Executive Careers: How to Ace the Interview

Witt/Kieffer senior partner Adriane Willig has conducted hundreds of searches for healthcare executives since joining the firm in 2008, meaning that she has conducted thousands of interviews. In a recent webinar, “How to Ace Your Next Executive Interview,” Willig joined other executive recruiting experts on a panel advising thousands of global executives on the topic. The online event was hosted by BlueSteps, the career support arm of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC), and moderated by Kathy Simmons, executive director of BlueSteps Executive Career Services.

The following includes some of the insight and advice Willig shared with the audience:

Adriane Willig

How should a candidate prepare for an executive interview?

Willig: When you walk into any interview with a search firm or potential employer, first and foremost make sure you’ve got your research done about the firm, the people you’re meeting with, and the competitive landscape. Make sure you come across as well informed already, that you’ve done your homework.

Next, make sure you practice the tough questions you might get, especially if you have recently left a job: Why did you leave your last company? What have you been doing since you left? If you are currently in a position, why are you considering leaving? There are plenty of other similar questions that you should anticipate. People have a tendency to stumble around those; be honest and forthright, and practice a succinct approach that states the facts and then moves on. In addition, come prepared with questions directed to the types of people you’ll be meeting with, not just broad questions for the entire group.

Finally, relax! If you show your nervousness it will make your interviewers question your leadership ability.

What’s a question that you rely on to gain insight into a candidate?

Willig: “Tell me about your influencers.” I want to hear about the things that helped shape the candidate into the person I see on paper. It’s a great question to open the door. Often a search committee will start out with that as well. It needs a three-to-five minute answer . . . kind of like your infomercial. Therefore, it’s not a complete summary of the resume.

In your response (to this or similar questions), highlight what makes you uniquely prepared for this opportunity. What makes you interested? What drives you? The personal information side is up to you—anything you want to say about your personal life is your decision. The goal of that question is to create a connection and to build off of that for the rest of the interview. You want to make sure you’re authentic and present your real self.

How about the question, “Where do you want to be in five years?”

Willig: Earlier on in your career that is a valid, useful question. Later on it becomes less important though sometimes it will still get asked. In responding, you want to focus on your desire to gain experience and add to your skill set and leadership abilities. It’s not about “I want to gain this title.” That is, it’s more of a question about growth than about your destination.

How does an executive handle being an internal candidate?

Willig: Honestly, it’s awkward if you’re an internal candidate. There’s no way around it because your interviewers are people you probably work with on a daily basis. Regardless, you need to get over that and position yourself for the role you’re striving for. Address the elephant in the room – “Hey, this is a bit awkward, but I hope you will find out things about me that you did not know before” – and then move on.

Don’t assume that, just because they work with you, people know your background. Use your prior experience to show what rounds you out as a candidate and that you’ve really put thought into the role as a next phase in your career. If you’re an internal candidate, you know more about the position than other candidates. It gives you an opportunity—to paint a picture for your interviewers as if you were in that position and to outline a vision for your leadership in that role rather than the one you currently have.

What core attributes are executive level interviewers looking for?

Willig: There are some critical skills that search consultants and our clients are looking for at the executive or C-suite level. First and foremost is an executive presence. This can be hard to define, but it has to do with a few key things: Are you confident but not overly confident? Do you have composure under stress? Are you a positive thinker? As a search consultant, I see people who handle stressful situations well, while others are harried and overworked. A question that a candidate should ask of herself or himself: If you are stressed and maxed out in your current role, can you really take on more?

A few other important attributes today:

  • Curiosity: Are you not accepting of the status quo, do you ask good questions, and get people to think outside the box?
  • Resilience: How do you bounce back from setbacks?
  • Authenticity: This is something that you can’t make up; ask yourself if you feel authentic and truthful as to who you are.

How does the candidate make the interview memorable?

Willig: There’s no magic to it. If you are the right fit for the job you will stand out. But there are a few other things I can suggest: You want to use some humor, of course, not too much but at least a little. And of course as you’re going through an interview, use examples—people don’t want to hear about how you would approach a certain situation as much as how you have approached it before.

Finally, at the end say thank you. It is critically important that you acknowledge the opportunity and show appreciation for the interviewers’ time and consideration. Remember that each side in the interview wants to feel wanted!

How does a candidate remain proactive post-interview?

Willig: Always ask when you’re leaving an interview about timing on decisions for next steps. This is appropriate to do. You want to make sure you say thank you and show your interest, including a follow-up email. A follow-up call to find out where things stand in a week to 10 days is also appropriate. You want to seem eager enough and hungry enough for the job but don’t want to seem pesky. It’s a balance, but you want to stay top of mind. If there’s something you come across that is pertinent to your interview – an article you wrote or read recently, for example – you can follow up with that just to maintain a presence with the employer.

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