Executive job interview tips: 5 keys to landing a senior role

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May 10, 2021

We all want to land a senior role. But what does it take? Here's 5 essential executive job interview tips for landing your next senior management position. 

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Do your research

Whatever stage you are at in your career, you should be putting in thorough preparation prior to each job interview.

However, when you are interviewing at an executive level you need to focus on exactly that – the level.

If you are at a junior level, you just need to concentrate on proving how good you are at performing your specific job role.

That could be how to sell a product or service, write software, or execute a successful marketing campaign for example.

At a senior level you will be expected to understand how the whole organisation operates and the key opportunities and challenges it faces.

The biggest mistake you can make is to not do your research properly and find yourself floundering in the interview due to a lack of understanding about the company you would be joining.

How to prepare for an executive job interview

To be seriously considered for an operational role it figures that you will need to prove that you understand how their company operates.

Using LinkedIn, accessing pages on the company’s website, and reading company news on Google will enable you to gain vital knowledge of the following.

  • Competitive market analysis in terms of their overall positioning
  • Their main products and services
  • Who their chief competitors are
  • Where these competitors have stolen a market share from them
  • News on upcoming projects, technical breakthroughs and product launches
  • Prime areas for opportunity going forwards

In addition, you should also do some research on the key executives who will be interviewing you.

At the C-suite level, cultural fit and chemistry are important so your ability to bond with your interviewers is crucial.

Conducting some research on LinkedIn will go a long way to help you build rapport by gaining an understanding of their background, education and career path to date.

Formulate your answers in advance

As with research, all job seekers should prepare some responses to interview questions they are likely to be asked at a job interview.

Few things are guaranteed in life but there’s a good chance you will face some, if not all, of these at your next interview.

  • Tell me about yourself
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • Why are you looking for a new opportunity?
  • What is your greatest strength/weakness?
  • Describe your current or most recent role.
  • Why are you the best candidate for the job?

If you are looking for general help with these, here's a post that will help you.

Common interview questions

Ace them with this guide.

These questions are usually mixed in with a few behavioural questions that typically start with the following.

  • Tell me about a time when …
  • Give me an example when …
  • When have you had to …
  • Describe a situation in which...

If you want to dive deeper into these, here’s another blog post for you.

Behavioural interview questions

How to answer them plus examples

You may now be wondering is that enough?

Are there any real differences between this general preparation and the preparation you need to do for senior roles?

The answer is yes, and it is one of the most important executive job interview tips on the list.

How to answer executive interview questions

Again the key here is the level.

Every time you respond to an interview question you are in essence telling a story and the positioning of that story is critical.

As an executive, you should never start at the bottom.

Always start at the highest level, where you will be talking on a macro level and  then work your way down to the micro level.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine you are going for a senior role in a software company and they say something like  "we are looking for a Sales Director who will grow our revenue on a national and global basis. We currently have a number of new products that we are ready to take to market.”

Then they ask you how you would go about growing their revenue.

If you focused on the micro level you would say something along the lines of hiring and training a new specialised sales team to penetrate these new markets.

However, that would be a mistake because you would be answering as a Sales Manager.

Instead you should answer as a Sales Director and start at the macro level with something like this.

“Initially I would conduct a thorough evaluation of these new products, establish their customer avatars and the market segmentation opportunities they each offer.

Then we would be able to headhunt the right salespeople that would be aligned to each particular product and build out a sales team for each line.”

The difference is subtle but the impact this major.

So when you are preparing your answers to questions they may ask you, double check that they start at the executive level because that is where you want to be positioning yourself.

Ask the right questions

At some point in the interview, but usually towards the end, your interviewers will say something like “so do you have any questions for us?”

As with everything else so far, all job seekers should spend some time prior to their interviews preparing for this.

If you say nothing, it all goes a bit flat and an awkward silence sets in.

If you say something negative, you could blow the whole thing and ruin what was otherwise a great interview.

The good news is that with a little bit of preparation, you will view this as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and put yourself ahead of your competition.

This post covers everything you need to know so you can leave a great final impression at your next interview:

Questions to ask at interview

Plus one you never should!

However, if you are interviewing at an executive level, you need to go one step further to show that you are worthy of a more senior role.

But how do you go about this?

How can you show an interviewer that you are worthy of a business critical position simply through the questions you ask?

What questions should you ask in an executive job interview?

The key executive interview tip here is to ask questions that have follow-up questions.

Think of it this way.

Poor executive level decisions can impact an entire organisation so you need to give them the confidence that you are going to be a great researcher, you're going to get that information, and you're going to make well-educated decisions based on this.

High performing executives ask multi-level questions to gain a deeper understanding of a topic or issue.

So you need to ask a question, and then as an executive you need to be prepared for every possible response: Yes, no, maybe, I'm not sure, or something more detailed.

Anything that could possibly come back at you, you need to be prepared for and have your follow up question ready.

Ideally you should prepare five variations of your next question, and you need to know what those are, or you at least need to know the flow of where you would take the discussion depending on how they would answer the question.

If you don't have multi-part questions, then you are skimming the surface.

Asking multiple questions around a topic proves you can both think and operate on a multi-dimensional level – a key characteristic of successful executives.

Focus on the future

Interviews typically concentrate on a candidates’ past.

This is essential because your interviewers need to understand how qualified you are by asking probing questions relating to exactly what your duties were, how you were doing things, obstacles that you overcame, and the results you achieved.

During this, your interviewer is in the evaluation mode of you.

But as an executive your primary aim should be to transition them into an imagining mode.

You can have a great background with an outstanding education.

You could have been there, done that, and won awards along the way.

That’s all great and necessary but the truth is that if you can't get them to imagine what their life will be like and what their company will be like with you there, you’re unlikely to get the job.

Successful executive interviews focus on a company’s future, not a candidate’s past.

When you shift the emphasis and start talking about their future, you're shifting the discussion so that they are less evaluating you and more imagining what it would be like to have you as a leader in their company.

Ask and focus on their goals, their ambitions, where they see the company going, and what exactly they want to accomplish.

Then you need to articulate how exactly you would do it to take them there step by step.

Walk them through what the future could be like with you, saying something such as  "and here's what I would do, then I would do this, and then I would do that. How do you feel about that?"

This will open up the dialogue and be more like you are already there working with them rather than interviewing for the position.

So, when you're answering questions, and when you're asking questions, 90% of the discussion should in some way, shape, or form be focused on what you're going to do to influence that organisation.

It is important to explain how what you did in your past influenced an organisation or its markets or customers, increased its market share, or other positive outcomes.

But you must also explain how you will take that knowledge and experience with you to benefit their organisation going forwards.

Act like part of the team

Part of the process of imagining you within their company will involve thinking about how you will fit with the rest of their senior management team and the organisation as a whole.

“Excellent man – management and leadership skills” or other such generic phrases either on your resume or spoken by you in person just won’t cut it. They need proof and this comes from examples.

One obvious way to do this is by choosing great referees that will back up your claims about who you are and what you have achieved, but these are usually taken at the end of the process.

So how do you prove these skills right now within the interview process?

Senior interviews typically involve more than one meeting which means you will talk with a number of key people along the way.

This means that you're going to be able to gather a lot of information plus a fair amount of interaction with key decision makers.

One of the best ways to show that you're inclusive is to make lots of references to the other people and the insight that they have provided.

For example, "Interestingly, Stephen said just that when I was talking to him about [topic] ….  I think that was a great idea and that it could be developed by …. What are your thoughts?”

Try to include a number of references to other people in the organisation and the positive interaction you've had with them.

This will plant seeds in the interviewer's mind that you are an inclusive person, and that you're interested and respectful of other people’s input.

It’s a great way to get them to look into the future by making references to other people that you've interviewed with, ideas they've come up with, your thoughts on them, and getting additional insight from the senior executives in the company.

Key takeaways      

If you are serious about getting a senior management level role, then you seriously need to upgrade your preparation to another level.

Do your research, prepare your responses, formulate multi-level questions, and act like you already work there by delivering insightful suggestions in collaboration with their existing key members of staff.

If you do this, they will definitely want to hire you and not lose you to a competitor.

Amanda Datchens

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About the Author

A career coach, headhunter, and entrepreneur, Amanda has founded and been involved in developing multiple companies known for innovative HR and recruitment solutions. Originally from London but now in Queensland, Australia, she is the co-founder of Real Life Career Advice and the Hi Vis Hub.

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