How the CEO should handle the dreaded personal question

10 March 2016, News

We’ve all faced the horrifying personal questions from the CEO at interview.

“So, tell us about you, what are your interests?” or “What’s the biggest personal challenge you’ve ever faced?” Then there’s “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” or “What keeps you up at night?” And how about the deceptively simple “Why are you here today?” along with the all-encompassing and highly dangerous “So, have you got any questions for us?”

But what about when the tables are spectacularly turned? When the CEO themselves instantly becomes the nerve-wracked, embarrassed and tongue tied interviewee, one who stumbles for the obvious answer that seems so clear and straightforward and demanded by their audience, whether it’s during a media interview or in person. You can almost hear the share price falling…

When the European head of Google, “doesn’t have an answer for that” when asked the most basic question about how much he is paid before Parliament, when the CEO of Tinder told the Evening Standard about the number of women he’s slept with,  when the chairman of Britain Stronger in Europe can’t remember the name of his own campaign group, or, famously, when the boss of BP is caught relaxing on his yacht at the height of the Deepwater Horizon disaster after saying he’d like his life back. The list goes on…

For the CEO, the approach to handling the personal question is, of course, equally simple. It is about expecting such questions, being properly prepared for them, being utterly honest and transparent in answering them and about setting very clear internal parameters about what will and won’t be talked about. In other words, the CEO should have a tight, pre-structured personal story ready and available to be shared in as human and engaging a way as possible.

Even now, in the “always on” digital era, too many CEOs still compound reputational problems by struggling, ill-prepared for an answer to the most obvious questions, appearing arrogant about not wishing to disclose such detail to an impertinent journalist or, even worse, appearing impersonal and, frankly, a little odd about not being willing to share just a little of their personal hinterland.

Salary, family, personal interests, hobbies, latest books read, music bought, even, yes, pets, are all obvious areas of potential inquiry and none of these should present the head of a company with any problems at all. If they do, the CEO should ask themselves why – and then address that problem swiftly.

The point of the CEO interview is to come across as rounded, with personality, drive and ambition for their company, their employees and themselves. Don’t forget, it’s not just the journalist or their audience that is enquiring. It is, in effect, the CEO’s own staff and internal stakeholders who will be consuming his or her answers and making their own judgments too. So there’s huge internal communications value too.

Yes, if you are the CEO, the stakes are high, but if you go into any interview specifically expecting the unexpected and anticipating the personal with a crafted package that can be delivered “off the shelf” with aplomb, all will be well.

Oh, and do make sure you know how much you are paid…

By Clarence Mitchell, Senior Counsel at JBP




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