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8 Essential Executive Interview Questions

Recruiters will agree that recruiting for executive level positions and talking to executive candidates requires a unique set of executive interview questions. Executive interviews are different than interviewing candidates for non-executive positions. They involve longer recruiting cycles with more comprehensive interviews. Non-executive interviews may take one to three hours, while executive interviews are typically a full day, and sometimes span two to three days.

Executive candidates must demonstrate an intimate understanding of the prospective employer’s business and industry and be prepared to present vision and solutions for business challenges. They will often be asked to participate in working scenarios or give presentations, and will typically meet with many more people than non-executive candidates.

An executive candidate’s image, including attire, connecting skills, grooming, confidence, and self-expression, is more heavily weighted than those same factors for other types of candidates. Executive interviews are very intense processes, with more at stake for both candidates and employers. The right executive interview questions delve into specific executive and leadership competencies. An increasingly important executive competency sought after in a tough economy is cost-cutting. Executive interviewers seek the best candidates to solve problems and create organizational efficiencies, and their interview questions are centered on these important competencies.

Executive candidates have to bring their A game to interviews just as any other type of candidate, but the intensity of executive interviews is much greater than other types of interviews. They must be prepared to discuss the types of business results they’ve achieved, as well as risk taking, cost-cutting, leadership, workforce development, and the prospective employer’s business and industry. They must do much more than research prospective employers. They must know the business and employer challenges, strategic goals, and workforce, and must bring demonstrable knowledge and actionable ideas to the interview.

Tell me about the most difficult business problem you’ve ever faced.

Questions about problem solving are very important in executive interviews because executive level candidates are often sought specifically to solve a business problem. Executive interview questions such as “Describe a situation similar to our company’s biggest operations problem right now and how you handled it” and “Tell me about a time you were faced with a big business problem and how it was resolved” give employers and interviewers an understanding of the level of problem solving, personal integrity, creativity, and business understanding that the candidate has. Asking about problem solving will also reveal how much the candidate knows about the employer’s business.

Discuss the business results you’ve achieved.

One of the most important executive interview questions is the one that asks the candidate to discuss business results. Ask the candidate what kind of business results were achieved, how they were achieved, what affect they had on the business, and how the candidate felt about it. Questions about business results can include asking the candidate to demonstrate thought processes that lead to the actions and practices that achieved the business results they are proud of and can describe and explain in detail. Asking questions about business results is a good preface to asking the candidate about what types of actions he or he might take to solve the employer’s business challenges.

Talk about how you feel about risks and risk taking.

Ask executive interview questions about risks and risk taking to understand the candidate’s tolerance for risk and thought processes about business risk. This could lead to a discussion of the risks the employer’s business principles have taken and the results of that, and how the candidate would have done things when faced with the same types of risks. Attitudes toward risk-taking can reveal how cautious or adventurous an executive candidate is and be very helpful in hiring decisions.

Discuss cost cutting and your experience with it.

In a competitive business environment and tough economy, most employers are exploring or actively involved in cost cutting to protect their businesses and improve their bottom lines. Ask executive candidates about their experience with cost cutting measures, results, and reasons for cutting back. Ask for ideas about where they might perform some cost cutting in employers’ businesses to get an idea of how well they understand where cuts make sense and will benefit the business.

Tell me what your knowledge is like regarding our business and industry.

Executive candidates should come to interviews fully prepared to discuss the employer’s business and industry and be able to discuss in-depth issues and success factors. The answers to these types of questions should leave the interviewer feeling very comfortable that the candidate knows and understands the business. Candidates should be able to talk about growth opportunities and threats, discuss the employer’s customers, and present credible solutions to business problems.

Discuss leadership – what leadership is, your leadership style, and your favorite leaders.

Executive candidates seeking executive positions should know precisely what leadership is, and be able to discuss their leadership style and how they use it in business. Interviewers can use questions about leadership style and candidates’ thoughts on leadership to see if they match with the employer’s mission and vision for the company or with best practices in executive leadership. “Who are your favorite leaders and why?” and “Describe your leadership style” are a couple ways to ask executive interview questions about leadership.

Tell me how you execute workforce development.

Ask executive candidates to discuss workforce issues and their philosophies and ideas of how to improve them. Developing a company’s workforce is essential to business success, and executive candidates must demonstrate strengths in this area. Ask candidates what they think are the most important factors in a competent, productive workforce, and how they measure them. Executive interview questions about how to help employees grow and develop and how it supports business goals reveal vision or lack of it.

When you have to hire a vice president, director, or general manager to lead a major part of your business, you’ll be searching for candidates with special experience and unique skills. The executive interview questions you use need to reflect that to make the best hiring decisions.

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