How to Interview for a Senior Executive Job

As the owner of an executive search firm, I’ve learned that most people don’t have the first clue how to interview for a senior executive job. They expect it will be like the interview for every other job they’ve ever held.

Wrong.

A study by the Career Advisory Board echoes my own experience. They suggest that senior executive candidates emphasize the wrong skills in their interviews:

“… hiring managers overwhelmingly rank a strategic perspective as the trait they desire most, but only 21% of job candidates make it a priority to show they can bring this to the table…Hiring managers rank business acumen and a global outlook at the third and fourth most important qualities they’re looking for, but only 14% and 6% of candidates, respectively, say they emphasize this during the interview.”

So if almost every candidate makes the same interview mistake, perhaps we cannot entirely blame the candidate, perhaps the culprit is elsewhere. I’d like to propose three villains :

First, I blame our human tendency to expect that the future to will look exactly like the past (but perhaps with better toys). But the future has a pesky way of unfolding based on factors we completely forgot to consider. If you are tired of being surprised by that fact, you might want to read more about how to avoid the most common cognitive biases here.

Second, the hiring managers deserve some of the blame for not doing a better job of interviewing. If you interview other people, maybe you should read my post on How to Interview a Senior Executive for some pointers.

Finally, I blame our metaphors– those lovely ways we explain complex concepts. I detest the “Career ladder” metaphor–it’s an endless source of frustration for employees and managers alike. So simple-so idiotically simplistic. “Hey kids, grab on to the career ladder! The only way to go is up–no detours–straight up! Everybody climbs straight to the top, that’s what everyone wants–obviously management is the only path to success and satisfaction. I’m sure we will all get the CEO job if we just keep climbing!”  And then when variations occur, “Ooooh, did you hear about Bob? He took a lateral move. Oh no.”  “Uh oh, did you hear about Sally? She got passed over for promotion, now she is not on the fast track–her career is really derailed (admittedly I’m just mixing it up a bit here with the train tracks metaphor–the horizontal  idiot cousin of the vertical ladder).

Great careers are not built by grabbing the bottom rung of a ladder and then paying your dues, climbing vertically, hand over hand until you reach the top rung. Maybe that was true for some people in some mythical world that is gone forever (the 1950′s?). But that is not how things work today. We need a new metaphor.

I like one of the metaphors John Sumser uses to describe leadership. He describes leadership as leading a convoy, driving at night through dense fog. All your followers can just follow your tail lights. But as the driver of the lead car, you have no clear path to your destination.

Jim Collins swears that the years Steve Jobs spent in the wilderness in the 1980′s were the foundation of his success upon his return to Apple.

If you want the top job, you need to spend some time finding your way in the wilderness.

As a follower, you can just stay on the path outlined for you. If you are an accountant, early in your career you dutifully learn more and more about all aspects of accounting. You master the domain of accounting knowledge. Then you reach middle management–you are an Accounting Manager, maybe even a Controller. Someone else still sets tasks in front of you, and you follow the tail lights and execute flawlessly. Hard work and knowledge got you that job, but there the road ends … and your leadership journey begins.

So what does it take to reach the top? It takes the courage to drive through fog in the lead car. To make hard decisions when the facts are murky. To keep your foot on the gas when there is no clear path. To lead the convoy when there is only dark, foggy wilderness and to know when to alter your course and when to stay the course.

So, if you really want the top job, go take some real risks. And deal with the consequences. And then you’ll have some great material for your next interview.

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