An effective candidate interview is what stands between a great hire and a poor one, and the stakes are especially high when interviewing for C-suite roles. Hiring the wrong person can lead to serious consequences for the business which can be excruciating to unravel. The executive job interview is a critical opportunity to go beyond simple qualifications and experience and get a more accurate idea of how a candidate will perform in your organisation.
Using our executive recruitment expertise, we've successfully placed many candidates over the years, and have tailored our questioning techniques to each unique assignment. There are, however, two types of questions that we believe are most valuable to identify the right talent and help the company achieve its long-term goals. In this short article, we look at the steps on how to prepare for an executive interview and explain how they will help you to achieve the best possible outcome, each and every time.
A successful C-suite hire should be able to lead by example – living and breathing the company's goals, values, and mission whilst having the technical abilities to work effectively at this level. Other key qualities to look out for when interviewing executive candidates could be those who are results-focused, with a strategic mind, proven leadership skills, and a track record of achievement and progression.
It’s important for the interviewer to keep these essential ingredients in mind and consider what attributes the successful candidate will need in order to succeed. Once these have been identified, it is simple yet highly effective to design your interview questions around them. A great way to detect these qualities in the job interview is to use competency-based questions, which broadly speaking can be split between technical and behavioural attributes.
Competency-based interview questions typically start with: “Please tell me about a time….” (or similar), in that they draw on past experiences. We encourage our clients to use this questioning technique as it is widely accepted that past behaviour is a good indicator of future behaviour.
At the C-suite level, the answers to competency-based questions should be much more comprehensive than a less experienced Accountant due to the level of accountability and responsibility required to be successful. When asking executive competency-based interview questions, the aim should be to gain insight into character traits and technical skills to develop a further understanding of what the candidate truly brings to the table.
To do this, keep questions specific and open-ended, leading to a discussion that reveals more about the person and exactly what they can add to the company. A good leader needs to be able to handle curveballs, which is why it’s important not to shy away from asking more challenging interview questions.
Asking the right competency-based interview questions is essential when recruiting an executive, as the responses will provide the most relevant information to enable you to make a truly informed decision about the hire that best fits the business needs. Here are a few insightful questions to ask executives:
Broadly speaking, competency-based questions rely on the interviewees’ previous experiences that can help to predict the way they may react to similar situations in the future. They can be broken down into two types of questions, behavioural and technical.
These questions allow you to delve into the individual and how they have behaved in specific situations in the past. The aim is to get a sense of their motivation, tenacity, work ethic, style of working with others, etc. They often start with: “Tell me about a time ….”. Examples include:
Tell me about a time:
When you were asked to complete a piece of work but disagreed with the approach requested?
When you had to deal with a difficult individual that you have had to get buy-in from?
When you had to make a decision that was unpopular with others?
Where you had to compromise on a decision that you thought was the right one?
These questions explore the candidate’s skills in relation to their experience with particular tasks, systems, or industry standards. They show the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge.
Like behavioural interview questions, they often start with: “Tell me about a time….”. Examples include:
Tell me about a time:
You had to explain a complex accounting concept to a non-finance stakeholder.
When you implemented a new ERP.
You had to evaluate a potential acquisition.
When you had to streamline a problematic, historical accounting process.
First and foremost, a great answer would incorporate a structure that is commonly referred to as STAR, which stands for:
S – Situation
What was the situation the candidate was faced with?
T – Task
What task(s) did the candidate have to complete?
A – Action
What were the actions the candidate took?
R – Result
What was the result?
To ensure you are getting a satisfactory response to your competency-based questions, additional probing on the answers may be necessary. These further questions will seek to clarify the initial answer and give you the confidence that the candidate clearly knows what they are talking about. Using questions that begin with What, Why, Where, How, and When will help you get further clarification on those answers. Examples include:
You mentioned ‘We’. What exact role did you play in the project?
If you did it again, what might you have done differently?
When analysing candidate interview responses for management positions, keep in mind how the candidate aligns with the organisation’s broader objectives. That is not to say the ideal candidate should be a carbon copy of the rest of the leadership team. Instead, look for a diverse background and experience that will complement the company culture.
Another factor to consider when hiring executive candidates is how the potential hire will integrate with the existing team. Will the different personalities complement each other and add additional diversity to the SLT? What will the candidate add to the team? In addition, it is especially important at this level of recruitment to look out for red flags such as conflicting information, ‘I’ versus “we” (i.e., did they carry out the task or were they part of a team), arrogance, or poor preparation. Even if these red flags are not necessarily a reason to remove the candidate from the process right away, they are definitely signs to proceed with caution and look deeper before moving forward.
When it comes to executive-level interviews and finding someone that is a good fit, the importance of asking the right questions cannot be overstated. At the C-suite level, the best approach is to ask competency-based interview questions in a way that will promote natural discussion and provide insight into the individual’s technical abilities, values, personality, and leadership style.
If you’re struggling with how to interview executive accounting candidates, seeking corporate interview tips, or would like help with finding your next top executive, get in touch today.