Elevating Your Interview with the CEO: Top Questions to Ask

Elevating Your
Interview with the CEO:
Top Questions to Ask

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January 2024

Getting to ask questions to a CEO, especially when interviewing with the CEO, is a unique opportunity. Preparation is key. It’s not just about thinking about what the CEO might want to know about you. It’s also about having your own list of questions about the company, its culture, and the role. In the best-case scenario, this line of questioning may even spark a conversation (they might not be currently having) that the CEO needs to have with her or his executive team about their business decision environment and operating culture.

Kingsley Gate’s recent collaboration with the Financial Times shed light on a surprising trend in executive interviews. Our research found that 25% of senior executives – including C-level professionals who report directly to the CEO – were not explicitly asked to discuss, nor did they initiate a discussion around their approach to decision making throughout the interview process.

One of the critical responsibilities of senior executives, particularly those reporting to the CEO, is decision making. McKinsey estimates that executives spend 40% of their time on decision making.

Our research also reveals that when senior executives did engage in explicit discussions about decision making – encompassing scope, expectations, requirements, capabilities, and style – the overall job satisfaction increased by 1.4X.

Notably, 64% of executives who had such discussions expressed satisfaction with their jobs/roles, compared to only 45% of those who did not.

Proactively addressing the topic of decision making during your interview with the CEO not only demonstrates your readiness and capability to make crucial decisions in the new role but also underscores your business maturity and seniority. It emphasizes your awareness for alignment between your decision-making style and the organization’s business environment where these decisions will be made.

In the following sections, we’ll explore some key questions that can help an individual stand out when interviewing with a CEO.

Preparing for a CEO Interview

Preparation is crucial to make a lasting impression on a CEO during an interview. One way to stand out is by asking good questions. In the upcoming sections, we'll discuss some tips and best practices that are key to preparing for your interview with the CEO.

For deeper insights into the responsibilities of a CEO, explore our Board & CEO Practice.

Researching the CEO

Understanding the CEO's background, achievements, and leadership style is pivotal in preparing for your interview. It offers a valuable perspective on the type of leadership they embody and their vision for the company.

Understanding the Company's Culture, Goals, and Challenges

Delving into the company's core values, mission, objectives, and the obstacles it faces can help tailor your questions during the interview.

Here are some tips on how to gather information and use it to your advantage:

  • Conduct thorough research: Use reliable sources and gather as much relevant information as possible.
  • Organize the information: Create a system to categorize and store the gathered data for easy access.
  • Analyze the data: Look for patterns, trends, and insights that can help you make informed decisions.
  • Apply the information strategically: Use the gathered information to develop plans, strategies, and actions that align with your goals.

Remember, information is power, and utilizing it effectively can give you a competitive advantage.

Formulating Your Questions

Formulating impactful, relevant, and thought-provoking questions is paramount to a successful CEO interview. Striking a balance between professional and personal inquiries can reveal a comprehensive picture of the CEO's vision and approach.

At Kingsley Gate, we have developed a deep understanding of the best questions CEOs find valuable, drawing from our extensive global and cross-functional experience as an executive search firm. We'll share some of these insights and examples in the following section.

Essential Questions to Ask a CEO

1. What is your vision for the company's future?

This question helps you understand the CEO's strategy, direction, and long-term goals. A clear vision is critical to a company's success, and it can provide insights into the CEO's leadership and the firm’s decision-making environment and process.

2. How do you motivate your team and foster a productive work environment?

Unlocking the operating culture is key. This question unveils the decision-making styles that collectively define the organization's culture. Understanding how the CEO motivates teams and promotes productivity provides a nuanced view of the decision dynamics influencing the working atmosphere.

3. What are the biggest challenges facing the company, and how do you plan to address them?

Beyond problem-solving skills, this question illuminates the decision-making capabilities required to navigate challenges effectively. By delving into the CEO's approach to strategizing and contingency planning, we gain a profound understanding of the decision landscape that underpins the company's resilience.

4. How do you define success within your role as CEO?

Success, when viewed through the lens of the CEO, reveals personal and professional values. This question taps into the core decision-making principles that guide the leader. Understanding their key performance indicators and strategic objectives provides a comprehensive picture of the decisions that drive success.

5. Can you share a failure you've experienced in your role, and what you learned from it?

Beyond resilience and adaptability, this question uncovers the CEO's approach to learning from setbacks. It offers a realistic portrayal of the decision-making challenges inherent in leading a company. The insights gained extend beyond overcoming failures; they illuminate how past decisions shape future success.

6. As CEO, what are the most critical decisions you would need the person in this role to make?

Gaining the CEO's perspective on critical decisions and the decision-making culture provides valuable insights into the organization's strategic priorities.

7. How do you handle situations where a decision you made did not lead to the expected outcome?

This question explores the CEO's response to challenges that arise from tough decisions and their capacity for resilience and adaptability. It can provide insights into how they learn from their mistakes, take accountability, and make adjustments to their decision-making process in the future.

What the CEO Secretly Expects From You

While preparing your questions for a CEO interview, it's equally important to anticipate questions the CEO might have for you. Remember, an interview is a two-way street, and the CEO will be forming their impressions of you, basis the answers you come prepared with.

Here are some questions the CEO might not explicitly ask, but will be looking for answers to:

1. What are your accomplishments, not daily activities, that you are most proud of?

Insight: The CEO is likely interested in understanding your significant achievements and contributions. This question helps them gauge your impact and the value you can bring to the company.

Suggestion: Prepare specific examples of projects or initiatives where you made a measurable impact and the decisions that led you to it. Discuss the challenges you faced and highlight the outcomes and benefits of your efforts.

2. What motivates/gets you up in the morning?

Insight: The CEO wants to know what drives and energizes you. This question aims to uncover your passion and commitment to your work.

Suggestion: Be genuine in sharing what inspires you. Whether it's personal growth, making a difference, or overcoming challenges, connect your motivation to how it aligns with the goals of the company.

3. How do you master small talk and why do you consider it important?

Insight: This question delves into your interpersonal skills and awareness. The CEO is likely interested in your ability to navigate social situations and build relationships.

Suggestion: Acknowledge the importance of small talk in building rapport and fostering a positive work environment. Share examples of how you've used small talk to establish connections and facilitate collaboration.

4. What do you know about the company and/or position?

Insight: The CEO expects candidates to have done their homework. Additionally, the CEO aims to evaluate decision readiness and potential, even assessing your approach to decision-making. This question assesses your level of preparation and genuine interest in the company.

Suggestion: Research the company thoroughly, including its values, recent achievements, and challenges. Connect this knowledge to your skills and how you can contribute to the company's success. Be prepared to showcase your decision-making acumen and discuss how your approach aligns with the company's goals and objectives.

5. What is your understanding of this company’s culture and what do you bring to it?

Insight: Culture fit is crucial for success within a company. The CEO wants to understand if your values align with the organization's culture.

Suggestion: Showcase your understanding of the company's culture and values. Emphasize how your work style, communication approach, and values align with what the company values.

Questions About the Future of the Company

Understanding the future trajectory of a company is invaluable in a CEO interview. This knowledge reveals the CEO's vision and strategic planning abilities and showcases your keen interest in the company's growth and success. Additionally, it provides a glimpse into the CEO's foresight and adaptability, which are essential in today's rapidly changing business environment. Here are some questions to ask the CEO that focus on the company's future:

1. What are the major growth plans for the company in the next 3-5 years, and how do you plan to achieve them?

This question will give you insight into the long-term strategies of the CEO and how they intend to drive the company's growth.

2. What challenges do you anticipate the company will face in the future, and how are you preparing for them?

This question will reveal the CEO's ability to foresee and prepare for potential obstacles and their contingency planning skills.

3. Where do you see innovation playing a role in the company's future?

This question will help you understand how the CEO views innovation and its importance in the company's growth strategy.

Remember, the hallmark of a great CEO is not only steering the company in the present but also effectively planning and preparing for the future. These questions will provide valuable insights into the CEO's ability to do just that.

Wrapping Up the Interview

Preparing for an interview with a CEO requires a combination of thorough research, effective communication, and a strong focus on showcasing your unique value. By following these strategies, you can increase your chances of making a lasting impression and securing that coveted executive-level position.

Closing the interview, thank the CEO for their time and valuable insights. Remember that interviewing with a CEO is an opportunity to not only demonstrate your qualifications but also your ability to connect on a personal level. Practice confidence, maintain a professional demeanor, and be ready to engage in meaningful conversations that highlight your compatibility with the organization's vision and values. With the right preparation and mindset, you can navigate the CEO interview with success and confidence.

If you need further guidance on leaving a lasting impression in interviews or harnessing the insights gained for your business, feel free to connect with us for a personalized consultation. Our expertise can help drive your business forward, fueling your success in the corporate world.

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