What Do CEOs Look for in Interviews?

In a new book, Adam Bryant talks to more than 70 CEOs about what they want from new hires.


Seventy CEOs walk into a room …

Top executives are often the objects of wry humor and close scrutiny over their compensation and strategic fumbles as well as the financial performance of their companies. In his new book, “The Corner Office“, Adam Bryant takes a different, more personal tack: He focuses on the qualities that have put them into positions of leadership and their perspective on how employees can thrive and advance their own careers at any level.

Bryant uses more than 70 interviews he conducted for his New York Times column of the same title to gauge CEOs’ candid perspectives on the challenges of succeeding, managing and leading in corporate America. In this context, their insights are less a profile of the tiny minority of people who’ll ever hold a CEO title than a guide for career-minded professionals to make their own way through corporate obstacles.

To underscore the point, Bryant pointed to the variety of resumes that lead professionals to the corner office. “So many of the CEOs I’ve interviewed come from surprising backgrounds,” he said. “Why did they end up as CEO? Whatever job they have, they take ownership of it, and they figure out how to do it well, then they get promoted.

“It’s a question of the locus of control: Do you start looking for excuses why it can’t be done, or do you find ways to do it? There’s this cartoonish notions about why people are in those top spots: that they’re master politicians or greedy … That might be true in some cases, but they get promoted in most cases because they do a good job.”

A job search requires a careful balance of candor and diplomacy. What can CEOs teach us about self-presentation at a new company?

“It’s become clear to me they’re master psychologists,” Bryant replied. When it comes to interviewing new talent at their company, “they’ve come up with incredibly clever ways of using misdirection to get people off-script. What does that mean for job seekers? Be yourself, but just turn up the volume in terms of energy and presentation.”

Furthermore, CEOs tend to be people who acknowledge their missteps and expect others to do the same. “It’s OK to have setbacks and failures in your life and career … That’s the stuff CEOs want to hear about. CEOs who’ve come back from situations like that have come to realize there are things they can’t control. CEOs really want to hear stories of failure, setback, adversity. That’s a given. The CEOs want to hear you’re being honest, but they also want to hear how you’ve dealt with it.”

They also respect fearlessness, Bryant said. “You can hear the reverence in CEOs’ voices for people who have it. They really value people who are willing to take risk — as long as they’re doing it in the best interest of the company, not just to make a name for themselves.

“Another insight that I’ve heard repeated often from CEOs is about ‘star players’ vs. ‘team players.’ Many say that when they first started hiring, they were bowled over by talent. But then they realized over time that stars do not make good team players. Hence, they will focus a lot of their interview on work with teams. Work is increasingly being done in this country by cross-disciplinary, ad-hoc teams. That skill is at much more of a premium than, “I’m the star.’ “