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Job interview with executives

job interview with executives

You don’t interview with the CEO at Yahoo the same way you do with a middle manager

Job interview with executives

I recently worked with a candidate who was having a hard time landing a job. This candidate was having what he thought was consistent success landing interviews, and landing multiple interviews with the same company, but wasn’t able to move forward to the offer stage.

I see this on a regular basis. In most cases, by the time I meet this candidate, they are generally frustrated with the job hunt, the interview process, and the economy. Frustration leads to a vicious circle because the candidate finds themselves emotionally invested in a position only to have their heart-broken when they are declined. This, of course, makes it tough to get mentally geared up for the next opportunity. I understand this. The candidate has done their due diligence on a company, position, and the hiring manager, and after a couple of interviews is starting to feel confident about the position and looking forward to a new opportunity.

Because our candidate is able to make it through an interview loop that includes everyone through the Director or the VP of the department, confidence runs high. Unfortunately, that last interview with the executive is what does the candidate in and stops the hiring process.    

For me, it is a common problem and the diagnosis? Communication style. The candidate has a few years of interview experience under their belt and consequently notched a few jobs as well. But now that our candidate has a few years of experience, he isn’t interviewing for entry-level positions with team members and middle managers. Because our candidate has a few years of experience, the positions applied for are more senior positions vs. entry-level. At this level, Directors and VPs of the department are brought in and these senior managers and executives add another dynamic to the interview loop.  The bar for interview performance was just raised. Interview skills and techniques that worked with team members and hiring managers for entry-level positions are no longer enough to land senior positions. These positions that require a few years of experience hold a higher barrier to entry. The questions that team members and execs ask candidates may be the same, but the expectations to the answers are much different. This makes sense. The executives didn’t rise to where they are because they have the same experience or standards as the rest of the department. Answers that worked for an entry-level position just don’t cut it at this next level.  Make no mistake, job interviews with executives are different.   

Before I proposed my theory to our frustrated candidate, I asked a few interview questions to hear his answers. Sure enough, it was pretty obvious that the interview answers I heard would move our candidate past a gatekeeper and probably a few team members, but not past a job interview with executives.

Before we dig into the different expectations between executives and individual contributor level interviewers, let’s review the difference between the two.

Most individual contributors want to become managers, most managers want to become directors and most directors want to become VP’s. So what separates each level?

Very broadly speaking, individual contributors are given direction from a manager and asked to complete a task. At this point in someone’s career, the percentage of task thinking versus strategic thinking is probably 90% task and 10% strategic. At the executive level, the thinking is more like 10% task and 90% strategic. The executive is NOT going to be involved in the minutia of a project. The executive is worried about WHAT needs to be done vs. HOW it will be accomplished. This makes sense – with less experience, the individual contributor needs more direction. With more experience, the executive isn’t trying to figure out what to get done by 5:00 PM, but what needs to get done 6 months to 1 year out. Depending on the size of the company, the strategy managers and executives are working on could be what will happen 5 years out.

Why Communication Matters in a job interview with executives

If you want to take your career to the next level, as an individual contributor you need to possess intellectual horsepower, be a team player, a leader, blah – blah. Of course, you need to show some strategic thinking potential as well. These qualities are very important but a lot of these qualities are going to be proven and conveyed via your communication style. If you are not able to convey your ideas, move your teammates on board to new ideas effectively, or push back on ideas in a productive way, it isn’t going to matter.

If you are already working in a department, you can grow into a role despite a weakness in any one of the above because you have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate your skill set over time.  You could grow into the next level over a time frame of years. In an interview, you only have 45 to 50 minutes to prove you are qualified.  In reality, you only have 10 minutes because if you don’t impress the executive in the first 10 minutes, the executive is probably going to make up their mind and tune you out. The way you grab the executive is with your communication skills.

If I am trying to impress an exec, I need to switch up my communication style. Execs think, act, and talk differently than individual contributors and my best chance of impressing them is to communicate to them in a way that there is no context switching and makes it subconsciously easy for them to relate to our answers and ideas.   

Next week, we get into exactly HOW to communicate and interview with an executive. Yes, we do bring examples.

That post is linked here. 

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. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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