As a rule of a thumb, interviews for executive roles cannot be compared to any other job interviews. You will still talk to people (typically a small panel, board members, etc), and they will ask you questions. But both their questions and their expectations are vastly different. Executive director is responsible for leadership, establishing business goals, and designing ways of reaching them. It isn’t someone you will inquire about their strengths and weaknesses, or ask them any other typical interview questions. What will happen then?
The core of the interview will consist in two things. First one is your working experience. Describing the projects, teams, and organizations you led in the past, you try to demonstrate your ability to lead their organization towards a better future. They will inquire about details, such as challenges you faced, and you should explain not only what you did, but also what you achieved.
Second area you’ll discuss in this interview is the future of their organization. They will either present you their vision of the future, and wonder whether you can attain it, and how, or they will ask you about your vision for their organization, and what you hope to change and achieve as their new executive director. These two areas form the core of every ED interview, but they may also add a few behavioral questions to the mix, wondering how you respond to various challenges you may face as an executive director. Let’s have a look at some of the questions now, one by one.
Please introduce yourself to the board.
Do not rely on the fact that everyone in the interviewing panel have read your resume. Some people may actually know nothing about you at this point. Aim for short yet powerful introduction. You can name the principal managerial and leadership roles you’ve had in the last ten years, name of organizations, number of people you managed, and of course a few key achievements from your resume.
No need to elaborate on your experience at this point, because you will discuss your roles in-detail with them later in the interviews. But you should add something from your personal life as well, whether you have a family, one or two hobbies you enjoy to do in your leisure time, etc. Job interview is a serious meeting, but they also want to know you as a person, so it is good to start this meeting in an authentic and friendly way.
Please walk us through your managerial and executive roles, one by one
This is the deal breaker, maybe the most important question in the entire interview. Expect a lot of follow-up questions, different members of the interviewing panel may ask you about utmost details of this or that project or role. It isn’t rare for this discussion to take an hour or even longer, especially if you had many roles in the past, and if the people in the interviewing panel did their homework, or know the field well.
The key is to focus on two things: challenges, and achievements. Not your personal achievements though, but things you achieved for your employers. You can also do the following: For each role you had, describe the starting point. That means where the company, team, or project stood when you came on board, in terms of people, resources, results. Then describe what you did to help improve the results, and how things looked liked when you left the company or the role.
Of course, many events take place in between, and you should focus on the most important ones–big challenges you faced, important milestones and goals you achieved, etc. As I’ve already said, they may ask you many follow-up questions. so stay patient and answer each such question. It is actually a good sign when they keep asking…
What is your vision for our organization? What you’d like to achieve here as our new executive director?
Fast forward from the past to the future. And you have to prepare for this question in advance. Again, your answer can take ten minutes or even an hour, and you should not hesitate to prepare a presentation (PowerPoint), or at least a printed list of principal goals you want to achieve. Hand one example to each person in the interviewing panel, and start talking about your vision.
Needless to say, this is a tricky question, because different people in the interviewing panel may have their own ideas on the future of the organization, and it isn’t always easy to know such ideas upfront. It may happen that your vision does not align with their vision, which can be a problem, but it can also lead to an interesting discussion… In any case, as long as their are talking and discussing stuff with you, you have a good chance to walk away with the coveted employment contract.
* May also interest you: Interview with a CEO – What to expect?
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges we face as an organization right now?
Mark my words: companies and non-profit organizations aren’t hiring new executive directors when things go as planned. On the contrary, organizations look for new leaders in challenging times. Now it doesn’t mean that they necessary have to struggle financially, or with people, or in any other way. Maybe they are just growing too quickly, or achieving overwhelming success, and it is something the existing team/director cannot handle. Hence they need a new leader onboard.
Anyway, once again you have to do your homework. Learn as much as you can about their organization. Check financial statement available in online databases, check LinkedIn, social networks. Think about the industry as a whole, and also about the challenges we face globally–the pandemic, climate change, etc, and how it all relates to their organization.
One more thing: Once you identify the challenges, you should have your idea on how to address each one. Now it doesn’t mean that you have to come up with an in-detail plan (if you do come up with such a plan is is great, but you may lack confidential internal data to do so). But you should have some ideas ready, some points for discussion at least…
If we hire you, what goals will you set for yourself for the first three months in the job?
You will get this question especially if you get onboard in the midst of some crisis, which is often the case, because as I’ve already said, organizations do not hire new executive directors when things go according to the plan (unless the existing ED retires, dies, or something similar happens).
If this is the case, think about one or two critical issues you have to address first, to help them overcome the crisis. It can be related to hiring/firing people, overseeing a throughout audit of the entire organization, pacifying a PR crisis, or anything else. The key is to clearly explain why you want to do what you want to do, and to actually come up with some goals, because they expect leadership from you.
If you happen to apply for an executive director job in an organization that is doing well, you can dedicate the first three months to fully understanding the organization, meeting each important employee in person, understanding the challenges and setting up goals…
Behavioral questions you may face while interviewing for a job of an executive director
- Describe a situation when you reached an important goal, and tell us how you achieved it.
- Describe a time when you struggled to communicate something to your boss, colleague, or to a customer. How did you manage to get your message over?
- Tell us about the biggest obstacle you overcame in your professional career.
- Tell us about a time when you demonstrated leadership.
- What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
- Describe a time when you struggled to build a relationship with someone important. How did you eventually overcome that?
- Describe a time when you faced an ethical dilemma.
- Describe the situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone.
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision without all the information you needed.
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Executive director is probably the best job you can get, in terms of both salary and professional recognition. However, power always comes with responsibility, and you will have to sacrifice something for your job…
It isn’t always easy to predict what will happen in your interview, because this isn’t a typical job. One thing is certain though: you will talk about your working experience in other leadership and managerial roles, and you will have to present a meaningful vision of the future of their organization. You may also face some tricky behavioral questions, just as I described on the lines above. Though unique in its own way, interview for ED position has something in common with all other job interviews: luck favors the prepared mind. The more time you spend preparing for this tricky interview, the better your chances to succeed will be. I wish you good luck!
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