The Most Annoying C-level Interview Mistakes (as told by the Gatekeepers)

Recently, we asked more than forty executive search partners and heads of human resources/talent the following question: “What is the most annoying C-level interview mistake?” We received some very amusing stories and anecdotes, but four answers clearly topped the charts. Starting with the most popular answer:

1) The candidate has not done basic homework.

  • “They don’t know my background, the role, the company…”
  • “C-level candidates that show up unprepared come off as arrogant or disrespectful of my time.”
  • “If the candidate didn’t prepare for the interview with me, then I don’t move them on to the hiring manager.”

2)  They don’t know the details of their own backgrounds and can’t articulate their results.

  • “They try to bluff through their results.”
  • “Not knowing the details of their accomplishments.”
  • “Talking in generalities about results.”
  • “They don’t know the size of their business, the number of direct reports, financial results, etc…comes off as very unimpressive.”

Number 1) and 2) are related. Knowing your own background and doing basic research on your interviewer and the opportunity is critical. Everyone has busy lives, especially those whose roles require a 24/7 commitment, but preparation is key to moving on and establishing longer term relationships. You are better off rescheduling than showing up unprepared. Don’t try to slide through.

“The last thing you want to hear from a client is that a candidate was unprepared,” commented Phil Schneidermeyer, Partner, Life Sciences and Information Officers Practice for Heidrick and Struggles.


 3)  The candidate talks too much.

  • “Probably the worst is taking too long to make their point or to tell a story.”
  • “They ramble off topic and they forget the initial question.”
  • “Talking too much-they tell you how to build a watch, when all you want is the time.”

I have a box of business cards in my office with the sole words “STOP TALKING” on them. I give them to clients who are rambling during practice sessions to alert them without interrupting their flow. If you talk too much, create a similar reminder or perhaps create a card that says “CHECK IN.” According to Rick Routhier, Partner in the Hospitality and Leisure and Chief Marketing Officer Practices for Spencer Stuart, “Candidates should always check in with the interviewer on pace and whether they are providing enough detail.”

4)  The senior executive is not genuine.

  • “Some candidates try to sell, sell, sell-this is very off-putting.”
  • “They have interviewed so much you can’t figure out what is real.”
  • “Executives that treat an interview like a performance.”
  • “Some candidates leave my office and I don’t have a clue who they really are. “
  • “How can you figure out “fit” when someone comes across as too rehearsed?”

Your ability to transform a question and answer session into a conversation is key to your success. This dynamic is easier to create when you have an interviewer who is willing to relax the format. But even with a conversational interviewer, many executives miss key opportunities. It is important that you respond to the interviewer’s “conversational cues.” If they make a comment that is off topic or opens a less formal window, go ahead and venture into new territory, instead of listening to the rehearsed answers in your head. Don’t use the opportunity for unflattering confessions, but do introduce spontaneity. Let your interviewer see what makes you tick. Use humor. Then, your interviewer will know more about your style, personality and character, and they will be prepared to present your “fit” to their client/hiring managers. 

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