Separating the sheep from the goats: What IS the best executive-level interview question?

Published: 21 Nov 2016 By James Dunne

Our last blog looked at some of the best questions you can ask of an aspiring executive as they sit, sweating slightly in trepidation, opposite the interview panel - or, indeed, if you are that same, lightly perspiring candidate, how you can prepare for such questions. To help, I Googled a number of variations on the theme, “the only interview question that matters.”

Logically, if there is only ONE interview question that matters, then surely all interviews would be straightforward, for both the interviewer and interviewee. At our level, career coaches would make fortunes simply by teaching executives to answer this question. High Street recruitment agencies would have online tests for call centre interviews and the business of getting a job would become more than a bit boring. Fortunately, or perhaps otherwise, that’s not how the world works.

Recruitment is a science as well as art. Psychometric testing, in-tray exercises and video interviewing are often useful.  But ultimately, it comes down to the decisions of one person or a small group of people as to who gets the job. The questions they ask, and the interviewee’s response, are of paramount importance. Consequently, any imaginative ways to vet candidates are always worth considering.  Such as these…

One enterprising CEO described how he always “asks our other staff who have come into contact with the candidate – receptionists, the driver who brought them from the airport, my PA - how they were treated.”  Even if you don’t have a driver to bring them from the airport, this is a useful way to find out more about what your prospective employees are really like.

Another way that I really liked of assessing candidates, and one that is worth considering for senior level posts that involve a lot of socialising with clients, is to take your short list (separately!) for dinner with a group of similarly senior colleagues – and then ask the candidate to choose the wine.  You’ll learn a lot about that person in the next few minutes. Unless he or she is a real expert, they have to make some very quick decisions. Should they pretend they know a lot about wine, should they ask for help, or should they try to impress by selecting the priciest bottle on the list?  How do they treat the sommelier?  While I wouldn’t advocate hiring someone solely on this basis, it’s an unusual and interesting way to find out more about your prospective, new colleague.

Another somewhat unconventional approach to interviewing is to focus on an interviewee’s hobbies.  I read an article that described how “one job seeker mentioned that he was a keen singer.”  He was told him to sing for the interviewing panel, a very senior group of executives. He justified his own self-publicity and sang very well, demonstrating he was “passionate and able to build skills on his own  … and when the crunch time came, he had no hang-ups.

Then there is the “sitting next to you on an airplane” test, which is not a question as such, but rather an assessment based on the obvious question, “Could I sit next to you on a plane from London to Singapore and not be bored rigid?”  Obviously, the answer to this depends on the person asking it: I suspect that a Digital Marketing Director would have a different attitude to a CFO or VP in Audit.

One thing I believe that these questions and different methods of assessing candidates does demonstrate is that senior management need to be really creative and intelligent in the way they goes about selecting their peers.  My final blog in this series will consider some more “out there” interview questions, including my personal favourite, and will also, at last, reveal “the only question that you really need.” 

James Dunne, exec-appointments.com

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