Five Interview Questions Prospective CEO's
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 managing.

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 only.

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? Distrusts?

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: .

Many more articles in Corporate Boards and Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Irving H. Buchen. All rights reserved.

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