Your outstanding resume and extensive networking have paid off, and you have a day of meetings scheduled to discuss a key executive role at a target company. You’re mostly thrilled about the opportunity, except…For the last 15 years, you were promoted from within, or you “fell into” a job. To say your executive interview skills are rusty is, well, a bit of an understatement. When you think about it, you cannot really remember the last time you interviewed!

Not surprisingly, a few things have changed in recent years that affect how you should approach an interview. Here are some core areas to focus on as you go forward.

  • Research, research, research. Innumerable online tools are available today to help you learn about a company, its industry, its plans, its people—and you will be expected to know this information. Go deeper than a company website and annual report; find recent articles, strategic industry reports, LinkedIn profiles for the people you’ll be meeting, and more. Ask your local reference librarian to help you access critical information on fee-only databases. Learn as much as you can; your performance in the executive interview will correlate directly with your investment in advance research.
  • Differentiate. Think of executive recruiters, hiring managers and other interviewers as your customers and yourself as a salesperson—selling a product (YOU). What do they need to know to be motivated to buy? What value will they get from this product (you)? Given today’s intense employment marketplace, you need to distinguish your brand from others. Identify and memorize your best 4–5 selling points for this opportunity. Get those points across—in your answer to the “tell me about yourself” question and throughout the interview. It’s not sufficient anymore just to “hit it off” with the interviewer and have a good conversation. Other executives are polishing their brands; you need to compete at this level.
  • Be short and sweet. In the age of Twitter, texting, and sound bites, attention spans have gotten short, and interviewers have gotten more impatient. To succeed in your next executive interview, you need to prepare succinct stories (1.5–2 minutes). You want to get your point across quickly, and make sure your stories are memorable. They will reinforce your messages and brand. It always helps to follow the old “CAR” acronym: highlight the strategic challenge you faced, the actions you took, and—especially—the results you achieved. Make sure that your stories are highly relevant to the position and the company.
  • Inquire for real insight. Think carefully about your career goals and the goals for your next role, including dimensions such as scope of accountability, level of decision making, and size of budget. Consider also the kind of company/culture in which you thrive. Then develop thoughtful questions that will help you assess whether this is the right opportunity. If you have been out of work, or if you’re really eager (desperate) to get out of your present situation, you may be tempted to take an offer. But you can’t afford—at this point in your career—to detour into a position that is wrong for you. Use the executive interview to gather the critical information you need. (Intelligent questions will impress your interviewers, too.)
  • Close powerfully. Today’s interview process typically has multiple rounds, and you want to enhance your chances to get to the next round. The end of the interview is your opportunity to express your interest in this position, reinforce your key selling points, and discuss (overtly) the next steps in the process. Use these last few moments to make a strong, positive impression and build that continuing connection with the company. If done well, you will also leave with clear information on what you should do to follow up.
  • Practice. Ever hear this old joke? A tourist stops someone on the street in New York City and asks: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” And the person replies: “Practice, man. Practice.”

Given the challenging employment marketplace, you want to be sure that you are performing as well as possible in the interview. You are rusty, and there is no substitute for practice if you want to perform. A trusted advisor or career professional can give you solid, targeted feedback and help you ensure that your answers are succinct and powerful.

There’s no doubt about it: Interviewing is harder now than it used to be. But with these strategies, you can and will compete in the process. See you at Carnegie Hall.


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