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Executive Interview Questions – What will executive search firms ask? (featuring LCG’s John Jazylo)

August 30, 2019

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Senior-level candidates can expect to be challenged when facing executive interview questions. Generally speaking, recruiters will avoid predictable questions that can lead to trite answers.

However, specific themes can be expected in many interview scenarios and, as Andrew Guy – a board member with global executive search firm Friisberg & Partners explains – such questions:

“…are open goals and should be thought through fully and hammered into the back of the net when/if asked. Because they can be expected, they can and should be dealt with very deftly. Conversely, fumbling for an answer to any of them looks really bad.”

In this regular blog, we’ll be asking senior-level executive recruiters around the World to share examples of questions that they pose during interviews – and to share the thinking behind the questions.

Executive interview questions: Tell me about my client.

John V. Jazylo is a Partner in New York with US executive search firm Leadership Capital Group.  He’s recruited CEOs and senior leaders for firms as diverse as General Motors, AIG and private equity companies.  For him, “Tell me about my client” is an important question.

” It demonstrates how well the candidate did their research on my client and the position they are interviewing for. Moreover, it is a strong indicator of the command that the executive candidate has of the client company, industry group and issues/opportunities that lie ahead. The last thing that I want to do is present a candidate that is not focused on the needs of the client and how h/she can satisfy those needs by joining the team.”

Discovering the values of the executive

Leigh Ann Arthur heads LAA International, a Dutch executive search firm operating globally in the fields of Marketing, Digital Communications, eCommerce and Data.  She likes to understand the values of candidates, and does this with a series of interview questions:

  1. What values do you hold closely for yourself?
  2. Of those, do any match those of the company with which you are currently working?
  3. Which are they? And how do you live them in your personal life and your professional life?

Her explanation?

“I’m trying to find out what the Executive’s values are and how they might match with my client. I’m also looking to find out how they really LIVE OUT their values with examples. I’m also getting a sense of their leadership style without asking “What is our leadership style?”, which is a question that is asked quite often and definitely important, but I like to find out more through the above questions.”

Questions regarding self-perception

Another recruiter who likes to ask multi-level questions is Maria Guardans Cambó of Adunas Executive Search in Spain.  She wants to find out:

1) how do you perceive yourself?.

2) how do others perceive you?

When asked why, she explains:

“The questions are designed to assure that your team and peers perceive you the same way you perceive yourself. Often we have a perception of ourselves that does not 100% match with how people see us. And it’s important to leverage perceptions and reality, what we are and what we project and others see. “

Executive interview questions exploring cultural fit

Alan Medders of Higher Education Leadership Search recruits leaders on behalf of leading universities.  In this context, cultural fit is critical.  He asks:

“Why are you interested in pursuing this opportunity at this time in your career?”

The rationale?

“At least within Higher Education, while expertise, experience and education are still valued commodities, search committees and hiring agents at the institutions are increasingly looking for candidates they believe would “fit” into the culture, climate and character of the college or university.  Over time institutions have learned that “fit” is becoming a critical factor in determining longer tenure of employment; therefore, search committees and hiring agents are now asking themselves the question during the interview process, “Can we see this candidate working and staying here?”  Hiring in Higher Education is becoming a time, value and money proposition.”

Mariana Turanova of Target Executive Search in Slovakia seeks to discover similar information.  She argues:

“However trivial the question may sound, it is one of the most important topics for us executive recruiters; we ask you basically what are you like, what are your strengths and weaknesses based on your own assessment and perhaps also based on the real feedback you get from your colleagues and friends, potentially based on the formal performance talks. It all boils down to understanding your management style, kind of work culture and work style you prefer.”

Nick Joly, a Partner with executive search firm Hadley Joly, explains why these types of executive interview questions tend to come up so often:

“Assuming the executive meets and exceeds the companies requirements and qualifications, it comes down to “is this individual a good fit for the organization.”

What matters to an executive?

Andrew Guy has a question that he likes to use when interviewing for leadership roles. He asks:

How do you differentiate between the urgent and the important?”

Andrew believes that this is a question that can reveal a lot about a potential candidate.  He explains:

“I’m looking for a balanced answer. Anyone who claims they can, every time, is clearly unable to. The value is always in the follow up anyway… I want to hear about examples of competing and conflicting interests, what pressures were at play, why, and about the outcomes – even if they were “learning opportunities” and not an unqualified success. The worst answer is to treat a generic question with a generic answer… “I would get it right, of course” is a really bad answer. I’m not at all bothered what an interviewee WOULD do; I want to hear about what they DID do (in the past). Then I can explore with them the reasoning and rationale for their decisions on that occasion – which will be useful and revealing.”

Probing the executive: Give me an example

Many recruiters aim to validate the claims made by executives during the interview process.  Dennis C. Miller of Dennis C. Miller Associates recruits executives and board members for Nonprofit organizations in the US and beyond.  He asks potential candidates:

“Please provide an example of a successful organizational strategic initiative or change you recently led, and what were the main obstacles and how did you overcome them?”

His reasoning?

“I want to get a real sense of the candidate’s experience moving an organization strategically forward, and how they motivated their team to work towards the solution. Every organization has some obstacles, and I want to hear how the candidate for the executive leadership position has handled them and how they overcame them.”

What are your motivations?

Mariana Turanova makes a good point.  Executives don’t apply for the position.  Recruiters contact them.  As a result, motivation has to be questioned.  She asks:

“I guess you haven’t come to meet us just out of curiosity and there is some reason behind why you would consider talking about the job opportunity we mentioned?”

She goes on:

“We need to understand the reasons why a candidate considers a change even though he/she has a good job. We expect an open answer and a general “I would like to move on in my career” or “There are some personal reasons behind this” will not work. We need to understand what is the problem in the workplace (company merging? A new boss? Frustration because of too heavy processes? An overall loss of motivation caused by the company and its recent internal changes or by “nothing is going to change here” or by some other, maybe even more personal reasons).”

The second interview

It’s worth noting that an executive search process is likely to involve multiple discussions, and the executive interview questions are likely to vary by stage.  In the early stages, the recruiter is focused on both evaluating the candidate and persuading her to consider the role.  As the process moves on, the focus can change.  Dennis Miller provides an excellent example of this.  He asks:

“Please describe why you are interested in seeking the position of President of XXX at this time in your career and describe what you would want to accomplish in your first 90 days of being on the job?”

Senior-level executives do not “apply” for positions.  Executive recruiters typically approach them, and so it would not be appropriate this type of question in an early conversation.  In the latter rounds, however, it is to be expected.  Dennis explains the positioning:

“This is an upfront softball question to relax the candidate yet offers them an opportunity to express why they are pursuing this position and a chance to articulate their plans for their first 90 days on the job. (This question is only relevant for those coming back for a second round of interviews so they can express their thoughts on their first 90 days. A first time interview would not be appropriate for this question.)”

Executive Interview Questions – In  Conclusion

If a retained executive search firm invites you to interview, you can expect to be challenged!  We want to thank each of our contributors for taking the time to provide content for this blog.  If you’d like to hear more from any of these individuals, we have “On Demand” webinars from each guest within the GatedTalent member area.  To access these sessions, log in to your GatedTalent account (certain videos are for Premium Members only).  You might also find our blog on how executive search firms find candidates and how executives optimize LinkedIn profile optimization for executives to be of interest.

We’ll be running future blogs with interview advice in the future, so be sure to follow us on Social Media to ensure you don’t miss out on further advice.  Executive search consultants who wish to provide advice – either for a blog or a live webinar, are invited to contact Yann Le Leyour at GatedTalent.

Because they can be expected, they can and should be dealt with very deftly. Conversely, fumbling for an answer to any of them looks real bad.