How to Interview With C-level Executives
Job interviews can be a nerve wracking experience. You want to come across as the perfect person for the job. You want them to know everything about your awesome skills, experience, and personality.
You want to be seen as confident, but not too confident to the point of arrogance. You want to appear relaxed, but no too relaxed.
You need to prepare responses for the questions you are likely to encounter, but prepare too much and your responses might come off as canned and rehearsed. Like a tightrope walker on a thin rope high above a gorge, it’s all about achieving a delicate balance.
While acing a job interview is challenging in itself, the challenges become even more pronounced when you are interviewing for an executive position.
The stakes are far much higher – bigger responsibilities, a better and more respected job title, and the salary you have been dreaming of.
With such high stakes, it is inevitable that the interview will also be more intense, and you have to put in more effort to triumph over all the other qualified candidates.
There is something else that makes interviewing for executive positions more challenging.
Unlike in the lower ranks where you normally interviewed with middle level managers, when interviewing for an executive position, you are going to be interviewing with the top brass – C level executives.
Interviewing with this group is a whole different ball game.
They are more experienced – both in the company operations and the general industry, and in interviewing candidates, and they are more invested in the company.
They are busy people who have no tolerance for the incompetent.
So, how do you impress this group and convince them that you are the best person for the job?
In today’s article, we are going to look at some tips on how to interview with C level executives.
Before we get to that, however, I want to mention something about that will form the basis of this article.
There is a great difference between C level executives and the mid-level managers you were used to interviewing with before.
These two groups of people think differently. When interviewing with C level executives, you should keep in mind that they are not really interested in little details.
Instead, they are more focused on the bigger picture, and their thinking is more focused on the long term. Unlike mid-level managers, C level executives are more focused on strategy than day to day tasks.
Finally, C level executives are more concerned with the future of the company and the role you can play in that future, rather than what you have done in the past. If you want to impress C level executives, you have to keep these points in mind.
With that out of the way, let’s now move on to the tips on how to interview with C level executives when interviewing for an executive position.
TAILOR YOUR COMMUNICATION STYLE FOR EXECUTIVES
The style of communication that might have worked when interviewing with mid-level managers will not cut it once you start interviewing with C level executives.
You will need to tailor your communication style to match the expectations of executives.
I mentioned above that C level executives are more focused on strategy than details.
When interviewing with mid-level executives, you were probably used to providing lots of backgrounds and details before giving your answer.
For people who are not interested in getting into detail, this won’t work.
When answering questions by C level executives, you should focus on answering the question directly without beating around the bush or providing lots of unnecessary details.
Don’t make them wait for the answer while you wade through endless details.
Most executives are used to communicating directly and effectively, without wasting any time.
By providing too much background information and details, it might seem as if you are stalling your answer while trying to get a feel for the interviewer or read their body language.
In the process of providing endless details and background info, there is also a chance that you might shoot yourself in the foot and thereby hurt your chances of getting the job.
When a C level executive asks you a question, the first thing you should do is to provide a direct answer.
Any details, background information or explanation of your reasoning should come after you have provided your answer.
For instance, when asked to describe your five year plan, someone who is used to interviewing with mid-level managers might give the following answer:
“I have had a lot of passion for computers ever since I was young, which is why I chose to pursue a degree in computer science. After graduating with my degree in computer science, I worked for two years with a company that dealt with artificial intelligence and machine learning, among other things. I got interested in artificial intelligence and decided to pursue a masters in the same. Having completed my masters, my plan is to get into a position where I will be in charge of a team working on big AI projects.”
In this answer, the candidate starts by providing a lot of background information that is not really relevant to the question being asked.
While this might work with a mid-level manager, a C level executive won’t be interested in hearing about your degrees or why you decided to pursue a Masters in Artificial Intelligence.
That does not answer the question. The only thing they want to know are your plans for the next five years. When answering a C level executive, your answer should be direct and to the point.
If the executive is interested in hearing some background information, they will ask for it. The following answer might be more appropriate in this situation:
“My 5 year plan is to head an artificial intelligence department in a company that is using this technology on projects that are going to have a huge impact in the world of business.
I believe that the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning holds a lot of potential for business, and I want to use my skills in the field to be part of the people driving the revolution of AI for business automation. With my background and experience, I believe I have what it takes to achieve this goal within the next five years.”
Short, sweet, and to the point. No beating around the bush, or providing unnecessary details.
Notice how the first sentence in this response answers the interviewer’s question?
CONDUCT IN-DEPTH RESEARCH
You need to know what the company does, their business model, and so on.
When you are targeting an executive position and are going to interview with C level executives, however, you have to be more thorough with your research.
You want to show them that you know everything there is to know about the company and their business.
This means you need to go beyond a quick review of the company’s website.
Start by researching the position you are applying for.
Study it thoroughly and check each of the requirements for the job.
The more you know about the job and what it pertains, the easier it will be for you to show that you are the right person for this job.
After making sure you have understood each requirement, match up the requirements with your strengths, taking care to find the best strength for each requirement.
After learning all you can about the position and matching the requirements to your strengths, come up with some detailed and specific scenarios that you can use to demonstrate these strengths.
Remember, C level executives don’t just want to hear that you have a certain strength. If you can demonstrate to them how you have put it into use, it will put you ahead of your competitors.
After researching the position, move on to the company itself. Don’t just stop at what the company does. If it is a public company, go through its financial statements and understand its financial situation.
Even if it is a private company, articles written about the business might give you some insights into its financial position.
Identify the company’s key leaders and decision makers and try to learn as much as you can about their backgrounds.
Using tools like LinkedIn, you can easily find out the company’s leaders and learn about their educational and professional backgrounds, and even their personal interests.
Go to the company’s website and read through its HR section to get a feel for the organization’s corporate culture.
You should also go through the company’s recent press releases.
This will give you insights about the company’s initiatives and future business plans.
Next, move on to the general market and industry in which the company operates.
What current and recent trends are there within the industry?
Are there any upcoming changes within the market, and what impact will they have on the company’s business needs?
If possible, find someone with experience in the industry and have a chat with them about various issues and developments within the industry.
Finally, conduct a thorough review on the company’s competitors.
How are the financials of its competitors? Where is the company performing better than its competitors? Where is it lagging behind?
Are competitors planning to launch any new products and services in the future, and if so, how will this affect the market? What can your target company do in response to this?
If possible, come up with a comparative strategy analysis of your target company and its top competitors.
When going to interview for an executive position, you need to have a grasp of all the issues affecting the company’s business, which is why all this research is necessary.
It shows the C level executives that you have a focus on the big picture, and that you are a proactive person.
The research will also help you determine whether this company is the right fit for you (remember, an interview is a two way process.
The interviews are trying to find out if you are the right fit for the job, while you should be trying to determine if the company is aligned with your personal goals).
Finally, conducting a thorough research will give you insights that will help you come up with thoughtful, probing questions when given the chance.
Asking the right questions in an interview can give you a great advantage over other candidates.
BE READY TO ANSWER TOUGH INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
When interviewing for an executive position, the stakes are quite high.
If you do get the position, your decisions will have an impact on the company’s bottom line as well as the trajectories of the lives of people working under you.
When interviewing for such a position, the interviewer has to do their best to make sure that they hire the best person for the job.
In order to learn as much as possible about you within the short time an interview allows for, you can expect that the interviewers will ask tough questions that will help them get a glimpse into your personality, decision making processes, thinking processes, values, and so on.
The questions will also be trying to assess how well you will fit into the organizational culture and the management team.
Some of the questions you might be asked include:
- Can you describe your management style for us?
- What is that one mistake you made in your professional life that you wish you could go back and fix?
- Have you ever been part of a team that failed on a project it was working on?
- How do you manage conflict?
- Have you ever had your work criticized by your boss? What happened?
- What’s the most significant change you ever went through in your career? How did you handle the change?
Questions about failure are especially very common when interviewing with C level executives.
Anyone can talk about their strengths, but it takes a person who is truly confident in themselves to talk about their failures and weaknesses.
The C level executives will also be trying to evaluate your attitude towards failure.
Whenever you encounter questions asking about moments when you experienced failure, avoid the temptation to get defensive or to try and shift blame for the failure.
When answering such questions, the best approach is to mention a situation where you failed to achieve the expected outcome, and then quickly move on to explaining what you did to remedy the situation and what you were able to achieve after taking corrective measures to remedy the situation.
When answering questions about failure, you should be very cautious to avoid mentioning some of your flaws without realizing it.
BE PREPARED TO DEMONSTRATE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE
Of course, if you are interviewing for an executive position, you will be expected to have some leadership skills.
Not only does your prospective employer want someone who can deliver results, they also want someone whose leadership style is well aligned with the organizational culture.
Therefore, you should be ready to articulate your leadership philosophy, and have some ready real-life examples that you will use to demonstrate this philosophy.
Some questions the C level executives might ask to assess your leadership style include:
- Describe the best and worst bosses you have ever worked for. What did you love or hate about their style of leadership?
- Why do you think you will be effective in this role?
- How do you make sure that your direct reports buy into your ideas?
- Which books would you recommend to someone who wants to become a great leader?
- What is the most important lesson you have ever learnt as a manager?
When answering questions about your leadership style, you want to give the interviewers insights into your evolution as a leader.
Regardless of your chosen leadership style, one thing you should make clear is that your leadership style is focused on achieving results.
FOCUS ON ACCOMPLISHMENTS RATHER THAN ACTIVITIES
When asked to talk about their job experience, most people tend to talk about the job positions they held and the activities that they did in this position.
This might work when interviewing with mid-level managers.
When interviewing with C level executives, however, giving such a response will only hurt your chances of getting the job. C level executives are not interested in hearing about your job description.
They are more interested in what you accomplished while holding those positions.
Talking about your accomplishments gives them insights into your work ethic.
If you were able to achieve great results in your past positions, there is a high likelihood you will also be focused on accomplishing great things in this position, which is what C level executives are looking for – an achiever.
Before walking into the interview, you should equip yourself with real-life anecdotes to demonstrate the impact you made in your previous position.
When talking about your accomplishments, always use metrics to describe them where possible.
Talk about the impact you made in terms of gross and net profits, revenues, industry and company rankings, shareholder value, restructurings, growth strategies, and so on.
In other words, your accomplishments and the impact you made should be quantifiable.
Showing your accomplishments in quantifiable terms shows that you are a person who is capable of making real change within an organization.
FOCUS ON YOUR PASSION, SOFT SKILLS, AND CULTURE FIT
When interviewing you, C level executives are going to be more focused on your soft skills, your passion for the job, and how you fit within the organization’s culture.
The higher you go in your career, the less important your technical skills become.
At these levels, what drives success is your ability to work with and manage people, as well as your passion for the job.
This is what you need to show your C level interviewers.
Focus on soft skills such as communication skills, leadership skills, decision making skills, teamwork and collaboration, management skills, problem solving skills, innovativeness, flexibility, interpersonal skills, and so on.
You should also show that you are passionate about the job. The word passion is derived from the Latin word pati, which means suffer.
This means that someone who is passionate about something is one who cares so much about this thing to the extent that they are willing to suffer for it.
This is the kind of person C level executives are looking for. They want someone who will be so driven by their passion for the job that they will be willing to push themselves through challenges and adversity in order to achieve results.
Finally, C level executives also care about how well you are going to fit within the organizational culture. According to Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ and author of Hiring For Attitude, 46% of new hires fail within 18 months of getting hired.
Of these, 89% fail because they are not culturally compatible with the organization.
The higher the position you are interviewing for, the more concerned the employer is about your success in the position, which is why cultural fit matters so much when interviewing for executive positions.
Therefore, you need to show that your personal behaviors, values and qualities match the needs of the organization, and that you believe in the organization’s vision.
You should also try to cultivate a personal connection with the interviewers.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
When given the chance to ask questions, C level executives will also use this as an additional opportunity to learn about you.
This is because they know that the kind of questions you ask provide insights into the kind of things you consider to be important.
It also shows how interested you are in the role.
When given the chance to ask questions, ask smart questions that are focused on the bigger picture, instead of only focusing on the position you are interviewing for. Some good questions to ask here include:
- What is the company’s vision for the next five to ten years?
- What role does this department play in driving the company’s growth?
- What impact will my work have on the company’s overall mission?
- Which of the company’s upcoming initiatives do you think are very interesting?
When asking questions, avoid asking questions that lead to dead ends. These are the kind of questions that do not give any opportunities for following up once a response is provided.
Asking such questions gives the impression that you are someone who is not interested in digging deep to unearth all information, which might in turn make you come across as a poor leader, one who makes decisions without gathering all the requisite information.
Instead, go for questions that allow you to drill down a response and ask follow-up questions.
This will show that you are a thoughtful person who tries to get all the information they can before making a decision.
Interviewing with C level executives can be a bit of a challenge if you are not used to it. This is because they think differently from mid-level managers.
C level executives are more focused on the bigger picture and long term strategies instead of details.
When interviewing with them, you should tailor your communication style to suit them by being direct and to the point when giving responses.
In addition to tailoring your communication style, when interviewing with C level executives, you should also conduct deeper, more thorough research, be ready to answer tough questions, be prepared to demonstrate your leadership style, focus on accomplishments rather than activities, sell your passion, soft skills, and culture fit, and ask the right questions.
In Palo Alto (CA), we talked with venture capitalist Andrew Ogawa from Quest Venture Partners …