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How Boards Interview CEO Candidates

Source | LinkedIn : By James Citrin

When we work with boards of directors to help them prepare to interview CEO candidates, we develop an interview guide that will organize the conversation, which typically runs for 90 minutes.  While interviews are only one step in a CEO hiring process, along with in-depth referencing and executive assessments, it is not an over-statement to say that they are the lynch-pin in the process.

Boards and search committees will always put credence in analyzing track records and relevant experience, reviewing written reports, and talking to referees.  But it is in the interview where chemistry is established and essential intangibles like passion, energy, and fit are determined.  As a result, at the CEO level, as well as at every step in your career, being a strong interviewer is a major advantage.

In conducting CEO candidate interviews, many questions posed by a search committee are, of course, customized to the company’s particular situation.  But many of the questions are based on the essential areas in which a CEO needs to demonstrate capability: strategy and vision; growth, financial, and operational management; leadership and team building; and Culture.

Here is the interview guide that we recently created for a board as part of a public company CEO search.

If you are an active or aspiring CEO candidate, it will serve you well to be prepared to answer these types of questions.  Even if you’re not yet at the CEO level, reflecting on these questions will give you an edge when you prepare for your next big job interview.


The typical CEO interview begins with the chair welcoming the candidate, thanking them for coming and inviting the members of the search committee to introduce themselves.  He or she will then tell begin with what I believe is the best opening question:

“You have had a chance to begin to get to know our company.  Why do you think this could be the right opportunity for you at this point in your career and why do you think you might be the right leader for us?”

The best candidates will answer this with a crisp 4 to 6 minute narrative about their career, their relevant experience, their professional interests and aspirations, and a top-line assessment of the opportunity.  Often times this is the most important question of an interview, because as we all know, first impressions are lasting impressions.  It is in this questions, along with the hellos, handshakes, and introductions, where those all-important first impressions are made.


From that point, each area of CEO capability are probed, with selections from the following questions (all of these questions would require several hours of discussion):

Growth, Financial, and Operational Management

  • Describe an instance where you have driven a company or business to accelerate growth, expand EBITDA and profitability, increase efficiency and enhance shareholder return. What was the vision and what needed to change?  How did you get the organization to respond?  What was the outcome?
  • Describe your experience managing significant budgets and P&Ls. How did you prioritize your investments?  What process did you use to gain support?  What have been your experiences with tough decisions regarding budget cuts, restructuring or reallocating resources?
  • With an example or two, tell us about how you have grown or changed a business or an organization through strategic partnership, joint venture or acquisition. What was the long-term effect on your business?

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