How to prepare when interviewing for a CEO position
Interviewing for a CEO position must be a two-way conversation. The organization is interviewing to determine if the candidate is suitable. As the potential CEO, you must be strategic and use the interview to learn if the organization is one you want to lead.
The process of being hired will tell you a lot about the culture of the organization. Are they prepared to answer questions? Are they transparent or are they unable to provide the information you are asking for? Do the interviewers present a cohesive vision or do they have different ways of talking about the organization’s mission? Do they have a strong sense of the challenges and opportunities?
When you reach the stage of considering leading a specific organization, you need to do your due diligence. You may want to start by undertaking an environmental scan to learn where the organization sits in its competitive environment. Your research should uncover who else is operating in the sector, how the organization is perceived, and what the organization’s strengths and weaknesses are according to the outside world.
You should also develop a strong sense of the various stakeholders and key players involved in the organization. Who will have the final say on crucial decisions? To whom does the current CEO listen? Who has special powers outside of their formal role? Who needs to be treated differently? Who are the key donors? Is the founder involved?
Within any organization there are people with particular, entrenched interests. A few of these people hold trump cards. The CEO needs to know who holds them and what they are. There may be certain challenges that you think you are up to, but you should be paying careful attention to warning signs that an organization is not healthy or not really interested in hiring the type of CEO you are going to be.
In your preliminary environmental scan and research, you will identify gaps in your knowledge that will form the basis of the questions you will ask in the interview.
After the interview(s), there should be no question about the type of leader the organization is looking for, what its current challenges are, what its financial situation is, and what its short- and long-term objectives are. You should ask why the previous CEO is leaving, whether the organization is looking for similar or different traits in their new CEO, and what the reasoning is behind that.
Financial clarity is essential. No organization is going to be able to provide a new CEO with perfect financial security and five years’ worth of money in the bank, but a prospective CEO has to know what they would have to work with.
If, after a long interview process, you are not getting direct answers to your questions, you might need to rethink if this is the organization for you.
Here’s Franca Gucciardi on her experience when interviewing for a CEO position:
I was young, I wanted the job, and I thought I knew what the current challenges of the organization were. Instead, in the first few months I spent considerable time discovering a different set of challenges, including an impending deficit that had not been clear to me at the beginning. The problem was that I had not spent enough time during the interview process asking questions. I would not do that again. It’s not that the answers would have discouraged me from taking on the job, but if I had asked better questions, I would have been more clear about what I was taking on.