Three Key Issues To Address When Interviewing For An Executive Role

How important are professional designations at the executive or Board level? For example, I have my CPA but haven’t done any official accounting in years. – Portfolio Analyst

Young female professional interviews with a search committee

There isn’t any one qualification, like a professional designation, that is required for all senior roles. Likewise, there is no single qualification you can acquire that guarantees you will always get considered. Some position descriptions for senior roles specify a professional designation in the list of qualifications, but not always.

Even when a professional designation is specified, it doesn’t mean it is required or even emphasized in the decision-making. For senior roles, like a C-level role or Board seat, there are multiple decision-makers, and it could be that just one person pressed to include a professional designation requirement in the position description, but the others simply don’t care and won’t factor it when making their picks.


Senior roles are customized to a specific company, industry and market. Even the same company recruiting a CEO at different points of time will have different requirements for each CEO. Invariably, the company, its industry and the market will have changed in-between CEO searches, making one position description outdated and irrelevant to the next.

If you fixate on a laundry list of qualifications to pursue, this may deter you from applying when you might already be a worthy candidate. Or, you might embark on a whack-a-mole strategy of amassing unnecessary, costly and time-consuming yardsticks that don’t actually matter. Instead, create a bespoke strategy for every senior role or Board position that you want to pursue. Customize your application and interview preparation to address three key questions:

1 — Why you?

What about your experience, expertise and skills is relevant to an executive or Board role? If Portfolio Analyst is aiming for a CFO role, she might highlight her experience managing people, her financial expertise and areas of specialization and specific skills, such as enterprise-wide systems she has worked with. Maybe you have deep industry knowledge that gives you insight into capital raising strategies or tax planning specific to that market. Or, you have built models, risk management processes and accounting systems from the ground up, positioning you as a good choice for a growing company.

There are multiple paths to leadership. Your background may be similar to another candidate – both top schools, both CPAs, both Big Four audit experience – but your results will never be exactly the same. Furthermore, the insights you gleaned over your career will be based on your approach to work, creativity and intellect. Any one designation is a superficial signal – you’ll need to dig deeper at what your unique value is.

2 — Why here?

How does your unique value fit what the company does, needs and values? If the company is in the midst of an ambitious international expansion and you have worked in three continents, speak three languages and have years of experience managing remote, cross-cultural teams, you will have a distinct advantage – especially if the other candidate has none of these things. But if the company has no global ambitions, the international part of your background may still be impressive but not as relevant and therefore not as much of an advantage over the other candidate.

I once did a search for a Chief Marketing Officer for an investment firm. The final two candidates both had diverse marketing experience and solid track records. While both had managed substantial teams, one candidate had multiple examples of developing junior people into impressive senior marketers over time. My client had a small, scrappy marketing team and prided themselves on developing their staff. They wanted their CMO to be a mentor and coach, so one candidate shone brighter than the other, even though they were otherwise very close in qualifications.

The mentor/ coach factor wasn’t expressed in the position description, but you could infer it if you knew the company and certainly if you had been paying attention to what you heard from the interviewers throughout the hiring process. Do your research on the company that you’re targeting. Pay attention during each and every meeting, and incorporate what you’re learning. Then customize what you highlight about yourself and the stories you share to match what the company prioritizes.

3 — Why now?

Timing changes what your job search strategy should be for two reasons. First of all, on the hiring side, the same company could hire the same C-level role or fill a Board seat at two different times and need two very different candidate profiles. Market conditions, the company’s current state and the other people on the leadership team or Board all impact what the ideal profile should be. Therefore, you need to consider how the current circumstances affect your positioning. For example, if we’re in a down market, highlight your down market or turnaround experience.

On the job seeker side, your timing includes why you want the C-level role (or Board seat) right now. Why are you looking to leave your current employer (or add Board responsibilities)? The search committee will want to hear a genuine and compelling motivation for wanting the role.

Any single qualification, such as a professional designation, is never enough

Sure, a professional designation might help, but it’s not enough and its absence is not a deal-breaker. Instead, offer a complete package to the search committee that demonstrates the key trifecta of issues: 1) you are the right candidate; 2) for this specific company; 3) at this current time.

Get answers to common career questions on my YouTube channel. I am the founder of the Dream Career Club and a recruiter, career coach and media personality on the job


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