How to Ace an Executive-Level Job Interview

Tips and techniques for answering common interview questions, making a good first impression during the interview and for following up.

You've been contacted by an executive recruiter about an opportunity to interview for a position at a successful company. The job the executive recruiter describes sounds perfect for you. You want the position so badly, you dream about it at night. To make your dream a reality, you need to ace the interview.

MORE INTERVIEW TIPS

Preparing for Executive-Level Interviews

Interview Questions to Avoid

Interview Road Kill

That's easier said than done. Job interviews are one of those occasions when you just have to be perfect. You need to spin a good story out of your work experience, but your story can't be too detailed or carry on too long. You need to appear relaxed, but you can't come off as too relaxed. You need to practice your responses to typical interview questions, but in the interview, your responses can't seem rehearsed. It's like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Everything has to be just right. And it's tricky.

Obviously, you've got to learn as much about the company and the people interviewing you as you can. The more you know about the hiring manager, the more comfortable you'll be talking with him or her. Similarly, the more you know about the company, the easier it will be for you to present yourself as the answer to the company's prayers.

This story walks you through the interview process, from preparation to follow-up. You'll get tips on how to make a strong first impression and answer interview questions, and you'll learn the verbal and nonverbal communications you should employ—and avoid—so that you can ace the interview.

Prepare

Interviews are designed to assess whether you, the candidate, can do the job at hand, whether you'll spring into action once on the job, and whether you fit with the company's culture and management team. To prepare for your interview, you should anticipate what questions you may be asked and craft quality responses to them. You should be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your strengths? You should highlight the strengths the company needs to address its current challenges.
  • How would you describe your management style? You could say something like, "I used to prefer a top-down management style, but I've found that when I involve people in a decision it's easier to get their commitment and almost always results in a better outcome."
  • Why should we hire you? Again, explain how your strengths align with the company's needs.
  • How much money are you looking for? Be careful of this trap. If you ask for too much, you knock yourself out of consideration. If you ask for too little, you sell yourself short. A good tip is to quote third-party research and answer with a range. An even better approach is to ask the interviewer about the company's compensation philosophy (e.g., What are the components and how are they adjusted?)

You're certain to be asked about failed projects, so don't get caught off guard when the hiring manager tosses that one your way. Be honest without being defensive and beware of giving phony-sounding answers, such as "It really wasn't my fault," or "I warned them it wouldn't work."

When telling your interviewer about projects that went off track, be sure to describe the smart corrective action you took, the end result and the lessons you learned. For example, you might describe how you proactively involved others: "As soon as I saw that we weren't going to meet the customer's deadline, I immediately called a meeting with everyone on the project. We were able to renegotiate with the customer and minimize our losses. Ultimately the customer respected our honesty and was able to work with us on a solution." (For more advice on how to answer questions about failed projects, read Interview Questions to Avoid.)

Your interviewer will also ask you about your biggest flaw. Mention only one and describe the steps you've taken to correct it. For example, "I'm not good at speaking in front of groups, but I enrolled myself in an executive presentations program and have gotten much better."

Beware of mentioning flaws without realizing it. For example, if you say that you seek to avoid conflict at all costs, your interviewer might think you can't deal with conflict or that you have a "head in the sand" management style. Similarly, if the interviewer asks you if you've implemented a specific software package and if you haven't, don't say, "I haven't done it, but I can learn." That's the wrong answer.

For any question, a factual response isn't enough. You have to engage the interviewer with stories that make the facts compelling. When you're interviewing for executive-level positions, the hiring manager is looking for someone who communicates well, who's not going to be an embarrassment at a board meeting, and who can lead and inspire his or her staff. Rather than describe the functions for which you were responsible, describe incidents that illustrate how you handled problems and opportunities—and the bottom-line results. Create scenes, characters and action, but stick to the OAR model to avoid too much detail and digression:

O: What was the Opportunity or challenge you faced?

A: What Action did you take?

R: What were the Results?

Practice your responses with the aid of video, audio, a mirror or a trusted friend who'll give you honest feedback about how confident and knowledgeable you sound and look. You have to come across as spontaneous rather than rehearsed. Pat answers such as "I am a participative manager" or "I am a workaholic, working day and night until a project is done" can make you sound like an automaton. Don't go over the line that separates a polished answer from a slick one. In other words, don't try to sound like a superhero by beginning every sentence with "I", "Me" and "My" or by overstating your role.

Memorize key facts and dates—both about the company with which you're interviewing and your work history—so that you don't have to dive into your briefcase for the information.

Finally, don't think of yourself as an applicant for the job for which you're interviewing. You're a unique solution to the company's business problems. Thinking of yourself as a solution will give you confidence in your ability to help the company meet its strategic goals, and your confidence will resonate with the hiring manager during the interview. Thinking of yourself as a solution will also help you define your role in the new company, negotiate the compensation package you deserve and gain acceptance as a peer when you start working with the management team.

The Big Day

The day of the interview, arrive at least 15 minutes ahead of time. While you wait, think of yourself as the solution the company needs and assure yourself that the interview is going to go well. You should also use your time to observe employees coming and going: Do they look happy to be there?

When you're brought into the office or conference room where the interviewer is waiting for you, walk in with a smile on your face, your head up and your shoulders back. Shake the interviewer's hand firmly. Repeat his or her name with a smile when you're introduced. Repeat the interviewer's name at appropriate opportunities throughout the conversation. Everyone responds to hearing hisown name. It makes the interviewer listen more intently.

Don't sit until you're asked. Given a choice of seats, avoid the sofa. You'll sink into it like quicksand. Choose a hardback chair. Sit upright with your hands on your knees. Don't cross your legs or your arms. Crossed limbs unconsciously signal defensiveness.

While the interviewer speaks, show you're listening carefully by nodding your head and thoughtfully rephrasing her sentences. Make certain you understand the questions she's asking. Don't assume they're the ones for which you rehearsed answers. Try to divine what's behind each question. For example, the interviewer may ask if you've handled an SAP conversion, but really she wants to know how smoothly the conversion went, if was on time and within budget.

If you're unsure how to answer a question, take time to reflect on it or ask a clarifying question to give yourself more time to form an answer.

As you interact with the interviewer, stay lively. Gesture often and naturally. Smile at the least provocation. Smiling helps you feel you're doing well. Look the interviewer in the eye. If you're being interviewed by a group, maintain eye contact with everyone, one at a time, changing with each point you make rather than scanning the audience.

The interview is going to go well and you're going to feel increasingly relaxed. But take care not to become too relaxed, which can lead you to make a careless comment or acting too familiar. You should remain deferential throughout the interview. Don't say anything negative about your present employer, even if invited. Discuss compensation only if asked.

By the end of the interview, you'll probably be asked if you have questions. Whether you're invited to ask questions or not, always ask a few:

  • What are you looking for in candidates for this position?
  • How would I be measured?
  • What challenges would I have to tackle first?>/li>

Don't ask for any information about the company that can be found with a simple Internet search.

When the interview winds down, ask if the interviewer got the information he wanted. Offer to provide more information, especially if the interviewer hasn't asked you about something in your background that you believe is important to the position. Don't offer references until you're asked for them.

The end of the interview may be your last chance to make it clear you want the job. To do so without sounding desperate, make a positive statement of interest, such as, "I am vitally interested in this opportunity. Are there any concerns you have about my candidacy for the position?" Also ask about next steps. The first impression you make is the most important one of the meeting. The impression you leave at the end of the interview ranks second.

The Follow-Up

Take notes about the meeting as soon as it's over. Note areas where you feel you didn't answer adequately so that you can reinforce the subject matter in your follow-up correspondence. You'll also want to remember who said what as you plan the follow-up process.

Send a letter thanking the interviewer for seeing you, expressing once more why you're a good fit for the job and offering to provide any additional information the hiring manager may need.

Keep following up, methodically but without being a nuisance. The job often goes to the person who wants it most.

Kevin Daley and Dale Klamfoth are senior executives at Communispond, a provider of executive coaching and sales, presentation and communications training. Daley is the company's founder and chairman. Klamfoth is vice president and general manager.

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