The five questions C-level candidates should ask in an interview

December 28, 2015 | Forbes

After interviewing dozens of candidates over the years, there is one thing that still surprises me. It is the lack of thought put into the questions that candidates ask of interviewers. And those lacking preparation are not just at the entry level. Even executives treat this part of the interview with indifference. It’s baffling that a candidate would respond to “what questions do you have for me” with “none” or “why did you join the company” (i.e., an obvious and somewhat pandering question).

The fact that candidates are unprepared sends an important signal about their potential. A core competency that marketers, in particular, should have is the ability to generate unique insight about the target that can be leveraged to enhance business results. As a result, the final stage of the interview (i.e., candidates generate the questions) is a type of technical question that enables candidates to demonstrate their ability to unearth useful insight that will help them make a more informed decision. How are the questions being asked useful to the candidate? What are they trying to learn? Are they smart, thoughtful, questions that will reveal helpful insight about the job, company, or culture?

And at the C-Level, it’s even more important to have intelligent questions. In one job interview, in which I was interviewing for a Chief Strategy Officer role at a multi-billion dollar market share leading firm, the first interview with the company was supposed to be two hours. Because it was a CSO role, of which I had limited experience, I decided to demonstrate my strategic thinking primarily through the questions I asked. At the end of the first hour of interviews, they turned the table. They had left me with an hour to ask questions. I had done a tremendous amount of research on the company and the industry and had developed a very long list of questions that centered on corporate strategy, the job, and company culture. All of the questions were specific to the firm and the job and demonstrated the ability to convert research into insight that led to strategic questions. That hour turned into nearly three hours and the discussion was terrific. The strategy seemed to work as I made the final cut and received a job offer.

When I interview candidates for senior roles, I leave about two hours for their questions. That’s a lot of time to fill but it is a differentiating part of the interview because it gives me insight into the depth of research, preparedness, and thinking with which the candidates approached the interview. My logic is this: if a candidate isn’t inquisitive or thoughtful about their own career, how can the company believe that the candidate would be about the consumer or competitors?

To think through the basic questions that C-level candidates should consider asking, I talked with Christine DeYoung, EVP of the Consumer, Private Equity, and Sports Practices at DHR International, a leading executive recruiting firm. What follows are her thoughts on three critical questions that every C-level candidate should know the answer to prior to accepting a job.

The 5 Questions C-Level Candidates Should Ask During an Interview

1. What does Success Generally Look Like? If I’m in this role in 6 months / 1 year and have been successful, what will be different for the business and team?

2. How do you Measure Success? What were the measures of success in this role before (specific metrics)? Do you expect these measures to you change? How will I be measured and at what intervals?

3. What are the Board’s Expectations? What is the Board’s greatest concern about this role as it relates to the business goals / strategic plan?

4. What are the Biggest Challenges? What do you expect the person taking this position will find to be the greatest challenge? What do you think might be the biggest surprise for an external candidate taking the position?

5. What is the Degree of Managerial Discretion Afforded this Position? How do decisions get made? What is the signing authority of the individual in this role? Does this individual have the right to hire and fire candidates as needed or is there a formal process that is followed? What does that process consist of?

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of questions, but the point is that many C-level candidates walk into jobs and are surprised. They are surprised that their responsibility doesn’t match expectations. Or they are surprised by the metrics against which they are judged. Or they find that they have very little managerial discretion. The reality is that it is the candidate’s responsibility to get as data-based and specific as possible about the job characteristics that can impact their success. And this is why the part of the interview where the candidate questions the interviewer matters – a lot. It’s not just about demonstrating your skill at unearthing key insight about the job. It’s also about understanding the job in the first place so that you can make an informed.

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