Career Transition

Exec Prep: How to Excel in Your C-Suite Interview

Excel in a C-Suite interview

Stellar credentials and a sterling reputation help land the c-suite interview, but it is a mistake to assume that you will coast through it. It is a common misconception, though, as executives who have several years of conducting interviews themselves might tend to take it for granted that they know what’s in store. Even professionals who already hold a c-suite position can miss the mark if they fail to prepare and make the wrong impression in their interview.

How to Excel in Your C-Suite Interview

There is no shortcut to preparing for a high-level interview, confident as you may be that you possess the qualities the position calls for. Even when you’re happy with your current position, make sure you are in a state of readiness to reach out for the next one. Most importantly, check your attitude before the big day and don’t take anything for granted.

Always Stay Forward-Thinking

Well before you’re invited to an interview, you should make a habit of staying well-informed and intellectually curious about management, business, and your industry. The executive mind is focused on forward motion and those in the top tier demonstrate commitment to lifelong learning and skill development.  Make sure that you’re staying up-to-date with trends in your industry by taking courses and obtaining relevant certifications. Not only will you add to your intellectual store of knowledge, you will gain networking connections and maintain lines of communication outside your own company. That will help keep you in the loop about the current state of the job market and what recruiters are looking for. When it comes time for your executive interview, you will also have a healthy network of trusted contacts who you can turn to for insights on the company and the hiring process.

Be Candid But Strategic

Interviewers are not just interested in what your experience and credentials are, they also want to know about your leadership style and how you tackle tough problems. To that end, c-suite interviews often use the behavioral competency technique, that is, finding out how the person acted in specific situations. Questions will probe into the candidate’s past handling of complex issues and what the approach says about what he or she will bring to new challenges.

Even if the outcome for a situation was not completely successful, interviewers are interested in the thought process that drove the strategy, and what lessons you took away from the experience that can be applied to future challenges. Expect questions that center around goals that you didn’t reach, as well as well as your accomplishments. Don’t balk at questions that ask you to reveal moments of weakness. The ability to face and resolve conflict is as important as the moments where you shone.

For Carly Stein, the founder and CEO of wellness brand Beekeeper’s Naturals, “Being able to share your shortcomings is critical”. Failure is temporary, Stein says, but showing you can bounce back shows a resilient character and that is a desirable trait for the c-suite. Furthermore, companies want to see that you are open to feedback, and that you have a measure of self-awareness – both of which are critical when leading a company.

Ahead of your interview, think about how you can present your strengths through those moments where you faced the most challenges.

Know the Company

Don’t skimp on research in preparation for the c-suite interview. You should know as much as you can about the company and the position that you’re applying for beforehand, including the financial position, company culture, and corporate strategy, as well as who’s who in the c-suite.

Consult social media, industry news outlets, and use your personal network to determine what challenges the company is facing and what the goals are for future growth. Keeping the conversations confidential, try to get a sense of how the executive branch works together and if your own work style would mesh.  As you gather information, assess what your own strengths can contribute toward the company goals.

Be prepared to speak about real examples of the company’s successes and struggles and how you would approach similar challenges in the future. Highlight what you value in the company’s existing approaches but be sure to explain what you would bring to the table. When you do discuss what you would do differently, be careful not to come off as criticizing the company and its culture – you never know who on the interview panel may have been involved in making the decisions that you’re critiquing.

Question Time

During the last part of the interview, the candidate is invited to ask questions of the interviewer. This is an opportunity to clarify what the expectations of the position are, to minimize surprises if you accept an offer, and determine if this is the right place for you. It also gives you the chance to demonstrate the ability to think strategically and produce actionable insights — a core competency in business. Your ability to ask the right questions is as telling for the interviewer as the answers you provide for the questions they ask.

Christine DeYoung, EVP of the Consumer, Private Equity, and Sports Practices at DHR International, a leading executive recruiting firm, identifies a few essential questions that target what the company and the board expect the successful candidate to accomplish. What will look different at the company in a year? What are the biggest challenges? How will success be measured? What is the decision-making process? How much discretion does the manager have?

Mind Your Manners

While your questions are important, take care not to interrogate the interviewers. You might be used to taking command, but it’s inappropriate to take charge of this meeting.

Your interpersonal skills and ability to build relationships with co-workers and staff are being evaluated throughout the meeting. How you manage down as well as up is an important consideration that indicates your level of emotional intelligence. It won’t help you to be perceived as arrogant or entitled. Remember that you are once again in the position of having to impress, rather than be impressed.


Put together a list of four to six references of people who are familiar with your work history, job performance, and relationship style. They should be able to handle open-ended questions from the company that delve into your track record, challenging moments in your career, and what you are like to interact with in a variety of circumstances.

Reference checks for c-level positions are comprehensive, with the objective of obtaining a complete picture of the candidate’s personality, character, leadership style, and collaborative spirit, extending to colleagues, employees, association members, and more. Often the references will include secondary sources not on the list and the responses will be rigorously evaluated for what they reveal about the candidate’s fitness for the position, whether explicitly stated, or merely implied.

Know That You’re Ready

In addition to being prepared to exceed expectations in your interview, following these steps will help you to reassure yourself when you need it. It’s natural to be nervous, but knowing that you’ve done your part to prepare is key to maintaining confidence, composure and staying collected through an interview and afterwards.

Get first-hand insights and advice, meet with an executive mentor before your next interview


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