(Alternatively, 150 Questions CFO Candidates Can Expect When Interviewing!)
With these 150 questions for today’s Leadership – Accounting, Finance, Human Resources (HR), Marketing, Operations, Sales, Strategy, Technology – whether you are looking to hire or be hired, you’ll be well prepared for a successful recruiting initiative.
The Point: Hiring senior leadership in an organization is an investment, and an expensive one at that! With long recruiting cycles, numerous candidate applications to sift through, and even automated applicant tracking systems there still seems to be limited qualified applicants. With this in mind, the quality of interview questions is critical to ensuring reliable, valid, and repeatable interview results. It is also important to ensure all interviewers follow a consistent process therein and use interview guides in the same manner for each interview. Establishing interview committees to allow for individual interviewer’s candidate assessments to be evaluated fairly and accurately in order to come to agreement on candidate potential and advancement.
The War for Talent
This article provides a series of questions that help members of the executive hiring team (CXO’s – CEO, CFO, COO, CHRO, HR leaders and other senior executives) develop a comprehensive interview guide for assessing the qualifications of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) candidates. The questions are grouped into the following categories:
- General Background
- Strategic Planning, Operations and Financial Management
- Leadership Skills
- Industry and Business Knowledge
- Finance/Accounting Expertise, and
- Behavioral Competencies
These questions should be considered as a starting point to in interview guide development for the CFO role in your organization. I recommend a three-pronged approach when it comes to interview question finalization:
- Identify the questions that most relevant to your organization’s mission, vision and Values
- Modify the questions to fit your business strategic goals with regard to specific entity context, and
- Develop new questions to assess areas not presented in this document to further explore “best” candidate potential.
What does the candidate know about the role of a CFO? What does the candidate know about the specifics regarding the CFO-role within your organization? The following questions help to get to know the candidate by gathering their views on the CFO role and the needed qualifications to succeed in your organization. Candidate career aspirations and interest in the role can also be identified. These questions will clarify in a general sense what it is that draws them to the industry, your organization and this position. You’ll also identify how these general values and motivators support the business goal and objective advancement/attainment.
- When it comes to helping achieve our business goals, what specific background and experience do you bring?
- We all have gaps in our experiences. Gaps in terms of qualifications, capabilities or experience. How then have you been able to bridge such gaps successfully? Tell us also about a time when such gaps were bridged unsuccessfully?
- The role of the CFO is one continuously evolving. What is needed in a CFO regarding key capabilities and experience? How do you foresee that evolving over the next five to ten years? What areas need to evolve to stay up-to-date and/or relevant?
- There are always limitations when it comes to financial initiatives within an organization. However, if there were no restrictions within the organization, where could focus be made and why? If the financial initiative is outside of Finance/Accounting, what would your role be?
- What do you attribute your success in the Finance/Accounting field to? How has your success in Finance/Accounting impacted or moved forward enterprise goals in the past?
- How do you balance the necessity of being Finance/Accounting current and still being business-focused? How do you see the allocation of your time spent?
- What do you consider your individual core values? How have your previous organizations supported those values? In which ways were your core values challenged/compromised? Tell us about the perfect type of culture for you to thrive in?
- Are you legacy focused? When you leave your current employer, what will your legacy be there? How will they remember you? If we called your stakeholders, what would they say?
- How do you participate in industry leadership (for example, industry and trade associations, presentations at conferences, social media participation and blog publications)? How does that help you from an Authoritarian-perspective in your role? What value has it brought to your success in your current role? How do you see your participation therein evolving as our CFO?
Strategic Planning, Operations and Financial Management
Balancing long-term versus short-term planning and execution is a core challenge for any executive. Many executives are strong in strategic vision, but have difficulty gaining support in accomplishing that vision, and therefore execution produces less than optimal results. The following questions focus on the candidate’s experience and ability to set long-term goals, while simultaneously managing complex tasks such as gaining cooperation to actually attain goal accomplishment.
This Strategic Planning, Operations, and Financial Management questions also attempt to assess the candidate’s adaptability for successful adjustment and course-correction. Interviewers should identify strong success examples, where the candidate discusses delivering clear business outcomes and their flexibility therein. The set also includes questions to assess the candidate’s ability to view the Financial budgetary process as a portfolio of organizational assets, and to manage it in a manner consistent with the appropriate risk management and strategic approach of the organization:
- How do you engage and gain agreement and cooperation from a diverse set of stakeholders? Provide an example of when you did this successfully. Discuss a time when this was less than optimal.
- Tell me about a time that you restructured organizationally (It could be the department, a team, etc.) Why did you think it was necessary to change the structure? How did you go about doing it? Who was brought-in to develop the strategy? What was the intended outcome? What were the actual outcomes? Whether success or failure was achieved for the effort, what did you think were the important factors causing such success/failure? What were your top three takeaways from this experience?
- Tell us about your approach to strategic workforce planning (for example, determining future skills identification and creating a balanced staffing model based on those needs)? Give us an example of how you applied strategic workforce planning to address the needs of the business.
- Provide an example of what you did when there was more demand for Finance/Accounting services than available resources to fulfill the requests (for example, limited staff or budget within the department, hiring freezes, etc.) How did you handle such situations? What worked well, and what did not work at all/not so well?
- Tell us about a time when you helped reduce costs for the rest of the enterprise by using Finance/Accounting tools. What was your methodology, and how much did you end up saving the organization/department/team?
- How do you determine whether an enterprise is investing too little, an appropriate level or too much on Finance/Accounting?
- What is the largest Finance/Accounting-related initiative for which you held primary responsibility (for example, cost, elapsed time, scope or team size)? How did you evaluate initiative success in terms of performance for cost, schedule and quality? What percentage of business case benefits were actually achieved?
- What is the largest non-Finance/Accounting-related initiative for which you were responsible (for example, cost, elapsed time, scope or team size)? How did you evaluate the success of the initiative, in terms of performance for cost, schedule and quality? What impact did the initiative have on business performance metrics?
The questions below focus on aiding the interviewer to assess a candidate’s leadership views, accomplishments and likelihood of leadership success in the CFO role. The most effective CFOs view themselves as business leaders first and Finance/Accounting leaders second. Focus on the candidate’s ability to communicate in business terms, articulate measurable business outcomes, stakeholder motivation and outcomes to leadership challenges.
- Share a time where you identified a business problem and applied a Finance/Accounting strategy to solve it? What were your specific actions taken? What outcomes or measurable results were achieved?
- How do you measure and communicate the ROI of Finance/Accounting investments?
- Can you articulate your understanding of entity risk and how it applies to Finance activities? Provide an example of how you applied risk mitigation techniques.
- Tell us about the most difficult decision you had to make as a leader thus far? Why was it difficult? How did you address it, and what was the ultimate outcome? What do you perceive as some difficult decisions in our CFO role?
- Describe a situation in which you exhibited extraordinary leadership capabilities. What did you do to make it extraordinary? Describe specific actions and behaviors therein.
- How have you effectively managed-up in your previous roles? How have you lead your team of direct reports? Tell us about a time when you successfully lead your peers in an initiative? Give an example of when you resolved a conflict. What approach did you take?
- CFOs are often asked to be visionaries and to support innovation and lead value delivery through the creativity of the organization. Give us an example of where you were a visionary or thought leader. How did you influence the organization to pursue new ideas? What was the outcome of those efforts? What lessons did you learn? What would you have done differently? What would you do the same next time?
- What has been the largest challenge to scale business from a Finance/Accounting perspective? How have you addressed such challenges? Give a few specific examples of actions you took and the results achieved? What did you do to insure that Finance/Accounting issues of impact were considered?
- Employee engagement is important to our organization, and a large part of that falls on leaderships shoulders. Tell us how you assess and improve employee engagement? What were specific issues addressed? What was your approach? What were the outcomes?
- Describe a recognition program or technique you use to motivate and reward high-performing individuals or teams. How did you design and implement it? What tangible outcomes did the program or technique have on your organization? Was the program or technique adopted in other areas of the business?
- Tell us about a time when you led a change initiative that impacted the culture of the organization. What were the issues you were challenged with? How did you address them? What were the outcomes?
- Provide an example of when you built a business case for making a significant financial investment that could potentially lead to business model transformation. How did you build the case study? What responses did you receive from other senior business executives or the board? How did you respond in-kind? What were next steps taken? What outcomes were achieved and/or lessons learned?
- Tell me about a time when you didn’t get along with your boss or peers. What were the issues? What did you do to improve the situation? What was the outcome? What did you learn to do differently the next time?
Industry and Business Knowledge
The questions below will help interviewers assess a candidate’s views on industry trends, the competitive market dynamics, how finance/accounting can advance the industry and members therein, and the candidate’s knowledge of your organization’s business and competitive advantages.
- When it comes to our industry, what are the key opportunities, challenges and problems as you see them? What impact will they pose for our business?
- What are other industries doing in scaling their Finance/Accounting business that could be leveraged in our industry?
- What are the trends you see in Accounting/Finance that have potential impact for business or industry? How and where could we benefit from them?
- With your knowledge, skills and experience in mind, how can you enable our organization to play a bigger role in regard to industry transformation? Where would you focus first, second, third?
These questions focus on determining how the CFO candidate thinks about Finance/Accounting from a value perspective and applies it to solve current/future business problems. The questions can help an interviewer determine how a candidate measures current issues and opportunities in the ever-changing marketplace. The questions can also help the interviewer assess a candidate’s ability to communicate about Finance/Accounting in business terms, and in an all too important business context:
- What is the most difficult Finance/Accounting-related investment decision you had to make? Why was it difficult? How did you approach making the decision, and what was the outcome?
- Give an example of when you implemented a new or emerging Finance/Accounting-methodology. How did you manage the risks involved, and what was the outcome?
- Do you set the Finance/Accounting direction in your current role, or does someone else? What process do you use to set the Finance/Accounting direction?
- How reliant are you on advisors internally and externally, and how do you manage exposure to best-practices?
- How do you stay current on the industry, Finance/Accounting and business trends to fulfill your role effectively?
- What’s your view on the most important Finance/Accounting skills to have in the Finance/Accounting department in three to five years (or 5-10 years)? How do you go about determining future skills needs?
Successful C-Suite Leaders demonstrate behavioral competencies that enable them to think and act differently from their peers. The following set of questions is based on Gartner’s key CFO behavioral competencies. Modify the questions to match your organization’s context and its expectations for desired behaviors in the CFO role.
- Tell me about a time you were able to successfully work with another person, even when that individual may not have personally liked you (or vice versa). What was your approach? What was the outcome? How has your relationship changed with that person?
Business Enterprise Knowledge
- Recall a time when the business leadership had trouble articulating and prioritizing their needs. What were the pressing issues behind this trouble? How did you approach getting the information you needed to assist? How did you validate that you really understood what was happening in/required by the business? What was the outcome? How did you know when you were successful in meeting the needs of your customer? Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?
- Describe a situation in which you came up with an innovative idea to solve a business problem. What was the business problem? What was your innovative solution? What factors drove the need for an innovative solution? How did you determine the best solution? How did you work with both the business and Finance/Accounting to make necessary trade-offs as needed? What tangible benefits were achieved from implementing your solution?
- Tell me about a time when you influenced/persuaded stakeholders to make a significant capital investment. How did you build the business case? What obstacles did you have to address? How did you overcome them? If you had it to do all over again, what would you do different? (Same?)
- Tell us about a time when you were a key member for an innovative organizational high-profile project that failed. What key factors lead to that failure? What role did you play, and what actions did you take in that situation? What were the lessons you took away from that experience? What would you do differently to significantly impact the success rate of similar projects in the future?
- Give an example of a situation where a goal stretched you beyond what you were confident of achieving. What was the situation and key challenge you overcame? How did you set goals? What did you do to improve your chances of success (People, process, and/or technology)? What was the outcome? What did you learn about yourself through that experience?
- Give examples of the types of risks you have taken in the past. What factors did you take into consideration when deciding how much risk you would assume? Were you successful? Why? What would you have done differently to mitigate risk?
Strategic Technology Planning
- Provide an example of when you dealt with stakeholders who wanted to break-away from a standardized process. How did you develop your strategy in response to the request (whether you were for or against it)? What was the outcome? What would you do differently if you faced a similar challenge again?
- Tell me about an occasion when you were a significant contributor to the strategic plan. What role did you play? What was your thinking process in the development of the plan? What was the intended business impact of your plan after it was executed? How did you strategically encourage others support?
- Describe a time when you lead a culturally diverse team. What was the diversity? What challenges did you face? How did you create an atmosphere of collaboration to promote a team culture? What was the outcome? What did you learn from that experience? How will this help you I future situations?
Ultimately, these questions are designed to help enterprises in their search for CFOs. To that end, candidates identified as best fit for their culture and business objectives are positioned throughout each of the sections. At the same time, CFOs can use these questions in preparation for job interviews and help identify enterprises that provide them with challenges that excite them and a culture that best fits their values and leadership style.
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