Preparing for an executive level interview can’t be approached in the same general way you approached your first graduate interview. You need to be more prepared, less generic, and ready for a different set of challenges and questions. Your skills should be evident already, and evidenced, especially if you’ve been headhunted for the role. As such, what’s really under scrutiny is your leadership style and your ability to bring something new and of value to the company. Furthermore, at the executive level you need to be able to demonstrate actively that you’ll fit the mould in terms of the company culture.
We’ve been the fly on the wall to countless executive level interviews: let’s look at some of the most crucial things to know.
Those who are most successful in interviews have done their homework. This is important at every level. However, when preparing for an executive level interview you need to get a deeper and broader understanding of the company. You need to have looked at any published accounts, you need to understand the company’s industry reputation, have memorised their statistics, and read any recent press releases.
If you’ve been headhunted for the role then don’t simply assume you’ve got it in the bag. Yes, you’ve been selected for interview because your track record has spoken for itself, but now you need to deliver on what that promises. Make sure you have all the information you’ll need to hand.
At an executive level interview, the interviewers aren’t going to cut you slack for nerves or inexperience. You have to demonstrate you are confident, in control, and at ease. If you’re going to be managing a range of projects and employees, you should appear – even if you don’t feel like it – completely relaxed and as if you’re taking this in your stride. To do this, avoid rambling, and remember you can always pause, think, and then answer a question.
It’s vital that you remember that you need to demonstrate your suitability for a high-level role that involves leadership. This is tricky in an interview situation where you’ll no doubt feel you need to follow in order to show a degree of deference and respect. However, don’t be afraid to also lead some of the discussion. You will likely find that an executive level interview is more on par with a discussion than an interview anyway, so make sure you take the opportunity to demonstrate how you can lead this.
Generally speaking, when preparing for an executive level interview, the questions may not be so clear cut. However, there will be several that in one guise or another you need to be prepared for. Remember, if you want to showcase something which hasn’t been brought up, lead the discussion to do so. At this level it is essential that you can answer the majority of questions with demonstrable examples and success.
The questions will tend to centre on your management style and the criteria which is unique to both the executive level, and the particular organisation. For example, when answering the question ‘How would you describe your management style?’ you need to answer in line with what you know is the overall management culture of that organisation.
You’ll be asked about staff you have managed and your strengths and weaknesses in relation to this. You’ll likely need to demonstrate how you have specifically contributed to the bottom line and organisational goals. You’ll almost certainly be quizzed on your ability to drive, handle, and direct change.
Regardless of the position you are interviewing for, executive level roles require a certain level of financial and business acumen. You’ll need to demonstrate your confidence with figures and reading and interpreting financial reports.
Hidden behind every question and the discussion overall will be an effort to truly gauge your communication style. Communication can make or break executive level success and through your answers, the interviewers will be seeking to identify how skilled a communicator you are. Therefore, don’t only think about the facts of the answer, but the nature of how you communicate that. For example, if you’re explaining a complicated situation, can you stand up and use a whiteboard? Can you simplify it in to steps? Do you get lost on a tangent?
However, don’t simply turn yourself in to the exact beast you believe the organisation is looking for. They’ve headhunted you because they’ve already identified something unique about you, your successes, track record and personality that they are already drawn to.
Furthermore, at the executive level there is nowhere to hide if your personality and style are at odds with the corporate culture. You don’t want to give up the position you have unless you are sure you’ll fit the mould without morphing who you are.
Additionally, at the executive level, integrity is essential. You must be truthful at interview and at the recruitment stage or there may be legal ramifications.
Importantly, at an interview, you need to keep the focus firmly on what interests your interviewers. Even though they have headhunted you, they will have a set criterion of what they are looking for. Therefore, make sure you understand what they are looking for, and focus on that. Don’t simply dwell on your own personal career history. Think of it as a transaction – you need to be selling what the interviewer is buying, not any old goods.
First impressions matter, but so do last ones. Ask where the interviewer is hoping you’ll make the biggest contributions. At the goodbye take a moment to assert your interest in starting to deliver this for the organisation, and how you can help. Don’t leave things completely open, but ask for the next steps. Spell out that you are definitely interested – don’t assume it’s taken for granted. After all, if you were headhunted for the position, they need to know how much you actually want it.