How Many Interviews Is Too Many at the Executive Level?

Welcome to Executive Search Q&A, a Focus Search Partners’ series designed to answer key questions bubbling up about C-suite and VP-level recruitment. It begins with this: How many executive interviews is the right number, a question posed by a PE sponsor at a recent panel discussion on human capital.

Imagine identifying an excellent CFO candidate matching your criteria, interviewing them to confirm functional fitness and cultural alignment, and preparing an attractive offer, only to lose them. Many PE sponsors experience this very scenario when hiring for their portfolio company C-suites.

What drives away top candidates? In many cases, it is due to endless rounds of interviews and a lack of clear process. Although four interviews typically suffice for a confident executive hire, employers now routinely exceed that, even for entry-level jobs. Avoiding the pitfalls of this trend will give your organization a distinct competitive hiring advantage, especially for in-demand talent like PE-experienced CEOs and CFOs.

The Rise of Interview Creep

Years ago, one or two interviews sufficed for lower-skilled jobs and two or three for more senior-level positions. These historical averages have since been obliterated. Today, the internet is chock-full of reports of an absurd number of interviews, such as 29 for a senior director role.

The increasing number of interviews is somewhat understandable at the executive level. Going by the Society for Human Resource Management’s estimate, it costs six to nine months of an employee’s salary to replace them. In the C-suite, that can equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars. With mis-hires, companies incur even steeper costs.

But the fear of hiring the wrong candidate is only part of the story. Although this interview creep started well before the pandemic, the rise in video-conferencing usage since 2020 has accelerated it by removing many of the constraints associated with in-person interviews. As a result, hiring managers can now easily connect candidates for any role with a seemingly unlimited number of interviewers.

Following that trend, more executive interviews now occur, whether in-person or via video conference. Even hiring managers who initially set a goal of four interview rounds for executive candidates frequently extend that to add more stakeholders in an effort to get more opinions or to assess cultural alignment – again and again and again.

The Toll of Interview Fatigue

Endless interview rounds on top of assessments and case studies place unreasonable demands on executive candidates with existing job commitments. Moreover, instead of leading to the hire of a company’s choice, over-interviewing generates negative consequences, including:

  • The loss of A-list candidates: An exceptionally lengthy or disjointed hiring process frustrates top talent, especially when they are not on the job market but are being recruited out of roles they are generally satisfied with.
  • Reputational damage: It can lead candidates to share negative company impressions with others in a specialized and limited talent pool. Prime candidates fatigued by endless interview rounds at one company may also decline to pursue future executive opportunities elsewhere in the portfolio.
  • Wasted company time: Excessive interviewing demands on key stakeholders impacts their ability to manage their own full list of job responsibilities.

The Course Correction

Prior to 2017, Google’s hiring process routinely required candidates to endure a dozen interviews to avoid mis-hires across the organization. Then, they began studying their interview results and found that “four interviews were enough to predict whether someone should be hired at Google with 86% confidence.”

In our experience, that same rule-of-four yields a confident executive hire – in most cases. The key lies in making the most of the interviews that are conducted by using the following tactics:

  • Developing a strategic hiring process: Like any operational process, executive hiring efforts can be vastly improved for efficiency and effectiveness. You save time and money by proactively creating and implementing a standard executive hiring playbook across a portfolio, complete with pre-defined lists of the positions and who should interview candidates for various executive roles. For example, for a CFO hire, that list might include a PE representative, the CEO, and COO, along with the collective group of direct reports for finalist candidates.
  • Using candidate scorecards: Identifying a role’s key requisite skills and experiences on a scorecard makes it easier for interviewers to rate each candidate and for the hiring committee to compare all candidates using the same qualifiers.
  • Employing behavioral interview questions: You can glean tremendous insights about a candidate when asking them to describe how they have handled situations they will be expected to navigate as part of your C-suite, including the specific outcomes their actions generated.
  • Dividing up interview questions: Use interviews strategically by asking distinct questions in each. Topics for further exploration should be structured as follow-up questions, not repeats.
  • Conducting joint interviews: When you have a longer list of pre-defined interviewers, consider pairing them in two’s or three’s to avoid significantly exceeding the rule-of-four steps in the interview process. This reduces the time demands on candidates, while also allowing multiple people to hear a candidate’s responses and assess how they interact with others to reveal chemistry with their future superiors, peers, or subordinates.
  • Understanding the market: Adjust your interview expectations based on the talent pool you will be drawing from. For example, the demand for CFOs with experience in PE-backed healthcare services exceeds the number of candidates there are. You risk losing them to another company by insisting on an excessive number of interviews or by subjecting them to a nonsensical interview process.
  • Encouraging interviewers to sell: Candidates, especially at the senior-most level, are assessing their interviewers as much as their interviewers are assessing them. They consider their interviewers’ competency, and their ability to describe and sell the organization. If interviewers fall short on selling the opportunity, they risk losing good candidates to other organizations that do a better job at sharing their mission, vision, and values. Bottom line, interviewers must sell executive candidates on the company and role as much as they expect candidates to sell themselves.

Enough Executive Interviews Versus Too Many

While the number of interviews that executives face is trending alarmingly upward, the research we have seen, and in our experience, has not shown any indication of a better hire.

Today’s executives face a myriad of challenges in their normal day-to-day; finding their next career opportunity shouldn’t be one of them. By respecting a candidate’s time and following a concise interview rhythm, companies help themselves attract top executive talent to their C-suite while showcasing their own operational efficiencies and lending a preview into the benefits of them as an employer of choice.

By Sharon Long, Senior Associate, and Caryn Yair, Principal, at Focus Search Partners