When interviewing candidates for a chief executive officer position, what questions can you recommend that fall outside the usual routine?
—Neil Eckersley, Johannesburg,
Ah, yes, the usual routine, in which executive job candidates are lobbed air balls such as “How would you describe your leadership style?” and “What was your biggest management challenge, and how did you overcome it?” It is no wonder you want to avoid that ritual: Such interviews can be so perfunctory—for both sides.
Jack and Suzy
They happen for good reason, though. Real interviews—truly meaningful and illuminating ones—are incredibly hard to orchestrate. It is one thing when the candidate is internal. You have years of shared experience and accomplishments to talk about and, typically, some level of personal rapport to set a candid tone. Moreover, you can augment your interview evaluation by talking with the candidate’s subordinates and peers throughout the company.
But when a candidate is an outsider, you are in a tougher place. Most references tend to be positive in a careful sort of way, thanks to a widely ingrained sense of lawyer-fear. Which leaves boards, human-resources executives and other search types with interviews that too often play out like a series of first dates—shiny, polite and full of exaggerated promise.
Fortunately, there is a way out. First, it involves making sure every candidate has a well-established reputation for honesty and fairness before even getting in the door, as integrity is a given for any CEO. Once that step is done, the interview charade can be significantly mitigated by tightly linking questions to the key characteristics you want in a CEO: vision, leadership, crisis-management ability, “runway” and authenticity.
Taking vision first, your questions should seek to uncover a candidate’s ability to see around corners, probe consensus thinking and competitive data with a healthy scepticism, and swiftly make a change when the markets demand it. For example, you might ask: In your career, what is the best example of you anticipating market changes that your competitors did not? When did your curiosity lead you to probe deeply and uncover a competitive trend or marketplace dynamic that others did not see—or did not want to see?
With your leadership questions, you are looking for examples of each candidate’s track record with people. Thus, you might ask for a few examples of their hiring successes and disasters, and to explain what they got right and what they missed (that last query also serves as a nice test of candour). You might also ask: Can you point to any of your people who “grew up” with your support and guidance and have gone on to succeed in your own company or outside of it?
Every leader faces a crisis, or two, or three. You want your CEO interview to uncover whether a candidate has the experience and courage to overcome another. Try asking: What was the toughest integrity violation you have ever encountered, and how did you handle it? Have you ever had to define yourself in the midst of heavy criticism, and how well did you succeed?
As for “runway”, when you hire a CEO, it is not just to lead the company as it is but also to continually see the organization and its future with fresh eyes. To that end, ask about reinvention. Has the candidate ever gone through a personal or professional metamorphosis—willingly?
Finally, authenticity. Well, hmm. We have to stop here. Because authenticity—arguably the most important CEO characteristic—is so hard to ferret out with questions. Sure, you might ask, “When have you been blindsided in life and why did it happen?” But, judging authenticity is more a matter of observation. Does the candidate have a sense of humour about life? Does he seem excited—in the bones—about watching people grow? Does he seem comfortable in his own shoes? Is he candid? Watch, and listen.
“Listen”, incidentally, is the keyword in all of this. Questions are, after all, only questions. You can start to feel quite full of yourself asking good ones—you have done your job—but the real power of an interview ultimately lies in how well you listen to the answers. Really listen, all the way to the end, between the lines, through the pauses and after the awkward silences. That discipline is so much harder than it sounds. And yet, when you let candidates talk—even seasoned veterans of the interview game—they often, in time, reveal what you need to know: Whether you have found your CEO or not.
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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