5 Interview Questions to Ask Executive Candidates

November 16, 2015

There’s a lot at stake when you’re bringing on a new leader to your organization. Whether you’re hiring a co-founder or seeking a new chief marketing officer, you need to make sure that this person has the right blend of technical and management skills. Most importantly, you need someone with a clear vision--who can mobilize a group, build trust within your organization, and provide consistent inspiration.

This person is tough to find: he or she may not self-identify as a leader, lack the technical skills to succeed in a role, or be disinterested in leaving a comfortable job for unknown terrain. 

No matter the case, you need the right interview questions to surface the personality traits that you may not immediately notice. Here’s a list of 5 favorite interview questions from the recruiting community:

“What do you think your team’s reaction would be to you leaving your current role?”

Nominated by: Anne Raimondi, senior vice president of operations at Zendesk

As senior vice president of operations, Raimondi sits at the intersection of many different business functions ranging from IT to online business, support, and facilities. The one trait that she sees in the many different types of leaders she’s worked with is empathy.

“The reason I use this question is that I've found in large part, it tells a lot about how someone views their role as a leader and manager,” says Raimondi. “People who put a big priority on being a good leader have very specific and detailed answers, especially to the question about what their team would like to see them do differently--they spend a good amount of time thinking about, and working on, becoming a better leader for their team.”

“What qualities are most important to you when you have to make a hire?”

Nominated by: Josh King, associate at Ridgeway Partners.

You need an executive who is great at building exceptional teams. Skills alone won’t yield results: companies need people who can tap into networks of people.

“This question tends to produce the most honest answers that reveal not only what an individual candidate's strengths are, but also - and importantly - what his or her tendencies are when it comes to building a team and delegating, which are critical traits to evaluate when placing C-level execs,” says King.

“Ultimately, it's a way to uncover whether someone has an X-factor by avoiding the contrived answer you'd receive if you were to ask them what are your strengths. Whether it's a subconscious trait, a candidate will often favor an individual who shares his or her similar strengths and weaknesses.”

Look for candidates who are self-aware enough to hire around their weaknesses. Executives should hire employees with similar values--without bringing on clones.

“When you took your current job, what were your top two or three priorities and how did you tackle them?”

Nominated by: Michael Travis, executive recruiter

What top performers share in common is that they set goals and then develop plans to achieve them. Success doesn’t just happen. It’s built on a strong foundation, methodical, and planned--often years in advanced. When hiring executives, you need to find individuals who exemplify this patience and diligence.

“Good candidates can answer that question in a crisp, concise way,” says Travis. “Bad candidates can't name priorities, or can't articulate how they solved problems.”

“Please look outside. Value that building for me.”

Nominated by: Neil Bondre, founder at the Interview Professional

Bondre first heard this question in an interview with Goldman Sachs.

“This question is important because it brings out a lot of important qualities in a candidate,” says Bondre. “Can they think on their feet? How well do they perform under pressure? If they do not know the exact answer, what is their thought process? Do they stay composed and deliver a clear answer or crumble as they explain the answer?”

Bondre elaborates: the candidate’s answer is less important than his or her thought process.

“Thought process and how you analyze any given scenario is key to the answer instead of just giving a number. If you have a good strategy and framework for solving problems, then you can be successful in many positions because you have a strong foundation.”

Look for executives who exemplify these traits.  

“I disagree.”

Nominated by: Dan Hermann, CEO and founder of Paint Nite

Executives need to remain calm under pressure. How does your interviewee respond to triggers and tough situations?

“It's not really a question, but I will try and play devil's advocate in the interview - disagree on points, or even say that I think a certain notion is wrong,” says Hermann. “This is where the leadership can show through. Does he/she believe in what he/she is saying enough to stand committed? Or will the desire for the position soften the response in favor of career goals. No one will follow, unite behind, or be inspired by the latter.”

Be careful about how you position your counter-questions, however. You don’t want to scare away great candidates.

Final Thoughts

When interviewing executives, you need to ask questions that uncover stories between the lines. Look for someone who can effectively look out for the greater good of your organization. Pay attention to how candidates respond to curveballs, handle disagreement, and describe their own roles and responsibilities. Look for someone with integrity and a strong sense of ownership. Storytelling will be your fuel for relationship-building and discovery.

* image by Fortune Live Media

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