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Why Executives have different expectations when they interview candidates


Think this guy wants to hear your “beat around the bush” answer?

Executives and their interview expectations 

Last week, we discussed some of the differences between being interviewed by a mid-level manager and being interviewed by an executive. As promised, this week we go into more detail with some specific examples of how to interview with an executive. 

Before we take a dive, let me try to provide some differences between the job of mid level managers and an executive. The first thing we need to remember is that executives and mid-level managers think differently. C levels generally do not get into the details unless there is a topic the executive is VERY passionate about. The C suite is paid to think strategically and long-term. These leaders are thinking about what the company will be working in the next few years or will be the “next big thing” for the company.  For a great post on strategic thinking that is written in a short and succinct style, see Fred Wilsons post here.   

Mid-level managers are paid to solve the problems of individual contributors. Mid Level managers are often told what problems their teams needs to tackle. Their job is to harness the power of the individual contributors and move the needle. As a middle manager, the direction usually comes from above.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of strategic mid-level managers, but the executive is pure “strategery”.  

Change your communication style for Executives

If you have had success interviewing with a mid-level manager and progress has stopped when interviewing with executives, a change in communication style is probably in order. 

When interviewed by a strategic thinker, many individual contributors give background and reasoning and may or may not get to the answer the exec wants to hear. This is PAINFUL for someone who doesn’t get into the weeds or the details and execs don’t get lost in the weeds. 

Anytime you are faced with an interview question, it is important to answer the question. When an executive asks an interview question, it is IMPERATIVE to answer the question and answer it thoughtfully with no beating around the bush. If you need a moment to collect your thoughts, that is OK, just get to the point.  Making an executive wait for an answer because you first have to explain reasoning, background and maybe even commit the Cardinal sin of blaming others is the WORST possible thing to do. 

What Executives want in an answer

Too many candidates give background and reasoning BEFORE they answer the question and this is where they lose the interview. In an effort to be thoughtful and provide all the background information, the candidate usually shoots them in the foot. In an effort to stall the answer and feel out the interviewer, we dance around the answer waiting for a reaction to guide us.   

Execs surround themselves and work with senior individuals that know how to communicate effectively and know how to answer questions.  Executives are busy people and do not waste time. If there is going to be any background, reasoning or “excuse” this will be provided AFTER the answer to the question is provided. 

Typical executive question for the mid-level candidate:  What is your 5-year plan?

Typical individual contributor answer:  “Well, I went to school and graduated with a degree in business administration.  I thought that getting a business degree would give me a great overall background for business.  I got a minor in economics because I also thought this would help my background for any large Fortune 500 company.  My first job was as an analyst and I really liked this work.  I worked with a lot of spreadsheets and was really able to develop my Excel skills, to the point where I can do joins, pivot tables, and formulas in my sleep.  I would really like to be in a position where I can use these skills, be valuable to a company and contribute to a department.”

For the record, you lost me at “I went to school and grad.”  Actually, you lost me at “Well” but regardless, you lost me.  I didn’t ask about your education or degree. I asked about your 5-year plan. Describing your education and Excel skills might be what is listed in the job description and may be what the hiring manager wants to hear, but the executive doesn’t worry about the details. Leaders worry about what is going on 2-5 years out.  “WHAT IS YOUR PLANNNNNNN?”

What an executive wants to hear:

“My 5-year goal is to be managing a team that is working on data, analytics and moving the dial for an established company.  I am currently an individual contributor and working on my leadership skills.  My goal is to have a reputation as a go-to expert in data analytics.

I am currently attending night school and will have my MBA within the next 1.5 years.  With my advanced knowledge in business, I hope to land a job as an analyst where I can crunch numbers, leverage data and help make incremental adjustments to existing processes that will increase the ROI for a department.  I have always been fascinated with squeezing blood out of a turnip.  It is easy to improve results on brand new processes that haven’t been through multiple cycles, but within long-standing companies that takes skill.”

The very first sentence answers the question.  Most individual contributors give the background information first and fail.  In most cases, individual contributors answer the question with the second paragraph:  “I am currently attending night school and will have my MBA…” Execs want to hear the question answered first.

Typical Executive question when interviewing a mid-level manager

Do you believe that your team should work 40 hours a week or 55 hours a week?

Typical mid-level manager answer:

“There are pros and cons to both styles. You will get more accomplished working 55 hours a week. At the same time, there is something to be said about work-life balance. At my last job, the culture of the company was to work 40 hours a week. There was one department that worked close to 55 hours a week.  This group really stood out as some very hard drivers, Type A personality types. The turn over was a lot higher there as well though. I think that both have their place.”

The executive asked a question and didn’t receive an answer. What the executive did hear was a wishy-washy, non-committal answer that tried to cover all the bases. Bottom line, the question wasn’t answered. When being asked a direct question, expect trouble when answering “there are pro’s and con’s”. Executives want to surround themselves with lieutenants that can make a decision. If the executive doesn’t like your decision, they will let you know and you can hop on board, but first and foremost they want you to pick a side.

Executive level answer 

Here is what I would want to hear: 

“I am a 55-hour a week person.  I believe I am paid to work 40 hours a week, but that will only get the company the status quo.  To move the company I need to put in more hours than the competition. This doesn’t mean my fellow managers, this means our company’s competitors.  If the culture of the company is to work 40 hours, I won’t expect more from the team I am working with. We will still move the dial and put in the hours.” 

Executives are just as happy with:

“I am 40 hours a week person. There will be times where the company will ask more because of deadlines and projects. I expect to put in those extra hours. Right now I am looking for a work-life balance at this stage in my career. I understand that this company talks about work-life balance on the website. In talking with the other managers, it seems the culture here is 40 hours a week.”

Pick a side and commit

The point is that the candidate picked a side and answered the question. No wishy-washy “I don’t want to piss you off Mr. Executive” attitude here. 

After a couple of rounds of “you didn’t answer my question dumbass,” you can see where frustration would kick in. Dumbass sounds harsh, but VP’s just will not tolerate a waste of their time. 

Notice I didn’t say, “I hope”, or “I plan” in either of the answers. I answered the questions with finality, which shows confidence.  This may seem like a subtle distinction, but executives convey confidence. If we don’t know the answer, we convey we don’t know the answer with confidence. We then follow that up and state they will get an answer with confidence.


In regard to last weeks candidate that was making it to the interview with the executive of the department and finding themselves declined. I am glad to announce that once understood what the interviewers wanted to hear. I am happier to announce an offer shortly followed. If you are interviewing with execs remember THEIR priorities when giving your answers.

See you at the after party,


nasty:  an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. E.G.  “He has a nasty forkball”.

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