Create (Positive) Tension in Your Executive Interviews

I was interviewing with a tech startup a few years ago for a CMO position. I met the company’s head of Products at a coffee shop in San Francisco. We already had a few conversations and were fairly comfortable with each other. We were smiling and sharing stories in a very warm, conversational interview.

Until he asked me one question.

“As a new head of marketing, what would you tell the sales rep who says, ‘I’ve been on 5 sales calls this week and I’m frustrated because nobody knows who our company is’?”

What he was probably expecting was a safe, politically correct, positive answer – something like “I’ll do whatever I can to raise awareness for the company” or perhaps a more specific and prescriptive “I’d focus on developing showcase customers and identifying larger trends that we can attach to for a tailwind in PR.” I gave no such “safe” answer. Instead, I created tension in the interview, and I believe that’s why I got the job.

Interviewing for Executive Roles is Different

The nature of an executive interview is fundamentally different. Don’t get me wrong – many if not all of the good interview strategies and tactics still apply. And for executives, the bar is higher. Any new executive will need to drive new strategies and change. They are expected to be the preeminent expert in the business function they lead. Therefore, simply focusing on your skill sets, competence and experience (e.g. how you handled your interviews for staff and managerial roles) will not demonstrate your gravitas and leadership as an executive.

So how do you expand your interview dynamic to go well beyond discussing standard approaches to typical situations?

Get Comfortable with Creating Tension in Your Interview

Most people work hard to be on their “best behavior” on interviews i.e. they want to make a good impression. Therefore, being pleasant, respectful and even avoiding disagreements and conflict would make a lot of sense. So how would seeking out and creating tension during an interview improve your candidacy?

  1. Tension distances you from being a tactical executor to a business savvy, strategic thinker with an informed point of view.
  2. Tension enables you to pivot conversations from right/ wrong answers to exploring different scenarios and outcomes. Topics become much meatier.
  3. Tension helps you to evaluate mutual fit. Once you find a point of disagreement you can readily see how collaborative (or confrontational) your boss/ peer is e.g. does he view you as a partner and open to new ideas or does he insist on being the smartest person in the room and doing things his way? In short, are you impressed and do you think he or she is a winner i.e. someone would you want to work with/for?

A Contrarian Answer that Created Positive Tension

Back to my interview with this startup’s head of Products asking me what I’d say to the frustrated rep who wanted more marketing air-cover.

My answer: “I’d tell the head of Sales that we were hiring the wrong profile in Sales based on the company’s stage. And I’d tell that rep that they were the most important person in fixing their dilemma.” At first, my interviewer pulled back and looked concerned. As I explained my answer, his head began to nod.

I clarified my view that startup sales are often evangelistic and educational sales cycles. In particular, early-stage companies require a lot more effort by sales reps to generate interest from prospects. Unlike rivals at bigger companies, they don’t just have to prove that they can solve the customer’s problem. They have to prove that they can solve it much better, and they have to prove that their startup company is worth doing business with. If a rep joins from Oracle or SAP, they’re used to walking into any executive conversation with immediate familiarity. A startup isn’t in that position and therefore generally shouldn’t hire reps that depend on it.

And as far as the hypothetical sales rep, I also explained that I’d tell the Sales rep that customer references are rocket-fuel for Marketing, and that it all starts with the rep i.e. to win that customer’s business and convince them to share their success publicly.

When I finished, my interviewer’s face had changed – he was smiling and nodding, looking thoughtful, and it felt to me like he had just learned something new. By giving him an answer he didn’t expect, I showed experience, the ability to collaboratively discuss an alternative point of view, and an understanding of how early-stage companies generate those critical “lighthouse” customers in the early days. And I knew from his tone in the interaction that if I joined that team, while I might not always agree with this executive, we could disagree very collaboratively and effectively, which is critical for long-term success in the role.

What examples of positive tension do you have to share? Please provide your comments below.

Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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