Interviewing for an executive position? Executive interviews can test your confidence and expertise, but they also offer a proving ground for you to showcase your holistic knowledge and capabilities. The key: prepare, then-over prepare!
Read on for our top tips for interviewing for an executive role.
Interviewing for external opportunities
External opportunities may have come your way via your network, a recruiter, or through the traditional application process.
If you know someone on the “inside” of the new organization, they are your best chance at gaining knowledge on company culture, the hiring team, what has worked or hasn’t worked in the past, and any other helpful information they can glean on your behalf.
You may have gained access to an external opportunity by way of a recruiter, too. There are several recruiting firms that specialize explicitly in executive hiring, some specialized by function and others by industry or company stage. If you’re working through a recruiter, consider your recruiter your “sponsor” and lean on them for guidance at every stage of the process. Recruiters will be just as motivated and committed as you to finding the right fit, and if they are an agency, they have financial skin in the game as well.
Interviewing for internal opportunities
The path to advancement internally is often through sponsorship. It’s not unusual for senior leaders to be “tapped on the shoulder” and asked to consider opportunities for more visibility and responsibility. These opportunities often come your way after you’ve spent time proving yourself to your internal network of stakeholders; you’ve already done the hard part — you’ve formed the relationships, you’ve honed your personal leadership brand, and you’ve earned trust.
This article from HBR, while a bit dated, still applies to the modern world of advancement, often dictated by politics, relationships, and feeling: “In most organizations, promotions are governed by unwritten rules — the often fuzzy, intuitive, and poorly expressed feelings of senior executives regarding individuals’ ability to succeed in C-suite positions.”
Despite the vague nature of leadership advancement, internal promotions — especially at large enterprises — often still require a formal interview process. Do not assume you are the only candidate on the table. You should still take these interviews seriously and prepare for them just as much as if you were on the outside. You’ll be expected to know more about the internal workings of the business than an external candidate. You should come prepared with specific ideas you would implement if chosen for the role, grounded in your firsthand experience at the company.
How to stand out in an executive interview
- Do your research. This sounds simple, but many executives don’t do the basic work and it comes back to bite them later. Become familiar with all that you have available to you: recent press releases, product announcements, proxies, analyst reports. If it’s public information, you should know it — and not waste time in your interview asking questions about information you can gather elsewhere. Know who is on the executive team and the board, and at a high level, understand who they are and what motivates them. For example, is most of the executive team new? Is the company in the process of diversifying its board? This research will give you a sense of back story. Research each person with whom you’ll be interviewing to understand their role, what they contribute to the organization at large, and what drives them. If you’re working with a recruiter, they can guide you in the right direction. Otherwise, you may ask someone in your network who sits in a similar role for insights (or rely on the Athena community for help).
- Know your value — and stick to it. This is not arrogance; it’s knowing what you bring to the table and having confidence in it. As leaders rise, you’re less likely to do hands-on tasks and you’re hired more for your ability to lead, to motivate, to grasp the big picture vision. Know your value and what you deliver to a business, whether it’s leaps-and-bounds transformation, million-dollar deals, strategic partnerships, or product alignment. Be prepared to speak to the ways your leadership has shaped the companies you’ve worked at.
- Come prepared with stories. The hiring company either already knows you if you’re internal, or they have your resume. They’ve either seen you in action or they’ve seen your achievements on paper. What’s missing? Stories. The human element. Tell stories in your interview to support your leadership style, your personal motivations for a change, your business philosophy, and to underscore the challenges you’ve overcome.
- Ask thoughtful questions. In the senior realm, your questions are less tactical and much more about vision, alignment, philosophy, and strategy. Your ability to jive with the other senior leaders and collaborate is just as critical as the “how”. Your questions should dig into these areas, allowing you to leave the interview with a solid understanding of whether the opportunity feels right.
- Check your executive presence. In other words — show up like the leader you are. If this is remote, it means eye contact and zero distractions (and good lighting) for your video interviews. In person, it means open arms, great posture, and direct eye contact. How you show up can inspire (or destroy) confidence in your abilities — your executive presence is key to gaining that trust.
Red flags to watch for
As it’s always said, you’re interviewing the company just as much as they’re interviewing you. That said, beyond feeling good and having excitement that the opportunity could be the right fit for you, have your eyes wide open to red flags and warning signs.
For example, is the CEO expecting huge growth — yet not putting the budget and headcount behind those projections? Does the executive team fumble — or tell different/competing stories regarding the product roadmap? Do you receive vastly different answers to fairly basic questions about growth rates, projections, revenue, etc.?
If you’re sensing misalignment on the existing leadership team, that’s a sure warning sign for bumps in the road ahead or a lack of leadership from the CEO. You must ensure you’re able to manage and meet expectations. If there are major red flags re: budget, headcount, growth expectations, and technology — that may be a sign this opportunity is not as exciting as it initially appeared.
Support through the interview process
Above all else, lean on your network for support — whether it’s a community like Athena Alliance or an informal network of peers. Consider leveraging an executive coach for interview preparation and practice. Tried-and-true executive coaches can walk you through hypothetical questions, analyze your communication style, and help you strategically refine your approach. Athena can connect you to a range of coaches with many years of experience in working with leaders in transition — in fact, new members receive two hours of executive coaching with every membership.