In management consulting, one of the main tasks of a young consultant is to gather the main perspectives on a specific topic from a whole series of discussions with management and first or second management level, to synthesize them (i.e. to bring together the perspectives of the various interviewees) and then reflected back in the context of further discussions (“Did we really understand that?”). The skills required for conducting such interviews are not that different from those required for a management interview from an investor’s perspective, as I have learned.
For this reason, I have tried to briefly summarize the essential tips and pitfalls on the subject of management interviews here.
A small note: As the intro already suggests, the strategies presented can of course also be used for interviews with (ex-)employees, suppliers, customers, etc. (which in my opinion is in many cases even more effective than with an external investor communication trained or experienced CEO as part of a 1-on-1 at an investor conference).
Preparation and intro: How others see us as interviewees
An essential first step in the run-up to a management interview is the right preparation. On the one hand, we should of course know exactly who and which company we are talking to. However, we should not underestimate the influence that how we are seen or assessed by the other person as an interview partner can have on the result of our interview.
It is particularly important that our counterparts perceive us as “trustworthy”. To do this, we essentially need to achieve two things:
- “Connecting”, i.e. building a (harmonious) relationship with our counterpart
- Establish ourselves as discussion partners on an equal footing, ie demonstrate our skills and knowledge
To achieve this, we can use a few proven strategies:
1: Establish a harmonious relationship (“Establish Rapport”)
First of all, we should thank our interlocutor for taking the time to talk to us. We can then – perhaps after a short small talk – first talk about a few general problems in the industry and ask how the company has dealt with the challenges… essentially to get our conversation partner talking.
It is important that we start with open questions, i.e. questions that cannot be answered directly and concisely with a simple “yes” or “no”.
So again in short:
- Thank you for the time
- Emphasize that times are tough – adjust to industry/sector if necessary
- Start with general open questions to get the interviewee talking (e.g.: “How did the staff cope with the changes of the last few months? How did the employees react?”)
2: Establish ourselves as credible interlocutors
In the second step, we should try to establish ourselves as a conversational partners on an equal footing (in modern German, “peer”). For this, we should
- let it be known that we are also in regular contact with other market participants (“social knowledge” and contacts are very important)
- Ask questions that let it be known that we know what is important to the other person
- let the interviewee know that we may have received some helpful information from other conversations – we can then share this information during the discussion (“relationship” building)
Of course, all of this only works if we have prepared ourselves well for the interview and have dealt with the company and the industry in sufficient depth.
For this reason, we should in advance of the interview
- read everything we can get our hands on about current company and market developments
- talk to customers, suppliers and maybe also (former) employees or use Glassdoor / Kununu as a benchmark
- develop a few key questions (depending on the length of the interview, a maximum of 10) against the background of an initial idea for our investment thesis
In addition, we should approach the interview with as little bias as possible, because the best questions and discussions tend to arise from the conversation…or in other words, we shouldn’t try to check off question after question on our list, but rather the conversation let something flow instead.
Tips and tricks for a successful management interview
A key success factor for a successful CEO interview is the way we ask questions and queries. The key to success is to listen actively and let our questions arise from the context of the conversation, so to speak. There are the following strategies for this:
3: “Paraphrase” and ask comprehension questions
In order to make sure that we have understood everything correctly, we should now and then repeat what was said in our own words (“paraphrase”) and then ask further comprehension questions. Summarizing in your own words and asking for clarification is generally the best way to signal to the other person that we are listening carefully.
If something is unclear, we simply ask (“It sounds as if…?”) or otherwise ask the question again (“Why is that?”). Our counterpart can actually not answer such questions… questions of understanding are therefore good “follow-up questions”.
4: Go Deeper
These are comments or questions such as “That’s interesting. Can you tell me a bit more about that?” or simply “And what does that mean exactly?”
In this way, we do not put words or answers in the mouth of our conversation partner, but let them decide on the further direction of the conversation.
Again, it will be rather difficult for the manager not to give us an answer.
5: Confirm or reinforce what has been said
In order to build a good and long-term relationship with management, we should try to understand the challenges, the drive, and the feelings of our counterpart… or also convey that we can empathize with the topics and problems.
We should therefore confirm what has been said from time to time or even reinforce it a little and ideally link it directly to an in-depth question (“That sounds challenging… how do you deal with xyz?”).
6: Emphasize the knowledge advantage of our counterpart
If we don’t understand an abbreviation or similar, we should ask. In conversation, this is more of a chance to make our interviewees feel like they know more about a topic than we do. Most of the time, it doesn’t do any harm.
7: Timing: Going from general to specific
In the course of the conversation, we should try to validate the answers given to us and evaluate the honesty or sincerity of our interlocutor.
We do this most skilfully by questioning the assumptions on which the answers are based more closely and asking our counterpart, for example, about his or her confidence level… ie ideally for a percentage or a range, on the basis of which we can then go on to find a specific one justification can be drilled down.
8: Get feedback
At the end of the interview, we should give our interlocutor feedback or obtain feedback from him/her. This applies in particular in cases in which we have a strong interest in establishing a long-term business relationship.
For example, we could summarize which aspects of the conversation we found particularly helpful and what particularly helped us to understand the company.
On the other hand, we can and should also ask for specific feedback on the interview itself (What worked well? What could we do differently/better?).
Avoid typical mistakes in management interviews
We just looked at how we create the right mood in the conversation, steer the conversation in the right direction, ask the right questions, etc.
Unfortunately, a relaxed conversation in which our counterpart answers all our questions to our complete satisfaction is not always possible for various reasons (especially not when we actually get to the bottom of the conversation and want to get something more out of it than that, which is written everywhere anyway).
Often we are dealing with communication experts who know their story from the FF and know exactly in which direction they have to steer a conversation in order to have to reveal as little as possible (here based on the premise that there is actually something to hide are).
In situations like this, things can get a little uncomfortable. The most important thing then is that we always remain professional and never lose sight of our goal… namely to find out whether the company in question could be a good investment.
9: “The tone makes the music.” – Don’t get personal
The most important point right at the beginning: We should under no circumstances allow a management interview to become personal.
In terms of content, we shouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable questions, but we shouldn’t transfer this intransigence to the person (“tough on the matter, soft on the people”).
We should always (!) respond to arrogance or aggressiveness on the part of our counterparts with friendliness (“Don’t make it personal!”).
If it gets too personal, our interviewee will probably shut himself off very quickly and no longer reveal any really relevant information… and we are also perceived as unprofessional conversational partners (this also applies if we actually only reacted to our conversational partner).
10: Avoid or try to avoid PR responses
I have just indicated that our interlocutors are usually people who often have to deal with external partners (customers, suppliers, banks, politicians, etc.) in their everyday life and their “story” accordingly know.
So how do we manage in such a constellation not only to hear the standardized and prepared PR answers? There are two strategies for this:
- Refer to already public statements: “I know you said this and that about x (e.g. in the last earnings call). What else can you tell me about that?”
- Redirect: “I understand the topic x. Tell me a little more about y.” Perhaps the interviewee understood the question a little differently than what was meant
If despite all our attempts, we don’t get any further in a certain question category, then we should carefully interrupt or wait for the next natural stopping point in the conversation and then steer the discussion to a completely new topic on our list of questions (“We still have a whole series to questions. Let’s move on to the next topic again.”).
11: No fixed agenda and no “working through” lists of questions
In contrast to a well-planned meeting, we should not go into a CEO or management interview with a fixed agenda. We should also not present our interlocutor with a long list of questions that we then go through point by point. Such a procedure can be very tiring.
Instead, we should have our 10 or so key questions in mind and at most mention that there are certain topics that we would like to cover in the conversation. Apart from that, we should simply ask smart questions and give our counterparts the freedom to steer the conversation.
Specific questions for management interviews
The types of questions we can ask as part of the management interview are varied. Before we come to the first list of very specific questions, two general tips first.
When in doubt, we should rather start with a few so-called warm-up questions and not directly ask the questions that interest us the most. Ie the entry should be rather broad or “high level”… e.g. “What was the biggest change in the industry in the last x years?”
In addition, as mentioned above, we should make sure that we ask open questions in order to encourage our interviewees to talk.
Below is the first list of possible questions or directions in which we can steer a management interview (of course without claiming to be exhaustive):
12: What versus how questions – general versus instrumental
- What is your assessment of the problem?
- How do you plan to address/solve the problem?
- Ask what questions at the beginning, how-questions come later (when it goes deeper)
13: Impact questions
- Focus on the future: How do you see sales developing over the next few years? What new technologies could have the biggest impact on your business model?
- Threat: What Keeps You Up At Night? What economic developments do you find worrying?
- Insight: What surprised you the most? What’s your biggest challenge?
14: Questions with a competitive focus
- What are you doing that your competitors are not already doing?
- What has the company done to consolidate or expand its competitive advantage?
- Who are the new competitors in the market?
- What are the competitors doing better than you?
15: Questions with a focus on problems
- What do customers complain about most often?
- What parts of the business are giving you the most headaches right now?
- What are the biggest challenges with your customers?
- What are the biggest challenges regarding the acquisition of talented employees?
- Which critical positions are the hardest to fill? Where is the greatest need?
When conducting a CEO or management interview, it is not just about ticking off a long list of specific questions on various topics.
In the vast majority of cases, this would not even be possible in the course of the conversation, especially because a conversation usually develops very dynamically and our conversation partner has at least as much influence on the course of the conversation as we do.
Furthermore, mindlessly working through a list of questions would probably only generate standard answers without additional “insights”… with a very limited added value for us as interviewers.
So let’s engage in the conversation as much as possible and see where it takes us. The only important thing is that we have the main questions to be addressed in mind and steer the conversation in the right direction at the crucial points either by actively listening and skillfully asking questions or by redirecting them.
It is also important that we stick to a few essential basic rules in order to make the conversation as fruitful as possible for us (eg always professional, ie friendly, also react to tips from our counterpart).