How to Beat an Internal Candidate When You’re an Outsider

A wave of disappointment, and sometimes a feeling of futility can consume leadership candidates when they find out they are competing with an internal candidate. Don’t let this happen to you. While competing against an internal candidate presents a unique set of challenges, it is never futile to pursue a role just because you have stiff competition.

Recently, one of our C-level candidates found out there was an internal candidate only after he fell in love with the job. The CEO was perfect, the size and type of company was perfect, even the location was perfect, and he thought he had the job sewed up because a member of the CEO’s network had referred him to the CEO. He found out about the internal candidate on his third round of interviews. Our client was even more devastated because the internal candidate was a woman and there were no women on the C-level team. He was ready to write the opportunity off, but knowing the internal process that companies go through, we encouraged him to fight for the job, and advised him to do these six things:

  • Focus on your unique advantages as an outsider: fresh perspective, outside or competitive viewpoint, your experiences that are relevant but different, their problems you have already solved within other organizations, etc.
  • Do your homework. Utilize your network and research skills to find out what the board or CEO is trying to achieve before you arrive at the interview. If there are problems with the company, find out the solutions that have already been tried. The spec will tell you some of the story, but it is important to understand the “must haves,” so you can structure your answers to emphasize the aspects of your background that fits.
  • Find out why the position is vacant. If the previous executive was no longer a fit, explain why you are different or would have handled the situation differently.
  • Prove that you can get up to speed and contribute quickly. When you are competing with an insider, they will probably be perceived as the candidate that can get up to speed much faster. Give examples of when you have parachuted into new opportunities, how you accelerated your learning curve and what you were able to achieve early on.
  • Don’t focus too much on the internal candidate but try to identify who it is. Do some research so you understand the person’s role in the company and involvement in past projects. Don’t criticize the internal candidate but understand what you bring to the table that the internal candidate does not have – and find ways to communicate those differences, especially the ones that are related to the problems that need to be solved.
  • If you don’t know who the internal candidate is, be vigilant and assume that anyone on the interview panel (potential peer or subordinate) may be the internal candidateand demonstrate your “service” manager qualities as well as providing examples of when you developed and endorsed your team members for larger roles. Do your best to forge an understanding with every panel member.

Our client went through six rounds of interviews. He never met the internal candidate during the interviewing process, but he landed the job. Our client prevailed because he had previously solved many of the problems the new CEO was facing as an executive committee member. In the end, the internal candidate was viewed as having a longer learning curve!

Competing for a leadership position against someone who has years of experience with the company can feel intimidating, but don’t assume that the other candidate has the job in the bag. You were invited to the interview because they are questioning if the internal candidate is the best person for the job. It is up to you to use your moment to prove that you are the best person for the job.


Founded in 2001, Waterman Hurst is a professional services company that provides strategic job and board search services to leaders. We serve CEOs, C-Suite executives, Next Level Executives, and Advancing Leaders who want to transform their careers. We are the first company to provide B2C high end, high touch comprehensive job and board search services exclusively to leadership clients – we provide expertise in branding, strategy, coaching and serve as agents for top talent.

Share Article: