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What Do CEOs Look for in Interviews?

By M. Rothenberg; The Ladders; 5/16/2011

Seventy CEOs walk into a room…

Top executives are typically the objects of wry humor and close scrutiny over their reimbursement and strategic fumbles as well as the economic efficiency of their companies. In his new book, "The Corner Office", Adam Bryant takes a diverse, more personal approach: He focuses on the qualities that have put them into roles of authority and their viewpoint on how personnel can thrive and enhance their own opportunities at any level.

Bryant uses more than 70 interviews he conducted for his New York Times column of the same name to evaluate CEOs' candid perspectives on the challenges of being successful, managing and leading in corporate America. In this framework, their insights are less a profile of the small minority of individuals who'll ever hold a CEO title than a guide for career-oriented 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 unusual backgrounds," he said. "Why did they wind up as CEO? No matter what job they have, they take possession of it, and they figure out how to do it effectively, then they get promoted.

"It's a question of the locus of control: Do you begin searching for excuses why it can't be carried out, 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 money grubbing … That might be correct in a few cases, but they get promoted in most instances because they do a great job."

A job search necessitates a cautious 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 ingenious ways of using misdirection to get folks off-script. What does that signify for job seekers? Be yourself, but just turn up the volume in terms of energy and presentation."

Furthermore, CEOs tend to be individuals who acknowledge their missteps and expect others to do the same. "It's OK to have problems and failures in your life and profession … That's the stuff CEOs want to hear about. CEOs who've come back from situations like that have come to understand there are things they can't control. CEOs really want to hear stories of failure, setback, hardship. That's a given. The CEOs want to hear you're being sincere, but they likewise want to hear how you've dealt with it."

They also respect fearlessness, Bryant explained. "You can perceive the reverence in CEOs' voices for individuals who have it. They really value people who are ready to take risk — as long as they're doing it in the best interest of the firm, not just to make a name for themselves.

"Yet another insight that I've heard repeated often from CEOs is about 'star players' vs. 'team players.' Many say that when they first began hiring, they were bowled over by expertise. But then they came to the realization over time that stars do not make good team players. Hence, they will focus a lot of their interview on work with groups. Work is progressively being done in this nation by cross-disciplinary, ad-hoc teams. That skill is at much more of a premium than, "I'm the superstar.'".