The Most Important Interview Question

“Why are you looking?” will be one of the first and most important interview/networking questions you will be asked when you decide to make a leadership job move.
Stakeholders carefully scrutinize your answer to this question for multiple reasons:

  • Interviewers and other stakeholders want to hear an authentic response and most know that responses to this question are often manufactured. If your response or style doesn’t ring true, all your other responses may be called into question-as well as your leadership style.
  • If you are leaving or left because of conditions that also exist in the company that is being considered, interviewers and other stakeholders need to know if it can be overcome in the new environment.
  • If you left for reasons that are unfavorable or will be called into question by investors, client company, shareholders, board, employees, customers, etc., interviewers and members of your network don’t want to be surprised; they want to be adequately prepared for questions that may come up.

Here’s an example of what did and didn’t work for Seth:

Seth wanted to make a move after being passed over for a promotion; he was going to report to a new COO to be hired externally.

His job search wasn’t generating the results he expected. According to Seth, he had only interviewed for two opportunities and they didn’t progress beyond his first interview with executive search consultants.

Seth’s problem became clear during our assessment process. When I asked him, “Why do you want to leave your present company? ” Seth told me that his next step internally was a COO position, but he did not want the job because it didn’t include sales responsibility. He had shared this reason for wanting to leave with his network.

Most senior executives decide to make a move for more than one reason, however, one pivotal event usually jump starts the job search process or stimulates the willingness to look at other opportunities.

Seth did not want anyone within his network to know that he was passed over for the COO position. He felt he had time to make a move before the announcement of a new COO would go public.

However, many in the search community already knew that his present company had hired a search firm to fill the new COO role. Some members of his network concluded that he had been passed over and was “covering up” his real reason for leaving. Seth became aware that he was damaging his credibility.
Even though he reluctantly accepted the advice that he needed a more authentic answer, Seth remained unconvinced that “telling the truth about the COO search” would generate better results.

Seth got much further with his third opportunity, ending up as a finalist. The hiring Chairman/CEO felt that he was “defensive” when asked about his reason for leaving his present company, but he was impressed with Seth’s track record and wanted to conduct detailed reference checks. During the reference process, the Chairman found out that Seth’s current CEO had recommended Seth to the Board for the COO position. But the Chairman couldn’t let go of his first impression of Seth. The hiring selection committee, led by the Chairman, wondered if Seth’s initial defensiveness might indicate a leadership style that wouldn’t fit.

When Seth’s fourth opportunity surfaced, he felt better prepared. He had refined his answer. He practiced over multiple sessions and became more and more confident. This time Seth told the interviewing CEO that he was looking for a different opportunity because his current company decided to go outside to fill a newly created COO role. Seth explained that while he was his CEO’s pick for the job, the Board overruled the CEO because they wanted someone with much larger company experience. His references validated his answer. He received a viable offer, accepted it, and remains with the company having been recently promoted.


  • Focus on the most important (and real) reason you are leaving; one reason is enough.
  • Practice and refine your answer. Watch out for rambling and/or defensiveness.
  • Don’t start your search until you are fully prepared to answer this question.
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