Five Interview Questions
Seldom Ask But Should
by Irving H. Buchen
It is standard wisdom to itemize and celebrate top leadership traits. That
is often followed by a list of survival tips for managing the first year.
Of course, both lists are offered after the fact. But neither compilation
addresses before the fact. So hot and heady is the pursuit that we ignore
or minimize the prospect of failure. The interview needs to be perceived as
an early warning system.
The sin of omission is similar to all the leadership development programs
at centers and universities stressing how to get there but seldom addressing
how to stay there. Or perhaps most important, what questions should a prospective
candidate ask during the interview as a way of both getting and staying there?
In essence, the five questions below seek to unearth the various ways a CEO
can fail. The comments immediately following suggest how and why it can happen,
and how to forestall its happening.
1. Subject: Workload
Would you be good enough to share with me the typical week of the current
holder of the position? Might I see, for example, his calendar, his travel
schedule, his after hour business-related social engagements, the involvement
of his significant or insignificant other?
Many executive jobs as presently conceived or as performed by those previously
in office are crushing. Days of 14 hours are normal, longer when factoring
in business travel and related social engagements. Even if the candidate is
in great physical shape when he starts, he will have little or no time to
exercise and stay in shape. Do you want to make important decisions, complete
critical reports on time, and attend difficult meetings with a few hours sleep?
If that is the way it is or has to be, then at least negotiate a 6 month
or one year transitional period in which you can gradually become acclimated
on the one hand and gradually absorbing the overtime and traveling schedule
on the other hand. In the process you may discover more civilized ways of
2. Subject: National/Global Business
National and overseas branches, affiliations, partnerships? Where? What languages
involved? Do we have attorneys and translators to handle business? How often
must the CEO carry the flag and visit? Typically for how long? To accomplish
what? To what extent is the company involved in e-business? Future expansion
planned? If so, do we have a CIO?
Aside from time away from main office, determine whether or not the company
is equipped to conduct its present business nation-wide and abroad. Also if
that as well as e-business is in the future or the expansion thereof, the
job you are interviewing for may be like the proverbial iceberg-much more
may be involved than is visible. Again, that may not be enough to be of concern;
in fact, it may appeal to you or have drawn you to the position in then first
place. But what it clearly signals is that you must pay attention to infrastructure,
and you need to ask what and who is already there or being planned for.
3. Subject: Board Members
Who are the board members? Profiles of each? What other boards do they serve
on? All holdovers? Any new slots available or likely? Have they had any specific
assignments so far? What have those been? Is there a special liaison with
the board from the CEO's office? If so, I would like to meet with that person
separately. If not, what is my budget for such a liaison or trusted advisor?
Boards hire and fire. Find out what you are up against and what their record
and MO have been. Negotiate budget to hire a board coach who reports to you
4. Subject: Employee Demographics
Unions? Demographics of employees? Education? Years with company? Competency
ratings? Performance appraisal nd improvement reports? Empowerment practices
and expectations? Expectations of new CEO? Last One? One before that? Disappointments?
CEO's now more than ever have to be leaders of workers, not managers, because
that is where the future of productivity, quality, customer service and creativity
reside. If little or nothing positive has been done, a new CEO will have to
purge, build, and reengineer-not the easiest or the most popular of tasks.
5. Subject: Expectations
What are the various constituencies looking for? Is their any commonality
or is it at cross purposes? What is the degree of change expected? According
to what timetable? How much time in other words do I have to accomplish the
goals of the board? Any room for negotiation here?
Excessive expectations of followers can doom a new leader. The famous 100
days for new presidents invariably has resulted in some ill-conceived directives
and hasty appointments. Nothing insures short tenure as the seduction of a
CEO to the role of the savior or miracle worker.
If CEO's are to exhibit whatever special traits of leadership they may possess,
they first have to survive and stay the course. But we have resisted the use
of the "f" word - failure - to the peril of good leaders who did not ask the
right questions during the initial interview. In the midst of all the welcoming
greetings, smiling faces, and hearty handshakes during the interview process,
prospective leaders may not be fully aware of all those on the sideline consciously
or inadvertently cheering them on to failure.
Irving H. Buchen is a Senior Associate with Comwell, Consultants to Management,
and HR Partners, HR Consultants, and is on the faculty at International College.
Contact Irving H. Buchen by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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