Top Questions to Ask When Interviewing for Executive Roles

Posted: Jan 23  |  By: Parker + Lynch

When interviewing, it’s obviously important to appear competent, reasoned and qualified. This reality is especially true when interviewing for executive roles. It’s not enough to have a top-notch résumé, a long list of professional references and substantial involvement in the community. You must be able to demonstrate a level of sophistication beyond that of entry- and mid-level positions. In large part, this is about avoiding clichés, and instead, making sure to ask meaningful and relevant questions. Here, we’ll provide some good things to ask your interviewer that can help separate you from the pack.

How do you define success in this role at 30 days, 90 days, six months and beyond?

This question communicates several things to your interviewer. First, you’re establishing a desire for accountability; you’re asking the interviewer (who is likely someone with whom you’ll work closely) to set the bar. This can help you to determine what you’ll need to do in order to be successful in the position.

Second, you’re demonstrating a certain degree of humility and respect to company leadership. Why does this matter when you’re interviewing for an executive role that will be part of that team? Existing leadership will appreciate someone who knows the appropriate time to defer.

What might I do differently than my predecessor in this role?

This question is somewhat situation-dependent in that it depends on who your interviewer is. One of the interviewers could be the person you’re replacing or someone that will not manage you directly. However, it’s important to understand both what your predecessor did right and wrong. To a limited degree, the interviewer may volunteer some of that information. If so, that can help you get a good idea of how to conduct the work.

Further, it communicates to the interviewer that you have a sensitivity toward doing the work in a way that’s right for the organization, rather than simply doing it your own way or perpetuating the status quo.

How would you describe the organization’s culture?

In large part, you can research this information with bigger organizations. However, in smaller organizations, it can prove hard to find. Either way, it’s important for your overall satisfaction with the job. If the culture fails to match your personality, it can be tough going.

Additionally, since you’re looking at an executive position, you’ll be managing other individuals and need to lead them in a way that is consistent with the culture in which they’re familiar—unless part of your role is to change or improve the culture. While there are many lists of corporate culture types, Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor sum up the spectrum nicely, as outlined here. Using information like theirs to frame your question, you can easily determine whether your work and management style align with the organization’s values.

What is the biggest initial hurdle that needs to be overcome?

Anytime there’s a significant leadership position being transitioned, there is going to be something substantial that needs to be dealt with quickly. It’s not only good for you to know what it might be, but it’s great to communicate to your interviewer that you’re sensitive to the issue. A good follow up to this question might be to ask if there are any managerial or practical concerns that you would be immediately responsible for improving. In short, you want to know what management is concerned about and let them know that your biggest concern is alleviating theirs.

Are there additional duties that were excluded from the job description for this position?

There are practical reasons why job descriptions don’t list every single aspect of the position. For those reasons, it’s a good idea to inquire as to what may have been left out. The purpose here is simply to glean a bigger picture of what the position may entail and to let the interviewer know that you know there’s a bigger picture.

Regardless of the level you’re applying for, remember to do your homework on the organization. For an executive-level accounting or finance role, be intimately knowledgeable of all public filings (if it’s for a public company), know who the movers and shakers are, and study the company’s website and any public-facing collateral you can get find. The more of this you do, the more competent you’ll appear to your interviewers and the more capable you’ll be right off the bat when you land your new position!

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