I was asked this question this morning in coaching a client who is interviewing for project manager roles.
Her concerns may be a lot like your own. So let’s explore what you might ask if you wanted to know the following:
What kind of company culture is filtering down from senior management?
- “How does communication happen between senior management and other levels?”
- “How are the values, vision, plans and strategies communicated?”
- “How does this company reward good performance?”
- “How would you describe the company culture here?”
- “How is that culture evolving?”
Is senior management committed to the department I’m interviewing in?
- “Where do you see the company expanding or focusing its efforts in the next few years?”
- “What upcoming initiatives do you find particularly exciting?”
- “How do you see (relevant department)’s role in the company’s growth?”
Do they set direction in a firm, consistent way?
- “How and when are goals for this department set?”
I like working under management that has a “servant leader” style where the leader shares power and emphasizes developing people. Does this executive believe in this, and practice it?
Asking directly about a specific style may cause the executive to become defensive or question your compatibility with the organization. Instead, ask more general questions and “listen between the lines.”
- “Can you describe your leadership style for me?”
- “What’s your ideal or philosophy about senior management’s role in the company?”
- “How does this company foster leadership at all levels?”
- “What is your approach to motivating and developing talent?”
What is holding the company back?
- “How is this company looking to evolve so that it continues to compete effectively, and how could a person in this role support that evolution?”
Obviously, these are more questions than most non-executive candidates will have a chance to ask in their brief time with a senior leader, but they can guide your own research as well. Read up on the executive in the business press and on social media. Talk to people who know the company. Then prioritize your questions for the interview. You may get a chance to ask many of them, or just one question, or none, if the CEO talks the whole time!
Choose your questions wisely.
The questions you ask say a lot about you. Are you excited about the role, or worried? Interested in the big picture (the executive hopes so!), or just your own job?
The “right question to ask” depends on many factors, including the roles, authority levels and personalities of the individuals involved. For example, if you’re an executive yourself, you may not need to be as deferential as a mid-level candidate. Consider the suggestions above as “food for thought” – and use your own best judgment.
Keep in mind, also, that the executive may not simply answer your question. He or she may ask counter-questions such as, “Why do you ask?” or “What leadership style do you prefer?”
Be prepared to bring a harmonious blend of authenticity and strategy to this conversation.
For more tips, read my post How to Ace an Interview with the CEO.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been reviewed for current accuracy before republishing.