(…with apologies to all the wonderful candidates I’ve interviewed for retiring CEO positions…)
My head is spinning. 200 CEO resumes. 180 cover letters (yes, some actually didn’t follow instructions to include a cover letter). 50 interviews. Candidates begin to blur into each other. Twenty hours later, it is clear they have all read the same best seller on how to be an effective leader.
Responses start sounding like book reports and Ted Talks. I begin to play a game in my head about which buzzwords they’d use and when: Servant leader. Collaborator. Trust builder. The member experience. Strategic visionary. Inclusive communicator.
I finally start asking, “What dish would you bring to your credit union holiday potluck?” just so I could hear if they have a sense of humor. (Side note: you’d be heart-warmed by many of the lovely responses and how applicants’ personalities finally emerged through that question. One person sealed his interview when he responded, “employees deserve filet mignon for their hard work.”)
Come on, Carol, did you really expect to hear radical truths like…
“I’m challenged by leaders on my team who don’t listen.”
“My blood boils when I hear how an employee mis-treated a colleague.”
“I fall asleep in staff sales meetings.”
“I do nothing when I hear employees complain about their manager.”
I try. Really, I try. I set up candidates for success by asking classic open questions…
“Describe a challenging situation you had with an executive team member you led and how you handled it?”
“How do you respond when you are at odds with your board?”
“What’s the hardest part of being a CEO?”
“Describe the most difficult conversation you’ve had with an executive team member?”
“How much do you really drink?” (Honestly, I don’t ask that question but sometimes I do wonder.)
Is it so difficult to show vulnerability? To expose your humanity? To self-reveal a mistake you made and how you recovered from it? You wouldn’t be on the short list if you weren’t qualified on paper, so show me who you are.
After hundreds of — yawn — high-level CEO interviews, here’s my advice on how to shine:
- Do your homework – Call reports; Mystery shop the CU; Call their SEGs; Find someone who knows an employee; examine websites and social media posts; reference examples of positive things you noticed.
- Give specific examples – Explain your leadership philosophy and values through short, clear examples; avoid generalized buzzwords — we’ve all read the same leadership books.
- Ask questions – It’s okay to ask questions during an interview; I was amazed how many never once asked a question about CU priorities, culture or challenges.
- Be yourself – It’s okay to share something personal; one person likened being a CEO to the absolute thrill they always felt when riding a rollercoaster with its ups and downs.
- Rehearse out loud before the interview and stage your Zoom setting – Ask a friend to record you in a mock interview to see how you come across. If your Zoom interview is being recorded, ask for a copy so you can self-reflect on why you weren’t chosen.
May all of your failed interviews be learning experiences.