How is interviewing with the CEO different from successful interviewing in general?
Like any interviewer, the CEO is looking for the factors career coaches call the “three C’s”: your Competence or ability to do the job, your Compatibility with the company culture, and a good interpersonal connection, or Chemistry. Although the CEO’s concerns may be similar, the emphasis may be different. Since the previous interviewers may have thoroughly vetted you on the competence piece, the CEO may be more interested in how you’ll fit in, your motivations and passions, your personality. For this reason it is crucial to be authentic, open and warm. Easier said than done?
If you feel very nervous or intimidated by the CEO’s high position, try spending some time thinking about them as a person not so different from you. What do you have in common? Can you find any clues online? If not, just use your imagination. Picture them in some likable situation like playing with their grandchildren or pets, or doing volunteer work. Really feel the reality that they have loves, disappointments and vulnerabilities like anyone else, and wish them well. What you’re doing is getting ready to relate to them in a truly friendly and comfortable way. This mental preparation can make a noticeable shift in your confidence and authenticity.
CEOs have their eyes on the bottom line. Even more than the hiring manager, they want to know how you will help the company make money. If you have cut costs or contributed to increased revenues at past organizations, be prepared to succinctly tell your story. If your roles have been far from the bottom line, have stories that show you being productive and efficient. After all, time is money.
They’re focused on the big picture, and they want you to be aware of it too. Show that you understand how the role you’re interviewing for fits into the company and supports its overall goals.
The CEO may take a more personal pride in the company than others do. They may even be a founder or owner. At any rate, they want to see that your interest in and appreciation for the company is strong. Show that you have not only researched the company but that you have remembered and thought about what you learned from your interviews with others there.
What else should you keep in mind when preparing to ace a CEO interview?
Show your deep interest by having some good questions to ask the CEO, referring to what you have already found out and delving deeper. “I had a really interesting conversation with Amanda about the new online platform. What I’ve been wondering since then is how the team will . . .”
Find out what their priorities are with regard to the role. “Before we start, may I ask a quick question? From your point of view, what’s the top priority for this role, and for the person coming into it? What’s most crucial?”
Be ready for the CEO to talk more than he listens. It could be a valuable opportunity to learn about the chief executive, the company, its culture, and the job you’re being considered for. Ask if you may take notes. On the other hand, they may start with an extremely open-ended question like “So, what’s your story?” and expect you to do most of the talking. Be ready for anything. Acing the CEO interview requires you to flow with this leader’s individual style and agenda.
Expect the unexpected. Questions may be less standard, more soul-searching ones like “What’s your biggest dream in life?” or “What would you do if you won the lottery?” You might even be asked to tell a joke. It probably wouldn’t be so important whether you remember a funny joke to tell. What is crucial is to respond in a good-natured way that shows you’re not easily flustered and you can think on your feet.
You may also want to read my post about confrontational and challenging questions some CEOs ask.
Here’s the good news about interviewing with the CEO:
If you’ve gotten this far you’re probably near the top of the list of candidates, or the only one left. They’re hoping you’re the one!