The traditional interview is a poor predictor of future performance on the job. If you want to consistently hire top-performing executives, your interview process should go beyond talking about work; it requires more rigor. We recommend work sample testing (or performance tasks) for candidates to demonstrate their skills and abilities with actual work. But this can be daunting when you are evaluating a senior executive. How do you design a work sample test on business acumen or strategic thinking? How do you assess their ability to turn ideas into action? How do you determine their ability to work well with your executive team?

Steps to Develop a Work Sample Around a Strategic Issue

One good way to assess executive ability is to ask candidates to grapple with a strategic issue your organization faces. Some employers ask candidates to create a visual presentation, but this approach risks giving too much importance to showmanship and presentation style at the expense of substance. If presentation skills are not critical for the job, don’t look for them in the interview. Choose a significant strategic issue and follow these steps to assess a candidate’s ability to discuss complex substantive issues in meetings, a skill most executive jobs require.

Assign some homework.

After the first interviews, once you have chosen two or three finalists, provide a homework assignment for candidates to think about before the second interview. These are busy people, so give them notice and ample time to do what you request. The assignment should involve no more than two hours of work with a week to prepare.

Outline one strategic challenge.

Outline one specific strategic challenge in a few sentences. Provide some written background material, and ask them how they would tackle the problem. Ask for their proposed timeline and action plan to implement their solution.

Ask the candidate to prepare to discuss the issue at the next interview.

Do not ask for a written proposal or visual presentation because that requires the candidate to spend significant time on stylistic issues, not substance. How organizations present information varies widely; most candidates will guess wrong. Asking candidates to prepare for a conversation keeps the emphasis where it needs to be—on their solution to your strategic problem.

Let them share their recommendation without interference.

Listen to see if they made a well-reasoned argument for their point of view. Did they frame the issue properly, or did they not understand it? Observe how accurate their assumptions were and if they acknowledged their blind spots. Save your comments until after they present their ideas; the real value of this exercise comes from your discussion afterward.

Discuss and challenge their ideas.

You want to see how they react to intellectual debate, disagreement, and critique. Ask lots of questions, challenge their assumptions, disagree with their conclusions, and look at the issue from a variety of perspectives, just like your executive team likely does in meetings. You may find that the person with the best solution has a working style that is out of alignment with how your organization actually makes decisions.

  • Observe how well the candidate handles disagreements. Do they get brittle and defensive? Do they back down and defer to others? Do they get energized by the conversation or exhausted? Do they find common ground and build consensus for their solution? Do they humbly acknowledge when someone else has a better idea? Are they trying to prove themselves right or actually working to find the best solution? Are they curious? Do they ask good questions?
  • Observe how respectfully the candidate deals with everyone in the room. Do they give credence to the views of others or stick rigidly to their point of view? Do they defer only to superiors and act condescendingly toward everyone else?

Be careful not to become distracted by interview showmanship or smooth-talking-fast-on-their-feet-confidence from candidates. Instead, look for cues about how they think, plan, and handle themselves in meetings. These aspects of cultural alignment are powerful predictors of both long-term retention and effectiveness on the job.

These suggestions will help you spend less time on the superficial aspects of interviewing and gain a better understanding of why someone will succeed on the job. For more, read How to Conduct a Job Interview So Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job. 

More Resources

Interviews are only one step in the hiring process. The how-to guides below will help you look at the entire process and hire leaders who get results.