Best Questions To Ask a CEO in an Interview

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Hiring a CEO to join your company can have a far-reaching impact on the business’s success. The right person not only should have the ideas and experience to increase your bottom line but must also be a cultural fit who can work effectively with the leadership team.

In this article, we cover the questions that test the core capabilities a CEO is typically expected to possess: revenue strategy, stakeholder communication, product innovation, crisis management, and market knowledge. 

It’s important to include a mix of competency and scenario-based questions, and assess answers according to your industry, growth stage, and top business needs. For example, a large enterprise facing increasing threats from more agile startups may require a CEO experienced in changing market positioning while maintaining financial stability.

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What’s the first change you’d make in this company and why?

A CEO should be comfortable with change whilst maintaining the integrity of the business’s cash flow and industry position. What this question tests is how well they understand the company, approach market opportunities, and prioritize tasks. Thus, interviewers should look out for answers discussing elements such as untapped customer needs, value chain improvements, and operational efficiency.

Furthermore, if the candidate makes suggestions that aren’t at the top of management’s agenda, consider whether this could rejuvenate your business – take Steve Jobs’ second tenure at Apple, for example, which was the result of needing to introduce unconventional thinking into a stagnating business, just as CustomWritings writing service embraces innovative ideas and unconventional approaches to stay ahead in the dynamic market landscape.

The company’s supply chain has been disrupted – what would you do during the first week?

Questions around crisis scenarios, which could also include losing a major client or ceasing operations in a geographical region, can assess candidates’ on-the-spot thinking. The disruption of a supply chain, in this case, is a critical business issue requiring decisive action on alternative supply options, corporate communications strategy, labor surpluses, and cost reduction.

Depending on the type of business you’re in, you could expand this question into a case study. For example, a financial services company could ask for estimates on potential losses and comparative analyses for the suggested solutions.

What do you think is our customer’s biggest problem and how would you tackle it?

Testing the potential CEO’s understanding of customer needs can ensure revenue flows will increase from current and future product lines. This is an opportunity to integrate analytical and creative thinking, with answers touching on end-to-end customer journeys, product-market fit, and digital solutions.

For instance, a candidate interviewing for a supermarket chain may describe the customer’s need for product availability and fast service, in the context of competitive pressure from online shopping and delivery services. Listen out for solutions involving collaboration, quality control, and the big-picture vision guiding the argument.

You are at odds with the board over the company’s 5-year strategy – how would you get its members on your side?

Conflicts of opinion are common, and the people making top-level decisions must possess the skills to reach compromises effectively. Specifically, this question checks the candidate’s persuasion capability, which may be especially useful if the business needs a bold change of direction.

A comprehensive answer would suggest a hypothetical scenario – say, a product line expansion – and a specific point of disagreement. The candidate’s persuasion methods can then be put into context, which may include the use of research, financial projections, negotiation tactics, non-verbal communication, and one-to-one relationship building.

Best Questions To Ask a CEO in an Interview

If you were to incubate a startup in this company, what would it be and why?

This question tests the candidate’s creativity and out-of-the-box thinking by asking them to come up with a new product, business model, or target customer which complements the company’s existing focus. 

Look out for the strategic approach in their answer – for example, a solution that fills a market gap without cannibalizing the holding company’s revenue. A focus on complementary customer profiles and pricing levels is a must, as seen in large telecom companies’ sub-brands, including Vodafone’s Voxi business in the UK. Equally, the boldness and ambition of the proposed idea should be taken into account.

What was the most difficult decision you’ve made in your career so far?

The CEO role involves making decisions on a daily basis, from hiring strategy to market pivots. If the candidate has prepared thoroughly, they might describe a decision that’s relevant to your company’s circumstances – such as responding to fast-growing market entrants that are squeezing prices and acquiring incumbents’ customers.

As with most competency-based questions, this answer should follow a clear STAR structure: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Furthermore, it should specify the frameworks and skills that the candidate used to make the decision.

How do you get the best out of different personality types?

Whilst companies tend to hire according to a list of values and traits, it’s inevitable that a CEO will work with people of various personality types. So this answer can showcase leadership capabilities that the candidate can use to increase productivity and reduce staff turnover.

For example, an effective answer could show awareness of the Myers-Briggs or other personality models, and how the candidate thinks each type is best motivated, challenged, and compensated. They can also substantiate their claims by referring to past projects where they engaged with different personality types – such as debaters, mediators, and entrepreneurs.

What trends do you see in the industry – 1 year, 5 years, and 20 years from now?

In-depth industry knowledge isn’t always a requirement for CEO roles, since transferable skills, such as customer orientation, have more of an impact on the bottom line. Famously, the IBM CEO opening in 1993 didn’t go to obvious industry choices, such as Ben Rosen from Compaq, but was filled and successfully executed by former American Express executive Lou Gerstner.

That said, a well-prepared candidate understands the macro-level market trends that affect the business. For example, the candidate may structure this answer using analysis frameworks such as PEST (Political, Economic, Social, Technological factors) or Porter’s Five Forces (bargaining power of suppliers and buyers, and threat of substitution and new entry, causing competitive rivalry), as well as more specialized frameworks developed during their tenure.

Best Questions To Ask a CEO: Conclusion

Understanding what the company needs from an incoming CEO and adapting the questions to business circumstances is a crucial first step. However, in many cases, the commander-in-chief is required to demonstrate a combination of abilities across growth strategy, market understanding, people skills, and crisis management.

When faced with specific business scenarios, your ideal candidate will strike a balance between creative problem-solving and hard knowledge, such as management theory. Additionally, competency-based questions testing leadership and persuasion skills can help assess whether they are the right fit for your team.

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