A chief executive officer (CEO) is the highest-ranking executive position in a company. When looking to fill this role in your company, you’ll receive plenty of applications from people with acceptable backgrounds and experience who will do an adequate job in the position. However, you don’t want an average executive officer, and you shouldn’t settle for one, either. What you need is a top-notch leader who will drive the company toward ever-greater success.
The question then, of course, is how exactly do you find an amazing CEO for your company? It really comes down to two factors. First, you have to carefully examine not just the CEO qualifications but also the qualities of each promising candidate. Second, you have to make sure you’re asking the right interview questions.
When most people consider the top qualities of a CEO the first one that almost always comes to mind is confidence. According to the Harvard Business Review, however, while a lot of confidence makes a candidate twice as likely to be hired as CEO, it doesn’t actually have any advantages when it comes to job performance. That’s not to say confidence isn’t important, it’s just that there are other qualities you should place above confidence when making your final candidate selection.
Market changes, pivoting business needs, and evolving business strategies are just a few examples of why a great CEO has to be adaptable. In order for a business to continue succeeding, it has to adapt to current trends, technology, and other driving factors. If a CEO is too slow to acknowledge necessary change, the business will inevitably fall behind. There’s no greater example of this than Blockbuster. The rental service company was huge in the 90s and early 2000s, but a leadership team that was unwilling to adapt to changes in demand drove the business to bankruptcy. Change is a necessary part of any business, so filter for candidates who are flexible and willing to adapt to what the business needs.
The trusting quality of a CEO is twofold. You need a candidate who can gain people’s trust and who can just as easily trust others. A trustworthy CEO is reliable and can be counted on to lead the business. Look for someone who is transparent about their decisions. A quality CEO is willing to be upfront about their business decisions and explain how they considered the various angles of their choice. A noteworthy CEO will also prioritize commitments by keeping a clear schedule of appointments and deliverables. Board members won’t have to wait endlessly for updates or reports. The CEO should be able to give a deadline and deliver the information requested on-time and without fanfare.
On the flip side, a great CEO is also willing to trust others. One leader can’t run a whole company by themselves, which is why an excellent CEO will know how to delegate tasks and trust his team members to accomplish their duties without micromanaging their work. The CEO you want at your business will be willing to trust others and will actively demonstrate how your company can trust in them as a leader.
No CEO can see the future, but a good one will have foresight into what the company needs. You need a CEO who can look at the path the business is following and steer the company along the best route possible. Out-of-the-box thinking, awareness of the latest industry trends, and careful decision making are all signs the candidate you’re considering will have excellent foresight when it comes to handling company business.
A chief operating officer has to interact with a variety of people every single day from employees and board members to clients and media figures. The ability to clearly communicate with people no matter what their station or position is vital for a successful CEO candidate. Building strong relationships with team members, clients, and other groups of people will help the company forge alliances with more organizations and push the business forward.
The right CEO interview questions
The right interview questions will reveal whether a CEO candidate has the qualities above and help you determine which person will be the best leader for the company. Below are some of the most important questions you can ask when looking for a high-quality CEO.
What personality traits do you think make a good leader?
Determine which qualities each candidate considers to be the most important for good leadership and see which ones are on your list of top qualities. The traits a person lists are typically ones they consider having themselves, so it also gives you a glimpse at some potential strengths of the candidate.
Describe a tough company decision you’ve had to make. What was the result of your decision?
Every CEO has to handle tough situations as the leader of the company. This is an important question to ask as it’ll show you how the candidate handles themselves when faced with a difficult decision. It’ll also tell you whether the candidate’s choice had a positive, negative, or neutral impact on the company.
How would you define your communication style?
As already mentioned, communication is a key component of any CEO role. Make sure the communication style of your CEO candidate fits your company culture and meshes well with the team.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our company?
This question offers an opportunity for the candidate to share some insight about the industry and ideas for improving the business. The answer to this question will also show you how much background the candidate did on the industry, market, and overall business plan of your company.
What would you say are our company’s mission and vision?
You want a candidate who is interested in the company and everything the business has to offer. If the CEO candidate doesn’t have a solid grasp of the company’s mission and values, it’s a good signal the person isn’t as interested in the role as they should be.
An excellent CEO will be able to answer the above interview questions while checking off the boxes for the top qualities of a leader. It may take a little time to find someone who meets all of your expectations but waiting for the right CEO candidate is worth it once you find the perfect fit for your company.
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Interviews don’t solely benefit the company hiring for a position. Candidates also learn a lot during this process. They get an opportunity to see how your company works and receive a first impression of the business. When trying to hire top candidates, especially executives, it’s imperative to have a smooth hiring process. A significant part of a smooth hiring process is avoiding candidate interview fatigue.
Interview fatigue happens when a potential hire has been through so many rounds of interviews that they start to lose interest in your company. Some businesses actually have eight or more rounds of interviews when determining a final candidate to hire. That’s way too many interviews for one position. If you’re going through that many rounds, then you need to adjust your process to whittle it down to something more efficient.
Interview fatigue can lead to top candidates dropping out of the running, and it also leaves those people with a negative impression of your business. The interview process should be efficient, professional, and organized, so make sure you consider how to avoid interview fatigue when setting up the hiring process.
For most positions, you really shouldn’t need any more than three rounds of interviews to select your candidate. Executive-level positions, however, take a little more investment, so for this group you can extend the process to four interviews, max. Limiting the number of interviews you conduct has a number of benefits. First, you’ll get through the hiring process a lot faster. Timeliness benefits the whole hiring team because less of their time will be dedicated to interviews. Plus, the important open position will be quickly filled which will alleviate some of the workload that has been displaced on others.
Second, your interview team will be more diligent about their questions and remember each candidate. If your company is organizing too many interviews, the hiring team won’t take the first few rounds as seriously. When interview rounds are limited to four, managers are sure to dig into the most important aspects of the position and seek out specific qualities in a candidate. It also helps everyone remember each candidate more clearly. When you’ve interviewed six people five times each it becomes difficult to keep track of individual details.
Finally, four interviews is a perfectly acceptable number for candidates to go through during the hiring process. The hiring team will know exactly how much time they have to dedicate to the interview process and candidates won’t have to make an obscene number of trips to your office to cover information they’ve already discussed.
When a candidate hits interview fatigue, one thought they’ll likely have is that you’re not respecting their time. Executives in particular are incredibly busy individuals in high demand. Their time is a precious commodity and if you’re bringing them in for multiple “final” round interviews, they won’t be afraid to bow out of the running. Executives often have the ability to be choosy with their opportunities because they’re presented with a number of options. You need to make sure you’re not wasting their time by unnecessarily drawing out the interview process.
As you organize the hiring process, don’t forget to look at the timelines and interview rounds from a candidate’s perspective. An executive has to set aside several hours each interview day to commute to the interview, talk with hiring managers, and then get back to work. This is time and money lost that they’re giving up to speak with you. You also have to consider how a disorganized or indecisive interview process will look to an executive candidate. Too many interviews will make a high-level candidate think the company has too much red tape when it comes to decision making. It will also make an interviewee feel undervalued as they start to think they’re not quite what you’re looking for in a hire.
Before you even start the hiring process, you should have a clearly defined timeline. Determine how much time will be dedicated to each step of the process so your hiring team knows how much time they have to review candidates, schedule interviews, and provide feedback. Not only is a clear timeline crucial for your hiring team, it’s also important for your candidates.
A common candidate question asked during the interview process is about the hiring timeline. Candidates want to know when they will hear back from you after an interview and when they can expect the process to be complete. Telling a candidate you’re not sure how long the hiring process will take does not instill confidence in your company’s organization or decision-making abilities. On that same note, you also shouldn’t give a false timeline. If you tell a top candidate you will be moving on to the next round at the start of the following week but then set up interviews several weeks later, you’re still making a bad impression. Create your timeline in advance so you have hard deadlines for your interview team to follow.
One way to help cut back on the number of interviews is to assign a hiring manager who has ultimate authority over the hiring decision. Selecting a final candidate is not a democratic process requiring consensus. The hiring manager should gather feedback and input from the interview team and use those details to select the new hire. Allowing people to debate the merits of every candidate leads to indecision, which is often how companies find themselves inviting people back for another final round interview. The interview team can’t come to an agreement so they think another round of interviews will solve the problem. You don’t need another interview in this situation. You need decisive action from a team leader who can look at the interview questionnaires, the job requirements, and the candidate profiles and make the best decision.
Another role to assign is the point of contact. Clear communication with candidates is crucial for making a good impression and ensuring the interview process goes smoothly. Disorganized interviews and a lack of feedback can leave candidates with a poor impression and lead to high-quality candidates dropping out of the interview process. Make sure someone is assigned as the main point of contact for each candidate. This person should be responsible for scheduling meetings with the hiring team and following up with candidates after the interviews. Don’t leave potential hires hanging in limbo waiting for an answer. Be timely with a response to whether or not they’ve made it to the next round of interviews. A clear point of contact on the hiring team can help circumvent interview fatigue because candidates will have straightforward timelines and schedules for their interviews.
An executive recruiting firm is an excellent resource for reducing interview fatigue. A recruiting firm has extensive experience with the hiring process and knows to limit interviews rounds to a reasonable number. The other benefit of a recruiting firm is it can also fill the point of contact role for your company. Managing candidate schedules, interview team availability, and process timelines can be a lot of work, but an experienced national executive search firm will be able to handle the process with ease. Contact Cowen Partners today to simplify the hiring process and avoid interview fatigue for all candidates.
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Cowen Partners is a national executive search and consulting firm. Our clients are both small and large, publicly traded, pre-IPO, private, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million to multi-billion dollar revenue Fortune 100 companies or have assets between $500 million to $15 billion. Successful placements span the entire C-Suite and include VP and Director level leadership roles.
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