The Job Interview: When the CFO Wants to Become the CEO

So you’re getting ready for that all-important interview for the CEO position.  

You’re not really nervous. You’re not a newbie at this; you’ve gone through scores of interviews yourself in becoming CFO. And you’ve done your share of interviewing candidates for your own team.  

“Establish a coherent thread, a story, throughout your interview and have your answers connect in a way that make sense to the interviewer and that he or she will remember”

If you’re working with an executive recruiter like Singapore-based Brian Moore, you would have been reminded of the pre-interview checklist:

  • Do extensive research on the company. Check.
  • Be on time. Of course
  • Turn your phone right off, don’t even set it on vibrate. Oh, OK.
  • Think about what you have done that has taken you to where you are today and why you have done it. Yes.
  • Think about what you want to ask them when it’s your turn to ask questions. You betcha.

And now you’re face-to-face with the executive search committee. One of them has just asked you: “Walk us through your career.”

Be a storyteller

You can crib from your CV and recite your achievements in chronological order. Or you can talk about your successes and failures, what you have learned from them, and how you think these lessons can be applied to the position you are interviewing for.

Whatever you do, it’s a good idea to “tell a narrative,” advises James Citrin, Leader, CEO Practice, at executive search firm Spencer Stuart and author of The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers.

Writing in his LinkeIn Influencer blog, Citrin explained: “Establish a coherent thread, a story, throughout your interview and have your answers connect in a way that make sense to the interviewer and that he or she will remember.”

He gave as example the story of a global general manager who was preparing to meet the CEO of a major consumer company to interview for the president position.  What should she say when she is invited to talk about her career?

Citrin and the candidate came up with the following approach. She would answer: “Absolutely, however, before I do that can I share what I believe is most important to you and your company?”

This is not an inappropriate request for a candidate to make, reckons Citrin. “In doing this, she could demonstrate her insights about the company and that she had indeed done her homework. She would also project strength and the confidence to take charge without being aggressive.”

The most important gain, though, is that she would be able to gauge, from the CEO’s responses, exactly what parts of her experience and expertise she should focus on in her narrative.

So the candidate planned to say: "In doing my research, talking to current and former employees, reading the press and analyst reports, it seems to me that the three most important values and priorities for your company are a passion for the brand, innovation in product development, and a culture of direct communication based on intellectual honesty."

Pause. The CEO may nod his head in agreement with the candidate’s summation. Or he may add one or two other elements. The candidate can then proceed to pull out the portions of her résumé that are relevant to the values and priorities that the CEO had affirmed or added to the list. 

“With the three or four pillars now known about what is most important in the company and to the CEO, she will now be able tell her story weaving in specific anecdotes that connect to each,” says Citrin.

The key is to recognize what interviewers are looking for. You can get some ideas through in-depth research beforehand and pick up more clues during the conversation itself, if you listen carefully.

Assuming you've done your homework, it’s fine to challenge the company’s strategy – as long as you're not insulting or personal about it

A CFO interviewing for a chief executive post might be tempted to talk about financial re-engineering, risk management, good governance and business partnering. That’s fine if those are the priorities for the CEO post.

But if what the search committee is looking for is more about brand-building, product innovation and emerging market expansion, as examples, you should tailor your narrative around these areas and demonstrate how your experience and acumen as CFO brought a more value-added dimension to these tasks.

Turning the tables

As a CFO interviewing candidates for your team, you may or may have turned the tables and asked: “Do you have any questions for me?”

When you are being interviewed for the CEO position, it is more than likely that you will be invited to ask questions yourself.

“Don't be fooled,” says Citrin. “This is not the moment to relax or think that the interviewer is just being polite. In fact it is often the most important part of the interview.”

The worst response you can make, he warns, is to say: “No, thanks, I think I have everything I need.” That may signal to the interviewer that you are not curious about the organization or you’re not hungry or interested enough in the job.

Citrin gives some examples of subject areas to focus on and the questions to ask:

About the company’s culture: "How would you describe the kinds of people that thrive in the company and those that don't fit in? What does that say about the culture?"

You can be more specific. “As I reflect on my two previous organizations, one culture was all about collaboration, teamwork, never using the word 'I'. The other was much more a star system, where it was all about standing out as an individual performer.”

“How does this organization operate on that dimension?"

About the position: You can ask: “What would success look like in this position?”

“If I were to be offered the job and a year from now we were reviewing how it's going, what would I have accomplished for you to tell me, 'What an amazing year you've had!’?

About the company: In the most recent earnings call, the CFO said that the company is now projecting flat revenue for the year. Given that the market is growing double digits, shouldn’t I be concerned about the strategy not working?"

Or "Would it be an accurate interpretation to say that your two most recent acquisitions were made to attract talent? If that is the case, why do you think it's been so difficult to attract the talent you need?"

Assuming you've done your homework, says Citrin, it’s fine to challenge the company’s strategy – as long as you're not insulting or personal about it. 

What not to ask

At the interview, don’t ask about money, counsels Moore, who has written Career Management Toolkit, a distillation of his more than 20 years’ experience as executive headhunter in Asia and Australia. There will be time enough to talk compensation if the interview goes well.

His other job interview tips include:

Avoid making negative comments about your current or previous employers. This is true as well for bosses, peers or subordinates.

You may be directly asked about them (“What was the worst thing about _____?”). Answer truthfully, but don’t go overboard.

Avoid even the slightest discriminatory remarks. You may have said it in jest, but it may cost you the job.

Don’t tell the interviewer you’re not interested in the opportunity. Even if that is how you feel as the interview proceeds, allow yourself time to make that determination. Twenty four hours of reflection can result in a more accurate and rational decision.

In other words, don’t do what you would not want to see in a candidate when you are doing the job interview yourself. 

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