MT EXPERT: Here's what you should know before you're interviewed for a CEO job

There's plenty of interview advice for grads, says Jane Rankin. But no one ever tells people at the top how to prepare.

by Jane Rankin
Last Updated: 15 Sep 2014

There is abundant advice for graduates on how to create a great first impression in that all-important career-starting job interview. But what if your upcoming job interview is for a senior leadership role? What if you’re interviewing for a seat at the biggest table?

Always be yourself

It sounds obvious, but the single most important quality in great leaders is authenticity. It is fundamentally important to be honest and authentic at all times, and the job interview is no exception.

Do your research

Some advice is applicable whether you’re interviewing for your first job or your twentieth. But at the top level, kick it up a notch. Make it immediately and self-evidently clear that you’ve done your research on the individual you’re meeting, the company and the market in which it operates.
 
But don’t just play back information that’s in the public domain. Ask about the company’s recent policies or successes (or failures) and invite a discussion: what did the company learn from its recent new product launch? Why is it moving in that different strategic direction? What was your interviewer’s personal role in driving the business into new markets?

Have a point of view

On a related note, don’t be a shrinking violet when it comes to the industry that company is in and the issues it’s facing. At the senior level your opinions and thoughts will be invited, so share them. As long as you have the facts or viewpoints to back it up, it’s okay to be controversial.
 
This is your chance to talk about more than just the company that’s interviewing you. It has rivals, peers and regulatory issues, and even if you’re coming from a different sector you should be able to discuss them with confidence.

Demonstrate your vision for your career path

A lot of interviewees get asked where they see themselves in five or ten years. At the senior leadership level, that’s one of the big questions. Not just where do you want to go, but how do you plan to equip yourself to get there? What’s your strategy for achieving it? You still have something to learn, even at director level, so don’t be afraid to talk about what that is.
 
Even people interviewing for senior roles can look upwards: you’re interviewing for the FD role but perhaps you want to be MD, or you’re an MD and want to be CEO? Your next role matters as much as the one you’re interviewing for right now.

Use the ‘theatre of interview’

Some people get nervous at interviews and nervous people talk too much. It’s important to move beyond the nerves. Choose your words carefully.
 
It’s a classic interviewer technique to leave a hanging silence and wait to let the other person fill it. But you don’t have to jump in; there’s power in thoughtful silence. Of course, don’t make your interview like a Harold Pinter play either – find the right balance.

Ask about governance

Some issues affect every business in every sector – including corporate governance. It’s important to make sure your interviewer knows what you’ve done to ensure good governance at previous employers, and asking what role you’ll have to play in the future. This is, of course, most relevant for publicly listed companies.

Know the stock questions

Some points seem to come up in every interview for every leadership role, so make sure you have the answers at your fingertips:

  • What excites you about the role over and above your current position?
  • What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced during your career and how did you handle it?
  • What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make?
  • When have you failed to meet a target or objective and how did you cope with this?
  • What will you have done/achieved in your first 100 days for you to have been successful?

Demonstrate successful collaborative working

This is the grown-ups’ version of ‘I’m good at working with people’. Demonstrate exactly how you’ve worked successfully with your peer group. For example, perhaps in your last role you retained the same management team for over three years and over that period you won heaps of new business.
 
If you can show how you’ve worked well as part of a board or a CEO, CFO, COO team, it will show you’re capable of doing so again. Not to mention that your interviewer will most likely be one those people.
 
And to finish back where we began, remember that in any job interview, total honesty is the watchword. Be yourself. Always.
 
- Jane Rankin is a partner at global executive search firm Grace Blue

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