When they hire executives, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson looks for "personality or passion," and AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions president and CEO Richard de la Vega looks for integrity and capability.
Neither of these qualities is discoverable from a CXO candidate's resume, but they constitute important "need to know" questions for CEOs who interview.
For this and other reasons, it is important for CXO job candidates to develop their understanding about a company as much they can before they walk through the doors for an interview. It is equally important to keep this caveat in mind: when companies go seeking CXOs, they are usually doing it because 1) they've created a new position that no one internally can or wants to take, or 2) they want to replace someone they've either lost or fired.
Getting ready for the interview
The key to preparing for a CXO interview conducted by a CEO or other senior person, is to anticipate the questions and issues that are likely to arise in the interview.
Here are some common questions and issues:
1. Tell me about yourself.
As a CXO candidate, I always disliked this question because of its vagueness and its open-ended-ness, and I promised myself that when I was a senior manager interviewing my own CXOs, that I would never ask it. However, many CEOs and senior officials do ask it! One reason for asking such an open-ended question is that they want to see what comes to mind first for you when you think of yourself. Here are some recommendations if you get asked this question:
Try to answer the question with a combination of personal and professional information about yourself. I accidentally found myself in a uniquely advantageous position when I first started interviewing for CIO positions. My background had been in liberal arts and writing, so I never even thought about becoming an IT professional, let alone a CIO. However, when I graduated from college, an IT opportunity presented itself and I liked it. In my interview for CXO, I told my CEO interviewer that—and then went on to say why I liked IT, and some of the things I had accomplished as a manager that I was proud of. This proved to be very successful for me at the time, but I didn't know why. When I thought about it later, I realized what had happened: I had managed to answer the CEO's open-ended question with a nicely blended answer that combined both personal and professional information about me—and that suggested to him why I might be a strong candidate for the position.
2. Tell me about yourself. Part two.
A professional associate of mine once was interviewed by a newly-minted CEO of an aerospace supplies company for a CXO position. The CEO started with the question, "Tell me about yourself." My colleague told me that by asking an open-ended question, she felt that her interviewer had found a way to break the ice for the interview and actually have her take the lead. This is an important element for job interviewees to remember: that your interviewer might be more nervous and ill at ease during the interview than you are! The more you can assist with relaxing the room, the better your chances at getting that CXO job.
3. Tell me about the greatest career or project challenge that you faced—and how you solved it.
If you are interviewing for a CXO manager position, your interviewer wants to know not only how you solved a technology or industry impasse, but how you worked with others and provided leadership to overcome a difficult situation. When you talk about a project, be as specific in describing it and its results as you can (e.g. "We went live with the project in six months instead of in the one year we had planned. We were able to do this because...."). Don't forget, though, that your interviewer is also looking at how well you engaged and motivated your team. In other words, did everyone feel that they had a role in making the project successful? How did you as a manager facilitate that?
4. How do you manage change?
The need for change is a major reason why companies hire CXOs. They want individuals who have experienced and effected successful organizational change. Knowing this, be prepared to talk about your experiences as a change agent.
Also, be ready to talk about the impact it had on the company and on your employees! I once had a CXO candidate who talked about change in his organization, and what he told his employees. "I showed them what an outside consultant had come up with and how and why their jobs were going to change," he said. "I let them know that these changes weren't anything personal. They were needed for the company—because they just made sense." Before long, the employees had embraced this change, the candidate said. "All around the organization, employees were saying 'It just makes sense.'" I thought to myself, "Maybe that was the case. But it could also mean that while the employees were saying this because it was expected, they were also updating their resumes." The next question I asked the CXO candidate was what his staff attrition rate looked like.
5. Where do you want to be in five years?
It is important to answer this question firmly and positively because your interviewer wants to hire a CXO who 1) knows where they are going; 2) would be similarly focused on helping the company get where it needs to go; and 3) believes in the company and its mission. No one wants to go back to their board and employees in six months because a newly hired CXO decides to leave.
6. Now, what is it that you want to ask me?
Most CEOs or senior interviewers at some point during the interview are going to ask you if you have some of your own questions about the company. From your previous research into the company, you should already have several questions in mind. In other cases, you might have new questions that have come about as a result of the interview. In all cases, it is important to have questions and to get them answered.
In one case, I was told that a VP's wife who was a manager in the department I was interviewing to head as a director, would likely have to be let go. I knew I was getting ready to step into a hot situation so I asked the company president who was interviewing me if he was prepared to stand behind me if I had to fire this person. The president told me that he would stand with me, and he did. This was an important point for me. If he had waffled, I wouldn't have accepted the job.
CEOs and other senior leaders look for CXOs they can depend on, who will contribute value to the company, and who will stay around. This is what they interview for. At the same time, however, it is important for CXO job candidates to recognize that they are interviewing the company, too. When both sides come together in a win-win agreement, everyone gains and the company employees and stakeholders benefit, too.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.