How to interview a CEO – 3 key steps

By Robert Half 4 September 2019

Few would disagree that the CEO is the most important individual in a company. But when it comes to conducting the actual face-to-face interview of a CEO candidate, it’s actually something that most hiring managers may never have experienced more than once or twice in their career – if ever at all.

Without this past experience, many interviewers will find themselves scratching their heads when it comes to knowing how to interview a CEO effectively. They may ask questions from a generic template that applies to all employees, overlooking the basic question that should inform all others – would their skills and qualities make them an effective leader of your organisation?

As such, your interview will need to address all the essential areas such as leadership, strategy, vision, execution and growth. It will also need to cover less tangible success factors, like passion, energy, conflict management and cultural fit.

In constructing your interview, many questions will, of course, need to be customised to the needs of your organisation. That in mind, here’s a basic guide to how to interview a CEO.

1. Getting started

After the introductory handshakes and introductions, a good opening question is: why do you think this is the right opportunity for you? And why do you think you’re the right person to lead the company?

A strong candidate will be able to give a concise answer that provides a big-picture view of their skills, experience, vision and professional aspirations. It will help to establish chemistry and set the right tone, and create a foundation for more specific questions that ‘drill down’ on their skills and experience.

2. How to interview a CEO - the questions

A well-structured CEO interview will include questions that are both strategy and execution-related. Asking open-ended questions will facilitate an in-depth conversation, give you a sense of how well the candidate can communicate with stakeholders, and how well they understand the business.

As a critical part of knowing how to interview a CEO, there are a few different areas of capability that you will want to cover. Keep in mind that each question could require several hours of discussion, so you may need to be selective.

Finance, operations and growth

According to the Robert Half CEO Tracker, 43.5% of ASX 200-listed CEOs* have experience in finance. This means qualified CEOs should be comfortable having an in-depth discussion about their experience with things like increasing efficiency, managing budgets, prioritising investments and enhancing shareholder return.

You may also want to ask about their past experiences making tough decisions, such as budgets cuts or restructuring. Alternatively, have they grown or changed an organisation through strategic partnership, joint venture or acquisition? What was the long-term outcome?

Strategy and vision

Ask the CEO candidate about their vision for your company over the next three to five years. What do they think are the top strategic priorities and how would they execute on them? How would they learn the business, build trust, and develop a plan in their first 100 days?

In the past, how have they developed strategy in response to new market entrants and competitive threats? What were their long- and short-term goals? How did they gain buy-in from key stakeholders? You can ask similar questions in relation to their experience in developing new business models, products or initiatives.

Leadership, culture and personality

It’s important to ask the candidate questions about their management style and team-building approach. You can start with what they think are their main strength and areas of improvement as a leader or manager.

What communication styles do they use in reports, with managers, and general staff? How about external parties, such as clients, investors and partners? Almost six out of 10 ASX 200-listed CEOs have worked internationally, so this is your chance to ask about their experiences working with teams and individuals in other countries and regulatory environments.

Cultural alignment is critical to be successful as a CEO. What are their guiding principles? Can they share any personal stories that shaped their outlook on life? Importantly, have they overseen cultural change to help drive innovation?

Technology

While only 10.5% of current ASX 200-listed CEOs have industry experience in technology, the candidate should still have a solid understanding of its growing role in driving innovation and staying competitive. At the very least, can they provide an example of a business that they admire for its use of technology to evolve its business model and succeed through innovation?

This is also your chance to ask the candidate about their career development needs and gaps in skills/experience. How do they plan to address them so that they can become a more effective CEO?

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3. Closing the interview

As there is a lot of ground to cover in a CEO interview, you may need to schedule more than one interview session with each shortlisted candidate. At the end of each session, don’t forget the all-important closing question: do you have any questions for us?

A CEO interview is arguably the most important part of the CEO recruitment process. Following these guidelines will ensure that every interview question illuminates the candidate’s key skills and qualities, and improves your chances of landing the best person for the job.

*ABOUT THE RESEARCH - Robert Half has conducted research on CEOs of the ASX 200 by analysing publicly available sources of information about ASX 200 CEOs to track trends including their professional and educational background, gender, and length of tenure. The research was analysed from the 1st June 2019 to 1st July 2019, and all results are correct to the best of our knowledge​ ​ The information within the Robert Half CEO Tracker is based on publicly-available information. Where possible, the information has been checked and verified by the offices of the CEOs.

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