeper and reveal more about what inspires them. You might ask about aspects of their current role that bring them the most satisfaction and, on the other hand, those areas that leave them filling frustrated or unfulfilled. Discovering what motivates this person will assist you in getting a feel for whether or not the position you are offering will be one that they will find stimulating and exciting in the long-term. Keep in mind that those who simply work for a paycheck are much less motivated than those who work because they love what they do. Are you offering them a career path that they will love?

3. Values

Knowing what a candidate values can be a key indicator of their ability to support your organization’s goals and values. It can also give insight into their leadership style without your having to ask about it directly. Posing a straightforward question often yields a superficial answer. You can gather more useful information by taking a circuitous path. Ask them about the qualities that they have admired most in past partners or supervisors with whom they have worked before. These qualities are likely those that they hold in the highest regard. Also, inquire about what virtues they possess that align with the company with which they are currently employed and how they demonstrate them in their daily responsibilities. Pushing for specific examples is essential, as the demonstration of their values illustrates their leadership style as well.

4. Priorities

Deciding what is important versus what is essential comes with the territory for executives. Asking a potential executive hire how they differentiate between what is vital and what is important should never yield a cut and dry answer. Every situation is unique, and their response should reflect the complexity of these types of situations. Ask them for specific examples of obstacles where competing interests forced them to prioritize one over the other. The situation’s outcome is not as important as exploring the reasoning behind their decisions and their actions. Take the time to understand what motivated them to do what they did. How they handle difficult situations speaks to their ability to be a problem solver in your organization when issues arise.

5. Culture

Assuming that your candidate is fully qualified for the position you are prepared to offer them, the question of whether or not to proceed depends on how well they fit into your organization’s culture. Retaining a new executive leader in the long-term depends heavily on this last critical piece. It is crucial to understand how this new personality with their own unique leadership and working style will fit into the organization and affect other employees.

Ask not only about how the candidate sees themselves, but ask about how they believe others see them. What feedback have they received from other coworkers about their strengths and weaknesses? What makes them an effective leader? A thoughtful, honest answer will help determine if they will be successful in moving projects forward and navigating hurdles that emerge along the way. While an executive search company can assist you in finding qualified, experienced candidates, only you can determine if they will fit well with the rest of the board and support your organization’s culture and values.

Successful interviews are all about asking the right questions. While the first set of interviews should establish that a candidate’s values, culture, and priorities align well with that of your organization, successive interviews should further explore a candidate’s goals and vision for the future. The more closely they align with your vision, the more effective they will be in driving your company toward a successful future.

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