Recruiting for executive roles is never an easy business. You need to be as certain as possible not only that the candidate you choose has the right experience and leadership skills, but also that they’re a good culture add for your organisation – that is to say, the candidate brings something new that you don’t have, and might not even know you need – and that they share your general ethos.

The interview stage is, therefore, a vital part of the executive recruitment process – which is why you need to think carefully about how to conduct successful interviews. Some organisations put candidates through multiple interviews before deciding which one has been successful.

But gleaning the right insights isn’t just a matter of having several interviews – more importantly, it’s also about choosing the right interview format. Here are the main types of interviews, their various pros and cons, and what this means for you when hiring executive-level talent.


One-on-one interviews

A one-on-one interview gives candidates the chance to speak with an individual interviewer. The interviewer will pose a series of questions to the candidate about their skills and previous experience, giving the candidate the chance to elaborate on their background.

There are some important advantages to one-on-one interviews. They can be less stressful for candidates than other types of interview and give them a little more freedom to discuss their previous work experience as well as posing questions of their own.

However, one-on-one interviews are more susceptible to individual bias and may not be suitable for recruitment processes where multiple stakeholders need to have input – which usually includes senior roles, where there’s a lot riding on the outcome.

Since the pandemic, remote one-to-one interviews have become the norm, though it’s worth noting that there are signs this is now changing. More employers are reverting to in-person interviews to help them get a better idea of what candidates’ interpersonal skills are like.

In-person interviews may also involve a higher level of engagement from both interviewers and interviewees alike. However, there is a potential downside: namely that in-person interviews may limit the pool of potential candidates.


Panel interviews

With panel interviews, a number of people – including hiring managers, line managers and other relevant stakeholders – conduct an interview with a candidate. This allows each interviewer to address different aspects of the role, allowing for a more broad-based interview process.

Another important advantage of panel interviews is that they allow for greater diversity, reducing the risk of individual biases clouding judgment. They also allow candidates to meet more of the people they would be working with if they succeeded in getting the job.

Panel members should be as diverse as possible, but if your hiring managers aren’t diverse, you should bring your frontline team into the discussion. Bringing colleagues in from different parts of the business can be a very positive aspect of the interview process, demonstrating the inclusive values of the organisation as well as being a great development tool for more junior team members – and some of the senior ones, too.

Employers must also be conscious of the risk of unconscious bias in in-person interviews as opposed to remote interviews, and take steps to ensure that it does not sway their hiring decisions. According to Korn Ferry, one survey revealed that a staggering two-thirds of Black women said they had changed their hairstyle at interview in order to reduce the risk of being turned down for jobs.

Some candidates also fare less well in panel interviews and find it a bit overwhelming to be confronted with multiple interviewers at once. They may also be harder to arrange, as senior leaders within an organisation usually have busy schedules which are often difficult to coordinate.


Competency-based interviews

Competency-based interviews are intended to take a more objective approach to determining a particular candidate’s skill set and its relevance to the role in question. It involves asking candidates questions relating to specific scenarios they’ve dealt with in the past or might encounter in their new job.

One of the key aims of competency-based interviews is to eliminate personal biases as much as possible, so that hiring decisions are instead taken based on purely objective factors. However, there are problems with this approach which can render it too rigid, particularly when hiring for leadership roles.

In particular, competency-based interviews may put too much weight on previous performance – which is not always a reliable guide to future performance. Hiring for potential might be something of a leap in the dark, but it can prove to be well worth the risk; it may be that the best candidate doesn’t yet tick all the boxes, but has the talent to grow into the role and bring a unique energy to it – that is to say, they may be more curious and willing to venture off the beaten track.


Behavioural interviews

Behavioural interviews have some similarities to competency-based interviews, but are intended to be less rigid and more open-ended. This has the advantage of making candidates feel more at ease, while giving interviewers a good opportunity to understand executive-level candidates’ personalities and approaches to leadership.

Another important advantage of behavioural interviews is that they give interviewers deeper insights into whether a particular candidate would be a good culture fit for their organisation. When interviewing for senior roles, it is particularly important to ascertain whether a candidate shares an organisation’s ethos and values.

However, behavioural interviews can take longer to complete because of their flexible and open-ended nature, which can impact interviewers’ schedules. They may also require interviewers to spend more time preparing questions ahead of the interview – though executive-level interviews are likely to require a higher level of preparation anyway because of the stakes involved.


Give candidates the space to tell their story

The most important point to remember when hiring for executive-level positions is that candidates must be given the freedom to tell their story. It’s crucial to avoid taking an overly rigid, structured approach to interviews so that you can really get to know candidates and what makes them tick.

A pre-scripted approach to interview questions is also likely to prove too inflexible when interviewing candidates for senior roles. Where possible, you should allow questions to flow largely from the conversation rather than trying to conduct the interview along predetermined lines.

One important point to remember is that the CV only gives you the black-and-white version of who a candidate is and what they can do. The interview stage, meanwhile, provides candidates with the opportunity to tell their full story – from the beginning – in glorious technicolour.

So, the interviewer needs to be willing and able to listen – to pick up on the right clues – and ask relevant questions based on the information the candidate has shared. This is a much more effective approach than a bare-bones, competency-based style of interview, as it provides much deeper insights into the personality, motivations and values of a candidate as well as their knowledge and experience. Conversations like these can be some of the most fascinating you’re likely to encounter.

Candidates for executive jobs need to be allowed the space to explain their approach to leadership and how it fits in with the requirements of the role they’re being interviewed for. As an interviewer, the crucial point you need to remember is to allow them to be themselves and to be authentic – because that’s how you’ll glean the deepest and most relevant insights about each candidate.

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