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How to handle an interview with the CEO

Posted on from HRM Global

Hannah McNamara provides top tips for senior executives faced with the CEO at interview. What questions might be asked and how should you respond?

How to interview with a CEO

No matter how much experience you have of being interviewed or conducting interviews yourself, that all-important meeting with the CEO can make or break things. How do you ensure you come out on top and differentiate yourself from other candidates?

Here are 5 key questions almost every CEO needs to have answered in the interview. They may not ask them out loud, but you can be sure they’re thinking them.

Are you commercial?

Your technical skills may have got you to this stage in your career, but unless you have well-rounded commercial skills and business acumen, you are unlikely to progress further. To shine in the interview, talk numbers and results. Show that you understand what’s going on in the business outside of the confines of your own department and show financial intelligence.

Tip: When preparing for your interview, go back through your key achievements in your career and find out what the numbers were. It’s not enough to say the work you did resulted in ‘improvements’ – prove it. Show the Return on Investment (ROI) for the projects and activities you led.

Are you strategic?

You may be fantastic operationally and this is a good skill to have. To bring in someone at a senior level, the CEO needs to be satisfied that the person they choose thinks and behaves strategically. They are looking for someone who thinks further ahead than next week or next month. They want a person who understands the organisation’s vision, mission and goals. If they don’t have them documented, they may want you to help create the vision, mission and goals, so you need to show you’re up to the job!

Tip: Think about examples when you have behaved strategically and practice talking about what you did. You probably won’t be asked this question outright so you need to weave your strategic abilities into the answers to other questions and make sure you use the word ‘strategy’ at several points in the interview. Look at their website to see whether their vision, mission and business goals are stated and make sure you refer to them in the interview.

Do you understand our culture?

Every organisation believes their culture is unique and the reality is that they indeed are. Even when you’ve worked at a very similar organisation, there may be differences in the way things are done here. This is as much about understanding the organisation’s values as the personalities within it. As with recruiting for any other position, the CEO needs to be satisfied that you are going to fit in and not rock the boat too much. This isn’t about you being a ‘yes’ person, more about how well you will work with the other senior executives - will they accept you in the C-suite?

Tip: You can get a good feel for their culture from their website. Look at how they present themselves to the world. Go through the site with a fine-toothed comb to see what they say and how they say it. Also look at how they have photographed the senior people in the organisation. These portraits can be very telling and also give you a good indication of the dress code.

Do you respond well to being challenged?

At a senior level, you are likely to be challenged on your decisions and the work of your department. Will you run out of the office in tears, explode in rage or deal with it calmly in an appropriate manner? You might be asked this question or more likely the CEO will be challenging in the interview to test how you really respond.

Tip: Be ready to back up anything you claim in the interview. Avoid giving vague answers as these are likely to be challenged. Deal with any challenging comments assertively but not aggressively - after all, this person could be your next boss.

Can I trust you if I confide in you?

As they say, it’s lonely at the top and the CEO is well aware of the political games being played at work. It can take a lot for the CEO to open up about any development issues they have or any decisions they are struggling with. They need to know they can trust that anything they discuss with you will be confidential and handled discreetly. Do you want to be seen as their right-hand person or the gossip who goes blabbing to the rest of the executive team? Most likely you chose the former.

Tip: Demonstrate that you have a trusting relationship with your current boss by not being drawn into any discussions about what you like or dislike about working with them. If you have been a sounding-board to a senior person in the past, you let them know this is the case without divulging any confidential information.

In order to perform well in an interview with a CEO, it’s time to think like a CEO. If you were in their position, what would you be looking for?

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