The Successful Executive Interview: 4 Key steps

Executives are hired mainly through information gathered during interviews. Many executives report that even though they were hired through a lengthy process they were seldom, if ever, seriously interviewed. This may explain why there are a significant number of poor hiring decisions at senior levels despite the seeds of failure or under performance already being evident in the executive’s history.

The upside of hiring an effective executive is significant. In a three year period, one Canadian communications company transformed their IT organization from laggard to world class with one key hire, the CIO. The downside, however, is equally significant. A poor executive hire can cost a company at least 30 times their compensation.Executive interviewing is different from interviewing at other levels. Well crafted questions looking for predefined answers provide only part of the picture.

Interviewing executives is about understanding who they are; their leadership character, leadership capabilities and their ability to lead in a specific culture.

Be clear on the role. The old adage to “be careful what you wish for, it might come true” applies to executive hiring. In order to select the right executive it is important to be clear on the role the individual is supposed to perform, what outcomes they need to deliver, and what the likely roles they may be asked to undertake after showing success in the one for which they are being hired.

Executive-level roles should always be tied to strategy. Being clear on how the executive will continue the development and execution of a winning strategy is critical to understanding who to hire. This picture, often called Role and Candidate Specifications, provides a backdrop for interviewing and the template for deciding who is right for the role. Executive hiring decisions are then tied to business needs and are not driven by candidate availability.

Allow enough time to get to know them well. Executives have a track record; their capabilities have already been demonstrated with previous employers. What they have demonstrated in the past and in what kind of environments is a strong indicator of how they will perform in the future.

Avoid the “if enough people –see them we will know” syndrome. Executives are
sophisticated and well crafted presenters. A series of short interviews, often conducted by untrained interviewers, is likely to favor the most polished and articulate candidate who may not be the right one. A trained assessor from either inside or outside the organization needs to “test drive” the candidate to understand their capabilities beyond effective presentation.

Get the candidate to talk . An executive who is hired should have at least one two- to three-hour plus structured in-depth interview where the candidate does about 90% of the talking, not a free flow of ideas. This amount of time provides a skilled interviewer the opportunity to understand the capabilities and shortcomings of the candidate and develop a detailed, data supported report.

Assume nothing and avoid reverence. Executives are often presented by well compensated search professionals. Some search professionals provide a very realistic evaluative picture of the candidate as a leader; some do not have that capability.

Get beyond the resume. Resumes and recruitment reports have a purpose – to get the candidate hired. The potential hiring organization should take a “buyer beware” approach to the candidate. In-depth interviewing and reference checking can be used to understand the factual nature and significance of accomplishments and how they were achieved, as opposed to assuming the accomplishments are as they have been presented.

Decide on fact not guess work. The more senior the executive, the more reverence they receive from a potential hiring organization. False conclusions are often drawn from a response or a resume. In debriefs and decision making sessions the tell tale sign of assumptions are statements like, “If they did [blank], then they must be good at [blank].” All conclusions need to be based on hard data. If necessary, go back to the individual or reference and gather more data.

Know who they are as leader. Every leader has their own style already demonstrated in previous roles. It is important to know the style will work in a different organization. Although many areas about leadership style need to be understood, knowing these three critical areas is crucial:

Style strengths and shortcomings. Key strengths also have the potential to be weaknesses. It’s important to understand how strong the individual’s leadership strengths are and how concerning are their shortcomings. A leader who may be a great executor could also be a micro manager. The outcome is that results are achieved but organizational capability may not be built. The individual who demonstrates high levels of empathy and understanding may build an organization in which mistakes can be made but may be too forgiving of poor performance.

Effectiveness in different business climates. Most leadership styles are particularly effective in one business cycle. Some more creative styles are very effective in a growth market. Styles which focus on cost containment and authority may be more effective in a turn around. What is important to understand is the individual’s ability to choose a style and the current and projected cycles of the business for which they are being hired.

Toughened by adversity. One element common to most effective leaders is the strength they have gained through confronting adversity. For some leaders it happened early in life when they had to work to help support their family while attending university and getting good grades. Others may have had to set up a business in a foreign country where they did not know the language or business practices. Knowing that the candidate has already faced and demonstrated the capacity to deal with tough times shows they can deal with “choppy waters” as well as “smooth sailing.”

Some organizations feel that a thorough process will somehow disengage a desired candidate. The reverse tends to be true. Identifying who is right for the role and for whom the role is right is in the best interest of the company and candidate. The best method for assuring a successful outcome is an in-depth interview and thorough process that will reveal an executive’s leadership character and capabilities, as well as their ability to effectively lead within your organization’s culture and projected future.

Taking these steps can minimize the inherit risks in executive hiring.