These case studies are part of the The Quintessential Careers Executive Interview Case Studies, which take you through the interview process as seen through the eyes of executives and covers some of the unexpected contingencies, demands, and developments that can occur during a series of executive interviews. Return to the main page of the Quintessential Careers Executive Interview Case Studies.
As told to Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Although boards of directors often interview prospective CEOs, boards also sometimes interview other high-level executives, such as CFOs, says Jacquelyn Saad, president of Inter-Change Consulting Inc., Toronto. “Other executives will be interviewed by the head of the board committee that governs their piece of the organization,” Saad says. She explains that when she interviewed for the role of senior vice president, human resources, for a broadcasting company, her eight interviews included the chairman of the board and the chair of the HR subcommittee.
The role of boards of directors in large public companies is to determine the type of CEO they would like to hire, notes Keith Daniels, owner and president of Capital Selective Advisors in Chicago, “and then give that description to an executive recruiter firm. That firm will then obtain candidates and then thoroughly evaluate them to see if they fit what the board of directors was looking for,” Daniels says.
Daniels explains that at certain points, recruiters will advise the board about possible candidates “who have emerged from the scrubbing, and then the board is likely to have a sub-group handle further interviews until such time as a smaller group of candidates remains.” Candidates will then likely each have an opportunity to meet and be interviewed by the board in its entirety, Daniels notes. “Depending on what are the metrics being used by a board, members may look only at current CEOs with other companies, or they might look for persons with Chief Financial Officer experience, or in some cases, they might want someone with experience managing large operations,” Daniels says.
“Richard G.” has been a CEO in a Fortune 500 company and on multiple boards of small and larger companies as well as interviewed for several CEO positions. All told he has undergone about a dozen interviews for CEO and board positions, ranging from highly structured interviews to short conversations with people he already knew quite well. “The processes were often very dissimilar,” he reports. “I find that for board positions, the processes are all very variable, but for CEO positions, more structured,” he says. He described both a successful and unsuccessful interview with boards of directors.
Description of interview process: To prepare, Richard learned as much about the companies and people as possible, both through published material and by talking to ex-employees. The successful interview, for a high-tech company with sales in the tens of millions, “involved a recruiter who already knew me quite well, but then introduced me to the chairman,” Richard recalls. “He and I had probably eight conversations, including over dinner, and another half a dozen detailed email exchanges.” Richard says the chairman sought considerable help and advice before he would make a commitment. “I was somewhat concerned that he was simply picking my brain, but the recruiter kept reassuring me that he was not, and she was correct,” Richard says. “He did make a commitment after several months.”
Another CEO position Richard interviewed for was at a $1-billion family-owned food company, where the patriarch had died, and the board had told the heir apparent that, at 37, he was too young to take over. “I interviewed with a panel of all the outside directors and the heir,” Richard remembers. The heir was “hostile,” Richard says, “and the board members were clearly trying to demonstrate to him that I would do a better job than he would.” After hearing nothing for a month after the interview, Richard learned that the heir was taking the job after all.
The questions that Richard has been asked in board interviews include:
- How much time can you invest?
- How knowledgeable are you about reporting responsibilities and legal liabilities?
- What kind of connections do you have?
- Can you advise on implementation as well as strategy?
Richard asked the boards about specific objectives of the businesses, such as sales or mergers and growth or maintenance, as well as about cultural fit.
Throughout his board interview experiences, Richard has picked up on various shades of organizational politics. “I find few boards are as much in sync as they pretend to be,” he observes. “Different factions are looking for allies, and in the case of family-owned or dominated business — as one third of Fortune 500 companies are — there are family politics to worry about. These are difficult to understand since you will not meet all the key people during the interview process,” he says.
Outcome: Richard received an offer from the high-tech company, but as we saw, he was passed over in favor of a family member at the family-owned food company.
Lessons learned/What the candidate would do differently if faced with the same situation: Richard said he would “do more due diligence behind the scenes, discover the hidden agendas, and understand who dominates the group. He advises other executives preparing for an interview with a board of directors to learn “what makes each of them tick, and in a group setting who is really the leader.”
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.