A comprehensive guide on how to prepare for an interview with an executive search firm.

If you have been involved in an executive recruitment process for a senior level role, then chances are you have interacted with an executive search firm – a consultancy that specialises in placing highly qualified candidates in executive or governance level positions.

Because of the complexity of the role and the direct impact it can have on overall organisational performance, companies often partner with an executive search firm, on an exclusive basis, to lead the search and recruitment process for role vacancies.

The recruiter’s role is to present ‘role-fit’ candidates to their client. They are being paid for their expertise and knowledge, and sometimes that means challenging the expectations of their client on what the “right” candidate for a role looks like.

You may find your experience with an executive search firm a little different to in-house talent acquisition teams, particularly when it comes to the interview stage. We’re here to help with insights on how to prepare for an executive level job interview. Read on…

Researching the Executive Search Firm

Being involved in an executive recruitment process requires commitment, it can at times be lengthy and complex. And preparation is key!

If you are actively in the market for a new senior role, then engaging with an executive recruiter will likely be one of your first moves. Executive recruiters are constantly building relationships with career professionals and potential candidates; they have their finger on the pulse of talent communities.

They may not have a suitable role for you right now, but it is important to position yourself on their radar so that when a role comes up, you are their first call.

When contacting recruiters, begin your outreach with reputable executive search firms that specialise in roles/industry’s suited to your career path. You can gain a feel for a firm’s focus and expertise by reviewing their website and social platforms, as well as recent roles they have advertised. In terms of building relationships, dig deeper to identify individual recruiters within a firm that are aligned to your area of expertise.

When should you start doing this?

The best advice is to contact recruiters when you are employed, not when you are actively looking for a new role. Start engaging and forging relationships early.

Understanding the Executive Search Process

We often hear from senior level executives that they have never had to ‘interview’ for a role so far in their career. However, times are changing, and rightly so. It is highly unlikely that a large company will employ an executive in the absence of a robust and extensive search and recruitment exercise. For this reason, it is important to have some understanding of the executive recruitment process.

There is a lot of work that happens in the background that candidates are not exposed to during a recruitment process. Particularly in the early stages when the recruiter and employer are finalising the role brief and ideal candidate specifications.

In terms of what a candidate may experience, the process includes the following stages: advertising and outreach, candidate screen, candidate interview/s, further assessments and due diligence, offer and onboarding. For a more detailed overview read The Ultimate Guide to the Executive Recruitment Process.

executive recrutment interview process

Analysing the Position and Company

First and foremost, make sure you obtain a copy of the position description and candidate brief for the role – it is important to read this thoroughly so you have an understanding of the role, the challenges it presents and importantly, whether there is a fit with your career path.

Researching a company’s background, culture and values is critical to gaining a deep understanding of the position requirements relative to wider organisational challenges.

You can start by reviewing a company’s online presence including its website and social media platforms as well as relevant corporate publications, recent news articles and online company review sites like Glassdoor. If possible, make contact with your networks and connections – they may be able to provide further insights.

Your key source of information however will be the executive search firm. While they “work” for the client, they are also your main point of contact as a potential role candidate. It is in their best interests to present the “right” candidates to their client, so they will be open about the role/organisation and the challenges it presents.

person on the laptop with Google page loaded

Mastering the Pre-Interview Phase

You’ve had a conversation (likely many) with the recruiter, thoroughly reviewed the role opportunity, forwarded your cv and officially applied for the role and you have progressed to the interview stage. Now the work really begins.

“Preparing for an interview has two components, the external and the internal.”

The ‘internal’ is about you and that means being clear on your own background, experiences and what you would bring to a role, relative to your understanding of the company/position and the type of person who would succeed in the role. This will be the basis of the questions you are asked and how you respond. Having certainty around your value proposition, relative to your skills, experiences and career aspirations, is key.

The ‘external’ relates to everything you need to know about the interview itself – where will it be held, what is the likely duration, who will be present, what format will the interview take, is a presentation required etc? This includes clarifying logistical details and researching the interview panel and their backgrounds. Don’t underestimate the importance of thorough preparation.

We’ll cover some executive level interview questions below but at this stage you may also like to consider enlisting the support of an executive interview coach (or your mentor) to help prepare you for this stage of the process.

How To Present Yourself For An Executive Interview With An Executive Search Firm?

Regardless of whether the interview is in-person or virtual, you should always wear professional attire, relative to the role/industry. Grooming and personal presentation is important as it gives the potential employer insight into how you would represent the company. However, appearance isn’t everything – it is more important to be authentic and true to yourself, in a respectful way.

Top 7 Executive-Level Interview Questions

1. Can you provide us with a brief insight into your career history to date?

This question can take many forms and is typically used as an introduction at the beginning of the interview. It puts everyone at ease, particularly the interviewee, as it is a topic you (should) know well!

How to respond

Don’t assume everyone on the interview panel has thoroughly read your CV or been party to the content of screening conversations you may have had with the recruiter.

Consider this the ‘elevator pitch’ of your career (past, present and future) but keep it brief and focus on those roles most relevant to the current opportunity. It is an easy one to rehearse because it’s all about you and crafting a compelling story.

Be prepared for follow-up questions, particularly if there are unexplained gaps in your CV or roles that appear out of line with your career trajectory.

2. What motivated you to apply for this position?

Applying for a position while already *happily* employed can be uncomfortable for some people. The best way to answer this question is with honesty.

What the interviewer is most concerned about is your motivation for pursuing this opportunity. Executive recruitment can be a lengthy process and employers want to see enthusiasm and commitment from candidates.

How to respond

Again, don’t assume everyone on the panel knows how you heard about the role. Briefly explain how it come about – whether you saw the role advertised, were approached by a recruiter or had a referral from a colleague.

Being an active job seeker is not a negative. Be honest about why you are considering a role change while being respectful to your current/past employer.

3. How would people describe your leadership style?

For a senior level role, leadership is crucial. What an interviewer is seeking to understand is what methods, characteristics and behaviours you employ when directing and motivating teams, as well as your overall management style.

How to respond

You may have done some variation of a leadership assessment tool like DiSC or Myers Briggs but in an interview, it is best to respond with the common leadership styles – transformational, authoritative, servant etc – even if you employ a combination of approaches.

While your actual style of leadership is important, the interviewer is also looking for self-awareness and the ability for a candidate to articulate their particular approach, and how that fits relative to achieving positive outcomes for an organisation.

4. Based on your understanding of the organisation, how well do you think they are going/what should they be focusing on?

Again, this question demonstrates your enthusiasm and knowledge for the role but also the basic principles of business strategy and how to measure success and seek out opportunity.

How to respond

Constructive and positive, with a focus on standard business metrics. Unless requested in advance, do not go into an interview with your own strategy pitch document. Chances are you will not have all of the relative information on hand, to make informed recommendations. It can be a delicate balance between demonstrating your worth and displaying an attitude of arrogance.

5. How do you manage your own workload and handle stress?

Burnout and mental fatigue are a pressing issue for executive leaders. Organisations are committing significant resources to managing worker wellbeing and they are looking for leaders who not only manage their own time well, but also model the right behaviours to their people.

How to respond

It can be difficult to answer because you want to give the impression that you are goal oriented and at the senior level, that sometimes means sacrificing personal time.

Recognising the issue and being candid about your experiences will demonstrate vulnerability and empathy – both of which are positive characteristics in leaders.

6. Describe a situation where you led a major change process. How did you approach it and what was the result?

This question is likely to be tailored to the position and could take many forms, depending on the role. Hopefully your knowledge of the role and the company means you are prepared with a relevant example from your career to date.

How to respond

Regardless of how it is asked, this question is all about your approach to creating positive change as well as how you overcome challenges, particularly opposition. Be honest, talk about both successes and failures – and importantly, what you have learned along the way.

During the interview you may find yourself switching from the singular “I” to “we”. It is a good tactic to employ because it demonstrates that you are self-aware and “others-focused”. However when interviewing at the senior level, the expectation is that you provided ‘leadership’ which had positive results and that means using “I” to describe situations and outcomes.

7. If you were successful in this process, what would be your focus for the first 30-days in the role?

This question is important because it tests your understanding of the role and the company – have you been listening to the challenges that have been raised throughout the conversation? It also identifies alignment between your vision and the company’s priorities.

How to respond

If you do not feel like the recruiter or interview panel has been completely open about the challenges to be faced in the role, or you don’t think it is appropriate to delve into details, you can focus your answer on best practice senior leadership onboarding. This means 30-60-90-day plans that outline your intentions, high-level priorities and actionable goals, as well as the metrics you’ll use to measure success. Remember, it is important to be realistic in your ambition.

For further insights, here’s our take on common ‘tricky’ interview questions and how to answer them.

Final Thoughts

From our experience as professional executive recruiters we can confidently say that there is no standard set of interview questions. The type of questions asked are specific to the role opportunity and the individual candidate.

Given the seniority of the role you can expect them to be behavioural based – uncover skills, abilities, personality, problem solving, and creative thinking based on past behaviour – with a focus on strategy and leadership.

The interviewer is trying to assess your suitability for a role, both in terms of your skills and experience, but they also want to better understand you as a person – personal traits or “soft” skills are important.

Spending time to prepare for an interview will boost your confidence and increase your chances of success.

Need Help?

Decipher Group are industry experts in the recruitment of executive, c-suite level professionals, and governance leaders for New Zealand and Australian businesses. We’ve been connecting talented people to exciting opportunities for 15 years.

Reach out to one of our team today.

The Decipher Team

To stay on top of current recruitment trends and hear about new role vacancies, follow Decipher Group on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

A short Q&A with our team on related questions that people commonly search for on Google.

Can I contact the hiring company directly while working with an executive search firm?

If the employer has partnered with an executive search firm for a role vacancy, then we recommend following best practice which means making the external recruiter your point of contact. It is unlikely you will know who exactly to speak with at the hiring company and in some instances, it may not be appropriate to discuss the role with others.

What qualities do executive search firms look for in candidates?

The Forbes Human Resource Council identified a comprehensive list of the top traits of senior business leaders, including passion, action, integrity, vision-seller, flexibility, problem-solving, comprehensive thinking, risk-taking, humility, empathy, influence, culture fit, authenticity, and open-mindedness.

How long does the executive search process usually take?

While a recruitment process is unique to the organisation and role, the executive search and recruitment process will typically take 60 to 90 days depending on the exact requirements of the client. In addition, if the appointed candidate is in an existing role, you may also need to consider their notice period which for a senior role will likely be 3 or 6 months. This can be significantly longer for larger companies.

Should I disclose my current salary to the executive search firm?

If you are not comfortable answering this question, provide a salary range or give your opinion on what you think the salary would be for the role being advertised, given your understanding of the responsibilities. You may also answer this question with your expectations for your next role.

If you are in a recruitment process for a particular role, remember that the recruiter will be negotiating on your behalf with the employer so it pays to be open with them.

How do I negotiate compensation and benefits with an executive search firm?

Take the time to determine what is important to you – what employee benefits do you value the most? This will form the basis of your negotiation. You can also complete research to understand the market value of similar roles. Remember that compensation is not just about salary, you can be creative in the way that your package is structured in a way that is meaningful to you.

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