Use Behavioral Interview Questions With Executive Hiring

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Apr 14, 2016
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

Get past executive-speak by using behavioral interview questions. Let’s face it: executives speak in subtleties, just the type of situation that is perfect for behavioral interviewing.

In a recent assignment, I was asked to interview CFO candidates for a small startup in Silicon Valley. Having spent my entire career in human resources and not being a finance professional, at first, this appeared to be a somewhat daunting task. I began thinking of the most insightful and penetrating interview questions I could come up with that would be better than the old standby, “Tell me about yourself.”

Building My Behavioral Interview Questions

The new CFO has some huge challenges in taking over this role, and those challenges seemed like a good place to start building my interview questions.

The successful candidate will be taking over the finances of a fast-growing company. They have just raised their second round of funding and are moving into a new building. Facilities will also be the CFO’s responsibility as they are too small to have a facilities manager.

Until now, a hard working controller with the help of one part-time employee has handled finances. Together they have done a reasonable job of keeping things organized. The most recent surge of growth has created a need for an additional headcount in the department that has just been approved. However due to her husband relocating to Singapore, the controller has recently decided to retire and will be leaving in six weeks.

The CEO, a very likable man, does not have a strong head for numbers. So he needs his CFO to be a partner to him in this regard. But he needs more than just a numbers person; he also needs someone who anticipates the needs he will have in the future. This includes managing things like IT infrastructure, net cash flow, budgets, and the annual operating plan. All of this has to be done in the context of working with an executive team with strong egos and opinions.

Considering the situation, the new CFO faced several major tasks and projects that had to be undertaken. Each of these situations would make a great foundation for a behavioral interview question.

Any well-constructed behavioral interview question has three parts to it. The first part of the question is called the opening; the second part is the situation, followed by what we called the bar raiser or a way to make the question more difficult.

After a brief opening such as “tell me about a time,” adding any of the CFO’s upcoming challenges makes for a great behavioral question. For example using any of these situations with that opening works like this.

Tell me about a time when you…

Managed a major move into a new building.

Built a finance department from scratch

Had to partner with the CEO

Put IT infrastructure in place

Produced net cash flow, budgets, and the annual operating plan

Created and implemented finance policies

To make the questions more difficult, we raise the bar by adding context to these questions:

In a fast-paced environment

Where previous infrastructure had not existed

With strong personalities on the team

Where there was not much time for transition

How that impacted the company culture

You can see how using these different components, you can quickly create a set of behavioral interview questions that will challenge any executive candidate.

Getting Past the Superficial Answer

Your interview guide is an integral part of any executive hiring, as is the effective use of behavioral questions. While this is true of most interviews, it is especially true with executives because they speak and act in subtleties. Getting beneath the surface of their answer often requires you to dig a little deeper. After asking the initial question that you just labored over, listen carefully to their response. Listen for the problem they faced, the actions they took and the results that were achieved. We call this getting PAR; Problem, Action, Result.

The key to behavioral interviewing is listening to the candidate’s responses. Embedded in the response will be either the problem or situation they faced, followed by the actions they took to resolve the issue and the result that was achieved. The skill comes in continuing to stay on the task of getting a complete behavioral answer.

Create an interview guide for yourself start by selecting just a few of these questions. An interview guide consists of the questions you’re going to ask, space for taking notes, and an interview evaluation form.

As you know, it is tempting to take more questions into the interview than you can possibly ask, so make sure you have your favorites on top of the list. We suggest you take no more than four or five questions into a 45-minute interview because you will not have time for more than that. Remember you have to allow time to answer their questions too.

Building the Interview Evaluation Form

Your interview evaluation form should ask for your feedback on the candidate and the way they responded to your questions. This feedback can focus on the questions themselves or about the skill underlying your questions. For instance, you may ask several questions to help you understand the CFO candidate’s approach to partnering with the CEO without asking specifically about that topic. Your interview evaluation form should include these four areas.

  1. The candidate’s ability to handle the overall functional responsibilities of this executive role.
  1. How the candidate will fit with the team they will work with as well as the company’s culture.
  1. The candidate’s enthusiasm for the company and the role.
  1. Probably most important of all is your enthusiasm for the candidate.

All of these are areas that should be explored with any candidate and this is especially true with executives.

The Takeaway

If you have shied away from using behavioral interview questions when working with executives, fear not for they are particularly useful in this situation. Well-constructed questions in an interview can lead to the most insightful discoveries.

Remember, a well-constructed behavioral interview question contains:

  • An opening phrase
  • This situation or problem the new employee is likely to face
  • A way to raise the bar on the questions difficulty

Be sure to get PAR from the candidate on every question. Listen for the problem they faced, the actions they took, and the results that were achieved.

Make sure to include elements of cultural fit into your interview evaluation form along with an assessment of technical or functional skills. Always include specific examples that come out of your conversations.

By the way, we wound up hiring a great CFO!

This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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