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How to nail your first executive job interview

These tips will help you convince the C-suite team that you belong with them.

How to nail your first executive job interview

After you’ve been toiling away in middle management for a number of years, the opportunity finally presents itself: an executive job opening that’s got your name on it. But making the leap to executive requires more than business skills; it also requires a healthy dose of confidence. After all, you need to make the case that you can lead a whole team forward.   

“[Companies] are looking to hire someone who can get the job done,” says Rita Ashley, a Medford, Oregon-based executive coach for technology executives. “That confidence is the most important asset you have.”

Follow these tips and walk into your first executive interview like you already belong.

Go deep on your research

As in any interview, you want to know as much as possible about the company and the people you’re meeting. That knowledge serves as the foundation of your confidence.

At the executive level, this kind of research needs to go beyond just knowing broadly what the company does. You should know the company’s financial situation, what challenges it’s facing and its leaders’ backgrounds, says Eileen Finn, president of New York City-based Eileen Finn & Associates, a boutique executive search firm with a specialty practice in human resources.

If it’s a public company, look up SEC filings and public financial statements. Even for private companies, you may be able to learn plenty by reading news releases and articles about the company in the local business journal.

Then repeat the same research with regards to financials, but this time focus on the company’s top competitors. Where is the company outperforming its competitors? Where is it falling short? What new products or services do the competitors have planned for the near future, and how might this affect the industry? Being able to converse about these things in your interview will not only convey your expert knowledge, but also you inquisitiveness, which will show the hiring manager that you’re the kind of person who thinks two steps ahead.

Armed with this thorough knowledge, you can ask some sharp, probing questions of your own, which balances the power dynamic a bit back in your favor and gives you a confidence boost.

Show off a leadership style that aims for results

At the executive level, interviewers are looking for concrete proof that you can deliver measurable results for the whole organization—and that your leadership style is a good fit for the culture. Being able to articulate your leadership philosophy and back up those big picture ideas with real-life examples will strengthen your case that you are ready to make the move into the executive ranks.

Prepare for interview questions that seek to determine what kind of manager you are you are and what kind of vision you have for the company and your team. Be ready to provide examples that show how you think, how you get things done and what type of leader you are, Finn says.

A common job interview question executives are asked is, “What was the hardest lesson you had to learn as a manager?” Your answer should describe a difficult situation you faced, how you addressed that particular instance and how it changed your leadership style and habits going forward.

If you’re asked how you would handle a situation you have no experience with, don’t let that shake your confidence. Instead, reference your general leadership philosophy, and explain how you would apply it to that hypothetical to come up with an appropriate solution.

“That’s where the confidence comes from—knowing you have what it takes to be successful in that job,” Finn says.

Refine your executive presence

Your stomach may be full of butterflies, but that’s the last thing you want to project during your interview. Leaders need to seem relatively unflappable. Thankfully, your body language, speech patterns and clothing can be used to project your confidence.

Before the interview, try putting your body through a series of “power poses,” which are ways of standing or sitting that make your body look bigger and take up more space, says Leonard Lang, an executive coach with Minneapolis-based Beard Avenue career coaching. These poses—such as putting your hands behind your head with your elbows out, or standing in a victory pose with your arms in the air—can actually have a biochemical effect on your mood and boost your confidence, he says.

However, you shouldn’t use those power poses during the interview, he says, and avoid slouched or angled positions because they send the wrong signals to your body and those around you. Instead, sit in a relaxed but attentive manner in order to appear professional as well as approachable.

Another big hurdle for some is their speaking voice. “Job interviews make people tense,” says Ita Olsen, a Malibu, California-based speech and communication coach. “[Nervous candidates] literally tighten their vocal mechanisms, which results in a pitch that’s too high and a voice that’s very thin.”

In order to relax and give yourself some literal breathing room, slow down, which will not only help you, but also the people listening. “When you’re speaking too fast and without pauses,” says Olsen, “the interviewer can’t keep up. You’re in the future; your listeners are in the past. Taking a breath keeps everyone in the present.”


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