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How to Interview a Senior Executive; Getting Beyond the Superficial

Posted by Bob Corlett on September 26, 2011

Everyone knows that the traditional interview is a poor predictor of future performance on the job. So if you want to consistently hire great people, you need more rigor in your interview process (without crossing the boundary into being disrespectful).

We recommend work sample testing -- going beyond talking about work and actually having the candidate do some work. But this can be daunting when you are evaluating a senior executive. How do you design a work sample test on business acumen, or strategic thinking? How do you assess their ability to turn ideas into action? How do you suss out their ability to work well with your executive team?

One good way to assess executive ability is to ask the candidates to grapple with a significant strategic issue you are facing. Some organizations ask candidates to make a presentation on a strategic issue, but this approach risks giving too much importance to showmanship and presentation style at the expense of substance. The plain fact is that most executive jobs require people to be good at discussing complex, substantive issues in meetings -- only rarely are people called upon for their charismatic performance artistry in presentations. So if presentation skills are not critical for the job, don't look for it in the interview. Instead, we recommend that you do the following:

1) Assign some homework

After the first interview, once you have narrowed down your list of finalists to 2 or 3 people, provide a "homework assignment" for the candidates to think about prior to the second interview. These are busy people, so give them notice that you will be doing this, and give them ample time to do what you request. Asking for about 2 to 3 hours of work, and giving them a week to do it seems fair to me.

2) Outline one specific strategic challenge

Outline one specific strategic challenge in a few sentences. Provide some written background material, and ask them how they would tackle the problem. Ask for their proposed timeline and action plan to implement their solution.

3) Tell the candidate to come to the second interview "prepared to discuss the issue."

Do not ask for a written proposal or formal (Powerpoint) presentation because that requires the candidate to spend significant time on stylistic issues and not substance. How organizations present information varies widely -- so most people will guess wrong and be needlessly embarrassed. Simply being prepared for a conversation keeps the emphasis where it needs to be -- on their solution to your strategic problem.

4) Let them present their recommendation without interference.

Listen to see if they made a well-reasoned argument for their point of view. Did they frame the issue properly, or not really understand it? Observe how accurate their assumptions were and if they acknowledged their own "blind spots." But the real value of this exercise comes next -- in the discussion of the topic with you.

5) After they share their thoughts...

After they share their thoughts, ask lots of questions, challenge their assumptions, disagree with their conclusions, and look at the issue from a variety of perspectives -- just like your executive team probably does in meetings. You want to see how they react to intellectual debate, disagreement and critique. You may find that the person with the best solution is really not a cultural fit with how your organization actually makes decisions.

6) Observe how well the candidate handles disagreements.

Do they get brittle and defensive? Do they meekly back down and simply defer to others? Do they get energized by the conversation or exhausted? Do they find common ground and build consensus for their solution? Do they humbly acknowledge when someone else has a better idea? Are they trying to prove themselves right, or actually working to find the best solution? Are they curious? Do they ask good questions?

7) Observe how respectfully the candidate deals with everyone in the room.

Do they defer only to superiors and act condescendingly toward everyone else? Do they give credence to the views of others, or just stick rigidly to their point of view?


Ultimately, don't be distracted by interview showmanship or smooth-talking-fast-on-their-feet-confidence from candidates. That's fun, but it predicts nothing. Instead, observe how a potential senior executive thinks, plans and handles themselves in meetings. These aspects of cultural fit are powerful predictors of both long-term retention and effectiveness on the job.

To stop wasting your time on the irrelevant, superficial aspects of interviewing, and start understanding the deeper elements of what really predicts success a new hire, read our post on How to Conduct a Job Interview so Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job. 

And, if you prefer all that research and information pulled together into one attractive document you can easily share with others, download our Employer Guide to Interviewing. 

Employer Guide to Interviewing | Staffing Advisors


Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process, our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful: 

  • How to Replace Underperforming Employees
  • How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Great Candidates
  • How to Handle Bad Glassdoor Reviews
  • How to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Hiring Process
  • How to Make Your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent

One disclaimer: This advice will be most relevant to hiring managers who are interviewing professional staff in large metropolitan areas. Our perspective is shaped by our work, and we work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, so we make no claim that all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets

Topics: Interviewing Executives