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Interview Assignment For Ceo Position

Get past executive-speak by using behavioral interview questions. Let’s face it: executives speak in subtleties, just the type of situation that is perfect for behavioral interviewing.

In a recent assignment, I was asked to interview CFO candidates for a small startup in Silicon Valley. Having spent my entire career in human resources and not being a finance professional, at first, this appeared to be a somewhat daunting task. I began thinking of the most insightful and penetrating interview questions I could come up with that would be better than the old standby, “Tell me about yourself.”

Building My Behavioral Interview Questions

The new CFO has some huge challenges in taking over this role, and those challenges seemed like a good place to start building my interview questions.

The successful candidate will be taking over the finances of a fast-growing company. They have just raised their second round of funding and are moving into a new building. Facilities will also be the CFO’s responsibility as they are too small to have a facilities manager.

Until now, a hard working controller with the help of one part-time employee has handled finances. Together they have done a reasonable job of keeping things organized. The most recent surge of growth has created a need for an additional headcount in the department that has just been approved. However due to her husband relocating to Singapore, the controller has recently decided to retire and will be leaving in six weeks.

The CEO, a very likable man, does not have a strong head for numbers. So he needs his CFO to be a partner to him in this regard. But he needs more than just a numbers person; he also needs someone who anticipates the needs he will have in the future. This includes managing things like IT infrastructure, net cash flow, budgets, and the annual operating plan. All of this has to be done in the context of working with an executive team with strong egos and opinions.

Considering the situation, the new CFO faced several major tasks and projects that had to be undertaken. Each of these situations would make a great foundation for a behavioral interview question.

Any well-constructed behavioral interview question has three parts to it. The first part of the question is called the opening; the second part is the situation, followed by what we called the bar raiser or a way to make the question more difficult.

After a brief opening such as “tell me about a time,” adding any of the CFO’s upcoming challenges makes for a great behavioral question. For example using any of these situations with that opening works like this.

Tell me about a time when you…

Managed a major move into a new building.

Built a finance department from scratch

Had to partner with the CEO

Put IT infrastructure in place

Produced net cash flow, budgets, and the annual operating plan

Created and implemented finance policies

To make the questions more difficult, we raise the bar by adding context to these questions:

In a fast-paced environment

Where previous infrastructure had not existed

With strong personalities on the team

Where there was not much time for transition

How that impacted the company culture

You can see how using these different components, you can quickly create a set of behavioral interview questions that will challenge any executive candidate.

Getting Past the Superficial Answer

Your interview guide is an integral part of any executive hiring, as is the effective use of behavioral questions. While this is true of most interviews, it is especially true with executives because they speak and act in subtleties. Getting beneath the surface of their answer often requires you to dig a little deeper. After asking the initial question that you just labored over, listen carefully to their response. Listen for the problem they faced, the actions they took and the results that were achieved. We call this getting PAR; Problem, Action, Result.

The key to behavioral interviewing is listening to the candidate’s responses. Embedded in the response will be either the problem or situation they faced, followed by the actions they took to resolve the issue and the result that was achieved. The skill comes in continuing to stay on the task of getting a complete behavioral answer.

Create an interview guide for yourself start by selecting just a few of these questions. An interview guide consists of the questions you’re going to ask, space for taking notes, and an interview evaluation form.

As you know, it is tempting to take more questions into the interview than you can possibly ask, so make sure you have your favorites on top of the list. We suggest you take no more than four or five questions into a 45-minute interview because you will not have time for more than that. Remember you have to allow time to answer their questions too.

Building the Interview Evaluation Form

Your interview evaluation form should ask for your feedback on the candidate and the way they responded to your questions. This feedback can focus on the questions themselves or about the skill underlying your questions. For instance, you may ask several questions to help you understand the CFO candidate’s approach to partnering with the CEO without asking specifically about that topic. Your interview evaluation form should include these four areas.

  1. The candidate’s ability to handle the overall functional responsibilities of this executive role.
  1. How the candidate will fit with the team they will work with as well as the company’s culture.
  1. The candidate’s enthusiasm for the company and the role.
  1. Probably most important of all is your enthusiasm for the candidate.

All of these are areas that should be explored with any candidate and this is especially true with executives.

The Takeaway

If you have shied away from using behavioral interview questions when working with executives, fear not for they are particularly useful in this situation. Well-constructed questions in an interview can lead to the most insightful discoveries.

Remember, a well-constructed behavioral interview question contains:

  • An opening phrase
  • This situation or problem the new employee is likely to face
  • A way to raise the bar on the questions difficulty

Be sure to get PAR from the candidate on every question. Listen for the problem they faced, the actions they took, and the results that were achieved.

Make sure to include elements of cultural fit into your interview evaluation form along with an assessment of technical or functional skills. Always include specific examples that come out of your conversations.

By the way, we wound up hiring a great CFO!

Where do you see yourself in five years? Tell me about a time when you showed leadership. What is your biggest weakness?

These are the standard questions that job candidates face during interviews. And by now, everyone also has standard answers. (“My biggest weakness? I work too hard.”)

As you scale to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, you are unlikely to field such hackneyed queries. For leadership positions, it’s the softer skills that matter. Quartz spoke with 10 CEOs and other senior execs about their interview techniques, and the one killer question they like to ask job candidates. Their approaches vary, but all are designed to test a person’s mindset and mentality.

A first-rate résumé won’t help you now. Consider yourself warned.

“Would you rather be respected or feared?”

Michael Gregoire, CEO of CA Technologies, an IT management software company, admits that his favorite interview question is a bit Machiavellian. It never fails to catch people off-guard, and “really reveals what they think about their leadership style,” he says.

In theory, there is no right answer, but in practice the role they’re interviewing for determines which way the CEO leans. In a collaborative environment, it’s better to be respected than feared; at a business unit that’s struggling, the stick may be more useful than the carrot.

“Why are you here today?”

It’s an incredibly open-ended question, but when he asks it in interviews, Gordon Wilson, CEO of Travelport, a UK-based, Nasdaq-listed software firm, is looking for a very specific answer.

“I’m surprised how many times people talk about the benefit of the job from their point of view, versus the benefit that they’re going to bring to the company,” Wilson says. This helps him judge whether a candidate is joining a team or whether “it’s all about me.”

Presumably, he’s looking for an even split between the benefits to the company and the person? “At least!” he says. “I’d want 75-25: if you benefit the enterprise the personal thing will come.”

“What’s your biggest dream in life?”

A little homework goes a long way before a job interview. This certainly applies when facing Zhang Xin, co-founder and CEO of SOHO China, a commercial property developer.

When she asks candidates her go-to interview question, they should know—given her background—that no answer is too ambitious. After all, the self-made billionaire built her empire essentially from scratch, saving money from work at a grim garment factory in Hong Kong to pay for an education in England that led to her starting what quickly became China’s largest office developer.

Needless to say, when Zhang says that she is attracted to people who are “free spirited,” she means it.

“I ask how they were treated.”

Not the candidates, but people who would have encountered the candidates on their way to an interview with Rick Goings, CEO of direct-sales pioneer Tupperware.

“I talk to the driver who brought them in from the airport, my assistant, and the receptionist who welcomed them. I ask how they were treated. There you learn how this person acts,” Goings says.

What he’s after is a sense of the “non-cognitive skills” that good leaders need to manage and inspire teams. To this end, he’ll meet with job candidates to ask them questions, of course, but he finds that equally valuable information comes from other sources who’ve vetted candidates through everyday interactions with them.

“What is your favorite property in Monopoly, and why?”

Ken Moelis, the founder and CEO of Moelis & Co, an investment bank, likes to lob this unexpected question at freshly minted MBAs interviewing for mid-level positions.

It’s a “great way to hear how people think of risks and rewards,” he says.

“Tell me about when you failed.”

Dissecting past failures is something of an obsession for CEOs, who focus on it to look for resilience, creativity, and humility in candidates. A person who can speak openly, honestly, and specifically about their personal shortcomings is attractive, but only if they can also explain how they are “a better person, partner, leader, and manager as a result,” says Roger Crandall, CEO of American insurance group MassMutual.

A variation on this theme comes from Davide Serra, founder and CEO of Algebris, a London-based hedge fund. He takes a similarly personal approach, asking candidates, “What’s the biggest mistake you made and what have you learned from it?”

For finance firms in particular, there is danger lurking around every corner. To this end, company bosses want managers around who won’t panic when things go wrong and are self-aware enough to recognize if their own actions might be the source of the problem. Vague answers in which candidates only paint themselves as bystanders to failures foisted upon them by outside forces do not build confidence.

“Talk to me about when you were seven or eight. Who did you want to be?”

Barbara Byrne, vice chairman of investment banking at Barclays, admits that she’s “not a technical interviewer.” By the time a candidate gets an interview with her, she assumes that they’re smart. But can they pass her “airplane test”? That is, “Could I sit on a plane from New York to LA with you and not be bored out of my mind?”

Childhood dreams, she says, are a good conversation-starter for such a long haul.

“Some people can be there right away,” Byrne says. “You connect to the real person.”

The wine list test

It’s a similar story for Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor, an enterprise software company based in New York. “Anyone can fake it for 45 minutes,” he says.

Instead of a traditional interview for senior roles at his company, the CEO takes a candidate out to dinner with a handful of other senior execs. “I like to watch how they handle themselves in an unstructured environment,” he says.

A key test comes early in the meal: “I give them the wine list.” The person has to convince the group that they know a lot about wine, or pretend that they do, or just pick the most expensive bottle, or ask for help. How they choose and how successful they are in explaining themselves is one part of the test. Also: “You watch how they treat the waiter,” Phillips notes. “I love that.”

Another test comes at the end: “We always surprise them by asking, ‘Tell me a joke.'” This reveals whether someone has a sense of humor, of course, but also whether they can think on their feet in a strange and unfamiliar situation.

Walk the talk

Speaking of relaxed, the high-strung won’t fare well in front of Atul Kunwar, president and CTO of Tech Mahindra, an outsourcing provider. He doesn’t have a go-to interview question as such, but lets a candidate’s professed passions guide the conversation.

A candidate’s hobbies and interests are not fodder for small talk. When one job seeker mentioned that he was a keen singer, “I told him to sing for us, a very senior panel of executives,” Kunwar recalls. His assessment:

He had the gumption to do it, and he sang very well. To me, it meant he was passionate and able to build skills on his own. And when the crunch time came, he had no hang-ups. We need people with that sort of belief and passion.

With additional reporting by Jenny Anderson

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