The Most Important Interview Questions to Ask When Hiring Executive Leaders

Interview questions for senior leadership and executives are uniquely nuanced, differentiating key competencies from other levels of candidates.

In my recent interview with Michael Homula, Managing Partner, Executive Recruiter + Recruiting Strategist, RPM Search Group, Homula organized his responses into three parts: 1. the Definition; 2. the Question; and, 3. the Why, focused on two areas of competency: 1. Leading Change, and, 2 Developing Organizational Capabilities, critical skillsets for any executive.

Of particular significance, when evaluating senior and executive-level talent, is understanding the ‘why’ buttressing each question and competency.

EXECUTIVE COMPETENCY #1: LEADING CHANGE

Most engaging about the definitions Homula provided is how they show, in great detail, the competencies in-action, underscoring their gravity. To begin, I’ve paraphrased Homula’s definition of Leading Change:

The Definition

Aligning Stakeholders | Influencing Others| Inspiring Vision

An executive who is leading change proves an ability to align an organization, teams, or key constituents through needed change to drive performance.

They make a conscious effort to understand change, embracing the change vs. becoming an obstacle to it. Even when the executive does not totally agree, they support the change while also constructively challenging it. An executive who is familiar with leading change easily transitions to the new and different, developing systems and procedures to effectively implement change and continuous improvement.

Moreover, an executive who effectively leads change can express their own ideas and persuade, gaining support and commitment, mobilizing action and achieving effective compromise.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the executive is able to create a compelling and inspired vision or sense of core purpose, seeing future possibilities. They create mileposts and symbols to rally support behind the vision, communicating the vision through the organization via distinctive strategies, objectives and action plans that maximize competitive advantage. As a result, they Inspire and motivate entire divisions or organizations to adopt the vision.

The question that Homula uses to determine whether a candidate can ably lead change, includes a series of sub-set, ‘drill-down’ questions:

The Question

Tell me about a time when you thought that the standard way of doing things might not be the best way, and you were responsible for driving change in a line of business or company.

Drill-down follow-up questions:

1. What led you to believe this? What was the business situation or problem?

2. How did you create and communicate your new solution?

3. Why did you do it this way?

4. What issues did you run into with other people when trying to get things done?

5. Were you able to encourage others to see your suggested change as a positive thing — although perhaps your idea impacted their work in a significant way?

6. What was the overall result?

Homula further explains why this competency question is important for evaluating senior and executive level talent:

The Why

Successful change is one of the biggest problems that organizations face,” explains Homula. “In our fast-changing world, the strategic imperative to change is often clear: Without doing things differently, a company is unlikely to succeed, or last.”

“But change-management research has demonstrated time after time that organizational change initiatives fail more often than they succeed, despite the resources put into creating change management processes,” says Homula.

Therefore, evaluating a senior/executive-level candidate’s ability to identify, lead and drive change is crucial to achieving a successful change initiative.

According to Homula, the above line of questioning reveals three core criteria proving a candidate’s change leadership effectiveness:

Communication: Articulating the “what” and the “why” behind the change, creating stronger buy-in and urgency for the change.

Collaboration: Working across boundaries, encouraging team members and other leaders to break out of their silos, and refusing to tolerate unhealthy competition. Including employees in decision-making early on, strengthening their commitment to change.

Commitment: Ensuring their own beliefs and behaviors support the change they desire, proving willing to step outside their comfort zone. Devoting more of their own time to change efforts and focusing on the big picture.

EXECUTIVE COMPETENCY #2: DEVELOPING ORGANIZATIONAL CAPABILITY

The meaty definition Homula provides for “developing organizational capability” underscores its importance in the executive candidate vetting process. Paraphrasing his definition:

The Definition

Building Sustainable Teams | Fortifying Team Morale | Coaching + Promoting Team Members

An executive who develops organizational capability builds individuals, teams and organizations for the long term.

They understand and use team-based processes to accomplish goals and blend people into cross-functional teams to build organizational capability when needed. As well, they create strong morale and spirit in their teams, sharing wins and successes and fostering open dialogue.

Empowering people by letting them finish and be held accountable for their work, the executive also defines success in terms of the whole team, creating a feeling of belonging.

Moreover, the executive cultivates an environment that fosters learning, growth and development, providing challenging tasks and assignments that enables continuous development. Aware of each team member’s strengths, development needs and career goals and providing regular developmental coaching session, the executive encourages direct reports to accept development moves.

The Question

Tell me about a time when you identified a business opportunity which required the deployment of extra internal resources. What kind of support did you ask for and receive, and what was the outcome?

1. What was the business situation or problem?

2. How did you determine the opportunity was significant enough to warrant adding additional resources or building new capabilities in the business?

3. What kind of support did you ask for and receive?

4. How did you create and communicate the business case for new organizational capability?

5. Why did you do it this way? What other options did you consider?

6. What challenges did you run into when trying to build new internal capabilities?

7. What was the overall result?

The Why

This competency (definition) and questions are important to cull senior and executive leaders who are measured and deliberate in understanding which capabilities truly impact business performance. As such, they either align the strategic/operational initiative to current capabilities; or, they work with other leaders/teams in an organization to ensure the capabilities can be improved or built to support the business’ strategic direction.

Additionally, strong executive leaders build organizational capability by working with peers, other stakeholders, influencers and organizational leaders to gain buy in, support and resources to create new capabilities in culture, talent, technology, and training.

While culture is a strong driver of effective capability building, leaders that focus on certain capabilities for competitive rather than cultural reasons gain a stronger competitive advantage.

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