These are the interview tips for acing your first senior-level position interview.

Senior-level position interview invitations are often received with a mix of excitement and nervousness. On the one hand, being selected for an executive interview means you are a real candidate who has a chance. On the other hand, you know that expectations and pressure are high; a respected title, influence over important decisions, and a pay raise all hang in the balance. With this much at stake, how can a candidate send the right message and ace that critical first interview?

One might imagine that years of practice in other interviews would eliminate the jitters, but that isn’t true. Interviewing for a senior-level position is both similar and dissimilar to other professional interviews. The basic bones of a typical interview are wrapped in additional complexity and heightened expectations, which gives the experience a different pace and flavor. Here is what you need to know.

Research matters — a lot!

Candidates for any professional position are expected to know something about the company before they arrive at the interview. For executive positions, this research requirement is amplified multifold. You need deep due diligence, not just a brief review of the company’s website.

What might that look like? If the company is publicly traded, begin with a careful review of the most recent annual reports from within the last year or two. Some companies, such as hospitals and insurers, are required to file statutory financial reports with the state where they are registered. And virtually every company has corporate news releases and gets mentioned in the press. A combination of those sources is a good starting point.

After you accumulate and study everything you can locate on the company you are targeting, it is time to research its competitors. If you have sufficient time, build comparative strategy analysis, calculate performance ratios, and consider relative strengths and weaknesses within the competitor group. It is also wise to look for connections inside the company — tools like LinkedIn can help you find the right people. Research the team that’s likely to interview you to better understand their professional path, background, and even personal interests.

The goal of this considerable effort is two-fold. First, it will confirm whether you are targeting the right company (from personal fit to corporate financial strength). Second, it will inspire thoughtful questions to demonstrate your understanding of the industry and interest in the position.

Expect tough interview questions

An executive position puts a professional in charge of decisions that involve millions of dollars, multi-year corporate strategies, and the trajectories of people’s lives. The stakes are high, and the interviewing team must make a choice based merely on resumes and a few short conversations with candidates. To make those conversations count, many hiring committees move away from traditional interview questions in favor of others that are unexpected, direct, and difficult.

Here is a small sample of what that might look like.

  • Have you thought about leaving your current position before? If so, what held you back?

  • Talk about the most significant change you’ve ever had to work through. How did you adapt?

  • Describe a time when your boss criticized your work. What happened?

  • What is the biggest new habit or change you have made in your work or personal life in the last year?

  • Tell us about a professional mistake you wish you could go back and fix.

  • Describe a situation where you were a part of the team that failed on a project.

These questions dig deeper, touch upon challenging parts of the candidate’s professional journey and require considerable self-awareness. Contrary to the popular image of a tough-talking, facts-only executive, today’s companies want leaders who are always learning, thoughtful, and humble.

Be ready to demonstrate your leadership style

Leadership is an important part of any executive position, yet it’s tough to assess it in a theoretical setting. Some companies can verbalize the style of leadership that would be best for the open position. Others believe that they will “know it when they see it.” Either way, an executive candidate should expect several interview questions that will be focused on leadership style and results.

  • Tell us about the best and worst boss you have ever worked for.

  • How do you influence and sell ideas to your direct reports?

  • What makes you effective in your role?

  • What books about leadership have you gifted to others or would recommend, and why?

Remember that your responses will reveal more than just additional facts about your employment record; the executive search committee wants insight into your evolution as a leader. They also want to gauge your self-awareness and your ability to create results and work with others through various means, from authoritarian to inspirational. Your preferred style isn’t right for every company, and your ability to flex and choose the strategy that’s most appropriate for the circumstances can be a valuable asset.

Don’t overlook your life outside of work

The executive hiring committee isn’t just looking for a brain with the right technical knowledge. Your personality, interests, and values will shape other people’s experience of working for the company (and could potentially affect customers, as well). Expect that some of the interview questions will attempt to tease out who you are as a human. From volunteering, to giving back through professional chapter and association participation and leadership, to sharing education via a podcast, think about how you spend your personal time and what your choices can signal to your prospective employer.  

Here is a handful of questions to be prepared for:

  • What do you do outside of work?

  • What accomplishment outside of work are you most proud of and why?

  • How would you want to be remembered?

Keep in mind that not every personal question is appropriate. Illegal interview questions can happen during an interview at any level, so know the law and your rights.

Storytelling is critical

Building a narrative and bringing people along is a powerful tool — one that executives should master early on. Storytelling can help them build engagement when the subject at hand is technical and dry, and thus guide their team through uncertainty and change. It can inspire, connect, and change minds. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the executive hiring team is looking for a storyteller with the technical chops to back it up.

Therefore, candidates should use the interview as an opportunity to demonstrate this valuable skill. Storytelling is both natural and hard to do right, so most professionals can benefit from study and practice. The good news is that there are many great resources on this subject. Start with a book like TED Talks: The official TED Guide to Public Speaking by the platform’s curator Chris Anderson. Continue on to your favorite commencement speeches, movies, and podcasts. What makes the great ones stand out? How can you use the same tools to become a more compelling storyteller?

Remember that stories of adversity and overcoming tough circumstances are compelling — even if they don’t have a perfect Hollywood ending. The best leaders are inspiring because they are human, and a strategic (yet sincere) use of vulnerability can allow you to connect with the interviewer and win people over.

Your blueprint to acing an executive interview

Expect to invest several hours into extensive research of the target company and its competitors. Remember that networking matters more than ever before because it can afford you a look behind the veil and potentially open access to executive openings that aren’t published. Be prepared for tough questions about your professional history and personal values. Understand the range of your leadership style and bring anecdotal examples that will help the interviewing committee make the right decision.

Finally, keep in mind that these tips are useful for professionals at any level of their career — especially those who see themselves growing beyond their current role. Preparing for a senior-level interview takes a lifetime, and it’s never too early to start working on your leadership style and storytelling. When the right opportunity appears, you will be glad you made this investment early!

Not sure if you’re ready for your next job interview? Boost your skills — and your confidence — with the help of one of our TopInterview coaches.

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