Overcoming Pitfalls in the Senior-Level Interview

Prepare your sell for two audiences: the mid-level staffers and senior management.

The senior-level interview is an animal of its own. The old go-to answers don’t apply, and you’re selling not just your ability but your vision. The first few rounds are critical as you establish your seat at the executive round table with peers who are often looking for holes to poke in your candidacy – not to mention mid-level interviewers who can make or break your campaign. Read further for how to win over both constituencies.

Too many high-end executives don’t want to appear “hungry,” said Neil McNulty, the principal recruiter at the McNulty Management Group, a military placement and career management group out of Norfolk, Va. As McNulty sees it, the big mistake high-level candidates make is that they want to appear “presidential,” as he calls it. That means they don’t want to lower themselves to ask about needs. This takes us to the core of the problem: high-level candidates often seem to have a hard time selling themselves.

The advice from Dave Knutson, a senior retained search recruiter and owner of the Knutson Group in Phoenix, is to get over this, and ask for the job. Something many executives are ingrained to feel like they shouldn’t do. Yet in the words of McNulty, “You gotta sell during the interview or you won’t get hired.” Common sense, right? Unfortunately the candidate pools are still full of executives that overlook the easy things due to apprehension, or even desperation. Here are the two things to remember at your next interview:

1. Win over mid-level staffers by knowing their company. As a candidate, you need to pass muster with more than one interviewer at the staff and technology levels. According to Knutson, most senior-level candidates make the mistake of “brushing off” the individual and group interviews with the mid-level employees.

They apparently feel these interviews are less important than the “real” meeting with the CEO and upper management team. This is a big mistake, he says, as the mid-level players will have more input on the final choice than candidates often think. Knutson advises all senior-level candidates to get themselves up to speed on the company, its stats and other details, especially for the mid-level meeting with the managers and directors. It’s the responsibility of the mid-level staff to know the company inside and out; it’s also something they’re personally invested in. You will be expected to demonstrate your knowledge of the company – their company as they often see it – to get a good review.

2. Lose the reserved, presidential act.

An even bigger problem is the “Presidential Pitfall,” based on years of observation from Neil McNulty. He noted that too often, senior candidates walk into an interview cautious and reserved and try to “act presidential.” As a result, they are not paying attention to what the person, who would be their boss, is looking for.

McNulty has seen dozens of senior-level candidates make this same major mistake. While they may be highly accomplished, they walk into an interview expecting the company to recruit them rather than feeling that they need to sell themselves to the employer.

According to McNulty, many of his senior-level interviewees have done a poor job of determining what the employer needs. They have failed to demonstrate how experience from their own past can address those needs. If you don’t hit those hot buttons, you won’t get hired.

Expect more input from the mid-level management team on the senior-level interviews. More importantly, get off your high horse and lose the “presidential act.” You’ll need to compete on a higher level. This means asking more about what their needs are and then selling yourself to those needs. To win this year, you’ll need to get “hungry” and to get your hands dirty.